Jun 132017

Today is the birthday (1831) of James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE, a Scottish mathematical physicist whose most notable achievement was to formulate the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first one realized by Isaac Newton. When most people think of the masterminds of physics they think of Einstein and Newton, but rarely conjure up Maxwell. Yet his accomplishment was of the same magnitude as theirs. Furthermore, his work led directly to the technological accomplishments of the late 19th and 20th centuries including the generation of electricity, leading in turn to electric lighting, the alternator in the internal combustion engine, digital computing, and on and on . . . Unification of forces is a BIG DEAL, not just theoretically, but in practical terms.

With the publication of “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” in 1865, Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. Maxwell proposed that light is an undulation in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. The unification of light and electrical phenomena led to the prediction of the existence of radio waves, which, of course led to the development of radio and television.

I’ll try not to make your eyes glaze over with Maxwell’s equations, but I would like to venture some attempt at the magnitude of his work. First, a little biographical stuff. His genius was immediately obvious to all he encountered rivalled only by his insatiable curiosity. Maxwell was born at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, to John Clerk Maxwell of Middlebie, an advocate, and Frances Cay. His father was a man of comfortable means of the Clerk family of Penicuik, holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik. His father’s brother was the 6th Baronet. Maxwell’s parents met and married when they were well into their 30s, and his mother was nearly 40 when he was born. They had had one earlier child, a daughter named Elizabeth, who died in infancy.

When Maxwell was young his family moved to Glenlair House, which his parents had built on the 1,500 acres (610 ha) Middlebie estate. All indications are that Maxwell had an unquenchable curiosity from an early age. By the age of three, everything that moved, shone, or made a noise drew the question: “what’s the go o’ that?” In a passage added to a letter from his father to his sister-in-law Jane Cay in 1834, his mother described this innate sense of inquisitiveness:

He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; he has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc., and “show me how it doos” is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall….

Maxwell was taught by his mother, as was the norm in Victorian Scotland until the age of 8 when she died of cancer. He was then taught briefly by a 16-year-old tutor hired by his father. Little is known about the young man except that he treated Maxwell harshly, chiding him for being slow and wayward. Consequently his father dismissed him and sent his son to prestigious Edinburgh Academy. The 10-year-old Maxwell with rural mannerisms and Galloway accent did not fit in well and the other students called him “Daftie,” which biographers usually say he tolerated without complaint. But a classmate wrote that one time when he was being teased by a group of boys he turned on them with a look of demonic ferocity, and after that they left him in peace.

Maxwell was brilliant at geometry at an early age. He rediscovered the regular polyhedra, for example, before he received any formal instruction. His academic prowess remained unnoticed until, at the age of 13, he won the school’s mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry. Maxwell’s interests ranged far beyond the school syllabus and he did not pay particular attention to examination performance. He wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of ellipses, Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two foci. His work “Oval Curves” was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes, a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University, but Maxwell was deemed too young to present the work himself. The work was not entirely original, since René Descartes had also examined the properties of such multifocal ellipses in the 17th century, but he had simplified their construction.

Maxwell left the Academy in 1847 at age 16 and began attending classes at the University of Edinburgh. He had the opportunity to attend the University of Cambridge, but decided, after his first term, to complete the full course of his undergraduate studies at Edinburgh. He did not find his classes at Edinburgh University very demanding, and was therefore able to immerse himself in private study during free time at the university and particularly when back home at Glenlair where he experimented with improvised chemical, electric, and magnetic apparatus, but his chief concerns regarded the properties of polarized light. He constructed shaped blocks of gelatine, subjected them to various stresses, and with a pair of polarizing prisms, given to him by William Nicol, viewed the colored fringes that had developed within the jelly. Through this practice he discovered photoelasticity, which is a means of determining the stress distribution within physical structures, which eventually he used to analyze the load bearing properties of metal bridge structures.

At age 18, Maxwell contributed two papers for the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. One of these, “On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids”, laid the foundation for an important discovery later in his life, which was the temporary double refraction produced in viscous liquids by shear stress. His other paper was “Rolling Curves” and, just as with the paper “Oval Curves” that he had written at the Edinburgh Academy, he was again considered too young to stand at the rostrum to present it himself. The paper was delivered to the Royal Society by his tutor Kelland instead.

