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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Concerning Monica’s Role in Augustine’s Conversion; ‘’What Augustine Did Not Confess’’

Concerning Monica’s Role in Augustine’s Conversion; ‘’What Augustine Did Not Confess’’[1]

December 12th, 2009

Saint Monica played a significant role in Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Nevertheless, I also believe Saint Monica being Saint Augustine’s mother was a significant factor in delaying his conversion. Was Augustine trying to resist his mother’s insistence on his conversion because he did not want to be the Mother-Son? Was he refusing to follow his mother because she was a female after all, considering the inferiority of women in Augustine’s time?

To answer these questions, we need to explore Saint Augustine’s childhood and boyhood in addition to his relationship with his parents. Exploring Augustine’s relationships with women will be extremely helpful to articulate women’s role in his time. Moreover, exploring the conditions of North African women in late Roman Empire will be highly beneficial in order to find out if the social view of women contributed to the delay of Augustine’s conversion.

Saint Augustine considered women inferior to men in regards of rationality and reason. We can find evidence for that in his works specifically his Confessions and City of God. We also can find evidence for the inferiority of women in general in North Africa in the late Roman Empire. Felecia McDuffie in her article Augustine’s Rhetoric of the Feminine in the Confessions: Women as Mother, Woman as Other quotes Peter Brown to assert the difficulty of studying Augustine’s psychological life because she thinks a psychological study of him requires one to combine ‘’ competence as an historian with sensitivity as a psychologist’’[2]. Considering this opinion, I will try to draw evidence from Augustine’s own works and the social history of his time to support my thesis.

Inferiority of Women in Augustine’s Works
Early on, in Augustine’s description of women in book one of his Confessions; he referred to women as passive creatures. When he talked about himself as an infant, he mentioned ‘’ the comfort of woman’s milk’’.[3] However, his usage of that phrase cannot be interpreted in a positive view of women because ‘’ He describes his mother and nurses as passive conduits through which God provides the food that gives him life’’.[4] Although Augustine saw women as tools to serve God’s will , he on the other hand saw them more like obedient servants who did not have much choice in living’’ unselfishly and naturally ‘’ according to ‘’the abundance’’ that God provided them with. [5] Apparently, Augustine did not seem comfortable in giving women credit for their service of God or for their care of their children; because he believed that they are only recipients of what God put in them.

Moreover, in Augustine’s depiction of women in his Confessions, he associated women with the lower faculties and desires in general. He considered his inability to control his desire for women as the major reason of him drawing away from God’s path. He even talked about that desire as a ‘’ metaphorical woman ‘’ who opposes ‘’ the law of God and the control of male reason’’. [6] Thus, Augustine thought of woman as a ‘’ dangerous other’’ whom he tried to avoid her temptation. [7]

Augustine was extremely explicit in expressing his awareness of the danger of women and in addressing it to other men as well. He wrote a letter that he addressed to a young man where he clarified: ‘’ What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve (the temptress) that we must be aware of in any woman’’. [8] This statement is a perfect embodiment of Augustine’s attitude towards women as a major source of temptation that caused man’s downfall. This view was stretched out in Augustine’s works to include mothers too, as if Augustine thought that motherhood cannot change the original nature of women to which he referred as ‘’ the temptress ‘’.[9] Hence as Augustine became a bishop, he chose to distant himself from women and moved in ‘’ a monochrome, all-male world’’ as Peter Brown stated. [10] Furthermore, he set up strict regulations for his own clergy regarding sexual avoidance. He never visited a woman without a company in addition to preventing his female relatives to enter the bishop’s palace.[11]

Speaking of women as ‘’ the temptress’’ brings up Augustine’s understanding and interpretation of the fall of creation in The City of God, books 13 and 14. Augustine did not hold Eve responsible for the fall of humankind because he considered Adam as ‘’ the actual transmitter of original sin to the human race’’.[12] Augustine stated in the 13th book of The City of God:’’ the seed that flowed from [Adam] ‘’ is what made ‘’ this bitter sea, the human race’’.[13] He used the analogy of ‘’seed’’ to refer to the continuous growth of the seed of that sin among humans and through ages. The ‘’ bitter sea ‘’ on the other hand refers to the uncontrollable growth of man’s sin, which resembles the uncontrollable waves of the sea. Moreover, as the bitter taste of the seawater makes it undrinkable even though it is plenty, the ‘’ bitter sea’’ of human race is useless (because of the taint of sin) despite the magnificence of it in number.

