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1. Thagaste: 354-366
Mountains he had known from boyhood, but not the sea. Thagaste, his birthplace in North Africa (modern Souk Ahras), was sixty miles inland from the Mediterranean, sealed off by the nearby Medjerda mountain range. To the south, the more distant Aures chain separated him from the Saharan desert. Mountains would always be part of his mental landscapesymbols of God's stability or of skyward reach in John's Gospel. But toward the sea he had to grope with mental inference. Asked in later life, by a friend from his hometown, how one can "remember" things never experienced, he admitted that no one can recall a strawberry's flavor who has not tasted one. But the concept of water with a boundary is as close as the nearest drinking cup (L 7). So Virgil's hero Aeneas would be struggling with tempests in a water cup when Augustine first read the Aeneid. He was born into a world very contained.
Numidia was part of the Roman Empire, whose signs were all around Augustine as he was growing upthe straight stonerooted roads, the striding aqueducts, the peopled amphitheaters. Along its northern rim, the empire was troubled by "barbarians" and by theological wars (the high theology and low skullduggery of fights over Arianism). But this southern edge of the empire was secure. Known as Rome's granary, Numidia was separated from desert nomads by a long ditch (the Fossa) that defined Rome's jurisdiction as clearly as did Hadrian's Wall in the empire's far north. Augustine would have assumed, likehis parents, that the Roman order was eternal. Even as he was dying at age seventy-six, he had trouble accepting the collapse of a political order he considered providential. Remember, Rome had been Christian since 313, and Christian Visigoths were besieging Hippo.
Thagaste was securely Catholic by 354, when Augustine was born there. But it had been controlled, during his mother's girlhood, by Donatists, those Christian puritans (named for their leaders, Donatus) who revered the martyrs of Diocletian's persecution and would not be reconciled with any who had compromised in the time of trial (L 93.17). W. H. C. Frend, the historian of Donatism, thinks that Augustine's Catholic mother was raised in the atmosphere of that sect. Her name, like that of many Donatists, is Berberits proper form is Monnica, related to the old Libyan god Mon, who was worshiped in nearby Thibilis. Her devotion to martyr shrines was the specialty, in Africa, of the Donatists. Augustine followed Berber custom when he called his son Godsend (Adeodatus in Latin), though Augustine never learned the Berber language spoken by his country's manual laborers. His parents and the slaves who brought him up spoke only Latin to him, since he was destined for the Roman bureaucracy in which his father held minor local office.
That father, Patrick (Patricius), had "curial" rankhe was a decurion, a town councilor with tax-collecting duties, and not a Christian. Augustine calls him meager in his land holdings (tenuis, T 2.5), but that was the typical stance of his class. As the historian of the empire A. H. M. Jones writes: "We never hear of a contented decurion." They were bound down to their land and their duties, and so were their heirsAugustine escaped only by selling his inheritance when he became a bishop (L 126.7). Patrick's vineyards were worked by slaves, and Augustine had a slave attendant (pedagogue) who took him to school (T 1.30).
Augustine tells us practically nothing about himself before the age of eleven or twelve when he went to live with his pedagogue in a neighboring town with a secondary school. But we can find traces in his later writing of the bright-eyed and observant boy he must have been. The principal art form of Roman Africa was mosaic workhe mentions the rich mosaics owned by his own patron in Thagaste, Romanian. He would later think of order in the universe on the model of his hometown's mosaics:
If a person were to look at an intricate pavement so narrowly as to see only the single tesserae, he would say the artist, lacking a sense of composition, had set the little pieces at haphazard, since he could not take in at once the whole pattern, inlaid to form a single image of beauty (O 1.2).
Even in his seventies, Augustine would still be thinking of divine order in terms of mosaics: "Order disposes all things, regular and irregular, in the places they fit" (CG 19.13).
