In this book Augustine describes his time in Carthage, where he was surrounded by "a cauldron of illicit loves." Augustine studied a high level of rhetoric, oratory, and literature, and "bl[ew] off steam" with his student friends by drinking, carousing, and watching the public festivals and theatrical tragedies. He was not as destructive as some of his fellow students, who were given over to vandalism and called themselves the "Wreckers," but he was somewhat ashamed that he was not part of their gang. In retrospect, Augustine acknowledges that this was a very low point in his relationship with God, and that he directed his desire for divine love into a desire for temporal things.
Theatrical tragedies, especially, led him down a path of vice; Augustine claims that fiction watching and reading only divert the thoughts of people into false ideas and dramas, and cause entirely false feelings of emotion. Augustine even claims that his particular sensitivity to tragedy (which others had early noted as evidence of his literary worth) was not only a sin, but a punishment from God. Though he was embroiled in many sins, he was not happy and was always searching for an object for his love.
At this time Augustine began to be instructed in the Manichaean faith. The Manichaean philosophy and religion was an early heretical form of Christianity; it had much in common with Neoplatonism and shared some of the ascetic principles of the pagan cults of its day.
Augustine read a book by Cicero called Hortensius. It was one of a long line of classical Roman books aimed at justifying the uses and worth of philosophy (sometimes as opposed to religion). Cicero persuasively argues that a truly philosophical man can have not only happiness and inner peace, but can also learn to deal with the difficulties of the world. Augustine, who was perhaps eighteen when he read Hortensius, was deeply affected by the idea of a philosophical life. He also avidly contemplated the meaning of the words in the book - not just their arrangement and beauty. The immaterial nature of philosophy and the desire for truth expressed in Hortensius led Augustine to desire a more contemplative, less material life. He "delighted" in Cicero's exhortation to not contain his studies to only one religion, but to seek truth and wisdom wherever he could find it. He admits that Hortensius was not the best book he could have read at this time in his life, but holds that it at least turned his mind away from material things.
At this point, Augustine notes that the apostle Paul admonishes those who read philosophy to not be taken in by philosophy to the point where they lose sight of Christ. Because of his mother's childhood instruction about Jesus Christ, Augustine finds Hortensius lacking. It was this, he says, that led him to read the Christian Bible. At that time, the Latin Bible was somewhat roughly translated. This offended his sensibilities as a student of literature, and he says that it caused him to miss the truth and simplicity of the Bible. He, like the Manichees, was offended by the murder, polygamy, and sacrifice practiced by the Old Testament patriarchs.
Augustine then offers a criticism of the beliefs of the Manichees and a description of how they differ from Christianity. He was particularly offended by the Manichaean belief in the divinity of the sun and moon. The Manichees' criticisms of the Christian belief system were based on three tenets: the nature and source of evil, the being of God, and the Book of Genesis (and a large part of the Old Testament). The Manichees believed that God could not be omnipotent, because if He were then He would have eliminated evil in the world. As the Manichees saw it, God's omnipotence would indicate that God was the source of evil. The Manichees believed that God was engaged in a struggle against the material world, which was the origin of all evil.
Another problem the Manichees had with Christianity was the idea of God as a singular being with an appearance (in Genesis, man is described as "made in His own image"). According to the Manichees, since the material world is evil, God cannot be a singular being, for this would tie him to the material world. The Manichees thought of God as limited - he was neither confined to a form such as a being, nor did he fill the whole world and control everything, as Augustine came to believe.
Augustine counters this with a Neoplatonic argument, stating that evil is simply something that is far down the chain of being from God. The further something gets away from God, the more evil it becomes - until reaching the bottom rung of separation from God, which is pure evil. Evil, Augustine believes, is just a name for something separated from God, and all things on Earth are, in varying degrees, separated from God.
Augustine addresses the Manichaean criticism of the Old Testament patriarchs by calling it overly severe. God's Truth, he avers, is always the same, but is revealed to humanity only by degrees. Therefore, the Old Testament patriarchs could have still been righteous, even if they practiced sacrifice and polygamy. Augustine concludes with an analysis of motivations behind all human sin - the lust for domination, the lust of the eyes, and sensuality. Any or all of these motivations can result in sin if they are succumbed to.
Augustine writes that Monica had a vision of herself standing on a rule of wood (which may be a plank or platform). In the vision, she met a young man to whom she despaired of her son's "living death," and expressed her desire that he should come to know God. The young man told her to have no fear and to look around to see who was with her on the rule...and there stood Augustine.
The vision that Monica recounted to Augustine is clearly prophetic. In the vision, Monica stood on the narrow path (the "rule") of righteousness - the one true way to God. The young man most likely represented Jesus Christ, or perhaps an angel. In Augustine's mind, Monica is an active agent in his conversion to Christianity.
The Manichaean heresy was active at this time, but was not a particularly significant threat to Christianity. The strange practices of the Manichaean belief system (total abstinence from sexual relations, a strictly vegetarian diet, and self-denial) prevented it from becoming a viable popular religion. To philosophically minded young men of the time, however, it was a new (about 100 years old) and interesting religion, and at least worth investigating. For later Christian doctrinal purposes, the refutation of Manichaean beliefs serves largely as a lesson to Christians about the sanctity of their own faith.
The fact that Augustine didn't join the "Wreckers" shows that despite his claim that he was embroiled in sin, his innately steady and contemplative nature was obvious even as a young student. Carthage at this time was truly a cesspool of vice and licentiousness. Even within the relatively morally lax Roman Empire, Carthage was considered a particularly evil city - the Sin City of its day. Augustine, if his own words are to be believed, had become close with the woman who would become the mother of his son at this time. They were together for fifteen years, and Augustine claims they were both faithful.
Augustine, many critics argue, could not have been a wholly irresponsible or wild young man, no matter what he claims, because he excelled in school at this time, and even won a poetry contest (a considerable achievement in Augustine's day). Augustine's family sacrificed financially to send him to school, and he did not disappoint them. Monica did not seem particularly upset by his arrangement with his female companion; at least he was not frequenting prostitutes or carrying on with married women.
Augustine's sometimes prudish and moralizing tone must be considered in the light of the society of his day. Prostitutes were part of public temple ceremonies in pagan Carthage, and marriage was almost never for love, but for property and the creation of a family. Some of the precepts considered to be the foundation of morality and decency in society today were completely disregarded in Augustine's time. This was a world of slavery, capital punishment for the slightest of crimes, institutionalized torture, and oppression of almost every kind imaginable. Pornographic shows and spectacles involving the deaths of animals and sometimes human beings were part of city life. Extortion and bribery of public officials was not only common, but was even encouraged. Augustine's reaction against the wholly permissive and materialistic atmosphere of the late Roman Empire is warranted when viewed through the lens of his Christian beliefs.