Felecia McDuffie thinks that Augustine’s blaming Adam for the fall of man enforces the inferiority in which he viewed women ;‘’ Augustine’s assignment of responsibility for original sin to Adam lies not in any desire to exonerate Eve, but rather , in his belief in her inferior position’’. [14]Augustine blamed Adam for the original sin because the rational faculties of women according to him were in question. In fact, in the 12th book of The City of God Augustine asserted the fact that Eve was made out of Adam’s body which suggests her secondarily existence in contrast to his primarily existence.

Therefore, its unsurprising that Augustine in the 14th book of The City of God explained why the wily serpent goes to Eve first by stating ‘’ no doubt starting with the inferior of the human pair so as to arrive at the whole by stages, supposing that the man would not be so easily gullible’’.[15] Even though Augustine confirmed in his Confessions that Adam should have resisted Eve’s temptation and controlled it by his reason, he still thought of Eve as the inferior ‘’ human pair ‘’ through whom Adam fell and the entire human race did accordingly. Furthermore, Augustine confirmed that men are less likely to sin and be tempted since they are more powerful and in control than women are ‘’ the man would not be so easily gullible’’.[16]

Therefore, in the 13th book of his Confessions Augustine stated; ‘In the physical sense, woman has been made for man. In her mind and her rational intelligence she has a nature the equal of man’s, but in sex she is physically subject to him in the same way as our natural impulses need to be subjected to the reasoning power of the mind, in order that the actions to which they lead may be inspired by the principles of good conduct.’’ [17] Not only was Augustine objectifying women but also he was referring to them as sexual objects that man owns. Even though he claimed that women have equal rational faculties as men, he still thought of them as not actually equal in this regard. In fact, Augustine believed that women do not have ‘’ the reasoning power’’ that men have which he thought is ‘’ inspired by the principles of good conduct’’. [18] Augustine thought that women should be ‘’ subjected to the reasoning power of the mind ‘’ that men possess exclusively, in order to act according to ‘’ the principles of good conduct’’.[19]

The inferiority Of Women in Augustine’s Letters
E. Ann Matter in her article De Cura feminarum: Augustine the Bishop, North African Women and the Development of a Theology of Female Nature, she explores Augustine’s letters to women to draw conclusions about his relationship with women. In one of Augustine’s undated letters after he had become a bishop in 395, he wrote to a married woman (Ecdicia), whom complained about her husband’s adultery after her taking on an ascetic life upon which her husband did not agree. Augustine blamed Ecdicia and held her responsible for her husband’s unfaithfulness ‘’ since she drove him to take a mistress’’.[20] Matter refers to the conflicts aroused in the fifth century Christian society because of wives choosing to have ascetic lives. However, she does not refer to conflicts resulted from husbands’ choice to have ascetic life which suggests that wives, in contrast of husbands, did not have the right to complain about it. This leads me to wonder if Augustine would hold husbands who took an ascetic life responsible in case their wives had committed adultery. Since Augustine believed that women were meant to serve as means to satisfy men’s biological need, he would not hold men guilty for driving their wives to adultery when husbands do not satisfy their biological needs, because he would not think that men have to play this role with their wives.[21] This suggests the inferiority of women and the assumed (physical, intellectual and spiritual) superiority of men in Augustine’s eyes.

Augustine wrote twenty –three letters for women including letters of consolation (e.g. Letter 92 to Italica in the loss of her husband).[22] Some of Augustine’s letters to women contain religious and spiritual advice (e.g. Letter 147 to Paulina, On the Vision of God). [23] Those letters suggest the guiding role Augustine played with those women, a role that one usually plays with someone assumedly inferior to him in a way or another. Other letters Augustine wrote for women included letters for wealthy women who helped in spreading Pelagian ideas in North Africa, which suggests the theological purposes those letters served. Most of Augustine’s letters to women from 410 until 418 were addressed to rich noble women who took refuge in North Africa after the sack of Rome.[24] Some of those women (Melania the Elder, Albina, Melania the Younger, Proba and Juliana) brought wealth to the area in addition to ‘’ some theological positions’’.[25] These kind of letters suggest both the theological and the social purposes they served.

