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Augustine: Searching for Truth and Wisdom

Lawrence W. Reed

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


To write about a man known chiefly as a theologian — a bishop in the early Catholic Church, no less — might suggest at first a discourse on religious issues. Augustine of Hippo (later canonized as “St. Augustine”) was unquestionably a giant of Christian thought and teaching at the time he wrote in the early fifth century AD. He remains so to this day, among Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well. On matters of salvation, grace, free will, original sin, and “just war,” his brilliant observations continue to spark lively debate throughout Christendom and beyond. He could be regarded as a hero for those contributions alone, but those are largely matters for readers to explore and evaluate on their own.

Augustine was a hero because he took charge of his troubled, wayward life and transformed it. Then, once committed to the highest standards of personal conduct and scholarly inquiry, he offered pioneering insights on liberty critical to the development of Western philosophy. One does not have to be a person of any particular faith to learn a great deal from this man who lived over 16 centuries ago. The Roman province of Africa produced a no more consequential figure than Augustine, born in 354 AD in Thagaste, now called Souk Ahras, in modern-day Algeria.

It was a momentous time to be alive. By the fourth century, the old Roman Republic and its liberties had been snuffed out for 400 years, succeeded by the increasingly corrupt, tyrannical, and dysfunctional welfare/warfare state that we know as the Roman Empire. It survived barely another century after Augustine’s birth. He would live to see the Visigoths sack the “Eternal City” of Rome itself in the year 410. Twenty years later, as the Vandals laid siege to Augustine’s own city of Hippo in North Africa, he died at age 75. His life was proof that even as the world you know crumbles into dust, you can still make a difference for the betterment of humanity’s future.

Augustine’s youth was hedonistic and self-centered, in spite of the earnest prayers and intense counseling of his devoutly Christian mother, Monica. His father, a volatile and angry tax collector who converted to Christianity on his death bed, died when his son was a teenager. Augustine’s voracious sexual appetite led him into numerous affairs, which he regretted in later life.

Though a bright student with remarkable rhetorical skills, he found plenty of time to get into trouble. Years later in his magnificent autobiography, The Confessions, he recalled with analytic introspection an incident in which he and some young friends stole pears from a man’s orchard. He did not steal the fruit because he was hungry, he wrote, but purely because “it was not permitted.” Noting this as evidence of his flawed character, he explained, “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error — not that for which I erred, but for the error itself.”

In his twenties, Augustine bought into the cult of Manichaeism, a strange concoction of Christian, Buddhist, Gnostic, astrological, and pagan elements. He also flirted with Neo-Platonism, a school of philosophy drawing heavily from Plato and from one of Plato’s later followers, Plotinus. While Augustine’s mother Monica despaired at her son’s shifting fancies, two encounters — one with a book and one with a man — would ultimately fulfill her hopes and change his life.

The book was Hortensius by the great Roman republican, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Though the text was eventually lost to history, scholars have reconstructed its core message through citations by contemporaries and Augustine himself. According to Robin Lane Fox’s magisterial biography, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, “Cicero defined philosophy as the ‘love of wisdom’ (philo-sophia), words which struck home to his young reader.” It ignited what Augustine termed “an incredible blaze” in his heart for truth and a disdain for pseudo-philosophers, hypocrites, and deceivers. Cicero’s emphasis on acquiring knowledge would play a key role even in Augustine’s sexual life. He concluded that the passions of the flesh were a distraction from his growing love of wisdom, though this was a transition that took a little time. Before becoming a celibate priest in his early thirties, he famously asked God, “Give me chastity … but not yet.”

The other life-altering encounter was with Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who was considered one of the greatest orators in the Roman world. Reflecting on Ambrose’s influence, Augustine credited the bishop as the decisive factor in his own conversion to Christianity. That conversion would dominate his every waking moment in the second half of his life. Before his 40th birthday, it was apparent to contemporaries that, thanks to Cicero and Ambrose and, secondarily, his mother Monica, Augustine had developed a remarkable, searching intellect combined with a deeply Christian conscience. His account of his conversion in The Confessions is a classic of Christian theology and a seminal text in the history of autobiography. It’s been described as “an outpouring of thanksgiving and penitence” and includes observations about the nature of time, causality, free will, and other central topics in philosophy.

Augustine was as prolific and eloquent in his writing as he was in his verbal rhetoric. The Confessions is highly regarded and widely read today, but so is his City of God. He wrote the latter as an encouragement to his fellow Christians in an increasingly violent world. It was a ringing defense of Christianity in the face of erroneous claims that Roman abandonment of the old pagan “gods” was the reason for Rome’s decline. Of special interest to me is that in both books, as well as other writings and sermons, Augustine says things that resonate with lovers of liberty.

Augustine was more than a little skeptical of earthly political power. “The dominion of bad men is hurtful chiefly to themselves who rule,” he said,

for they destroy their own souls by greater license in wickedness; while those who are put under them in service are not hurt except by their own iniquity. For to the just all the evils imposed on them by unjust rulers are not the punishment of crime, but the test of virtue. The good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices.

