In the year 370, Augustine at the age of fifteen years moved to Carthage for his university studies, and it was there that the Manichean sect began its nine-year grip on him.
In Carthage pleasure reigned supreme, and Augustine became its delighted slave. Disgusting festivals of the Mother of the Gods still moved through the streets. Augustine joined the wildest young men of Carthage. They were called the "overturners" or the "destroyers." He took a partner, and they soon were parents of a baby boy whom they named Adeodatus.
Augustine pushed aside the Christian faith. His mother, Monica, had raised him as a catechumen of the Christian church. Although her religion did not hold an important place in his early life, the Christian religion never totally lost its grip upon him. When he was twenty-two years of age, the death of a close friend greatly distressed him. It caused him to reconsider the claims of the Bible. He was fascinated with the problem of the origin of evil.
When he attempted to find a solution for this problem in the New Testament he was disappointed by the coarse and rustic style of his Latin Old Testament compared to the elegance of the Greek classics. Instead of embracing the Christian faith, Augustine at the age of seventeen years in 373 joined a sect called the Manicheans. He wanted to be a follower of Christ and a rationalist, and the Manichees promised to make that possible. The Manichees accepted the name of Christ and introduced Augustine into a systematic and rationalist analysis of the letter of Scripture.
They rejected and scorned the Old Testament as being primitive and immoral, and selected from the New. It seems that at least among African Manichees the writings of Paul were esteemed, and this was to have a decisive influence on Augustine's future doctrine and life. Furthermore, Manicheism (or Manicheanism) attracted Augustine because it taught the harsh but strangely comforting doctrine that sex was synonymous with darkness and bore the marks of the evil creator. According to Manichaeism the world was in a struggle between the substance of light and the substance of darkness. The human soul was a part of light trapped in the area of darkness. Christ was seen as the saviour who could liberate the trapped light particles and let them escape to the region of eternal light. Manicheism thus claimed to explain the presence of evil. It seemed to conform to the goal for Truth that had been inspired in Augustine at this time by his reading of the Hortensius by Cicero.
The founder of the sect was Mani, a Persian born about the year 216. He claimed that he was an especially inspired "Apostle of Jesus Christ." Mani taught that the universe was comprised of two eternally opposing substances--light and darkness. Mani held that there were thus two Gods. One god created good, the other created evil. The conclusion of Mani that no human being could be held totally accountable for his or her sins was attractive to Augustine.
Manichaeism claimed to provide a rational Christian doctrine on the basis of a purified text of Scripture. It was a mixture of Christianity and Persian dualism. Augustine could see Manichaeism as a kind of intellectual and enlightened "true Christianity," in contrast to the Catholics that they accused of being half-Christian and half-Jewish because they did not reject Judaism. Augustine abandoned himself to the Manichean sect for nine years. He was flattered by its intellectualism, seeking its supposedly scientific answers.
He was also dazzled by its parade of purity, and calmed by the thought that not he, but darkness in him, was the real sinner. Here was the classic escape from the responsibility for personal evil because "the devil made me do it." Augustine abandoned himself to the Manichean sect for nine years. He was flattered by its intellectualism, seeking its supposedly scientific answers. And yet Augustine partially stood back from Manicheanism. He never joined the "elect," but remained only a "hearer."
The flagrant sexual behaviour of the elect contrasted greatly with their preaching about their purity. Their celibacy was frequently placed aside, according to the statements of Augustine later in his life. The few Manichees in the inner circle were said to be living perfect lives already, and kept the many hearers busy waiting on them hand and foot. This was intended to keep the elect from being corrupted by contact with the evil world of matter.
The many "hearers" were held by simple promises and a vague theology. Augustine was too clever to settle for vague theology for very long. For hearers such as Augustine, sexual relations were tolerated. Sexual activity was accepted as being almost unavoidable because of a biological weakness in human nature. This negative attitude to sexual matters marked Augustine for the rest of life. It endured even when he was a Catholic theologian and bishop, long after he had rejected the Manichean doctrines. Julian of Eclanum, his Pelagian opponent, said that, in the matter of sexual morality, Augustine still thought like a Manichean.
Faustus of Mileve was the famous Manichean bishop whose solutions were recommended to Augustine as an answer to his questions about religion. On a visit to Carthage, Faustus proved to be only a shallow rhetorician. Augustine instantly saw that Faustus had obtained his knowledge of science only from common conversation, and was a total stranger to all scientific culture. Faustus was poorly educated. He could do more than repeat to Augustine the set of slogans that his local disciples also used.
The spell was broken, and Augustine began to realise that Manichæan doctrines would never answer his questions adequately. But Augustine did not yet totally break away from the Manichees publicly. Their slogans still comforted Augustine that all the evil in his life was not his own fault. He would not easily break the grip of Manicheanism upon himself until in Milan he found a better framework for understanding his spiritual self. The Manichees still thought of him as one of their "hearers" as late as the year 384. This was more than a decade after his first involvement with the sect. Augustine left Carthage for Rome in the year 383. The office of professor of oratory in Milan soon fell vacant, and Augustine won the appointment. At Milan he moved from Manichaeism into an universal scepticism, and for a while doubted that there was a truth that could be found. His nine years as a follower of Mani were effectively at an end.
During the time he had been a faithful Manichee, Augustine had had three basic problems with the Christian religion: Firstly, his materialism prevented him from conceiving of God as a non-physical (immaterial), transcendent reality, not detected by the senses. Secondly, Augustine had questions about the so-called "problem of evil," especially the relationship between God and evil. He asked: "Where is evil? What is its origin? How did it come into the world? Where then does evil come from, if God made all things and, because he is good, made things to be good?" In his mind, Manicheanism had provided a better explanation to the problem of evil through its dualism.
Thirdly, Augustine believed that while the Christian faith was based on faith, Manicheanism was based on reason, and thus provided the truth. Finding the truth was, after all, the main goal of Augustine. Furthermore, the view of Manicheanism concerning cosmic evil and strife in the world (a type of fatalism) allowed Augustine to justify his own sinful tendencies (especially sexual ones) as actions beyond his personal control.
In his Confessions, which he wrote in his very early years as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine is critical about himself for his willing entrapment by the Manichees. He said that in Carthage he "fell in with certain men, filled with pride, too carnal and glib of speech, in whose mouth were the snares of the devil." [Confessions 3, 6, 10] These Manichees instructed him in distorted "fantasies" about God and the universe.
For nine years, Augustine admits, "we [Manichees] were seduced and we seduced others, deceived and deceiving by various desires, both openly...and secretly." [Confessions 4, 1, 1] He now regretted not only that he had been attracted to their false teaching of the Manichees but also that he had led others to follow him. AN1031