Saint Augustine and Women in North Africa

Rebecca Moore quotes the description of Olympias, a virgin and companion of John Chrysostom, in which the qualities religious men valued in women were mentioned ‘’a life without vanity, an appearance without pretense, character without affection, a face without adornment…an immaterial body, a mind without vainglory , intelligence without conceit , an untroubled heart , [and] an artless spirit ‘’.[26] Moore suggests that some authors use such models of women who transcend their gender, in order to communicate their theological ideas.[27] Those authors are concerned with the theological and philosophical reflection of those models more than the historical depiction of them.

Contemplating other qualities women were praised for in North Africa in the late antiquity, we notice the trend of valuing women who abandon their children in order to devote themselves to a religious vocation. The ascendency of Christianity in the Roman Empire caused asceticism as a vocational choice to flourish in the fourth and the fifth century. [28]Moreover, the association of sexuality with ‘patriarchal marriage’ made sexual repression admirable. [29] Nevertheless, Saint Augustine praised Monica for not leaving her children and sacrificing the ascetic life she wanted to pursue. At the same time, when Augustine praised Monica’s faith, he referred to it as a’’ strong faith of a man ‘’ which suggests the association of strong faith and masculinity in Augustine’s mind.[30] From this association I infer that Augustine regarded masculinity, in contrast with femininity, as the source of strong faith and close connection with God.

Augustine referred to the conditions of women in his time while talking about his mother: ‘’ Many women, whose faces were disfigured by blows from husbands far sweeter-tempered than her own, used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men folk‘’. [31] Augustine carried on and mentioned how women were surprised since they had not seen marks that show that his father had beaten Monica. [32]

Augustine’s Parents and His Conversion

W. Paul Elledget in his article Embracing Augustine: Reach, Restraint, and Romantic Resolution in the Confessions refers to William James’ definition of conversion as ‘’ a satisfactory response to the threat of pathological disintegration’’. [33] Elledget adds his explanation of Saint Augustine’s conversion as ‘’ an effort to resolve an oedipal conflict’’ which is resulted, in James’ opinion, from ‘’ unconscious forces’’ accompanied with ‘’ manipulation by other persons’’. [34] This opinion affirms the contribution of both internal factors ‘’ the unconscious forces’’ and external factors ‘’ the manipulation by other persons’’ to the conversion of Saint Augustine. Interestingly, both factors, the internal (concerning Augustine’s complicated relationships with women generally and his mother specifically) and the external (concerning the theological and social view of women in his time), are formulated by Saint Augustine’s relationship with his mother since she was the first female he was exposed to in his life.

Allison refers to the significance of Augustine’s conversion in filling the void of his father’s absence in Augustine’s life. He stresses that Augustine’s conversion served as a substitute to his ‘’deficient, weak, or absent father ‘’.[35] He replaced his parental figure with his parental God in order to fulfill his need for ‘’ a strong, principled, protective paternal figure’’.[36] At the same time, Augustine’s conversion as Allison asserts ‘’ offsets a powerful urge toward reestablishing or maintaining a sense of symbiotic union with the mother’’.[37] By embracing God; the Mother of all, Augustine satisfied his ‘’ impulse toward fusion with the mother’. [38] With Augustine’s unity with God as a Mother, he both succeeded in separating himself from his mother and in restoring his relationship with his original mother; God.

Augustine and Rejecting the Femininity of Mothers
Saint Augustine was aware of the significance of the role Saint Monica played in his life at all levels. Thus, he wrote to her memory at Cassiciacum: ‘’ To her merit I believe I owe all that I am ‘’.[39] Saint Augustine confessed that all what the success he gained in his life both at the secular and the spiritual level is because of his mother. Therefore , he owed his mother not only what did he become but also what he was ,because what he was is what formulated and resulted in what he became later on in this life. Furthermore, this saying indicates that Augustine believed that he could not repay his mother what she sacrificed and gave to him. If someone owes another something or part of what he is, he probably will be able to repay him/her back. However, Augustine asserted that his mother made him who he was including what he was and what he will be which suggests that he believed that he could not repay her what he owed her. Aristotle talked justified the fact that sons cannot repay their parents ‘’for they cannot become parents of their parents’’.[40]