He did not subscribe to any sort of “divine right” of rulers. Nor did he believe that legislation or decrees should pass unquestioned. “An unjust law is no law at all,” he maintained. To Augustine, government was at best a necessary evil that could only grow more evil the bigger it becomes. In this passage from City of God, he questioned the legitimacy of government itself:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who doest it with a great fleet art styled an emperor.”

Writing for the blog Discourses on Liberty, Will Harvard notes, “the fact that man has dominion over other men is not a product of God’s intended world, but rather the result of sin.”

Augustine argued that a rational creature made in God’s image was meant to have dominion over nature, not over fellow men. At a time when slavery was common and widely viewed as acceptable, declaring it unequivocally sinful was positively bold and refreshing. He even used church funds to purchase the freedom of individual slaves. The scholar from Thagaste also railed against torture and capital punishment. And theft, in his view, was “absolute wickedness” because it violated something sacred: “the law written in our hearts.”

Rome had its own immorality to blame for its decline and vulnerability to invasion, Augustine thundered. He argued that the old pagan gods imparted no morality to their followers in either Rome or Greece. Romans had allowed their personal and civic virtues to erode. If legionnaires failed to prevent the assaults they had once repulsed, it was because Rome was rotten at its core. Lust for power and ill-gotten gain had come to plague a people who once rose to greatness because of honesty, self-discipline, mutual respect, and responsibility. The welfare/warfare state of the late empire was a den of iniquity presided over by a nest of vipers. Why should decline come as a surprise?

Henry Chadwick in Augustine: A Very Short Introduction observes,

With remarkable prescience of what was to come in the West within a generation of his death, Augustine suggested that the world would be a happier place if the great and proud empire were succeeded by a number of smaller states. The kingdom of God had as much room for Goths as for Romans.

Augustine’s language angered imperialist patriots. He was aware that empires come and go. He did not think the Roman empire was doomed, as some contemporary pessimists were saying. Rome would collapse only if the Romans did. People cursed the times they lived in; but (in Augustine’s words) “whether times are good or bad depends on the moral quality of individual and social life, and is up to us.” Each generation, he remarked, thinks its own times uniquely awful, that morality and religion have never been more threatened. He thought it his duty to attack fatalism and to arouse people to a sense of being responsible if things went wrong. They could have a say in what happened next.

Augustine was a man of peace. He urged Christians in particular to engage only in voluntary interactions with themselves and others unless and until a grave wrong required violence to be stopped. His was, in effect, an early defense of self-defense and of a concept now known in libertarian circles as the nonaggression principle.

Of all the virtues of personal character, Augustine reserved the highest praise for one that’s often overlooked in our times, as it may have been in his as well. “Humility,” he asserted, “is the foundation of all the other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” Was he overrating humility? I don’t think so.

Until the 20th century, most cultures held that having too high an opinion of oneself was the root of most of the world’s troubles. Misbehavior — from drug addiction to cruelty to wars — resulted from hubris or pride, a haughtiness of spirit that needed to be deterred or disciplined. The idea that you were bigger or better, or more self-righteous, or somehow immune from the rules that govern others — the absence of humility, in other words, gave you license to do unto others what you would never allow them to do unto you.

These days, however, it’s a different story. Being humble rubs against what millions have been taught under the banner of “self-esteem.” Even as our schools fail to teach us elemental facts and skills, they teach us to feel good in our ignorance. We explain away bad behavior as the result of the guilty feeling bad about themselves. We manufacture excuses for them, form support groups for them, and resist making moral judgments, lest we hurt their feelings. We don’t demand repentance and self-discipline as much as we pump up their egos.

In an extraordinary 2002 article in the New York Times, “The Trouble With Self-Esteem,” psychologist Lauren Slater concluded that “people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”

Augustine, who was quite familiar with the bloviating demagogues of the late Roman Empire, would surely agree.

In the second half of his life, Augustine was keenly focused on truth and wisdom. He knew that a humble person is a teachable person because he’s not so puffed up that his mind is closed. A humble person reforms himself before he attempts to reform the world. A humble person treats others with respect, and that includes other people’s lives, rights, and property. A humble person takes criticism or adversity as an opportunity to grow, to build character. A humble person knows that graduation from formal schooling is not the end of learning but only a noteworthy start of what ought to be a lifelong adventure. Augustine regarded the power-seeking know-it-alls of his day the same way that the Austrian economist and Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek saw “central planners” more than 15 centuries later: as dangerous fools armed with a “pretense of knowledge.”

Augustine deeply influenced leading figures in the world for centuries: men and women such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, Russell Kirk, Hannah Arendt, and a long list of popes, preachers, philosophers, and politicians.

But even in his day, Augustine inspired appreciation from unlikely quarters. Within weeks of his death in 430, the Vandals lifted their siege of Hippo but returned shortly thereafter to burn the city to the ground. They spared only two buildings: Augustine’s cathedral and his library.

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