As the phenomenon of social media ably demonstrates, there is nothing quite so interesting to people as the lives of other people. Instagram, Facebook, et al even make it possible for us to check what our favorite people are doing at any time of the day. Sometimes they are interesting because of their great beauty, otherwise because of eccentricities or, more cynically, because they are peculiarly stupid or socially unacceptable. Interest in other people also characterizes the literary tastes of the twenty-first century: the size of (auto)biographical sections in today’s bookshops shows just how deep our obsession with others is.
Long before we had social media, the interest in the lives of others was sated by the lives of the saints. Known as hagiography, this ancient genre of literature provides great detail on the miracles and personal lives of the most venerated people in the Catholic Church. Whilst social media allows celebrities to make or break a consumer product, these saints are still believed to decide the immortal fate of Catholic souls. But not all saints conform to the stereotype of a quiet, pious individual: in this list, you will find adulterers, prostitutes, demon-fighters, warriors… and a Satanist.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine (354-430) was born in the Roman province of Numidia, now Algeria, to a Christian mother, Monica, and pagan father, Patricius. He was brought up a Christian after his father converted on his death bed, but was never baptized. As an upper-class Roman citizen, Augustine received a fine education and was well-read in the Classics. At the age of 17, he went to Carthage to study rhetoric and went on to found a school of rhetoric at Rome itself, before moving to Milan. At this time, Augustine was a Manichean pagan, having renounced the faith of his beloved mother.
The young Augustine loved to party. Whilst a pagan, he led a sinful life of sex, wine, and feasting: indeed, he later wrote what is often seen as the first-ever autobiography, simply titled Confessions, essentially a public apology to God. Soon after reaching Carthage, Augustine began an affair with a local woman that lasted for over fifteen years and produced a bastard son, Adeodatus. His friends were fairly typical young men, who boasted of their sexual prowess and promiscuity: ‘I took pleasure, not only in the pleasure of the deed, but in the praise’, he admitted (Confessions, Book III.3).
Manicheanism itself did not set Augustine on his course of sin, though he later blamed his transgressions on the absence of Christianity in his life. Despite denying the omnipotence of God, Manicheanism was not radically different in essence from Christianity: life was a struggle between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. Augustine was simply behaving as many young people do, enjoying himself in the pleasures of the flesh rather than committing himself to study and purity. Nevertheless, his reflections on his misspent youth inform Christian teaching on man’s inherent sin and gluttony to this day.
Eventually, Augustine tired of Manichean theology and was converted to Christianity through a mixture of his mother’s influence, conversation with St Ambrose of Milan, and a mystical vision. Augustine turned his great mind to Christian thought and canonical texts, and was instrumental in the incorporation of Neoplatonism into Christian theology. He became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and wrote over 100 religious texts. Augustine died of illness during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals, a tribe who went on to sack Rome in 455. His writings continue to influence not only Christian thought but western philosophy in general.