BORN: 354 CE, Tagaste, Numidia (now Souk-Ahras, Algeria)
DIED: 430, Hippo, Numidia
NATIONALITY: Numidian, Roman
GENRE: Letters, sermons, treatises
On True Religion (390)
On Free Choice (395)
The City of God (425)
St. Augustine of Hippo. © The Print Collector / Alamy
Augustine was a theologian and bishop of the fourth and fifth centuries who used his intellect and skill with language to strengthen and expand the Christian Church. Born during the decline of the Roman Empire, he provided a bridge between the thought of ancient Greece, interpreted in the light of Judeo-Christian scriptures, and the Middle Ages. His authority as an inspired visionary of the Christian world has remained unparalleled through-out the history of Christianity. But even if he were not a transitional figure spanning both the ancient and modern worlds, the nature and scope of Augustine’s writings would have assured him a prominent place in the history of Western philosophy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Christianity to Manichaeism Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus) was born on November 13, 354 ce, in Tagaste, Numidia (in the modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria). His father, Patrick, a pagan until shortly before his death, was a member of the town council. His mother, Monica, raised a Christian and determined to see her son raised likewise, ensured that his childhood included what she considered proper religious education. Augustine developed serious doubts concerning Christianity and looked for spiritual fulfillment in philosophy and Manichaeism, a system of belief that claimed the world was created out of a conflict between light and dark substances and that good and evil could be attributed to two separate and distinct deities. Manichaeism strongly appealed to Augustine’s intellectual curiosity because it claimed to put everything to the test of reason and because it offered him a deterministic explanation of the existence of evil that left human beings free of personal responsibility.
Although not wealthy, Augustine’s parents were intent upon obtaining an excellent education for their son. In the late Roman Empire, education could be an important stepping-stone to high office and great wealth. In 370, after completing his intermediate studies at Madura, about twenty miles from Hippo, Augustine was forced to return to Tagaste while his father attempted to raise money to send him to Carthage for advanced studies. The Confessions (401) provide an intimate picture of the adolescent Augustine during his year at home. With shame he noted that the ‘‘bubbling impulses of puberty’’ had so debased his soul that he ‘‘could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness.’’ He took a mistress who bore him a son, Adeodatus (the name means ‘‘Gift of God’’). Spurred on by the pressure of his peers, Augustine descended ‘‘deeper into vice to avoid being despised.’’ So depraved were he and his friends that they stole some pears and threw them to the pigs—the pleasure, Augustine later reflected, ‘‘lay in doing what was not allowed,’’ rather than in eating the pears.
Depression and Return to Christianity. After completing his formal education and achieving a fair degree of success as a teacher and scholar, Augustine recorded that he was miserable. He grappled with severe depression, certain that his ‘‘hope of discovering the truth,’’ his life’s quest, was futile. Neither Manichaean cosmology nor the wisdom of philosophy had provided the spiritual answers he sought. In desperation, he decided to investigate the religion of his childhood, perhaps under the influence of Ambrose, the eminent bishop of Milan. Listening to his sermons, Augustine learned that scripture could be interpreted allegorically, a crucial insight to a man troubled by the discrepancies he found in Scripture when read literally. Augustine attempted to consult Ambrose privately, only to discover that the busy bishop was not easily accessible. In the end, the answers he craved had to be found on his own.
Retiring to Cassiciacum, an estate outside of Milan, in September of 386, Augustine took up the study of Neoplatonism, a prominent philosophy of his age, and set about investigating the Christian Scriptures. Augustine’s reading of the Platonic philosophers, coupled with his increasing exposure to Ambrose’s sermons, began to lead him toward a conversion to Christianity. He documented his moment of conversion in Confessions. According to Augustine, he was in a garden engulfed in spiritual turmoil when he heard a voice like that of a child, chanting repeatedly, ‘‘Take up and read.’’ This, Augustine believed, was a divine directive; he opened the Scriptures and read the first thing that he saw: ‘‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’’ (Rom. 13:1314). Augustine was so overjoyed in this sudden revelation that he went to tell his mother, who had earlier traveled to Milan to be with him. Upon her advice, Augustine sent his mistress away.
To Augustine, the subsequent transformation of his life was nothing short of a miracle. He subsequently gave up teaching and spent the winter with his family in the country. He prepared himself for his new life by coming to terms with his physical passions. He returned to Milan, and on Easter, April 25, 387, he and his son were baptized by Ambrose. In the nearly forty years of priesthood that followed, Augustine worked with unceasing energy and conviction to provide the unity and answers the Church sought.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Augustine's famous contemporaries include:
Pope Leo I, The Great (380-461): A Roman Catholic pope, Leo I attempted to persuade Attila, King of the Huns, not to sack Rome.
