Freethought Almanac

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November 13: Robert Louis Stevenson + Augustine of Hippo

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850)

It was on this date, November 13, 1850, that Scottish essayist, poet, and author of fiction and travel books, Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh. He once quarreled with his father over religion and, thereafter, rarely mentioned his hostility to it. From childhood, Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis. He spend much time convalescing in bed, but spent it creating stories. He attempted to study engineering, but Stevenson's health redirected him to the law. Called to the bar in 1875, he gave that up to become a writer.

Stevenson's first notice came from his adventure story Treasure Island, which, as was the custom of the day, first appeared serialized in Young Folks magazine from 1881 to 1882. He followed this with the popular Child's Garden of Verses in 1885, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both in 1886.

Stevenson relocated to Samoa, with his wife Fanny — his marriage to this divorcee was a bit of a scandal — and his widowed mother, a move that ultimately prolonged his life. There he wrote, up until the day he died, on December 3, 1894. His unfinished last work, Weir of Hermiston, was published posthumously (1896). Critics consider it his masterpiece.

On account of his pious mother, he held prayers at his house daily. But Stevenson's friend, Francis Watt, penned a 1913 biography of the famous novelist, in which he states that Stevenson "is properly described as an Agnostic."* Biographer Arthur Johnstone demonstrates that Stevenson was an Agnostic to the end of his life. He quotes Stevenson himself saying, "I am religious in my own way, but I am hardly brave enough to interpose a theory of my own between life and death. Here both our creeds and our philosophies seem to me to fail."**

* Francis Watt, R.L.S., 1913, p. 273. ** Arthur Johnstone, Recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, 1905.

Augustine of Hippo (354 CE)

It was also on this date, November 13, 354, that Augustine of Hippo — Aurelius Augustinus — the brilliant Roman Catholic Church Father, was born in Tagaste (Souk-Ahras), in what is now Algeria. He had a wild youth until, at age 33, after fathering a son out of wedlock, Augustine sobered up. He had been a Manichaean for many years, but rejected that heresy, adopted neo-Platonism, but failed to get a buzz from that and, influenced by Bishop (later Saint) Ambrose, was finally ordained a Christian priest in 391. The belatedly pious Augustine became Bishop of Hippo at age 42, in 396.

The Roman Church considers Augustine an oracle from the Middle Ages, so it is useful to remember that he was quite the product of his time, if not wholly relevant to our own. Augustine did not just reject but sneered at the claim by the early Roman popes of supremacy over the worldwide church — nevertheless, he supported the Papal policy of persecuting all non-Christians and schismatics; having observed it himself, Augustine denounced the general corruption of monasteries, which first appeared in Europe in his time; he derided the newly introduced cult of Mary and of the martyrs.

Augustine was one of the chief Christian defenders of the institution of slavery, preaching that it is a divine ordination; he was deeply superstitious, so much so that he believed dinosaur fossils were the remains of the giants spoken of in Genesis; and Augustine was seriously contemptuous toward women, believing they were created solely for the purpose of bearing children.

Augustine's prodigious literary output has not all survived, but we have 113 books and treatises, over 200 letters, and over 500 sermons he composed by the time he died on 28 August 430 at age 75. His most famous works are the Confessions (399) — a tale of a rake reformed — and Of the City of God (413-426) — a rambling apology that the fall of civilization doesn't matter because God's City is where Christians are destined to reside. Freethinkers can measure their success by how much unlike St. Augustine's vision the world has become.

Originally published November 2003.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer




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