In October 1850, already an accomplished mathematician, Maxwell left Scotland for the University of Cambridge. He initially attended Peterhouse, but before the end of his first term transferred to Trinity, where he believed it would be easier to obtain a fellowship. In November 1851, Maxwell studied under William Hopkins, whose success in nurturing mathematical genius had earned him the nickname of “senior wrangler-maker” (“senior wrangler” is the top undergraduate in mathematics in final examinations). In 1854, Maxwell graduated from Trinity with a degree in mathematics. He scored second highest in finals, coming behind Edward Routh and earning the title of second wrangler. He was later declared equal with Routh in the more exacting ordeal of the Smith’s Prize examination. Immediately after earning his degree, Maxwell read his paper “On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending” to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he had written, demonstrating Maxwell’s growing stature as a mathematician. He decided to remain at Trinity after graduating and applied for a fellowship, which was a process that he expected to take a couple of years.

Maxwell was made a fellow of Trinity on 10 October 1855, sooner than was the norm, and was asked to prepare lectures on hydrostatics and optics and to set examination papers. The following February he was urged by a colleague to apply for the newly vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. His father assisted him in the task of preparing the necessary references, but died on 2 April at Glenlair before either knew the result of Maxwell’s candidacy. Maxwell accepted the professorship at Aberdeen, leaving Cambridge in November 1856. From there he went from success to success in Edinburgh, Cambridge, and London.  Let’s turn now to his achievements.

Maxwell is best remembered for his equations which unified light, electricity, and magnetism into a single phenomenon with varied dimensions. Let me pause and take stock of that idea in the most general terms. The ultimate goal of mathematical physics is to SIMPLIFY the way we look at the world by reducing complex observations to simple rules.  Newton was a towering giant in this respect. He showed that force and motion could be reduced to some basic equations, whether you’re talking about firing a cannon, piloting a ship, or falling from a tall building. F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration) has stood the test of time. As physics has evolved since Newton, more and more forces have been unified into a grand theory.  Electro-magnetic forces, and forces within the atom have already been unified, and it looks as though gravity is within reach with the recent discovery of gravitational waves. Then we will have the “theory of everything” which is a slightly grandiose way of saying that all forces in the universe will be subsumed under one umbrella. Maxwell was a monumentally important figure along that path – every bit as important as Newton and Einstein.

Maxwell had studied and commented on electricity and magnetism as early as 1855 when his paper “On Faraday’s lines of force” was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The paper presented a simplified model of Faraday’s work and how electricity and magnetism are related. He reduced all of the current knowledge into a linked set of differential equations with 20 equations in 20 variables. This work was later published as “On Physical Lines of Force” in March 1861. Maxwell’s equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. They underpin all electric, optical and radio technologies, including power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, cameras, televisions, computers etc. Maxwell’s equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of each other. One important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum from radio waves to gamma-rays and everything in between: red, orange, yellow, microwaves, X-rays, intra-red, etc. That’s a lot of stuff.

Within his lifetime other physicists showed that his 20 equations could be boiled down to 4 (see lead photo) which is conventionally how they are perceived nowadays.

Following Newton, Maxwell was  interested in the physics of color but also color perception. From 1855 to 1872, he published at intervals a series of investigations concerning the perception of color, color-blindness, and color theory, and was awarded the Rumford Medal for “On the Theory of Colour Vision.”

Maxwell was also interested in applying his theory of color perception color photography stemming directly from his psychological work on color perception. He argued that if a sum of any three lights could reproduce any perceivable color, then color photographs could be produced with a set of three colored filters. In the course of his 1855 paper, Maxwell proposed that, if three black-and-white photographs of a scene were taken through red, green and blue filters and transparent prints of the images were projected on to a screen using three projectors equipped with similar filters, when superimposed on the screen the result would be perceived by the human eye as a complete reproduction of all the colors in the scene. During an 1861 Royal Institution lecture on color theory, Maxwell presented the world’s first demonstration of color photography by this principle of three-color analysis and synthesis. Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera, took the picture. He photographed a tartan ribbon three times, through red, green, and blue filters, also making a fourth photograph through a yellow filter, which, according to Maxwell’s account, was not used in the demonstration. Because Sutton’s photographic plates were insensitive to red and barely sensitive to green, the results of this pioneering experiment were far from perfect.