Constantine I (271-337): In addition to establishing Christianity as a major religion in the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine I also founded the city of Constantinople, a thriving cultural center for the following one thousand years.
Odoacer (435-493): This chieftain and warrior is best known for overthrowing the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, in 476.
Eusebius (275-339): This bishop is often cited as the ''Father of Church History'' because he recorded much of the early history of the Christian Church.
Works in Literary Context
Trained in rhetoric and armed with an impressive knowledge of scripture and classical philosophy, St. Augustine used his writings to combat those he considered heretical. In fact, his work’s wide-ranging influence continues to the present day. As a writer, Augustine was persuasive, and his body of work was prodigious.
Language Skills. Scholars view Augustine as one of the most accomplished stylists in Latin literature, emphasizing his skill in adapting his tone and level of discourse to his subject. H. J. Rose, writing in A Handbook of Latin Literature, deems him ‘‘the best stylist of all the Christians’’ because of his ability ‘‘to combine ornateness and simplicity, dignity and a feeling for the colloquial language of the day, to an extent which makes his writings interesting even for the least theologically inclined of moderns and those most out of sympathy with the doctrines which he taught.’’ Other commentators have praised Augustine’s virtuosity in providing access, through language, to the labyrinthine and hidden world of human feelings.
Christianity Triumphant. An extraordinarily versatile and original thinker, Augustine did not, as scholars point out, create a system of thought; it is not a unified worldview that Augustine offers, but rather a vision of triumphant Christianity. The starting point of his thought is inner experience, the space in which the mind grasps itself as indubitably real. Augustine identifies doubt as the most significant act of the thinking subject, the mental operation that establishes an individual’s existence, since one needs to exist in order to doubt one’s own existence. Furthermore, the intellect, by grasping itself, also gains access to the immaterial realm of eternal principles, and, ultimately, to God. However, this encounter with God does not imply complete knowledge of Him. That can be attained only after death, as God remains fundamentally incomprehensible and mysterious to the human intellect.
Creation from Nothing. Augustine’s Christian philosophy has as one of its cornerstones the tenet that God freely created the world from nothing. Augustine thus opposed the Neoplatonic notion of a world emanating from God through necessity. ‘‘Creation from nothing’’ also necessitates the rejection of the Greek view that the world was formed much like an artist making a finished product from materials at hand. Such a model requires preexisting and independent material for a divine craftsman to work upon. According to Augustine, either such unformed matter must be conceived so abstractly as to be the same as nothing at all, or it is something having form and made by the Creator.
According to the book of Genesis, different forms of things appeared at different times, the successive days of creation. On the other hand, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach in the Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament) teaches that all things were made together. The appearance of inconsistency vanishes, however, if one says, as Augustine recommends, that all things were created together from nothing but that some were created from nothing in a seminal condition, to be brought to actual formation later.
Understanding of the Soul. Augustine’s view of the soul is thoroughly Platonic. For him it is a substance distinct from and superior to the body, which is joined to the body by a sort of vital attention. Augustine states that though the soul is something that came to be, it cannot cease to be. To show this, he adapts arguments used in Plato’s Phaedo. For example, the soul is what it is because it shares in a principle, life, which does not admit of a contrary. So, being a soul, it cannot die.
A theological problem attends the genesis of the human soul. Does God create each soul individually or did He create all souls together in making Adam’s? On the former view, combined with a belief in original sin, God would create something that is evil. On the latter view, Adam would have passed on a human soul to his descendants that was made evil by his sin but was not evil when God created it. Traducianism is the name ofthe second position, and it was the one to which Augustine was inclined.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Augustine held the view that one's ultimate salvation was predetermined—that, to a certain extent, one's life is already mapped out. Matters of predetermination, free will, and fate have been explored extensively throughout the ages. Certainly there is long tradition in literature and a growing history in film of thinkers struggling to discover whether an individual's future is already laid out or whether one can do something to alter fate.
Minority Report (2002), a film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a story by Philip K. Dick. In this science fiction film, investigators are able to see crimes before they happen and catch the potential perpetrators just before they perform the crime. When one of the investigators sees that he himself is going to commit a crime, he tries to change his fate.