Augustine hated school and played truant to see gamesthe bear-baiting shows put on by Romanian, or the fighting cocks to be seen in a splendid mosaic found near Carthage. Though Augustine was later very critical of games in the arena, some bloodsports of his youth kept their hold on him. Even while he was preparing for baptism he could write:
We saw gamecocks sharpening toward a scrap. We had to watch, for what horizon do eyes of love not scan, hoping for a hint of reason's beautiful scheme, which checks and impels all things (whether they realize it or not), a scheme that makes its observer quick to respond whenever it beckons? It can flash its signals out of anything, in anything. In, for instance, these cocks: the thrust of their heads toward battle, their lifted crests, their darting attacks, skilled parries; pure animal action without mind, yet how apt, every move; for a higher mind works through them, ordering all things. At the last, the victor's right: the exultant crowing, a body taut with pride of power. And the rites of defeatlimp wings, carriage and croak gone awry; all strangely fitting and, by their consonance with nature's set way, beautiful. (O 1.25)
And a dozen years later he wrote: "I no longer go to the arena to see a hound chase a hare. But if by chance I catch sight of that in a field, the hunt attracts me, distracts my concentration from the most important matters. It reins aside not my horse but my heart's regard." (T 10.57)
Thagaste, though not near the sea or a navigable river, was crisscrossed by major land routes, which meant that Augustine saw in its streets Berber faces from the desert as well as the Semitic features of Africa's ancient Phoenician settlers (Perler 120-21). He would later marvel at God's ability to differentiate people using the same limited features of eyes, nose, and mouth. Like other Mediterraneans, the citizens of Thagaste shunned the midday heat and lingered out conviviality through the night. When he became sixteen, Augustine relates, he and his friends roamed the streets looking for trouble after dusk, and saved their worst pranks till after midnight (T 2.9). But that was after he had returned from Madauros.
2. Madauros: 366-370
Since Augustine does not mention the town where he attended secondary school until book 2 of The Testimony, many readers have associated the account of his school days in book 1 with Thagaste. But he talks, in book 1, of studying Virgil and failing in his Greek lessonsthe curriculum of grammar school, which Augustine must have entered when he was eleven or twelve for him to complete the course when he was sixteen, the age he gives for his return from Madauros (Perler 126).
Though Madauros (near present Mdaourouch) was only sixteen miles from Thagaste as the crow flies, the road there was roundabout and difficult, like most land travel in Numidia. One had to descend into the Medjerda Valley and go up onto the central plains, the great wheat and barley fields that made up Rome's granary (Perler 126-27). Madauros took pride in being a sophisticated town in a backward area. The poorer classes of the region, largely Donatist, kept up the cult of martyrs with uncouth names mocked by the educatednames like Miggin, Sanamen, Namphano (L 16). But statues of pagan gods were honored in the forum. Christian Africans might look back to their great orator of the third century, Saint Cyprian. But Madauros boasted of its fellow townsman of the second century, Apuleius, the naughty novelist of The Golden Ass.
Archaeological finds show that there was a flourishing paganism in Madaurosthe town had profited from the reign of the neopagan emperor Julian, whose life ended just three years before Augustine went there (Lepelley 1.98-101, 2.128-29). With the exception of Julian's brief reign (361-363), the empire had been formally Christian since Constantine's decree of toleration in 313. But pagan offices and titles survivedAugustine's friend and patron in Thagaste, Romanian, held the pagan title of priest (flamen). Education for all those who aspired to influence was still in the pagan classics, a situation later deplored by Augustine but accepted without question by his parents. The result was a curious mixture of religious sensibilities. As historian Arnoldo Momigliano put it: "Adam and Eve and what followed [in the Bible] had in some way to be presented in a world populated by Deucalion, Cadmus, Romulus, and Alexander the Great." For many, this religio-mythical mixture never did get sorted out. When Augustine was bishop he had to rebuke members of his congregation who could say: "Just because I frequent idols and get advice from visionaries and fortune tellers, that does not mean I have left the churchI am a Catholic!" (P 88.2.14).
It is against such confusion that we must read Augustine's harsh criticism of his teachers and his parents for bringing him into the pagan system of myths and poetry during his boyhood. He received them eagerly: "My ears were inflamed for pagan myths, and the more they were scratched the more they itched" (T 1.16). He was assigned such inflammatory tales, not only to read but to enacthe had to impersonate Juno in a public declamation of his own composition. Though he was told the situation was fictitious, he was supposed to make the goddess's passions as realistic as possible.
It was all too real for him. He loved Virgil, and wrote of him in The City of God (1.3):
It is hard to aerate minds brimmed with him in impressionable years, as Horace says:
A cask's first wine, into it fit,
Long afterwards will breathe of it.
He suffered with Dido, his fellow African, when she was deserted by Aeneasas Augustine was abandoned by the parents who sent him off to Madauros. He could direct Dido's call for vengeance (Aeneid 4.625) to the teachers who beat him for not learning Greek: "Rise from my ashes some avenging Wrath." The adolescent Augustine entered so ardently into the mythical system of Virgil that he convinced at least one sophisticated pagan in Madauros that he, too, was a pagan. This older man, an intimate of Augustine's during his sojourn in Madauros, wrote to Augustine after the latter's conversion, noting that he now paid homage to mumbo-jumbo Christian martyrs like Miggin and Namphano.