Maxwell also investigated the kinetic theory of gases. Originating with Daniel Bernoulli, this theory was advanced by the successive work of John Herapath, John James Waterston, James Joule, and particularly Rudolf Clausius, to such an extent as to put its general accuracy beyond a doubt; but it received enormous development from Maxwell, who in this field appeared as an experimenter (on the laws of gaseous friction) as well as a mathematician. Between 1859 and 1866, he developed the theory of the distributions of velocities in particles of a gas, work later generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann. The formula, called the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, gives the fraction of gas molecules moving at a specified velocity at any given temperature. In the kinetic theory, temperatures and heat involve only molecular movement. This approach generalized the previously established laws of thermodynamics and explained existing observations and experiments in a better way than had been achieved previously.

Maxwell’s work on thermodynamics led him to devise the thought experiment that came to be known as Maxwell’s demon, where the second law of thermodynamics (law of entropy) is violated by an imaginary being capable of sorting particles by energy. This thought experiment, as has been demonstrated multiple times, is fatally flawed. Observing the particles and opening the door require more energy than is gained by the sorting of the particles.

Maxwell published a paper “On governors” in the Proceedings of Royal Society, vol. 16 (1867–1868). This paper is considered a central paper in the early days of control theory. In this context “governors” refers to the centrifugal governor used to regulate steam engines. A lithograph of Maxwell’s governor hung in the Woodward Governor factory on Slough Trading Estate where I got my first job as an inventory clerk in the stock room as a teenager.

Maxwell’s insatiable curiosity led him to inquire into all manner of subjects including the density of the earth and the composition of water. He was also able to prove that the rings of Saturn were composed of solid particles.

Maxwell died in Cambridge of abdominal cancer on 5 November 1879 at the age of 48. His mother had died at the same age of the same type of cancer. The minister who regularly visited him in his last weeks – he was an ardent Presbyterian – was astonished at his lucidity and the immense power and scope of his memory, and commented,

His illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying — “unworkable” was his own word about them — and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour.

As death approached Maxwell told a Cambridge colleague

I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.

Maxwell is buried at Parton Kirk beside his parents, near Castle Douglas in Galloway close to where he grew up.

Here’s a Scottish variation on a theme from Galloway.  It’s called Scotch Broth but is not the traditional mutton and barley soup. It’s a chicken, barley, and vegetable soup served with oatmeal dumplings.  The old, traditional recipe calls for boiling the dumpling in a cloth in the soup for an hour, but more modern cooks make small dumplings and cook them directly in the soup.  The original recipe calls for an old boiling hen, but you can use a young chicken. I usually do.

Galloway Scotch Broth with Oatmeal Dumplings



1 3-4 lb chicken (or boiling fowl)
4 oz (115g) barley
8 oz (225g) split peas
1 oz (30g) whole peas
2 leeks, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 turnip, chopped
4 brussels sprouts
2 small blades kale, chopped
fresh parsley
chicken stock (optional)


2 oz (60g) beef dripping (or lard)
1 onion, finely chopped
½ lb (250g) fine oatmeal.
salt and pepper.


Put 7 pints (3.6 L) of water (or chicken stock if you prefer) in a large stock pot.  Bring to the boil, then add salt to taste and all the soup ingredients. Simmer gently for about 2 hours (more if using a fowl). Make sure the barley is cooked through.

Meanwhile prepare the dumplings. Make a stiff dough by placing the dumpling ingredients in a bowl, mixing them, then adding cold water a little at a time until it all comes together but is not wet. Roll out dumplings about 1” in diameter and set aside.

Remove the chicken from the soup. Add the dumplings and continue to cook for about 30 minutes. Strip as much chicken meat from the bones as you wish, and add it back to the soup for a few minutes to heat through before serving. Reserve the rest of the chicken meat for other uses.

Jul 262015


Today is the birthday of Carl Gustav Jung (1875), often referred to as C. G. Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology. His work has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, literature, and religious studies. He was a prolific writer, though many of his works were not published until after his death. Jung created some of the best known psychological concepts, including the archetype, the collective unconscious, the complex, and extraversion and introversion.

