St Augustine: Philosophy In An Hour

‘I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lasciviousness. I ran wild with lust, the abominable things I did: rank depravity, a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Bodily desire like a bubbling swamp and virile sex welling up within me exuded mists…’ St Augustine was a sex maniac. Or so he would have us believe. His famous Confessions contain page after page in which he castigates himself for being ‘the vilest slave of evil passions’ and indulging in ‘the filth of lewdness, hell’s black river of lust’. But the expectant reader turns the pages with increasing disappointment as he searches for actual examples of ‘this crazed wantonness’. So we don’t know exactly what Augustine was up to in the fleshpots of Carthage.

st augustineBut there’s no denying that Augustine had a problem with sex. He had a strong sexual urge and probably enjoyed sex when he was actually doing it. But he was also possessed of an extremely strong mental desire to stay chaste. A few sessions with an understanding analyst would probably have defused the problem – but this would have robbed philosophy of its greatest exponent in almost one and a half millennia. When Augustine arrived on the scene, six hundred years had passed since the death of Aristotle; after Augustine died, it was nearly eight hundred years before the appearance of Thomas Aquinas.

I was indeed a great sinner

Augustine was born in 13 November 354 C.E. in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia (now Souk Ahras in the northeastern hinterland of Algeria). His parents appear to have been a rather boozy middle-class couple. But his hard-drinking father Patricius developed alcoholic symptoms of emotional disintegration in the form of obsessive womanising and violent outbursts. Whereupon Augustine’s mother Monica turned to religion, forswore the demon drink, and transformed her frustrations and disappointments into ambitions for her son.

We know a fair amount about Augustine’s youth from the descriptions in his Confessions. From the outset Monica appears to have overwhelmed little Augustine, though at no point does Augustine venture a word against his mother, whose obsessive puritan Christianity pervades the book from page one. ‘Who can recall to me the sins I committed as a baby?’ Augustine asks, castigating himself for crying for his mother’s milk. ‘I was indeed a great sinner,’ he comments, without irony, on his early dislike of lessons at school.

Self-laceration

st augustineThen, as a teenager, he really goes off the rails. Together with pals from school, he steals the fruit from a pear tree. As a result of this vile iniquity, Augustine indulges in an orgy of self-laceration which continues to the end of the chapter (‘foul soul falling from the firmament to expulsion… into the depths of the abyss,’ and so on). He then continues in the same fashion for another six chapters before ending: ‘Can anyone unravel this twisted tangle of knots? I shudder to look at it or think of such abomination.’ What on earth is this all about? Readers of a psychological bent may find symbolic overtones in the young lad ‘shaking down the fruit from the tree’, but this would be a shallow and uninformative explanation. The real villain of the piece here was definitely Mom.

There is no doubt that Monica ruled the family’s home life. She even managed to persuade the hapless Patricius to convert to Christianity, almost certainly in a fit of alcoholic remorse, the year before he died. And when it became apparent that young Augustine had inherited some of his father’s unspeakable habits, he was banished from the family home. But only briefly: Monica did not wish to let him out of her clutches.

Meanwhile Augustine continued to wrestle with his problem. In despair he would even occasionally turn to God, imploring him in touching fashion, ‘Lord, give me chastity – but not yet.’ He didn’t want God to ‘cure me too soon of the disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not quelled’.

Read more in St Augustine: Philosophy In An Hour by Paul Strathern, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60.