In the spring of 430 AD, the Vandals – a Germanic horde numbering in the tens of thousands – began a siege of Hippo Regius, an affluent and important city on the North African coast (modern Annaba in Algeria). Today, that might seem an obscure episode within the movements of various “barbarian” peoples in the waning days of the Roman Empire (which “fell” just fifty years later), if not for the fact that the bishop of the city at the time was the great St. Augustine.
Augustine was 75 by then, and died within a few months, no doubt partly from the stress produced by the siege. The Vandals subsequently ransacked the city but left standing Augustine’s cathedral and library. Still, they destroyed almost everything he had labored to build as a bishop for over three decades.
As a longtime resident now of the Washington D.C. area, I often think of this history as I see various forces encircling the Church and the nation. So far, there’s enough resistance that there’s still hope. But sometimes history suggests some sharp lessons. Which is only one of many reasons why, at our moment, it’s still quite worthwhile to read and ponder the life of St. Augustine.
(I’ll be conducting a five-week course on Augustine’s Confessions in early January. For further information click here.)
His Confessions is probably the first autobiography in the Latin West. But it’s not a mere catalogue of one person’s life. It’s a passionate account of an emotional struggle with early sins and errors; then Augustine’s brilliant rise through his studies in Carthage and Rome; and finally his entry into the circle around the great Archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, which led to Augustine’s conversion – the heart of the story – and his massive impact on the Church and the whole Western world.
We often see the problems of today as a unique threat to our religious and civic traditions. And in many ways, they are. But Augustine too confronted wayward Christians and troublesome politics.
The Arian Vandals (like many “Christians” today), believed Jesus was not a Person of the Holy Trinity, but only a great man who had become in some sense “divine” by what he did and suffered.
As a young man, Augustine himself had briefly been a Manichean, a heresy that posited a cosmic struggle between a good God and an evil one.
As a bishop, he struggled with Donatists, a strict sect that (somewhat understandably) started in a controversy over Catholics who had apostatized under persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. Donatists did not believe that the apostates’ sins could be forgiven or that they could be re-admitted to the fold.
And then there were the Pelagians. Several modern scholars claim Augustine got them wrong, but in some quarters it was thought that Pelagius, a British monk, taught that we could be saved purely by our own powers, by simply following the moral law. Augustine the great Doctor of Grace (Doctor gratiae), could not let such shallow optimism lead people astray. He produced a massive amount of material refuting heresies and explaining true religion, to “heal the eyes of the heart.”
But the intra-Church turmoil was just the half of it. Late Roman Antiquity, which had several similarities to our own unstable times, experienced various public shocks. Christianity had been tolerated in the empire since Constantine in the early fourth century. But under Julian “the Apostate” persecution returned in the 360s. And when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, some still-pagan Romans resorted to old slanders and blamed Christianity, with its non-martial ways and rejection of Rome’s traditional gods, for the disaster. Augustine reacted to this event by writing his massive and massively influential work, The City of God, which he did not finish until sixteen years later in 426. It laid out a view of the sacred and the secular that had immense consequences for all of subsequent Western history.
Augustine drew a distinction that had been rare in the ancient world; rulers – including Roman emperors – were then usually thought of as “divinities” of some kind. Jesus spoke of rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s. That wasn’t the only recognition of a higher power than that of secular rulers in the ancient world, but it was the only one that set out such clear distinctions – and had real teeth.
Augustine identified two cities: The City of God, focused on the divine will and the Good it intended for the world; and the City of Man, focused on human will and therefore limited in its this-worldly focus and self-centeredness. Rome had not been sacked, said Augustine, because it was slowly turning towards worship of the true God. Rome was falling partly because its many real virtues had been put to the service of the vice of collective egotism. And its decadence and vulnerability were the inevitable byproducts of that turn to the self.
Along the way, he demolishes polytheistic beliefs. It’s difficult to see how anyone could still hold on to pagan gods after reading the first ten books of the City of God. Augustine’s youthful passions were by this point channeled into fertile ground. He is a sheer virtuoso, hunting down various pagan beliefs until there’s nothing left standing. With the ground cleared, he then can begin to lay out a positive vision of true virtue and civic behavior, and an authentic spiritual life on earth.
And he also leaves ample room for the mysterious ways God works in history, even by way of what, humanly speaking, may seem unmerited disasters.
Despite the different names and players, clearly some things never change in our all-too-human Church and world. There’s never a final solution to the challenges of life in this world, and there are periods when everything seems shot through with doubt. Which is why over the ages, people – Christians and not – have turned to Augustine for enlightenment, as we very much need to do again today.
*Image: Saint Augustine of Hippo by Gerard Seghers (attributed), c. 1625 [National Trust: Kingston Lacy Estate, Dorset]. On the table is a scroll inscribed: DE / CIVITATE DEI / AD / MARCELLIUM / GLORIOSISSIMUM / CIVITATE in DEI. It was to Marcellinus of Carthage, a martyr for the Faith, that City of God is dedicated.
You may also enjoy:
Pope Benedict XVI’s St. Augustine’s strong hope
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On the “Hortensius”