We have only one letter from this correspondent, Maximus, with Augustine's answer to it, but references in the letters indicate that there was correspondence preceding them, and (probably) following. The tone is one of joshing familiarity on both sides. Maximus asks Augustine not to dazzle him with his customary rhetoric, but to argue seriously:
Eager as ever for the joy of hearing from youfor the energy of your words that recently gave me, in all charity, a pleasant pommelingI am not loath to answer in kind (L 16).
Augustine pretends that Maximus must be joking if he thinks that lascivious pagan gods are more admirable than men who died for their faith:
Are we engaged in something serious here, or is it time to tell jokes? I cannot judge, from the tone of your letter, whether you prefer wit to pertinency because your arguments are weak or because you are, as usual, so affable. (L 17)
Hasn't Maximus noticed where he lives?
How can you forget who you are, an African addressing Africans (we are both in Africa, you know), that you find Phoenician names so despicable?
Since Augustine lumped the Berber and Phoenician languages together, he thought his mother's name was Phoenicianlike Dido's. His own love of his country comes out in this rebuke to Maximus:
If the Phoenician language offends you, and you deny (what the most learned admit) that much wisdom survives in Phoenician documents, then you must be ashamed of your birthplace, the cradle of that language.
Augustine calls Maximus his elder. Was he a teacher or just an originally revered mentor? He was, at any rate, in a position to say that Augustine was of his religious party (secta). We can gauge from that the depth of Augustine's seduction by pagan literature, and understand better his later denunciation of those who exposed him to it. He knew what power the pagan poets hadthey had, for a while, made him a pagan.
Attended only by his pedagogue in Madauros, Augustine was able to get his way, telling lies to pedagogue, teacher, and parents to avoid school and slip off to games in the amphitheater (T 1.30). When he was forced to attend school, he hated the flogging system upheld by parents and universal custom. Despite the lash, he refused to learn Greeknot because he could not, but because he would not learn it this way.
He had learned Latin quickly because his "heart was laboring to express itself," but with Greek his "unfettered inquisitiveness" was checked by "intimidating assignments" (T 1.23). Later he dutifully repented his stubbornness, but his schoolfellows probably admired his proud resistance despite repeated floggings. The lack of Greek severely limited him in later daysthough even this he managed to turn into a partial advantage. His deep originality comes in part from his lack of dependence on other traditions.
3. Thagaste: 370-371
When Augustine returned from school in Madauros, he entered the stage of life, earlier mentioned (from age sixteen to thirty), that Romans called adulescentia. He was supposed to go on to higher education in rhetoric, but his father did not, at the moment, have enough money to support such studies in Carthage. So Augustine spent his crucial sixteenth year in his hometown, where he initiated the sexual activity his father saw he was capable of and his mother warned him against. His mother was practical about it, hoping he would keep entirely chaste, but telling him at the least not to have affairs with married women (T 2.6).
It has always amazed people that, in this year of burgeoning sexual desire, the sin he concentrated onspending over half of book 2 of The Testimony on an introspective analysis of itis the theft of some pears. Why spill so many words on what many dismiss as a child's petty theft?
It was more than that to Augustine. In fact, he had dismissed with passing mention earlier thefts of food from his family larder, food used to to bribe others into letting him play with them (T 1.30). That theft had a motive. The pear theft seemed not to. He specifically says he had legitimate access to more and better pears (probably on Romanian's estate). He did not want to eat or use the stolen goods. He and his fellows in the raid carted the fruit off and dumped it before pigs. Why did they do it? Augustine goes down and down into the mystery of this apparent acte gratuit: "Simply what was not allowed allured us" (eo liberet quo non liceret, T 2.9).
He tries out and rejects an explanation from his school readings, one fresh in mind at that time. Sallust, one of the four canonical authors in the grammar studies he had just completed, was a favorite author in Africa, because he wrote the history of an African conflict (The Jugurthine War). In another book, The Conspiracy of Catiline, Sallust said that Catiline led a gang of young men in senseless criminal exercises because he was "gratuitously evil" (16).
But Augustine remembers that Sallust, in the very same place, contradicts himself, admitting that the "pointless" crimes did have a point. They were indulged in "lest hand or heart lose edge for lack of practice." Little meannesses were like the finger exercises of a pianist. Catiline was using them to prepare for the great criminal concerto of his attempt to take over the republic.
