Tag Archives: manicheism

A REALLY Old-time Religion

When we say something is Manichean, or someone has a Manichean view, we mean ‚Äúblack and white,‚ÄĚ a very sharp distinction between good and evil, with no gray area.¬† But where does the term Manichean come from?

The Manicheans were a sect contemporaneous with early Christianity.  My portrayal of Saint Augustine as an adherent of Manicheism as a young adult was based on his own admission in his Confessions.

Mani (a term of respect meaning Light King, probably not his real name) was executed in Persia in 276.  Similar to Christianity, his evangelists wasted no time in spreading his story throughout the Mediterranean, and Manichean missionaries were active in Carthage by 297. By Augustine’s time, the cult had adherents in Africa, Spain, France, Italy and the Balkans.  It was known as far east as India, China and Tibet, and lasted for almost 1000 years in parts of the Middle East.  Unlike Christianity, the Manichean cult remained illegal under the Roman Empire, and was hated and feared by Christians and Pagans alike.

Also unlike Christianity, whose central tenet is salvation by the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Manicheans believed that the enlightened elect could obtain godlike status by virtue of their own knowledge and actions.¬† In this respect, the cult was a form of Gnosticism (the belief that salvation is obtained by acquiring special knowledge; some Christian heresies were also Gnostic in nature).¬† The Manichean elect knew complicated secret prayers, practiced extreme fasting and were forbidden to own property, eat meat, drink wine, gratify any sexual desire, engage in trade, or engage in any servile occupation.¬† ‚ÄúHearers‚ÄĚ like Aurelius Augustine had only to obey the Manichean Ten Commandments (similar to the Commandments familiar to Christians), pray 4 times each day and serve the elect.

The Manicheans were prolific writers, and we know the titles of many of their writings, but almost nothing has survived.  From what little we do know, the Manichean theology seems like a confusing mess of demiurges, light particles, multiple creations, and a fire that will burn for exactly 1486 years to separate the light from the darkness.  Yet, the Manicheans claimed to offer absolute rational proof of their theories, and insisted that phenomena in the physical world were demonstrations of the truth of their theology.

It’s easy to see why a bright young man like Aurelius Augustine, a passionate seeker of truth, would be initially attracted to such a cult.

Another central tenet of Manicheism was the notion that spiritual world is completely good (light) and the physical world is corrupt and evil (dark).¬† This is the source of our current use of the term ‚ÄúManichean‚ÄĚ to mean a very black-and-white view.¬† In the Manichean theology, Man can only hope to attain any goodness at all because a few light particles leaked into humanity at the time of the third creation.¬† These light particles of our good selves are helplessly trapped in our corrupt physical bodies.¬† ¬†This notion may also have appealed to young Augustine, who was so morally serious and having such a difficult time controlling his natural sexual urges.

Later in life, Augustine wrote a whole book entitled Concerning the Nature of Good:  Against the Manicheans.   Like Zoroastrianism and the temple religions of the ancient world, Manicheism failed the test of time.  It lives on only in the descriptive term that is reminiscent of its strictly dual view of the natural and spiritual worlds.

Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.¬† In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.¬† As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.¬† The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.¬† Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.¬† 80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.¬† And then there were the quasi-Christians.¬† Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents ‚Äď including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.