Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste - now re-named Souk-Ahras, Algeria, the third child of Monica and Patritius. He had an older brother, Navigius, and at least one sister. Monica his mother was almost certainly a Berber(Amazigh) and his father was probably a mixture of Berber and Roman ancestry. Monica was a fervent Catholic Christian while Patritius remained a good-natured pagan for most of his life, perfectly willing to let Monica take care of the religious training of the children. From her Augustine learned about Christianity as a child. He was, however, never baptized. This was in accord with the normal practice of the day of putting off Baptism until the adolescent days of sowing wild oats were over. There is some indication that Augustine was still intermittently going to Christian exercises in his late teens, but it seems clear that he was far from serious about any religion in those days, consumed more by ambition and bodily desires.
Augustine grew up in middle class surroundings. Patritius had a small family estate and worked as a minor government bureaucrat, a position of some respect but little income. He was able to provide the necessities of life for his family but he had trouble providing funds for the education of the children. It would seem that Augustine was the only one provided with much of a formal education. Patritius and Monica shared a common dream that their precocious child would bring honor to the family by being successful in some noble career.
The child gave promise of such success. He was very bright and ambitious and headstrong. As a child he wanted to have his own way and cried loudly when he did not get it. He did well at his studies but did not like school all that much. He had an insatiable desire to know things but he also liked to play ball and to go to shows and for these last ventures he was beaten often. He did not seem to relish being a child. When he was in his 40's he was able to look back and thank God for the good things he experienced in his growing up (Confessions, 1.20) but he also ruefully observed that any sensible person, given the choice between doing it over again or dying, would surely choose death. (City of God, 21.14)
Since the boy Augustine had strong Berber roots, he may have been of swarthy complexion (although O'Meara is of the opinion that it is unlikely that he was any darker than the average Roman of the day). We do know from his physical remains that he was not very tall. He seems that he was somewhat physically frail. A stomach ailment almost killed him when he was a boy and a terrible fever (perhaps malaria) brought him close to death again when he was in his 20's. He did survive for 76 years but throughout his life he was plagued with asthma, a bad stomach, insomnia, and recurrent fevers. His weak lungs were a factor in his decision to give up teaching when he was still a young man (though this did not stop him from preaching at length without benefit of microphone for forty years in his cathedral church at Hippo). When he was 56 exhaustion did force him to take time off in the country, but he continued with his preaching and teaching and writing thereafter till shortly before his death 20 years later.
Perhaps because of his ailments, Augustine did not have much faith in the medicine of his day. (Cf. Commentary on Psalm 102, 5) Little wonder that he had so much to say about facing up to death. Its possibility was his constant companion, especially as he grew older.
Still, his sometime physical disability did not lessen the vigor of his mind. The young Augustine quickly outgrew the schools in Tagaste and, with the financial support of a family friend (Romanianus), he was shipped off to the neighboring town of Madauros to study grammar and literature. He was in his early teen's, away from home for the first time, and he went a little crazy. He lied to his teachers, stole small things to bribe his way into classmate games, and then cheated and quarreled so that he could win. For all of that he learned easily and was pronounced "a boy of great promise." (Cf. Confessions, 1.19 & 16)
When he was sixteen the money for his education ran out and he was forced to spend a year at home in idleness while his father tried to scrape together the funds to send him on to higher studies in Carthage. Neither his father nor his mother seemed terribly upset by his adolescent frivolity during the idle year. Patritius saw it as a sign of his son's growing "macho" manhood and Monica hoped that it was a way of "getting evil vapors out of his system." She did warn him about any actions (e.g. fornication and adultery) that might jeopardize his future, but there is some hint that he listened politely and then did what he wanted to do. Certainly he traveled with a bad crowd. Augustine admits that he was not the worst of them but he pretended to be the worst by boasting lies about fictional exploits. (Confessions, 2.3) All in all it was a bad year. Augustine wasted his time, Patritius worked overtime, and Monica worried each day about the possible disasters that could destroy her son. The whole family sighed with relief when the funds were accumulated to send Augustine off to Carthage for his "higher education."
