Crises: Identity Crisis und Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)



Today he has become a ubiquitous presence: The manager who risks his family for his career and loses. But did you really think this figure was a modern phenomenon? I will tell you a story from the 4th century AD.


Augustine was born on 13 November 354 in Thagaste, Numidia. His family had climbed the first steps towards an upper-class existence. Daddy was a rich landowner and, as such, he could afford the very best schooling for his son.


Then as now education was the key to success. A career in the Roman Empire was only possible for those who had studied Rhetoric at the most renowned universities. Back then much more was subsumed under rhetoric than it is today. It was not just the art of giving a captivating speech. Studying rhetoric implied acquiring comprehensive general knowledge. A rhetorician knew the most important works of the literary past by heart. He knew about history and geography. He had learnt how to address his vis-à-vis correctly and smoothly moved in the highest circles of society. A well-educated rhetorician had mastered everything you needed to make a career in the Roman administration and climb the ladder of success to the very top. 


Young Augustine was smart. He was a fast learner. And still knew how to enjoy life. He found himself a girlfriend. And since there was enough paternal money to start a family he made her his concubine. 


Concubinage was nothing dishonourable at the time. It was a precisely defined legal status. Something like a second-rate marriage. Legionaries took concubines since it was forbidden by the law to enter into marriage during the time of service in the legion. The military diplomas that we know from our museums are nothing other than a written permission to get married properly at last. Even high-ranking officials occasionally took women to be their concubines if a fully valid marriage was denied them for legal reasons. 


It is safe to assume Augustine was happy with his concubine. They had a son together. And while they watched him grow up, his proud father was unstoppable on his career path. In 384 Augustine was called to Milan, where the Imperial Court resided. And there the ambitious careerist was faced with a crucial choice: Should or should he not get baptised? 


As this story happened, the ruling emperor, Valentinian II, was a fanatic Christian … as all high-ranking officials were by then. While there were still countless pagans among landowners and at the universities, baptism was a requirement for those wanting to join the upper ranks of political power.


Augustine knew this but was unable to make a decision. So his mother came to Milan and gave him hell. Her son had potential, her son was to make a career. So he had to do what was necessary. Get a baptism. No question about it. Off you go to the religious studies class. That was the usual procedure before the baptism. And a rich wife could only be beneficial for the career. Unfortunately Constantine I had forbidden to be in a marriage and a concubinage simultaneously. So his worthy mother got rid of the concubine and replaced her with a fiancé from back home, befitting Augustine’s rank. She was rich, a Christian, and only 10 years old.


With her 10 years the girl was too young to marry, even by Roman standards. So Augustine had to wait. He dutifully went to study with the leading theologians in Milan, occasionally got himself a lover to fill his empty bed, and lost himself deeper and deeper in an existential crisis.


Because suddenly Augustine realised what he had done. He had been so happy with his concubine. His heart still belonged to her. But now she had disappeared from his life. Augustine was facing the question if the career had been worth it. And all of a sudden nothing mattered anymore.


Augustine quit. He didn’t want to have a career any longer. What did it mean to him to administer a global empire? From now on he dedicated his life to a higher purpose. He received the baptism and made it his sole life’s purpose to serve Christ. So he became one of the most prominent theologians in Ecclesiastical History. The Catholic Church worshipped him as a Doctor of the Church.

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