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St. Augustine's Search for Truth:
Divination and Manichaeism
St. Augustine

St. Augustine (354-430) was the most influential of the Latin Fathers; his writings contributed greatly to the doctrines of Christianity. In his early years, however, Augustine sought for answers in various places. As a young adult he lived with a Carthaginian woman, whose name is unknown, and had a son with her. Inspired by the Roman orator and statesman Cicero's Hortensius, Augustine devoted his life to the pursuit of truth. From 373 to 382, he followed Manichaeism, a Persian philosophy then relatively popular. For Augustine, Manichaeism, with its fundamental principle of conflict between good and evil and its somewhat lenient moral code, furnished a plausible hypothesis upon which to build an ethical system. He eventually became disillusioned with certain contradictory aspects of Manichaeistic doctrines and abandoned the philosophy. For a while Augustine adhered to skepticism and then neoplatonism. Finally, in 387, Augustine converted to Christianity; his mother St. Monica was overjoyed. In this document, extracted from his Confessions (c. 400), Augustine reveals his youthful struggle for enlightenment. The yearning he expresses reflects the fourth-century obsession with the spiritual world.

Questions to Consider
  • How does Augustine's fascination with divination underscore his (and his society's) search for truth?

  • How did the physician explain the apparent successes of divination? Would this explanation satisfy someone searching for eternal truth?

Those impostors, then, whom they designate Mathematicians, I consulted without hesitation, because they used no sacrifices, and invoked the aid of no spirit for their divinations, which art Christian and true piety fitly rejects and condemns. For good it is to confess unto Thee, and to say, "Be merciful unto me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee"; and not to abuse Thy goodness for a license to sin, but to remember the words of the Lord, "Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee." All of which salutary advice they endeavour to destroy when they say, "The cause of thy sin is inevitably determined in heaven"; and, "This did Venus, or Saturn, or Mars"; in order that man, forsooth, flesh and blood, and proud corruption, may be blameless, while the Creator and Ordainer of heaven and stars is to bear the blame. And who is this but Thee, our God, the sweetness and well-spring of righteousness, who renderest "to every man according to his deeds," and despisest not "a broken and a contrite heart!"

There was in those days a wise man, very skilful in medicine, and much renowned therein, who had with his own proconsular hand put the Agonistic garland upon my distempered head, not, though, as a physician; for this disease Thou alone healest, who resistest the proud, and givest grace to the humble. But didst Thou fail me even by that old man, or forbear from healing my soul? For when I had become more familiar with him, and hung assiduously and fixedly on his conversation (for though couched in simple language, it was replete with vivacity, life, and earnestness), when he had perceived from my discourse that I was given to books of the horoscope-casters, he, in a kind and fatherly manner, advised me to throw them away, and not vainly bestow the care and labour necessary for useful things upon these vanities; saying that he himself in his earlier years had studied that art with a view to gaining his living by following it as a profession, and that, as he had understood Hippocrates, he would soon have understood this, and yet he had given it up, and followed medicine, for no other reason than that he discovered it to be utterly false, and he, being a man of character, would not gain his living by beguiling people. "But thou," saith he, "who hast rhetoric to support thyself by, so that thou followest this of free will, not of necessity - all the more, then, oughtest thou to give me credit herein, who laboured to attain it so perfectly, as I wished to gain my living by it alone." When I asked him to account for so many true things being foretold by it, he answered me (as he could) "that the force of chance, diffused throughout the whole order of nature, brought this about. For if when a man by accident opens the leaves of some poet, who sang and intended something far different, a verse oftentimes fell out wondrously apposite to the present business, it were not to be wondered at," he continued, "if out of the soul of man, by some higher instinct, not knowing what goes on within itself, an answer should be given by chance, not art, which should coincide with the business and actions of the questioner."

And thus truly, either by or through him, Thou didst look after me. And Thou didst delineate in my memory what I might afterwards search out for myself. But at that time neither he, nor my most dear Nebridius, a youth most good and most circumspect, who scoffed at that whole stock of divination, could persuade me to forsake it, the authority of the authors influencing me still more; and as yet I had lighted upon no certain proof - such as I sought - whereby it might without doubt appear that what had been truly foretold by those consulted was by accident or chance, not by the art of the star-gazers.


Source: Augustine, Confessions, 4:3.4-3.6, in Philip Schaff, ed., Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st ser., vol. 3 (Buffalo, 1896).