St Augustine—The Early Struggles

In his youth Augustine had no clear sense of direction, but he knew that he wanted the best that life had to offer, and he grasped it with all the strength of his ardent personality. He sought admiration, worldly success, excitement, enjoyment, and he turned a deaf ear to his mother’s anxious advice about sexual morality. Yet in spite of indulging in all the pleasures he could find, he still had an uncomfortable feeling that something was missing, which was not to be found by trying to amass more and more material possessions. So he came to believe that the reason for his restlessness was that he had not yet fallen in love. What he did not realize was that his conception of love was immature; that the whole problem of life is to discover what love really means. What is it that we love when we love another human being? Is it the perishable body, or even the changing personality? If it is, then we are yet children in the art of love, and Love itself will inflict wounds on us in order to help us to grow. And so Augustine’s burning desire to love and have his love returned, found some measure of fulfilment. But he tells us the result in his own words: ‘I also fell in love, which was a snare of my own choosing. My God, my God of mercy, how good you were to me, for you mixed such bitterness in that cup of pleasure. My love was returned, and finally shackled me in the bonds of its consummation. In the midst of my joy I was caught up in the coils of trouble, for I was lashed with the cruel, fiery rods of jealousy and suspicion, fear, anger and quarrels.’

Later on, the same lesson was driven home again when a friend whom he loved dearly and who had been his inseparable companion, died, leaving him unconsolable. He tells us: ‘I lived in misery, like everyone whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last, and then is agonized to lose them.’

But by this time, he was beginning to have a clearer sense of direction. Dimly, in the depths of our being, we all know we have a supreme goal, but we indulge in idle dreams and our memory has to be jolted, and when this happens our whole outlook is changed. In Augustine’s case, what provided the stimulus was a book by Cicero entitled Hortensius, which exhorts the reader ‘to love wisdom, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it and embrace it firmly’. These were the words, he tells us, ‘which excited me and set me burning with fire. …All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm, and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of the eternal truth.’

This was at the age of 19 that the flame of Truth was kindled in his heart, and he never again allowed it to die down. He began to add fuel to it in the form of ceaseless enquiry, and he would not stop until he had found what he sought. We know that he began his search with many limitations. Enslaved by passion, proud of his own penetrating intellect, without as yet the guidance of a traditional path, how far he seemed from his goal. But he was endowed with one precious gift: the spirit of intense enquiry, which was to enable him to overcome all his difficulties.

In the fire of his first enthusiasm, Augustine turned for light to the Scriptures, in this case, the Bible. But he was too raw to be able to appreciate it. It was to take him many years before he was to realize that the highest Truth will always elude one who is not prepared to bow down to it. He said afterwards, if one is willing to become a little child and take the simple food which the Scriptures appear to offer, then one will grow, and in growing perceive that their meaning has grown too; but he was too proud to be a child; he thought himself to be a fully-grown man, and found no nourishment in that which was outwardly humble but inwardly sublime. His critical attitude formed a subtle veil over his understanding.

What disturbed him more than anything else was that he could find no satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. If God, who is all-wise and all-good, is the sole Creator, then how can we account for the presence of evil in the world? Wrestling with this question for many years, Augustine did not realize that it can never be satisfactorily answered on the purely intellectual level. There is an answer, but one has to rise above the intellect to discover it, and this is what a traditional training teaches one to do. But Augustine was still exploring the intellectual realm, and in his perplexity he turned to a philosophical pseudo-religious sect known as the Manichees.

The Manichees provided him with intellectual solutions to his difficulties. To begin with, they said that the Scriptures had been tampered with; this allowed the sect to supply its own explanations. Of course God was not responsible for evil, they said, nor had he a form. He was an infinite substance which was absolute Goodness, but there was another substance opposed to him which was evil, and this had infiltrated part of God’s nature to form the souls of human beings. This evil was for ever imposing itself on humans and forcing them into unrighteous-ness. The Manichees had an elaborate system of science, astronomy and astrology to account for their world view, and held that humans were not responsible for their moral failings; they were imposed from without, by this mass of evil. Nevertheless, they professed to be able to help one to escape from its grasp. This was an attractive doctrine to a young man who was conscious of moral failings and trying to wrestle with his lower nature. So he went on serving the sect, while at the same time living in unrestrained self-indulgence. He had fallen into the error of taking his stand on the ego, yet asserting the purity of his own nature.

