Augustine gradually became acquainted with Christian doctrine, and in his mind the fusion of Platonic philosophy with revealed dogmas was taking place. The law that governed this change of thought has of late years been frequently misconstrued; it is sufficiently important to be precisely defined. The solitude of Cassisiacum realized a long-cherished dream. In his books "Against the Academics," Augustine has described the ideal serenity of this existence, enlivened only by the passion for truth. He completed the education of his young friends, now by literary readings in common, now by philosophical conferences to which he sometimes invited Monica, and the accounts of which, compiled by a secretary, have supplied the foundation of the "Dialogues." Licentius, in his "Letters," would later on recall these delightful philosophical mornings and evenings, at which Augustine was wont to evolve the most elevating discussions from the most commonplace incidents. The favourite topics at their conferences were truth, certainty (Against the Academics), true happiness in philosophy (On a Happy Life), the Providential order of the world and the problem of evil (On Order) and finally God and the soul (Soliloquies, On the Immortality of the Soul).
Here arises the curious question propounded modern critics: Was Augustine a Christian when wrote these "Dialogues" at Cassisiacum? Until now no one had doubted it; historians, relying upon the "Confessions," had all believed that Augustine's retirement to the villa had for its twofold object the improvement of his health and his preparation for baptism. But certain critics nowadays claim to have discovered a radical opposition between the philosophical "Dialogues" composed in this retirement and the state of soul described in the "Confessions." According to Harnack, in writing the "Confessions" Augustine must have projected upon the recluse of 386 the sentiments of the bishop of 400. Others go farther and maintain that the recluse of the Milanese villa could not have been at heart a Christian, but a Platonist; and that the scene in the garden was a conversion not to Christianity, but to philosophy, the genuinely Christian phase beginning only in 390. But this interpretation of the "Dialogues" cannot withstand the test of facts and texts. It is admitted that Augustine received baptism at Easter, 387; and who could suppose that it was for him a meaningless ceremony? So too, how can it be admitted that the scene in the garden, the example of the recluses, the reading of St. Paul, the conversion of Victorinus, Augustine's ecstasies in reading the Psalms with Monica were all invented after the fact? Again, as it was in 388 that Augustine wrote his beautiful apology "On the Holiness of the Catholic Church," how is it conceivable that he was not yet a Christian at that date? To settle the argument, however, it is only necessary to read the "Dialogues" themselves. They are certainly a purely philosophical work — a work of youth, too, not without some pretension, as Augustine ingenuously acknowledges (Confessions, IX, iv); nevertheless, they contain the entire history of his Christian formation. As early as 386, the first work written at Cassisiacum reveals to us the great underlying motive of his researches. The object of his philosophy is to give authority the support of reason, and "for him the great authority, that which dominates all others and from which he never wished to deviate, is the authority of Christ"; and if he loves the Platonists it is because he counts on finding among them interpretations always in harmony with his faith (Against the Academics, III, c. x). To be sure such confidence was excessive, but it remains evident that in these "Dialogues" it is a Christian, and not a Platonist, that speaks. He reveals to us the intimate details of his conversion, the argument that convinced him (the life and conquests of the Apostles), his progress in the Faith at the school of St. Paul (ibid., II, ii), his delightful conferences with his friends on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the wonderful transformations worked in his soul by faith, even to that victory of his over the intellectual pride which his Platonic studies had aroused in him (On The Happy Life, I, ii), and at last the gradual calming of his passions and the great resolution to choose wisdom for his only spouse (Soliloquies, I, x).