Jung was a solitary and introverted child. From childhood he believed that, like his mother (who had a day and a night persona which were radically different), he had two personalities—a modern Swiss citizen and a personality more suited to the eighteenth century. “Personality Number 1,” as he termed it, was a typical schoolboy living in the era of the time. “Personality Number 2″ was a dignified, authoritative and influential man from the past.  Do you begin to see why I like the man but am a bit suspicious of him?

A number of childhood memories made lifelong impressions on him. As a boy he carved a tiny mannequin into the end of the wooden ruler from his pencil case and placed it inside the case. He added a stone which he had painted into upper and lower halves, and hid the case in the attic. Periodically he would return to the mannequin, often bringing tiny sheets of paper with messages inscribed on them in his own secret language. He later reflected that this ceremonial act brought him a feeling of inner peace and security. Years later he discovered similarities between his personal experience and the practices associated with totems in indigenous cultures, such as the collection of soul-stones near Arlesheim or the tjurungas of Australia. He concluded that his intuitive ceremonial act was an unconscious ritual, which he had practiced in a way that was strikingly similar to those in distant locations which he, as a young boy, knew nothing about. His conclusions about symbols, psychological archetypes, and the collective unconscious were inspired, in part, by these experiences. Whilst I greatly admire people who have been weirdos from birth, I am skeptical of the utility of their ideas.

At the age of twelve, shortly before the end of his first year at the Humanistisches Gymnasium in Basel, Jung was pushed to the ground by another boy so hard that he momentarily lost consciousness. A thought then came to him—”now you won’t have to go to school any more.” From then on, whenever he walked to school or began homework, he fainted. He remained at home for the next six months until he overheard his father speaking hurriedly to a visitor about the boy’s future ability to support himself. They suspected he had epilepsy. Confronted with the reality of his family’s limited means, he realized the need for academic excellence. He went into his father’s study and began poring over Latin grammar. He fainted three more times but eventually overcame the urge and did not faint again. This event, Jung later recalled, “was when I learned what a neurosis is.”


Jung did not plan to study psychiatry since it was not considered prestigious at the time. But, studying a psychiatric textbook, he became very excited when he discovered that psychoses are personality diseases. His interest was immediately captured—it combined the biological and the spiritual, exactly what he was searching for. In 1895 Jung studied medicine at the University of Basel.

In 1900 Jung began working at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zürich with Eugen Bleuler. Bleuler was already in communication with the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Jung’s dissertation, published in 1903, was titled On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena. In 1906 he published Studies in Word Association, and later sent a copy of this book to Freud.

Eventually a close friendship and a strong professional association developed between the elder Freud and Jung, which left a sizeable correspondence. For six years they cooperated in their work. In 1912, however, Jung published Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as Psychology of the Unconscious), which made manifest the developing theoretical divergence between the two. Consequently, their personal and professional relationship fractured—each stating that the other was unable to admit he could possibly be wrong. After the culminating break in 1913, Jung went through a difficult and pivotal psychological transformation, exacerbated by the outbreak of the First World War. Henri Ellenberger called Jung’s intense experience a “creative illness” and compared it favorably to Freud’s own period of what he called neurasthenia and hysteria.


What I find troubling and unhelpful about both Freud’s and Jung’s theorizing is an aggrandizing tendency on both their parts to turn personal experience into universal experience – “if I have felt it, everyone must feel it.” I hypothesize that this is whence Jung’s concept of the archetype derives. Always being honest up front, I will readily admit that I find the notion of the archetype to be vague, ethnocentric, and ultimately misleading and worthless.

In Jungian psychology, archetypes are highly developed elements of the collective unconscious. Being unconscious, the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly by examining behavior, images, art, myths, religions, or dreams. Carl Jung thought of archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world. They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures. There is obviously something mystical about the idea of archetypes – pre-existing ideas that we are somehow born with (the exact opposite of the notion of “the blank slate”). Here we have the “nature vs nurture” debate yet again with Jung lying somewhere in the middle. I am sympathetic to this middle ground in general but not to Jung’s way in particular.