Was there anything similar in the act of Augustine's fellows? If not, Augustine would have to think that humans can choose evil for its own sake. In writing The Testimony, he recognizes that people always do bad things in pursuit of apparent good. But what possible good was there in the pear theft, an act as silly as it was mean-spirited? He lists all the reasons for committing other sins. Those who have suspected a sexual symbolism behind Augustine's horror at his vandalism ignore Augustine's own statement that the act would not have been mysterious if sex were discoverable in it:
The beauty of physical things is appealing (gold, silver and the rest), and we sway in response to what touches the flesh or affects any of the senses by its fitness to them. There is a dignity in worldly respect, in the power to order others about or to persuade them (whence comes the appetite for subduing them). Yet to gain even these good things we should not give up you, God, nor wander from your law. Our life in this world is tempting because it accommodates us to its order, patterned to beautiful (if lower) things. Friendship, for instance, forms a sweet bond because it creates a harmony of the several souls. Sin arises from this, and from things like this, only if a disordered fastening on lowest goods makes us fall from higher goods, from the highest of all, you my God, my lord, your truth, your law.... When the motive for a crime is sought, none is accepted but the desire to get goods of the lower sort just mentioned, or to avoid their loss. For they are beautiful, they do please, even if they must be abandoned for, or subordinated to, higher and more fulfilling goods. A murder is committed. Why? To get another's wife or wealth, or to get the necessities of life. Or for fear another would deprive the murderer of such things. Or from a sense of wrong burning for redress. Who murders with no cause but to enjoy the mere murdering? Who would credit such a motive? (T 2.10)
In his exhaustive search for some conceivable good to be found in his bad act, Augustine finally comes up with a psychological clue: Whatever his motive for acting with the gang, he would not have done the same thing all by himself. Does that suggest some good hidden in the bad? He finds a psychological parallel that may help him toward an explanation. People normally laugh when together, not when aloneor, as Bergson put it, anyone who laughs alone is imagining the company of others (Le Rire 1). There is something essentially social about laughter. Companionship (consortium) is the good in the morally indifferent act of laughing. Could that have been the good paradoxically prompting him to the bad act of theft? Yes, he concludes: "The mutual provocation of my partners in crime provided the friction that ignited my desire to act thus" (T 2.16).
He began his discussion with the observation that theft is obviously wrong, since even thieves do not want to be stolen from. He will later dwell on the bonds of good that unite even robber bands; they insist on just distribution of the "take" from their robberies (CG 19.12). Consortium and amicitia (friendship) are key values in Augustine's eyes. His later companionship with heretics will prolong his own adherence to error. He will make amicitia the base of all Christian communities. He will even dispute Cicero's definition of the state, saying that "things loved in common" are the basis of all politics, not mere abstract justice. So a persistent love of fellowship was the falsely conceived good behind his motiveless act in the pear orchard. Augustine has solved his own psychological mystery without having to resort to the Manichean heresy, which holds that evil is a positive (choosable) substance.
But more. People notice that there is a parallel between this "first sin" of The Testimony and Adam's fall in the garden of Eden. Though the gang hauls off a "huge load" (onera ingentia) of pears from the orchard, Augustine talks of only one treelike the tree of the apple in Eden. He goes out of his way to say the pears were not beautiful, marking a contrast with the fruit in Eden, where the tree "was pleasant to the eyes" (Genesis 3.6). But a further parallel, the key one, has not been noticed, I think. Eve falls for the serpent's lies in Genesis; but Saint Paul's First Letter to Timothy (which Augustine thought was authentically Pauline) says that "Adam was not deceived" (2.14). Why did Adam commit the original sin if he was neither desirous of the fruit in itself nor deceived about any power it might give him? The problem is exactly Augustine's in his own little orchard.
Augustine argued, in his treatment of the Genesis story, that Adam committed his sin deliberately in order to maintain his "bond of company" (socialis necessitudo, CG 14.11) with Eve. In the book First Meanings in Genesis, which he began while finishing The Testimony, he wrote of Adam's misguided gallantry (11.59):
After Eve had eaten from the forbidden tree and offered him its fruit to eat along with her, Adam did not want to disappoint her, when he thought she might be blighted without his comforting support, banished from his heart to die sundered from him. He was not overcome by disordered desire of the flesh, which he had not yet experienced as a thing in his body at odds with his mind, but by a kind of amicable desire for another's good [amicali quadam benivolentia], which often happens, making us sin against God so as not to turn a friend [amicus] against us.
Augustine's point is that Adam helps neither Eve nor himself by trying to separate off a lower love from the Source of love. That is the lesson he finds in his own courting of favor from his fellow thieves in the pear orchard. He sees here his own distant echo of Adam's sin, the primordial sin, the quest for love by motion away from the one place where it can be found.