It is now easy to appreciate at its true value the influence of neo-Platonism upon the mind of the great African Doctor. It would be impossible for anyone who has read the works of St. Augustine to deny the existence of this influence. However, it would be a great exaggeration of this influence to pretend that it at any time sacrificed the Gospel to Plato. The same learned critic thus wisely concludes his study: "So long, therefore, as his philosophy agrees with his religious doctrines, St. Augustine is frankly neo-Platonist; as soon as a contradiction arises, he never hesitates to subordinate his philosophy to religion, reason to faith. He was, first of all, a Christian; the philosophical questions that occupied his mind constantly found themselves more and more relegated to the background" (op. cit., 155). But the method was a dangerous one; in thus seeking harmony between the two doctrines he thought too easily to find Christianity in Plato, or Platonism in the Gospel. More than once, in his "Retractations" and elsewhere, he acknowledges that he has not always shunned this danger. Thus he had imagined that in Platonism he discovered the entire doctrine of the Word and the whole prologue of St. John. He likewise disavowed a good number of neo-Platonic theories which had at first misled him — the cosmological thesis of the universal soul, which makes the world one immense animal — the Platonic doubts upon that grave question: Is there a single soul for all or a distinct soul for each? But on the other hand, he had always reproached the Platonists, as Schaff very properly remarks (Saint Augustine, New York, 1886, p. 51), with being ignorant of, or rejecting, the fundamental points of Christianity: "first, the great mystery, the Word made flesh; and then love, resting on the basis of humility." They also ignore grace, he says, giving sublime precepts of morality without any help towards realizing them.
It was this Divine grace that Augustine sought in Christian baptism. Towards the beginning of Lent, 387, he went to Milan and, with Adeodatus and Alypius, took his place among the competentes, being baptized by Ambrose on Easter Day, or at least during Eastertide. The tradition maintaining that the Te Deum was sung on that occasion by the bishop and the neophyte alternately is groundless. Nevertheless this legend is certainly expressive of the joy of the Church upon receiving as her son him who was to be her most illustrious doctor. It was at this time that Augustine, Alypius, and Evodius resolved to retire into solitude in Africa. Augustine undoubtedly remained at Milan until towards autumn, continuing his works: "On the Immortality of the Soul" and "On Music." In the autumn of 387, he was about to embark at Ostia, when Monica was summoned from this life. In all literature there are no pages of more exquisite sentiment than the story of her saintly death and Augustine's grief (Confessions, IX). Augustine remained several months in Rome, chiefly engaged in refuting Manichæism. He sailed for Africa after the death of the tyrant Maximus (August 388) and after a short sojourn in Carthage, returned to his native Tagaste. Immediately upon arriving there, he wished to carry out his idea of a perfect life, and began by selling all his goods and giving the proceeds to the poor. Then he and his friends withdrew to his estate, which had already been alienated, there to lead a common life in poverty, prayer, and the study of sacred letters. Book of the "LXXXIII Questions" is the fruit of conferences held in this retirement, in which he also wrote "De Genesi contra Manichæos," "De Magistro," and, "De Vera Religione."
Augustine did not think of entering the priesthood, and, through fear of the episcopacy, he even fled from cities in which an election was necessary. One day, having been summoned to Hippo by a friend whose soul's salvation was at stake, he was praying in a church when the people suddenly gathered about him, cheered him, and begged Valerius, the bishop, to raise him to the priesthood. In spite of his tears Augustine was obliged to yield to their entreaties, and was ordained in 391. The new priest looked upon his ordination as an additional reason for resuming religious life at Tagaste, and so fully did Valerius approve that he put some church property at Augustine's disposal, thus enabling him to establish a monastery the second that he had founded. His priestly ministry of five years was admirably fruitful; Valerius had bidden him preach, in spite of the deplorable custom which in Africa reserved that ministry to bishops. Augustine combated heresy, especially Manichæism, and his success was prodigious. Fortunatus, one of their great doctors, whom Augustine had challenged in public conference, was so humiliated by his defeat that he fled from Hippo. Augustine also abolished the abuse of holding banquets in the chapels of the martyrs. He took part, 8 October, 393, in the Plenary Council of Africa, presided over by Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, and, at the request of the bishops, was obliged to deliver a discourse which, in its completed form, afterwards became the treatise "De Fide et symbolo."
1 -[Saint Augustine : Biography]
2 -[Saint Augustine : FROM HIS BIRTH TO HIS CONVERSION (354-386)]
3 -[Saint Augustine : FROM HIS CONVERSION TO HIS EPISCOPATE (386-395)]
4 -[Saint Augustine : AS BISHOP OF HIPPO (396-430)]