Reflecting on St. Augustine 1,591 years after his death

Remembering the life and work of a bygone genius—and to celebrate him, a FREE second course for you to give to a friend if you enroll today!

Gracious reader,

Today, we’ll explore:

  • Reflections on St. Augustine 1591 years after his death

  • Why we’re reading him in Five classic works that will change your life!

  • TODAY ONLY: To celebrate Augustine’s life, I’m offering a FREE second course for you to give to a friend if you enroll today!

Reflections on St. Augustine 1591 years after his death

St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy.

He was born in what is now Algeria in 354 AD, and he died on this day—August 28th—in Hippo Regius, the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria, in 430 AD.

It is difficult to overstate Augustine’s influence on those who came after him, especially in the realms of philosophy, theology, psychology, and many, many other disciplines. It is for this reason that we are reading what is among St. Augustine’s most important works, his Confessions, for the Civic Renaissance course, Five classic works that will change your life, starting next week!

(Today only, to celebrate the life of St Augustine, we are offering a FREE second course for you to give to a friend to anyone who enrolls today!)

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Today, we’re going to focus on two aspects of Augustine’s life that offer important lessons for us today: the importance of The Great Conversation, and the secrets to a robust intellectual life—friendship and leisure.

Background: In the footsteps of St. Augustine

Though Augustine’s mother was religious throughout his life, in Confessions Augustine explains that his early years of adulthood were consumed by a life of debauchery.

It was during this period, in 384 A.D., that Augustine moved form North Africa to Milan begin a post teaching rhetoric. Crucially, it was also there that he heard the preaching of the renowned St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

One day a couple years later, Augustine was minding his own business when he heard the voice of a small child say “Tolle lege, tolle lege,” Latin for take up and read, take up and read.

When Augustine heard this voice, he opened his bible and began to read the first passage his eyes fell on.

He read from Romans 13:13–14, which states, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

He felt convicted and remorseful for his life of selfishness and depravity. That moment marked his conversation to Christianity. He resolved to live a life of morality and integrity in the Christian faith.

Thus began his life, newly transformed in Christ. As he reflected on his conversion in his Confessions,

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; beauty, so ancient and so new. And behold, Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee. Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.

Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.

Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispell my blindness. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. For Thyself Thou hast made us,

And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease. Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.

—Confessions, X.27

SIDE NOTE: Underneath the beautiful Duomo in Milan is an active archeological site excavating the ruins of the original fourth-century church in Milan, which is open for visitors. Amazingly, this site includes the church’s original baptistry: This means you can stand in the precise place where St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose. Thanks to Confessions, we know the significance of this place with a high degree of certainty, which—especially for an ancient historical site—makes this a very, very special place.

Augustine and the Great Conversation

Augustine is an essential figure in the Great Conversation, the iterative dialogue—the debate, even—of those who have come before us about the big questions in life. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the best way to live?

Augustine shows us the importance of having a solid grounding in the Great Conversation, which is precisely the purpose of Civic Renaissance’s course, Five classic books that will change your life.

Last month, I spent time with my family following in the footsteps of the great men and women who built our world, an idea that I plan to turn into a future book.

As part of our pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Augustine, we visited a small town in Northern Italy just south of Lake Como called Cassago Brianza.

This is an important place for St. Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual development.

In the months leading up to when he was to be baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan, St. Augustine—along side his mother and some close friends—retreated to a villa in Cassago Brianza, owned by a another one of his friends.

The villa in Cassago Brianza at which Augustine spent time was called the Cassiciacum. I visited the place where scholars and locals believe the original Cassiciacum existed, which was a very special experience.

SIDE NOTE: View the video above, which documents our visit and shows the serene surroundings of the original Cassiciacum.

Augustine was a neo-platonist—meaning he was greatly influenced by Plato via other writers, namely Plotinus. And you can see the influence of Plato throughout Augustine’s work. For example, Augustine’s Confessionswhich is our fourth book in Five classic books that will change your life—is essentially all about the examined life. Augustine surveys his conscience and explores the motivations for his actions at great length. He is deeply introspective because he believed that an essential way to know God was to intimately know oneself.

Augustine strove to understand his weaknesses and shortcomings so that he could better live a life of meaning and virtue and happiness.

Augustine was influenced by Plato—a figure who is near the beginning of our record of the Great Conversation—but then Augustine himself went on to influence virtually all philosophers who came after him, even those who disagreed with him—St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Kant, and so many others.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., for example studied Augustine and quoted him in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I would agree with St. Augustine,” Luther writes, “that an unjust law is no law at all.”

Augustine is an essential figure in the Great Conversation. We can understand him only if we understand those (especially Plato) that came before him. And we can fully understand those that came after him, including seminal figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—only if we know and understand Augustine.

In so many ways Augustine exemplifies why it is important to be familiar with The Great Conversation, and why the ideas of those that came before us matter deeply to us today.

Augustine’s secrets to a life well lived: friendship and leisure

Augustine’s time at Cassago Brianza reveals two secrets to the life well lived.

First, friendship.

Augustine retreated to the Cassiciacum with the people who were closest to him. It gave him a chance to reflect on who he was in light of his conversion experience—which of course represented a radical reorientation of his loves and values.

And he knew that it was important that this reflection happen in the context of conversations with others. After all, “It is not good for man to be alone,” says the book of Genesis in Hebrew Bible. And “A person becomes a person through others,” states the African proverb of Ubuntu.

Second, leisure.

For Augustine, the Cassiciacum represented a place of retreat, solitude, and leisure. We’ve explored the Greek concept and word for leisure—schole, the root of our modern word for school—but the Latin word for leisure that Augustine would have used was otium.

And on this point the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a treatise called De Otio, which explains how and why we should use our leisure time well—we’ll have a chance to explore this work in future issues of Civic Renaissance!

Cicero offered insightful reflections on otium as well: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” he wrote.

Leisure—unstructured time to think, read, and write deeply about big questions and the most important things—is an essential ingredient to the intellectual life, and to the life well-lived.

Augustine reminds us of that—as does Cicero—which is why we are reading works from each of these important authors in Five classic works that will change your life!

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Lexi