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When I was much younger, I worked for a few months at The Villa Maria Mission Hospital near Masaka on the western shores of Lake Victoria. Every evening, I had dinner in the refectory with ‘the white fathers’, who ran the mission. Sustained by delicious African food and the local beer, we shared views on life and the state of the world. One evening, the conversation switched to sex. I tried to justify the fact that I was still in an early ‘experimental’ stage of sexual relations with young ladies and not inclined to ‘go steady’.  I explained that, although not a catholic, part of me felt drawn to a contemplative, monastic existence. My companion turned to me and somewhat ruefully commented, ‘You remind me of Saint Augustine; you want to be good but not yet.’

That made me curious. Who was this kindred spirit and why was he a saint? I thought little more about it until this week’s episode of In Our Time on Radio 4 when Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.

Augustine was brought up in the Roman province of Numidia in what is now Algeria in the 4th century AD. His was a typical Roman colonial family of freed slaves. His father was a merchant; his mother a Berber, but deeply religious and fiercely ambitious for her son. He had a good education, studying Latin, rhetoric, grammar and logic. He learnt how to deliver speeches and wrote a good many letters. ‘I lie for a profession’, he once declared.

‘Confessions’ was perhaps his most famous work, in which he acknowledged not only the hedonism of his youth but also his long term relationship with a concubine, who bore him a son. This was a different world: at that time young Roman men were expected to gratify their sexual desires with slaves, who were often willing partners since they derived benefits from the relationship. Although Augustine explains that the relationship started with an act of lust, he became devoted to his mistress.  He nevertheless abandoned her in order to marry and obtain a dowry that would allow him to advance in his career and perhaps obtain a provincial governorship.  His designated fiancé was just ten years old and Augustine had to wait until she was 12 before they could marry. Although he satisfied his lust with another concubine, his heart was no longer in it and he gave up all three women for a life of chastity and devotion to God.

In what now might seem an intellectual defence, born of guilt, Augustine wrote of how the the divine spark, the purity of a relationship with God, is corrupted by the appetites and desires of the body. This led to his notion of original sin; the notion that man is born fallible, but can be redeemed, not necessarily by repentance and discipline, but by the grace of God, the arbitrary nature of which was beyond man’s understanding.

At the time, Christians expected that Jesus would return; after all, hadn’t he promised he would? The fact that he didn’t suggested they were irredeemably bad, which coincided  with the notion of original sin, but Augustine suggested that there was no real evil in the world, only human weakness; a rupture of the will.  Sexual desire was part of human nature, which was inevitably flawed. People were all too ready to submit to their own desires and turn their back on God. Augustine confessed his human weakness, but was never certain he had received the grace of God.

Augustine’s Confessions included a detailed discussion of how he stole pears from an orchard when he was a very young boy, explaining how he was not hungry, nor did he particularly like pears; in fact he threw them to the pigs.  No, he just wanted to experience the thrill of transgression – being naughty, but he recognised that if he could steal pears, he could also steal land or countries; there was no moral difference.  Adam and Eve lost paradise because they disobeyed God, followed their own will and stole the apple. The trivial act of stealing fruit was a metaphor for something much more important.

Augustine’s conversion to Catholicism occurred after he met Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Ambrose introduced Augustine to the philosophy of The Neoplatonists and he begin to contemplate on the inner world rather than the outer world. He concluded that God was real but immaterial all at the same. The same might apply to the concept of the mind. He also preached that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. It was a series of allegories; lessons on human nature.

I wonder how Augustine’s philosophy would have been received by our current secular society.  It seems that the extended metaphor of the Bible would have included the deity; the; the immaterial human mind transposed for God. Existential concepts such as sin, guilt and shame have been encultured in us by upbringing.  Childhood and adolescence may be seen as a process of increasing socialisation, a time when we adopt the mores of the culture. Transgression does not offend against God, it offends against our own nature and is punished by feelings of unworthiness and depression.

But how might we equate sexual freedom with fidelity? Augustine’s prayer, ‘grant me chastity and continence but not yet’, seems a pragmatic solution, that identifies him as a human being, with all the virtues and faults that entails. We might all identify with that. As long we can behave in a way that does not undermine cultural values by exploiting or harming others, we may accept and live with ourselves without conflict and guilt.  After all, Augustine has been there before us and survived.