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Augustine of Hippo: The Making of a Professor

When Professor Henry Chadwick passed away last year, a finished manuscript was discovered which he had put to one side in the early 1980s. It was a biography of the giant of Christian thought, Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s life and works have shaped the development of the Christian Church, sparking controversy and influencing the ideas of theologians through subsequent centuries. In Augustine of Hippo: A Life, which OUP are publishing in the UK next month, Chadwick charts Augustine’s intellectual journey from schoolboy and student to Bishop and champion of Western Christendom. Below is a short excerpt from the first chapter.

Augustine was born on 13 November 354.

He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was the child of small-town parents in Thagaste in the province of Numidia, now the large village of Souk-Ahras in Algeria not far from the Tunisian border. Thagaste lies in hilly country about 60 miles inland, south of Hippo on the coast. Hardly more than a few ruins of the bath-house now survive to remind the visitor of its Roman past (unlike Hippo of which much more has been found by the French archaeologists). Augustine’s father Patrick sat on the town council and had the status of a curialis, in the late empire a hard-pressed class expected by the government to keep their local community going on their personal resources. Patrick owned but a few acres. His wife Monnica bore not only Augustine but also another son and two daughters. Their relative ages are never mentioned. Monnica came of a Christian family, but Patrick remained a pagan almost until the end of his life. Monnica was regular in giving alms for the poor, devoted to the honour of the martyrs of the African churches, and daily attendant at prayers in the local church morning and evening. Her constant devotions did not make her careless, and she avoided gossip. She was often influenced by her dream-life through which she felt that God guided her.

Both Augustine’s parents are likely to have been of Berber stock, but Romanized and Latin-speaking. Numidian peasants of the fourth century spoke not Latin but Punic, inherited from the Phoenician settlers who came from Tyre and Sidon a millennium before to set up their trading station and maritime power at Carthage. In Hannibal they had once offered a frightening threat to Rome’s ambitions to conquer the Mediterranean. As Romans settled in their North African provinces, many took Berber- or Punic-speaking wives. In the second century ad Apuleius, of Madauros near Thagaste, author of the Golden Ass, had a Punic-speaking wife. In Augustine’s time the Punic-speakers retained a consciousness of their old Phoenician forefathers, and could manifest a lack of enthusiasm for the Roman administration of their country now established for over five centuries. Latin culture was a veneer; those who had it tended to despise those who had not. Augustine acquired a conversational knowledge of the patois, and never speaks of Punic language or culture with the least touch of scorn as the pagan Maximus of Madauros did. But his parents and nurses spoke to him in Latin, and education at the Thagaste school was principally in Latin language and literature, a subject which ancient men called ‘grammar’, taught by the grammaticus.

Augustine’s schoolmaster, first at Thagaste, then until his sixteenth year at nearby Madauros, appears more notable for his skill with the cane than for offering a positive education. To the end of his days Augustine can hardly refer to the life of a schoolboy without recalling the misery of cruel floggings. He would not say it did him no good, for it was a training for the far greater troubles of adult life. But ‘we learn better when freely trying to satisfy our curiosity than under fear or force’. Once he had been handed Virgil’s Aeneid, his young mind was kindled to excitement by the exquisite poetry. His school also made him learn Greek, a language spoken by a substantial minority of the North African population with links to Sicily and South Italy where Greek was widespread. A mere hundred miles of sea separate Sicily from the North African coast. Augustine found Greek hard; the difficulty soured even the reading of Homer whose poetic power he admired. In later life he was generally inclined to protest too much his ignorance of Greek. After his schooldays he did not read classical Greek texts. But he could read the language with a dictionary. In 415 in the City of God he makes his own translation into Latin of a piece of Plotinus, and when writing On the Trinity he consulted works by acknowledged masters of the Greek East. Nevertheless a very Latin pride in the cultural world of Virgil, Cicero, Seneca, Terence, and his fellow-countryman Apuleius helped him to treat Greek theologians and philosophers as constructive helps rather than as authorities to be slavishly imitated. Aristotle first came before him in his early twenties when he was studying at Carthage. Except for Cicero’s translation of the Timaeus, he seems to have read no Plato before he reached Milan in 384 aged 30. The standard education of the time was primarily in the art of persuasive oratory, including some logic. Looking back he realized he had come to think a fault in speech much graver than a failure in morality. Most of the philosophy he knew he taught himself by his reading. For the contemporary professional teachers of philosophy in the Latin West, he speaks in a letter of 386 in terms of utter contempt.

From his boyhood his health gave cause for anxiety. Aged about 7 he fell seriously ill with chest pains; when his death was expected he asked Monnica to arrange for his baptism. (As an infant he had been made a catechumen with the sign of the cross and salt on his tongue.) Recovery led to deferment. Throughout his life his health was precarious, and a series of bouts of sickness made him appear prematurely old in middle age. Although after he had become a bishop his burdens were far heavier, he nevertheless seems to have enjoyed better health under greater strain. The optimum degree of tension is not nil.

Patrick nursed ambitions for his clever son. Towards Patrick Augustine shows small sign of sympathy. The devout Monnica hoped to persuade Patrick to become a Christian; perhaps once faith had come, her often erring husband would be more faithful to her. In pagan households of the time the master of the house took it for granted that he had a right to sleep with his serving girls, and preachers did not find it easy to convince Christian congregations that this right should not be exercised. Patrick was hot-tempered, but Monnica kept out of his way when he was cross, and so ‘escaped the battering other wives receive’. Yet when serene, he was kind. Monnica herself felt it a harmonious relationship. They both realized that if finance could be found, an education at the metropolis at Carthage (by modern Tunis) could open the door to success in the great world. But when Augustine was 16, Patrick died, after being baptized during his last sickness. For Augustine a wild demoralized year followed while means were sought to enable him to continue his studies, a project in which he was eventually assisted by a wealthy landowner of Thagaste, Romanianus. (His name appears on an inscription dug up at Thagaste.) In the Confessions Augustine vividly describes how he stole pears from a nearby orchard not out of any wish for the fruit, which was of inferior quality, but because there is a pleasure in doing something forbidden. As he looked back on the incident, he felt himself to be repeating the experience of Adam in Genesis. The pears were accidental to the substance of his enjoyment which was simply the doing wrong; that made the story significant, not a mere adolescent prank of the most boring triviality. He went to Carthage with his mother’s timely exhortation that he avoid fornication, above all adultery with another man’s wife.

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