People living within the Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries embraced some ideas which would largely seem foreign to us today. These ideas are relatively unknown to us in the 21st century, but they played a large role in the life of our Top Theologian: Augustine. In order to appreciate Augustine, we need to appreciate his world.
Cicero (106-43BC) was one of the greatest of the Roman orators. Many of his works are today lost to history. We know one of his books named Hortensius was popular during the time of Augustine. Cicero offered to the Romans a worldview.
Cicero wrote about happiness. He said everyone seeks happiness. In the life-long quest for happiness he observed most people tried to find pleasure through food, drink and sex.
Happiness, however, is not found in a self-indulgent life of pleasure, which merely destroys both self-respect and true friendships.1 He observed people seeking happiness through indulgent pleasures ended up with a miserable life. Most people in his world, he observed, ended up with a miserable life. Cicero thought this misery possibly came from some sort of divine judgment.
Cicero, through refreshingly plain language, advocated a different way to seek happiness. To find happiness one should live a highly principled and aesthetically pleasing life. Happiness will come through a rigorous program of self-discipline and self-improvement. The wise man was someone who trained his head to rule his heart and physical passions in order to live a humble and objective life.2
Humility, discipline and selflessness replaced the Roman dream of self indulgence. The thoughts of Cicero would rock Augustine’s world.
Along with the thoughts of Cicero, a new flavor of Christianity spread through the Roman world during the time of Augustine. Its founder, Mani, also offered the Romans a worldview.
Mani was born around 216AD in the area of modern-day Iran. He called himself an “Apostle of Jesus Christ.” He claimed to have unique secret information about the nature of God, humanity and the universe. In actuality, Manichaeism was a Persian adaptation of Christianity, which added in Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, speculative philosophy and superstition.3
According to Mani, the human predicament is the presence in each of us of two principles. One, which he calls “light,” is spiritual. The other, “darkness,” is matter.4 The kingdom of darkness has been fighting to defeat the light. In every human being these two principles have mixed together. Every human is so mixed with these principles that everything from the waist down is considered part of the kingdom of darkness. Everything from the waist up is the kingdom of light. Sex is not allowed for a Mani. It only contributes to the furthering of the kingdom of darkness.
Salvation consists in separating the two elements, and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed.5 According to Mani, this doctrine had been revealed in various fashions to a long series of prophets, including Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mani himself.6
A great deal of Romans jumped on board with the ideas of Mani. Followers of Mani lived lives of extreme self-denial. Mani would have an extreme influence in the life and world of Augustine.
A third popular person of the day offering the Romans a worldview was a man named Plotinus. Plotinus (205-270AD) started a school of philosophy in Rome which became a hub of intellectual activity. Knowles talks about this fascinating man:
Plotinus lived an ascetic life with very little food or sleep. He ate only vegetables and never took a bath. His own body and person seem to have been of little interest to him, as though he were living as independently of them as possible.7
Plotinus rediscovered the teachings of Plato. Many actually believed him to be a reincarnation of Plato. He is known as the father of a movement of ideas called Neo-Platonism. Neoplatonism was very popular at the time of Augustine.
Neoplatonism disagreed with the worldview of Mani. It taught there was only one principle in the universe. There is not a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. There is, so to speak, only one kingdom. This kingdom is ruled by the One, the source of all things.
Reality is like the concentric circles that appear on the surface of the water when hit by a pebble. The realities of life that are closer to the One, the center, are superior. Evil then does not originate from a different source, but consists simply in moving away from the One.8 The miserable life described by Cicero is seen by the Neo-Platonists as people living in the outer circles away from the One.