Today is the saint’s day of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Christian theologian whose writings were influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria) in the Roman province of Africa. He was a prolific writer, his most widely read works being City of God and Confessions. He was a great scholar, but I am ambivalent about some of his teachings inasmuch as he gave us the concepts of “original sin” and “just war.” I’m not thrilled about his neo-Platonism either. On the other hand he is the patron saint of brewers which makes up for a lot. When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, and in the face of growing Christian sects that challenged Catholic orthodoxy, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.
Augustine was born in 354 in the municipium of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in Roman Africa. It is believed that his mother was a Berber. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus (now M’Daourouch), a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as Roman religious beliefs and practices. While at home in 369 and 370, he read Cicero’s dialogue Hortensius (now lost), which he described as leaving a lasting impression on him and sparking his interest in philosophy.
At age 17, through the generosity of fellow citizen, Romanianus, Augustine went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits with women and urged the inexperienced boys, like Augustine, to seek out experiences or to make up stories about experiences in order to gain acceptance and avoid ridicule. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine had two lengthy affairs, one of which produced a son. He was also briefly betrothed to an eleven year old girl of high birth, a union which his mother arranged, but broke it off when he began moving towards a more spiritual life.
In the summer of 386, Augustine reached a turning point in his life as he began absorbing Christian teaching. At the time he held a very prestigious position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. He was becoming influenced more and more by Christian friends and especially by Ambrose, bishop of Milan. One day while in contemplation in a garden he heard a childlike voice saying “tolle, lege” (“pick [it] up, read”). He took this to mean that he should pick up the Bible and read it, which he did. He opened randomly to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and read (13:13-14):
“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
He writes in Confessions that this was a transformative moment. He became a catechumen and was baptized by Ambrose.
After a period in Rome, during which his mother died, Augustine returned to Thagaste in Africa, settled his property, established his own monastic community, and began to live a contemplative life as a lay “servant of God.” In 390 his son, who was apparently a gifted student, died. Grief made Augustine restless, and he visited Hippo to see about setting up another monastery there. Catholic Christians were in the minority in north Africa at that time, and were persecuted by other Christian sects, such as the Donatists and Manichaeans. Bishop Valerius asked him to accept ordination to help the embattled minority, and from then on he remained in Hippo until his death, preaching and writing against heresy. The Donatists and Manichaeans were both dualists, believing that the material world was essentially evil, and that only the spiritual realm was good – hence separating themselves from the world. Augustine argued that the world was what it was, good and bad, and it was up to the church to live in the world and make it better.
In 395 Augustine was ordained coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Hippo. In less than two years he would be made bishop. During his episcopate, he drove the Donatists and other heretical Christian rivals out of Hippo. He led the community with a paternal hand, adjudicating disputes, intervening for prisoners to save them from torture and execution, advocating for the poor, buying freedom for badly treated slaves, and charging religious women with the care of abandoned and orphaned children. He preached abundantly and wrote extensively. By 410 Augustine had written thirty-three books.
The last two decades of Augustine’s life were plagued with violence as Visigoths and Vandals began their conquest of the Roman Empire. In 430 Vandals invaded the provinces around Hippo, burning and pillaging as they went. Communities fled to Hippo which was fortified. Vandals laid siege to the city for several months. Augustine died of a fever, perhaps exacerbated by hunger caused by the siege, on 28 August 430. The Vandals eventually burned most of the city but left the cathedral and Augustine’s library intact. In it were all of his books, letters, notes, and sermons. A priceless legacy. Some parts of the old city survive today.
It is impossible for me to summarize Augustine’s thought and his influence down to the present day. Let me just pick up on a couple of themes, and you can search wider if you care to. It’s a lot easier to write these posts when I don’t know what I am talking about! For me his greatest teaching has to be that the notion of a “literal” reading of the Bible is not a simple matter. He argued that you could read the Bible in many ways. You could adhere to a strict reading of the words (what is now called “literalism”), or you could see the stories as allegories (without worrying about the surface truth), and therefore see in them a spiritual truth. Augustine spoke of the latter as just as literal as the former. So, for example, in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” Augustine took the view that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in seven calendar days as a surface reading of Genesis would require. He argued that the seven-day structure of creation presented in Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way; it has a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning.
His teachings on the sacraments of baptism and communion are very complicated, but one essential element I want to point out is that Augustine believed they were not mere mechanical rituals that worked because you performed them. Their efficacy lay in the spiritual dimension you bring to them. In this, as well as his Biblical teachings, he sounds an awful lot like a modern Protestant, and is often cited by Protestant theologians.
Hippo is now the city of Annaba in Algeria. Algerian cooking is a variant of cuisines found throughout north Africa. I have chosen a recipe for a chicken soup, shorba baidha, finished with an egg and lemon mixture that resembles soups found throughout the Mediterranean, but with an Algerian savor.
6 chicken thighs
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
7 oz (200 g) cooked chick peas (garbanzos)
10 ½ cups (2 ½ li) chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
1 large egg yolk, beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsps basmati rice
salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the onion in the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat until translucent.
Add the chicken and the cinnamon stick and sauté until the chicken is golden all over.
Add the stock plus salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes on medium heat.
Strip the chicken from the bone, tear it into bite-sized pieces, and return it to the pot.
Add the chickpeas and rice to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes covered, or until the rice is cooked.
Add more stock if the soup is too thick.
Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the egg yolk in a small jug or cup. Add several tablespoons of the soup to the egg/lemon mixture and whisk well. With the soup on a rolling boil add the egg mix in a steady stream whisking constantly. Cook for one more minute and serve immediately garnished with parsley.