Jung described archetypal events: birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites; archetypal figures: great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, the hero; and archetypal motifs: the apocalypse, the deluge, the creation. Although the number of archetypes is limitless, there are a few particularly notable, recurring archetypal images, “the chief among them being” (according to Jung) “the shadow, the wise old man, the child, the mother … and her counterpart, the maiden, and lastly the anima in man and the animus in woman”.


Jung, in exploring these types, is in line with 19th century anthropologists such as James George Frazer who wanted to universalize the particulars of all cultures, a tendency that found modern expression in the works of Joseph Campbell. I do recognize that Jung distinguished between the inchoate, primordial archetype and its actualization in the physical world. But there is no denying that purported archetypes, such as the hero, tend to become rigid and doctrinaire. Jung himself was confused and confusing on this point, and his disciples more so. You can see “the dragon” everywhere if you want to – dragon images exist in all cultures. But there is a world of difference between the Medieval European dragon and the ancient Chinese one, the former being malevolent and the latter benevolent. Of course you can argue that these two opposing images are surface manifestations of opposing archetypes, but then you just descend into a muddled realm of “everything is everything.”

The archetypes I find most troublesome are masculine and feminine. There is no need to resort to mystical primitivism to tease these out; they are common, everyday experiences. Archetypal thinking has a habit of essentializing these qualities in unhelpful and potentially harmful ways. People speak, therefore, of their “masculine side” and their “feminine side.” Why do that? Why not just talk about being kind, loving, caring, cruel, domineering, or what have you? Why codify and classify these qualities as masculine or feminine, and why universalize them? They are simply human qualities. Classifying in this way seems a tad 19th century Germanic to me. Try learning Chinese count words if you need convincing that different cultures classify in different ways: (“things that are flat and useful,” such as bus tickets and dining tables, or “things that are segmented,” such as bamboo and trains).


Jungians sometimes ask questions such as “what is your favorite color?” or “what is your favorite food?” and then “why?” as a way of probing the archetypal meaning(s) of our experiences. OK. I’m game. I thought about this for a while and came up with cock-a-leekie soup as my favorite dish. Actually I find such a question a bit fatuous. But you can distill it down to something like “what would you like for your last meal?” Cock-a-leekie resonates with me on many levels. I note in reviewing past posts that I’ve often mentioned cock-a-leekie but have never actually given a recipe. Time to change that.

My father, a Scot, was fond of making cock-a-leekie especially at Christmas time, and I learnt how to make it from him (principally by watching). So, it speaks to me of FATHERS AND SONS, FAMILY, and TRADITION. I always make it on Christmas Eve now in memory of the times when my sisters and their families gathered at our house. It is WARM, and COMFORTING. I always feel happy when I sit down to a bowl. It is VERSATILE. I always make gallons at a time and use the broth later as a basis for gravies and stews. It is SIMPLE: simple to make and simple in flavors. It is NOURISHING. You’ve just got to have crusty bread with it, homemade if possible (fresh from the oven), but cock-a-leekie is a complete meal all by itself.

I’ve looked at a ton of recipes in my time (some insisting that prunes are a traditional and essential ingredient – ugh) but they all come down to an archetype.


©Cock-a-Leekie Soup

You’ll need your biggest stock pot. Put a medium sized chicken (3-4 lbs) in and cover with chicken stock. Bring gently to a simmer whilst adding coarsely chopped onions, the tender green parts of several leeks chopped, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, and lashings of freshly ground black pepper (absolutely critical). Skim the scum from the top as it rises, then partly cover and simmer for about an hour (or until the meat is tender but not boiled to death – you want the meat juicy).

Remove the chicken from the broth and set it aside to cool a little before stripping the meat from the bones and cutting in bite sized chunks.

Keep the broth on a simmer and add in the white part of the leeks cut into thick rounds. Let the leeks poach until they are al dente, then add back in the chicken to thoroughly warm through, plus an extra handful of chopped parsley and more black pepper.

Serve piping hot in deep bowls with crusty bread.

Aug 282013


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.

Augustine and his mother

Augustine and his mother

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.

Ancient Hippo today

Ancient Hippo 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.


Shorba Baidha


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
½  lemon
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.

Serves 6