According to the non-dual teachings, it is true that our real Self is sinless, but the Self is not the ego, and in this context, the ego is an imposter masquerading as the Self. As long as one is identified with the ego, then one is responsible for its faults; and unless we make conscious efforts to eradicate them, it will hold us firmly in bondage. But Augustine did not realize this. He felt triumphant that he had found a means of refuting what he considered to be the absurd errors of the Scriptures, and he discoursed eloquently on the subject, converting many other young men to his view.

His mother, Monica, who was a simple devotee with burning faith, was distressed by his behaviour, and she pleaded with a Bishop whom she knew to reason with him. The bishop wisely refused on the grounds that Augustine was not yet ripe for instruction, and he advised Monica to ‘leave him alone; just pray to God for him; if he goes on investigating he will discover for himself the fallacies in this teaching.’ And he was right. The powerful spirit of enquiry drove Augustine to ask more and more questions of the Manichees which they could not answer. Whenever he expressed any doubts he was told that Faustus, one of their Bishops renowned for his eloquence, would explain everything. So when at last he heard that Faustus was coming to Carthage, he waited eagerly to see him.

Augustine tells us that although the Manichees kept dinning their motto, ‘Truth and Truth alone’, into his ears:

I was beginning to discriminate between mere eloquence and the real Truth which I was so eager to learn. …I wanted to see what scholarly fare he (Faustus) would lay before me, and did not care what words he used to garnish the dish.

Then followed a great disillusionment. Faustus was charming, and a great speaker, but when it came to answering Augustine’s penetrating questions, he was honest enough to admit that he had no knowledge of science and could not justify any of the Manichees’ fantastic theories about the physical universe.

Augustine was shattered. He had been with this sect for over ten years, and now at last he realized that the supreme wisdom was not to be found there. He had already rejected the teaching of the Church. Where was he to turn now? In despair, he tried to discover how far reason alone could take him, and he began to study the arguments of the academic philosophers. But the sceptical conclusions that they came to, that nothing could be known for certain, were hardly likely to appeal to one who was inflamed with the desire for Truth. He just could not understand what they meant, for he felt certain there are many things we do know: even if we doubt, we at least know that we are doubting; even if we do not know what objects are, we at least know how they appear.

It was at this critical period of his life that Augustine came in contact with a great spiritual figure at Milan, the Bishop Ambrose. At first Augustine listened to his sermons purely out of interest in rhetoric, not at all for their spiritual content; nevertheless their meaning found its way into his heart. Subdued as he was by his past failures, and hungry for Truth, he was now in a receptive state. Gradually he began to recognize that the absurd errors he had attributed to the teaching of the Church existed only in his own imagination, and he bitterly reproached himself for never having taken the trouble to find out exactly what was taught. Ambrose made him see that the statements he had misunderstood were not to be taken literally, but in a spiritual sense. God had indeed made man in His own image, but this did not mean that God had a human form; it emphasized the spiritual nature of man.

Augustine abandoned his despair, and his hopes began to soar. Perhaps, after all, the Church was a true guide. But he hardly dared to believe it. He said he was like a man who, having once experienced a bad doctor, is loth to commit himself into the care of another without absolute proof of his integrity. But when he reflected he recognized how unreasonable this attitude was. There are some things, he concluded, for which no proof is possible, and even if there were, not everyone would be capable of understanding it. Furthermore we do accept countless things in life without proof, on the testimony of others, facts of history, and geography, and even our own parentage. Surely then we ought to be prepared to accept the guidance of the Scriptures without proof, since countless people of all ages have testified as to their validity? So he felt somewhat reassured, in spite of all the problems which still harassed him.

As he could find no opportunity of questioning Ambrose about them, he turned to his own mind and asked himself, what did he believe? Well, first of all, that God existed, he had no doubt about it, that He was the Creator and Governor of all, and that He was supremely good. And then, he said, he understood that God must be unchangeable, because he knew the unchangeable to be superior to that which changes. He practised what is called in Yoga, vichara, deep reflection, and the conclusion he came to was that God’s nature was infinite and immortal. He tells us that he took his stand on this truth, in order to drive away all the vain imaginings which crowded in upon him.

But he still could not imagine what infinite, spiritual substance could be. He could only think of it extended in space. He says: ‘My wits were so blunt… that I thought that whatever had no dimensions in space must be absolutely nothing at all. For my mind ranged in imagination over shapes and forms such as are familiar to the eye, and I did not realize that the power of thought, by which I formed those images, was itself something quite different from them, and yet it could not form them unless it were itself something, and something great enough to do so.’