On the Bondage of the Human Will (1525), a theological treatise by Martin Luther. This work analyzes salvation in terms of Pauline theology and Augustine's writings.
Oedipus Rex (429 BCE), a play by Sophocles. This play tells the story of a king who sends his infant son to his death because of a prediction that he will be slain by his son; however, Oedipus, unaware of his heritage and the prediction, returns to his homeland and unknowingly slays his father.
''Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,'' a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. This 1741 sermon on the topic of God's complete power over human life is a Puritan treatment of the idea of predestination.
Works in Critical Context
Although Augustine’s impact on Christianity is undeniable, his work and theories were often met with hostility. In fact, much of Augustine’s work can be firmly situated as a response to an existing debate and as the beginning to future debates. Indeed, Augustine’s work inspired pillars of Christianity like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Erasmus. Even though Christian theology has mostly moved beyond the Platonism-influenced beliefs of Augustine, it is difficult to imagine the Christian Church developing the way it has without the profound influence of Augustine.
Predestination. During the 420s, another debate connected to the doctrine of free will arose. In ‘‘Epistle 194’’ to Sixtus, a church official in Rome who later became a bishop, Augustine explained his understanding of the doctrine of predestination. The letter became the source of a dispute between monks at a monastery at Hadrumetum in the African province of Byzacena. Several of the monks could not reconcile the seemingly exclusive doctrines of free will and predestination. A deputation was sent to Hippo to hear Augustine’s side of the argument firsthand. Augustine wrote On Grace and Free Will to explain his views more thoroughly, but the controversy soon spread to Gaul. Augustine’s opponents, prominent ecclesiastics such as John Cassian and Victor of Marseilles, feared that the end product might be spiritual apathy, a pessimistic belief that one would be damned or saved regardless of one’s actions.
Augustine replied to the doubters of Gaul with On the Predestination of the Saints and On the Gift of Perseverance, explaining that the two doctrines (free will and predestination) were not mutually exclusive. The controversy, however, was not to be resolved during his lifetime. Prosper of Aquitaine would continue to fight against this ‘‘Semi-Pelagianism.’’
However, these men were not Pelagians. Their disagreement with Augustine centered on his version of predestination, which they believed was too rigid.
Arguments with Pelagius. The better part of the last two decades of Augustine’s life was spent confronting the Welsh monk Pelagius (whose real name was Morgan) and his followers. As Christianity became the religion of the empire, conversion became expedient; insincere conversions were frequent. As a reaction to these insincere conversions, Pelagius and his followers taught that people were able to do good merely if they so willed. Virtue was within the grasp of everyone, unaided by grace. Pelagius even used Augustine’s On Free Choice (395) to support his position that humans can do good without the grace of God.
Augustine recognized that the teachings of Pelagius endangered the Pauline doctrine of salvation through grace. Salvation is a freely given gift of God, unable to be merited by humans. People can only do good—can only begin to do good—by the grace of God. This argument over the role of grace in salvation and the ability of humans to do good of their own volition surfaced again when Martin Luther and Erasmus went to battle over the same issues. Martin Luther, more or less, sided with Augustine, while Erasmus espoused Pelagius’s views. There has been no definitive resolution to the issue, and the argument continues to rage today.
Responses to Literature
1. After reading Augustine’s work on predestination and salvation, watch at least two films that deal with destiny and fate. (See ‘‘Common Human Experience’’ above.) How do these films approach the questions of free will and predestination? How do these approaches differ from Augustine’s in terms of the ability a human has to change his or her future by means of his or her own volition?
2. Many thinkers have pondered the beginning of the world. Augustine discusses whether or not it is possible to create something out of nothing. In your opinion, what are the implications of believing that the world has been created out of nothing? On the other hand, what are the implications of believing that the world was not created out of nothing? What is your opinion of the controversy?
Battenhouse, R. W. A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Bonner, Gerald. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. London: SCM Press, 1963.
Bourke, Vernon J. Joy in Augustine’s Ethics. Villanova, Pa.: Villanova University Press, 1979.
Fortin, Ernest. Political Idealism and Christianity in the Thought of St. Augustine. Villanova, Pa.: Villanova University Press, 1972.
Lamirande, Emilien. Church, State and Toleration: An Intriguing Change of Mind in Augustine. Villanova, Pa.: Villanova University Press, 1975.
Zumkeller, Adolar. Augustine’s Ideal of the Religious Life. New York: Fordham University Press, 1986.