At Carthage the seventeen year old Augustine continued his education and his wild behavior. He came in contact with another gang of rowdies (the "Wreckers") dedicated to disrupting classrooms and making life unpleasant for new students. Though Augustine did not approve nor participate in all of the gang's activities, he did value their friendship and lived with them. (Confessions, 3.3) He made good progress in his studies while indulging his passion as much as he could. He describes himself at this time in his life as being
... in love with loving and it was even more delicious when I was able to enjoy the flesh of my love. Confession, 3.1
He did carry on the pretense of religion by going to church sometimes but (as he suggests) his main reason for going was to see girls. (Cf. Confessions, 3.3) He was in fact leading a double life, trying to act in a refined and sophisticated manner while being driven by his physical passions. (Confessions, 3.1) In this pretense he was eminently successful. He was perceived as a young man guaranteed a fine future in public service as long as he did not make some terrible mistake.
It seemed to those around him that he made such a mistake when he fell in love. There is no record of the woman's name but apparently she was the daughter of a freed slave. Formal marriage would thus have been an obstacle to Augustine's career plans, but Augustine apparently truly loved her. He lived with her for eleven years (an extraordinary commitment for those days) and by her had a son, Adeodatus. This ended his leisurely academic life. Now he had to find work to support his family while still pursuing his studies. He was nineteen.
It was about this time that the direction of his academic interests changed. While still pursuing his career in rhetoric, he now (through the influence of Cicero's book Hortensius) became excited about philosophy and its claim to wisdom. From being a manipulator of words he now dreamed of understanding reality. At first he turned to the Bible for answers but found that the stories and language that had so entranced him as a child at the knee of Monica seemed crude and unsophisticated now that he was a student of literature. Like many of his compatriots among the intelligentsia of Carthage he turned to Manichaeism, that mysterious cult from the East that promised both an easy explanation for the wild passions of humans and the phenomena of nature. Augustine was to remain connected with this sect for nine years, at the very end attached more by its political advantage than by any deep-seated conviction.
In 375 Augustine was forced to leave Carthage and return to Tagaste to find work. He was by this time a truly dedicated and proselytizing Manichaean and Monica initially refused to have anything to do with him. Eventually she relented, but Augustine was not destined to stay long in Tagaste under any circumstances. A friend of his died and so overcome was he with grief that fled back to Carthage to escape the places of Tagaste that brought back painful memories of shared experiences. (Confessions, 4.4)
For eight years (376-84) he tried to support his family and further his career in Carthage. It was a difficult period in his life. He was becoming increasingly doubtful about the truth of Manichaeism. For a time he was intrigued by astrology and the writings of magicians but turned away from them also. At 26 he wrote his first book, but no one bought it, a truly depressing experience for one who believes that they have mastered the nature of truth. He was always able to get enough students to support his family, but he found the Carthaginian scholars disruptive. With his weak voice and his tendency to be distracted, Augustine was fair game for young stalwarts more interested in love and wine than logic and wisdom. Indeed, Augustine discovered that there were very few denizens of Carthage with whom he could hold an intelligent conversation. The leaders of the Manichaeans were no better than the novices in providing answers. All in all it was not a propitious place to be, either to pursue his career or to develop his mind. He decided to leave North Africa and go to Rome. Monica was dead-set against his plan. By this time Patritius had died and she had taken as her remaining life-work the conversion of her wandering son. She was certain (considering his past history) that to be alone in pagan city without the protection of family and friends would destroy him. But Augustine had made up his mind and tricked his mother into believing that he would stay while instead he left on the evening tide.
Augustine arrived in Rome without money or a job in 383. He became deathly ill and only survived through the kindness of Manichaean friends. While he had begged for baptism when he was near death as a boy, now as a young man the thought never entered his mind. He thought as a Manichaean, not as a Christian, and was dependent financially and emotionally on his Manichaean companions. Indeed, it was through the recommendation of the Manichaean Symmachus, Prefect of Rome, that in 384 Augustine reached the pinnacle of his secular career. He was appointed professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan, the city of the Imperial Court.
By this time he had given up all belief in the Manichaean doctrines. For a time he lived as a skeptic but found that wanting too. He still had a residual belief in Christ and an intuition that there was something more to being human than being a body. This intuition was confirmed through the influence of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus. Through his reading of the "Platonists" he was able to perceive the intellectual validity of asserting the existence of a world of spirit and of a human soul within which one could possibly even survive death. However, his belief in spirit still did not mean that the spirit controlled his earthy passions. He seemed to have all other aspects of his life under control. His new position in Milan gave him the assured income necessary to support his family. Soon he was joined in Milan by his wife, his son, his mother Monica, his brother Navigius, and assorted cousins and friends.