And so he thought of God to the best of his ability, as infinite, immutable, subtle like space, pervading all things and ruling them from within. He said he imagined the whole of creation as a kind of huge sponge existing in God who was an infinite ocean, and he dwelt continually on this thought. In the light of his higher knowledge he criticizes his blindness at that time. ‘How could God be outwardly extended like that?’, he asks. If it were so, then those things which have a larger volume would be pervaded by a larger share of God. But it is not so. He is present in each thing, both great and small, in His entirety, but not in the way he then thought. He had grasped the idea of God’s immanence in His creation, but not yet of His transcendence. Nevertheless, no-one can doubt that this meditation which he practised for so long on the infinite, all-pervasive presence of God, was all the time maturing his understanding and preparing it for vision. All concepts are bound to be inadequate until this point is reached. Augustine’s enquiry was so intense that he could rest at nothing short of vision.

The turning point came when he realised that what he had all this time been searching for without, was to be found within. In his search, he had lost sight of his own self: ‘Where was I when I looked for you? You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted even my own self. I could not find myself, much less find you.’ If one is looking for a king, surely, although the whole kingdom is his, one will first locate his palace. And if one is seeking for God, one must first go to the highest part of His creation. Augustine had been feasting his eyes on the beauty of the world around him, seeking for the Lord who abides within all, but he had forgotten the highest part of His creation, man himself; this is where to find His palace. But what part of man? Not the body, nor the senses, although even they are superior to the outer world, because they are able to perceive it. Higher than the senses is the mind to which they give their reports; and higher than the mind is reason, which judges the reports. But there must be something even superior to reason. ‘What light was shone on my reason when it proclaimed for certain that that which is immutable is superior to that which changes?’, asks Augustine. It must have been something above reason, because all that is below it is subject to change. So it was there that he must look for his Lord: he had to go inwards, within his own self, withdraw the mind progressively, far from sense impressions, away from its own inner clamour, beyond reason, back to the very Light which animates it until, as he tells us ‘in the flash of one trembling glance it attained to THAT WHICH IS’.

Under your guidance, I entered into the depths of my soul, and this I was able to do because your aid befriended me. I entered, and with the eye of my soul… I saw the Light that never changes… What I saw was something quite, quite, different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind…It was above me because it was itself the Light that made me, and I was below because I was made by it. All who know the truth know this Light, and all who know this Light know eternity.

And then follows a statement which might easily have come from a writer on Vedanta. He recognized that God alone is real, and whatever reality there is in finite objects comes from Him. He says: ‘They are real in so far as they have their being from you, but unreal in the sense that they are not what you are. For it is only that which remains in being without change that truly is’. The Vedantin would say that it is the changing finite forms alone which are unreal, but their essence is real and abiding, for it is God.

And now, at last, Augustine’s vision had resolved for him the problem of evil. He saw that it was not a substance but rather the negation of what is real. From the absolute standpoint it does not exist—God alone is real and He is supremely good and so is His creation considered as a whole, for it is controlled by His harmony and there is nothing external which can disturb it. It is only when we consider individual things as real in themselves that the question of metaphysical evil arises. As for moral evil, this is the turning away of the soul from God towards non-being. God alone is true Being and perfect harmony; the good of the soul lies in cleaving to Him completely. As soon as it turns away, it tends to unreality and disorder.

Was Augustine now cleaving to God? He tells us:

I was astonished that although now I loved you and not some phantom in your place, I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight, and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world.

But here again, because his hunger was so great, the response came, this time through the writings of St Paul. It was from him that he learnt the need to transcend the false limitation of the individual ego. He had the insight to recognise his own pride in spiritual knowledge and his desire to be considered wise. And still the struggle with his earthly nature went on. He said he was like a man who was trying to wake up but could not, and kept slipping back into the comfortable warmth of sleep, although he knew it was time he was up and enjoying his freedom. And all the time the Lord within him was calling: ‘Awake you who sleep and rise from the dead and I will give you light’, but he kept replying drowsily: ‘Soon’, ‘Presently’, ‘Let me wait a little longer’.

Then follows in the Confessions a description of how he was brought face to face with the crookedness of his own heart and how he was led, through the uncovering of more light in his own being, to see last the triviality of all he had renounced, and the misery of the restless heart which has not found rest in God.


This article is from the Summer 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.