To find the Genesis narrative coming alive in his own past is a continuing surprise for Augustine in The Testimony. We have seen that already in the story of his father and the public baths, when he was "clothed" in Adam's shame. We shall see it in other key episodes of the book, including the death of his friend and his prayer with Monnica at Ostia. Genesis haunts the whole work.
Augustine began, in book 2 (6), the account of his sexual activity at sixteen, only to break it off in his concentration on the pear episode. He resumes the sexual story at the beginning of book 3, which O'Donnell (2.145) rightly calls "recapitulative," though it is marked by his arrival in Carthage. It is in book 3 that he first mentions his concubine. But O'Donnell (2.207) draws an interesting conclusion from the age of Augustine's son:
Adeodatus was [almost fifteen] at the time of his baptism in the spring of 387 ... and [aged sixteen] at the dramatic date of The Teacher not long after; on this calculation he was born 371/72, when Augustine was perhaps seventeen ... or perhaps even 370, thus apparently probably in the first years of study at Carthage but conceivably during the years of indolence recorded at 2, 3.5-6 (the philoprogenitive optimism of Patricius did not have so long to wait). Adeodatus' mother was dismissed from Milan and returned to Africa in 385/6 ... and thus shared his entire adulescentia.
I italicize the phrase about Augustine's year in Thagaste. If his son was conceived when Augustine was sixteen or seventeen, he would either have found that son's mother in his hometown or made a very quick discovery of her in Carthage. Theirs was not a casual attachment. He tells us how it tore him apart to lose her, and that he was faithful their whole fifteen years together: "I lived with only one women [unam habebam] and kept faith with her bed" (T 4.2). To avoid clumsy titles, where she has no name, I shall call this woman Una (from unam habebat). It is later revealed that Una was a Catholic, and Thagaste was a more Catholic town than Carthage. Besides, a very mysterious passage in book 3 (5) makes far better sense if we connect it with Una and Thagaste. Augustine writes that he committed one particularly monstrous sin in church, during the ceremonies, "desiring and effecting a transaction [negotium] whose fruit should have brought death" (T 3.5). That is all he says of the event, and people have supplied lurid guesses about what happened, some even having him accomplish intercourse during the service. Even soberer guesses are strange. Peter Brown (41) suggests that Augustine, a stranger in Carthage, was cruising a church "to find a girl friend." O'Donnell (2.159) finds it significant that Augustine was still going to church in Carthage.
But one did not just "drop in" to a fourth-century African church in a strange town. Membership was guarded jealously (among other things, to keep out the schismatic Donatists from the church down the street). Aspiring catechumens were confined to their special part of the liturgy, and baptized members had to maintain public morality or be expelled. It is far more likely that Augustine is talking about an event in the church of Thagaste, where his mother was a recognized member and he was a catechumen, and that the event, whatever it was, concerned Una.
Could "picking up" a woman (asking her for a date) justify the harsh language Augustine uses? It is interesting that he calls his union with Una another kind of "transaction," a pactum (4.2). Did he persuade Una to come live with him while they were at church? Or to go away with him to Carthage? Or to return to him after she had tried to break off their affair? Did he try to persuade her to use an abortifacient? He later says that their child was unwanted, by him at least (4.2).
Any one of these possibilities is far more probable than other suggestions that have been made. His treatment of Una would justify the self-condemning language Augustine uses. He was not merely persuading Una to live with him, but to make a break with her church (and, no doubt, her Catholic parents). Augustine would later reproach himself bitterly for trying to persuade a dear friend to give up Catholicism. Though the Church admitted some forms of legal concubinage, Augustine said (4.2) theirs was not such a union, since they did not intend to have children. And the lack of further offspring after the first shows that Augustineagainst her will, he impliesused contraceptive strategies.
Later, as a bishop, Augustine would pose a case that was very clearly what his own life with Una had been, her faithfulness contrasted with his faithlessness on the basis of the intent to bear children.
If a man lives with one woman for some time, but only until he finds another worthier in terms of rank or advantages, he commits adultery in his heart, not against the one he wants to claim but against the one he lived with, even though they were not married. As for the woman who had knowingly and willingly lived with him outside the marriage contractif she was true to his bed [tori fidemexactly the way Augustine described his faithfulness to Una's bed] and does not seek another partner, I could bring no evident charge of adultery against her.... In fact, she is better than many married mothers if, in her sexual relations she did what she could to have children, but had to submit against her will to the prevention of conception. (What Is Good in Marriage 5.5)
O'Donnell suggests that this passage has the feel of a thing Una or her family may have been expected to hear.