In spite of that, Augustine always viewed women as the dangerous’’ other ‘’except for mothers whom he placed in a distant ‘’realm ‘’ which was closer not to humanity but to divinity.[41] In fact, even though Augustine viewed God as a Mother, he tried to take away the earthly feminine dimension of mothers when talking about God the Mother. McDuffie suggests that Augustine was not able to ‘’ transcend what he saw as the ordering of creation and wary of the danger of woman as other’’.[42] Thus, Augustine seemed to ‘’masculinize or idealize the female figures he considers virtuous’’ throughout his works. [43] In brief, Augustine not only did place women in a lower rank in the ordering of creation, but he also ‘masculinized’ the traits he found positive in women generally and mothers specifically.


Displaying some of Augustine’s works (texts and letters) and their interpretations in addition to Augustine’s life and the inferiority of women at all levels in North Africa in his time, I infer that Augustine didn’t feel particularly at ease in following his mother‘s call for his conversion. For someone like Augustine who is both religious and logical and who looks down to women as all men in his time , it would not look right to follow a woman in a crucial matter like religion. Therefore, I conclude that Monica being Augustine’s mother , also considering the fact that he didn’t have a parental example figure, attributed in a way or in another in delaying Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.


Biddinger, Mary. "Saint Monica and the Itch ." The Laurel Review , 2008: 20-21.
Cameron, Michael. "Don't We Have Any '' Church Mothers'' ?" U.S. Catholic , 2006: 41.
E.Dittes, James. "Augustine : Search For A Fail-Safe God To Trust ." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 1986: 57-63.
E.Dittes, James. "Continuities Between The Life And Thought of Augustine ." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , Oct56: 131-140.
Elledge, W.Paul. "Embracing Augustine : Reach,Restraint, and Romantic Resolution in the Confessions." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 1988: 72-89.
Gay, Volney. "Augustine : The Reader As Selfobject ." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 1986: 64-75.
Hamm, Dennis. "Monica's Prayer ." America , 1998: 31.
J.O'dnnell, James. Augustine.A New Biography . New York : HarperCollins Publishers , 2005.
Matter, E.Ann. "De cura feminarum : Augustine the Bishop , North African Women, and the Development of a Theology of Female Nature ." Feminist Interpretations of Augustine , 2005,Vol 36,no.1: 87-98.
Moore, Rebecca. "O Mother , Where Art Thou ? In Search of Saint Monica ." Feminist Interpretations of Augustine , 2007: 148-166.
Quinn., John M. Companion to the confessions of St. Augustine. New York : Lang, 2002.
R.Nielsen, Cynthia. "Notes And Comments,ST.Augustine On Text And Reality ( And A Little Gadamerian Spice)." The Heythrop Journal , 2009: 98-108.

[1] (J.O'dnnell 2005) Referring to the general idea mentioned in the book of what Augustine did not confess.
[2] (Mcduffie 2007, 99)
[3] Ibid (99)
[4] Ibid (99)
[5] Ibid (99)
[6] (Mcduffie 2007, 106)
[7] Ibid (106)
[8] Ibid (106)
[9] Ibid (106)
[10] Ibid (106)
[11] Ibid (106)
[12] Ibid (104)
[13] (Mcduffie 2007, 104)
[14] Ibid (104)
[15] Ibid (104)
[16] (Mcduffie 2007, 104)
[17] Ibid (105)
[18] Ibid (105)
[19] Ibid (105)
[20] (Matter 2005,Vol 36,no.1, 209)
[21] In his Questions on the Heptateuch, dated 419, he says women were made to serve men.
[22] Ibid (204)
[23] Ibid (211)
[24] Ibid (206)
[25] Ibid (206-207)
[26] (Moore 2007, 147)
[27] Ibid (148)
[28] Ibid (152)
[29] Ibid (152)
[30] (Moore 2007, 149)
[31] Ibid (154)
[32] Ibid (154)
[33] (Elledge 1988)
[34] Ibid (74)
[35] (Elledge 1988, 74)
[36] Ibid (74)
[37] Ibid (74)
[38] Ibid (74)
[39] (Quinn. 2002, 498)
[40] (Quinn. 2002, 513)
[41] (Mcduffie 2007, 101)
[42]Ibid (117)
[43] Ibid (117)

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