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The most intellectual of all the Fathers of the Church was doubtless Saint Augustine. He is the great oracle of the Latin Church. He directed the thinking of the Christian world for a thousand years. He was not perhaps so learned as Origen, nor so critical as Jerome; but he was broader, profounder, and more original than they, or any other of the great lights who shed the radiance of genius on the crumbling fabric of the ancient civilization. He is the sainted doctor of the Church, equally an authority with both Catholics and Protestants. His penetrating genius, his comprehensive views of all systems of ancient thought, and his marvellous powers as a systematizer of Christian doctrines place him among the immortal benefactors of mankind; while his humanity, his breadth, his charity, and his piety have endeared him to the heart of the Christian world.
Let me present, as well as I can, his history, his services, and his personal character, all of which form no small part of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the giants of the fourth and fifth centuries,—that which we call the Patristic literature,—the only literature worthy of preservation in the declining days of the old Roman world.
Augustine was born at Tagaste, or Tagastum, near Carthage, in the Numidian province of the Roman Empire, in the year 354,—a province rich, cultivated, luxurious, where the people (at least the educated classes) spoke the Latin language, and had adopted the Roman laws and institutions. They were not black, like negroes, though probably swarthy, being descended from Tyrians and Greeks, as well as Numidians. They were as civilized as the Spaniards or the Gauls or the Syrians. Carthage then rivalled Alexandria, which was a Grecian city. If Augustine was not as white as Ptolemy or Cleopatra, he was probably no darker than Athanasius.
Unlike most of the great Fathers, his parentage was humble. He owed nothing to the circumstances of wealth and rank. His father was a heathen, and lived, as Augustine tells us, in “heathenish sin.” But his mother was a woman of remarkable piety and strength of mind, who devoted herself to the education of her son. Augustine never alludes to her except with veneration; and his history adds additional confirmation to the fact that nearly all the remarkable men of our world have had remarkable mothers. No woman is dearer to the Church than Monica, the sainted mother of Augustine, and chiefly in view of her intense solicitude for his spiritual interests, and her extraordinary faith in his future conversion, in spite of his youthful follies and excesses,—encouraged by that good bishop who told her “that it was impossible that the child of so many prayers could be lost.”