Before Augustine, Manicheanism was extremely influential among early Christians. Manicheanism was a cult that first arose in Roman North Africa, begun by a Persian named Mani, who died around 276 CE. This cult combined elements of Christianity with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia, or Iran.

Mani taught that the universe was a battlefield of two conflicting forces. On one side is God, who represents light and goodness and who seeks to eliminate suffering. Opposing him is Satan, who represents darkness and evil and is the cause of misery and affliction. Human beings find themselves caught in the middle of these two great forces. According to Manicheanism, the human body, like all matter, is the product of Satan and is inherently evil, whereas the soul is made of light. The only escape from evil is to free the soul from the body through the practices of asceticism and meditation. Manicheanism taught that Satan is solely responsible for all the evil in the world, and humankind is free of all responsibility in bringing about evil and misery.

Augustine became a follower of Manicheanism during his student days in Carthage, but he ultimately broke with the Manicheans over the question of responsibility for evil, since he believed that human beings are capable of free will and are among the causes of suffering in the world. This disagreement led him to Neoplatonism, a system of philosophy developed by Plato’s follower, Plotinus, that would prove to be the most influential in his life and work.

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