The effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not seek a wife…
Augustine. Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 153-154. (viii.xii.30)
In the era of electronic media and the ascendency of musical rock stars into the popular imagination, it is difficult to appreciate the famous conversion of St. Augustine. However this event is celebrated in frescoes and books throughout the Western Civilization. This is not the Billy Graham Christian conversion: public repentance, confession, and a statement of belief.
If one is to take Augustine’s words seriously, one must recognize this conversion was not in terms of a Protestant born again experience, but this conversion was a purification resembling the Neoplatonic purification: “The effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not now seek a wife and had no ambition for success in this world.” To “not seek a wife” is a commitment to celibacy not an admission of guilt, repentance toward God, and belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, may be described as a manual on Platonic purification. The first seven chapters represents the struggle against sexual desire, the nemesis of Platonic purification. Chapter eight is the accomplishment of his goal. The final chapters are his self-congratulation on his success.
The goal of purification is to become like God in order to see God. The practitioner expects to see God in his mind at the end of the ascent. The ascent is a meditative process, removing oneself from the distractions of physical life and seeing God with you mind. The name ascent refers to the Platonic metaphysical system of the pagan philosophers. God is at the top of the “ladder”, all creation is an ordered descent from the top. In order to reach God, it is necessary to ascend the ladder. Ascent is only possible through a process of purification.
The Neoplatonist believed the body is vile needing purification from the sexual appetite:
What desire there may be can never be for the vile; even the food and drink necessary for restoration will lie outside of the Soul’s attention, and not less the sexual appetite: FIRST ENNEAD II. 7,8
Both of the pagan religions to which Augustine committed himself; Manichaeism and Neoplatonism disdained sexual intercourse. The hearers of their religion, those on the fringes, could practice sex but the elect were to refrain from sex. Augustine would never rise to the level of the elect in either false religion. To Augustine, it is Catholicism which triumphs over both Manichaeism and Platonism precisely because it is superior to them.
Augustine was a Manichaean from 372 to 383 but being a very religious person he was unable to become one of the elect Manichaeans. The lower class of Manichaeans were auditors or hearers in the Manichaean assembly. The higher class of Manichaeans were the Elect Saints. The Elect, were committed to a life of poverty and celibacy. The Elect were strict vegetarians, did not consume alcoholic drinks and did not harvest or prepare foods. Mani believed damaging plants by harvesting was murder. This sect had always frustrated Augustine because he could not deny his sexual desires and refrain from sex.
After his Manichean period Augustine became a follower of Neoplatonism. In his Platonist period he was again frustrated by his desire for sex. The religious practice of the Neoplatonists was the ascent. After a period of purgation and purification, a person was to look inward to see God. Of course this purification included abstinence from sex. The religious discipline and promise of rewards of either the Manichees or the Platonists were not adequate for Augustine to control his sexual desires.
Augustine desparately decribes his addiction to sexual pleasure in the Confessions. It is this addiction which will separate him from the true union with God in the Platonic ascent.
I thought I would become very miserable if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman.
Augustine. Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106. (vi.xiii.20)
This struggle against his sexual nature is so intense he becomes physically ill with his struggle and inflicts punishment against his own body. As a casual observer it is impossible not appreciate the humor of this situation. Paul recognizes the sexuality of the believer and has a simple solution. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:9) This is the Christian answer and solution, but the Catholic and pagan solution is to embrace celibacy:
Finally in the agony of hesitation I made many physical gesture of the kind men make when they want to achieve something and lack the strength… I tore my hair, if I struck my forehead, If I intertwined my fingers and clasped my knee…
Augustine. Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 147. (viii.ix.20)
What is overlooked in the humor of the situation and the seriousness which Catholic and Lutheran theologians view his predicament is that celibacy is not a requirement, not a preference or even a suggestion of Christian conversion.
I had set my face toward which I was afraid to move, there appeared the chaste and dignified Lady Continence… enticing me in an honorable manner… but once more it was as if she said “Stop your ears to your impure members on earth and mortify them.”
Augustine. Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 152. (viii.xi.27)
Only Augustine could get away with this awful metaphor. Celibacy is personified as a seductress who woes him away from sex. It is not enough to just to abstain from sex but your sexual members must be rendered dead. Exactly what is Augustine being converted from and to? Apparently Augustine was successful in being seduced by chastity and mortifying his members.