Meanwhile Augustine was faced with a difficult personal decision. He had reached a point where his career demanded a proper marriage into a respected Roman family. Such a marriage would bring both added finances and added influence at the imperial court. Augustine's love of eleven years was an obstacle. She consented to return to Africa (leaving Adeodatus with Augustine), and Augustine, with the encouragement of his mother (who hoped that the stability of marriage might be a step towards her son's baptism) became engaged to a young daughter of a noble family. However the girl was too young for an immediate marriage and Augustine was unable to wait. He himself describes what happened:
I could not wait patiently for the required two years. I was not a lover of marriage. I was a slave of my lust. And thus I began an affair with another woman. --Confessions, 6.15
Both intellectually and morally he was still a distance from conversion to Christianity. He was in a period of vacuum. The only thing he knew for sure was that he was unhappy. He had nothing to substitute for his long-held Manichaeism but the dream of going off somewhere to seek wisdom with like-minded people. He and some friends took steps to form such a philosophic community but the plan fell apart when they suddenly realized that those who were married would never get the necessary permissions from their wives. (Confessions, 6.14)
Looking at Augustine's life from the outside it seemed that he was about to achieve his goals. But as his professional life became more ordered, his spiritual life had become more and more torn. Under the influence of Ambrose's preaching he was coming to see that the spiritual meaning of the Sacred Scriptures was not as simplistic as he had thought. However the moral challenge of Christianity to change his life was still beyond him. It took almost thirty years for him to come to believe in Catholic Christianity. It took him three more years before he could muster the strength to act on it. Finally, when he was 33 the conversion of his will occurred. He made the decision to give up his bad habits and try to live a moral life. In the Spring of 387 he and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose in Milan. The first part of his restless journey was over.
Augustine spent the last forty years of his life trying to be true to his baptism. He returned to North Africa in 388 and set up a small community of dedicated Christian laymen in Tagaste. Its purpose was the study of Scripture and mutual service while living a life somewhat withdrawn from the hurly-burly of the world. This peace and quiet was not to last very long. In 391 he made the "mistake" (as he calls it) of going to Hippo to interview a candidate for his little community. Seeing him in the church one day, the people demanded that he be ordained their priest. He accepted on the condition that he could continue his community there in Hippo. This he did and from that community he began his service of the people of Hippo. In 395 he was consecrated their bishop and in that position he spent the last 35 years of his life.
They were years of intense activity filled with preaching to his own people every day and teaching through his writings the world of Western Christianity. In the course of those thirty years he combatted (more or less in succession) the powerful challenges of Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism and (at the very end of his life) Arianism. He tried to describe how God works in the individual soul through his Confessions and how God works in history through his City of God. In his voluminous correspondence and smaller books he commented on the events of the day and how a human is meant to cope with them. He tried to understand the origin of the universe through his commentaries on Genesis and tried to understand the destiny of humans through his commentaries on the writings of St. Paul and St. John.
In the midst of these intellectual battles, Augustine witnessed the growing spread of the barbarian invasions which seemed to threaten civilization itself. Rome fell in 410 and soon after the Vandals invaded North Africa. Augustine lived with their threat through the last years of his life, and as he lay dying he could hear the pounding of the barbarian armies at the gates of his beloved Hippo. To a person without faith it could easily have seemed that a lifetime of effort had been wasted. But Augustine was a person of faith and hope and with such support he was able to die happily despite the turmoil in the world outside. His death occurred in 430 in his monastery at Hippo. His contemporary biographer, Possidius, describes the scene as follows:
He died with his body intact. He could still see and hear and his mind was clear to the very end. As we looked on and prayed for him he passed in sleep into the land of his ancestors, well-nourished in good old age. --
Possidius, Life of the Bishop St. Augustine, 31
This summary of Augustine's life and the environment in which he lived is taken from the introduction of Augustine's World: An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy by Donald X. Burt, OSA (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996) and is used with permission.