St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) was an Algerian-Roman philosopher and theologian of the late Roman / early Medieval period. He is one of the most important early figures in the development of Western Christianity, and was a major figure in bringing Christianity to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire. He is often considered the father of orthodox theology and the greatest
of the four great fathers of the Latin Church (along with St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory).
Unlike the later Scholastics who took Aristotle as the classical model to be integrated into Christian thought, Augustine developed a philosophical and theological system which employed elements of Plato and Neo-Platonism in support of Christian orthodoxy. His many works profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.
Aurelius Augustinus (usually known as simply Augustine) was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (or Thagaste), a provincial Roman city in Algeria, North Africa, and he was, by descent, a Berber. His father Patricius was a pagan, but his mother Monica (or Monnica) was a devout Catholic (and is herself revered as a Christian saint), so he was raised as a Catholic. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus, an old Numidian town just south of Tagaste, famed both for its schools and for its pagan influence, where he became very familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. Later he read the “Hortensius”, a dialogue by the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, which was largely responsible for sparking his interest in philosophy.
At the age of 17, he went to Carthage, Tunisia (the metropolis of Roman Africa) to continue his education in rhetoric, and there he came under the influence of the controversial Persian religious cult of Manichaeism, much to the despair of his mother. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, including frequent visits to the brothels of Carthage, and developed a relationship with a young woman named Floria Aemilia, who would be his concubine for over fifteen years, and who bore him a son, Adeodatus.
After a year or two teaching grammar back in his home town, he returned to Carthage where he spent nine years conducting a school of rhetoric, until, in 383 (at the age of 29), he moved to Rome to teach rhetoric. However, he was disappointedwith the apathetic and crooked Roman schools, and the next year he accepted an appointment as professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a highly visible and influential academic chair.
During his time at Rome and Milan, he had moved away from Manichaeism, initially embracing the Skepticism of the New Academy movement. A combination of his own studies in Neo-Platonism, his reading of an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, and the combined influence of his mother, his friend Simplicianus and, particularly, the influential bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (338 – 397), gradually inclined Augustine towards Christianity. In the summer of 386, he officially converted to Catholic Christianity, abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and gave up any ideas of the society marriage which had been arranged for him, and devoted himself entirely to serving God, the priesthood and celibacy. He detailed this spiritual journey in his famous “Confessions”, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature.
In 388, he returned to Africa, although his mother died on the way there, and his son Adeodatus died soon after, leaving him alone in the world, without family. He sold his patrimony, giving the money to the poor, and converted the family house into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends. In 391, he was ordained a priest (and later bishop) at Hippo Regius on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria, and he became a famous preacher, particularly noted for opposing Manichaeism and heresies such as Donatism and Pelagianism. He remained in this position at Hippo until his death in 430, working tirelessly to convert the diverse local racial and religious groups to the Catholic faith.
Augustine died on 28 August 430, aged 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Germanic Vandals, who destroyed all of the city except Augustine’s cathedral and library. His body was later moved to Pavia, Italy (or, according to another account, to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia). Almost throughout his life he had been a lonely, isolated figure, not attached to any intellectual or academic movement, and without any university or institutional support for his work. At the time of his death, he was apparently the only person in his whole town who possessed any books at all.
He was made a saint (patron saint of brewers, printers, sore eyes and theologians) of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and among the Orthodox he is known as Blessed Augustine or St. Augustine the Blessed. He is the patron of the Augustinian religious order (the Catholic monastic order of both men and women living according to a guide to religious life known as the Rule of Saint Augustine). In 1298, he was made a pre-eminent Doctor of the Church.
Augustine wrote over 100 works in Latin, many of them texts on Christian doctrine and apologetic works against various heresies. He is best known for the “Confessiones” (“Confessions”, a personal account of his early life, completed in about 397), “De civitate Dei” (“The City of God”, consisting of 22 books started in 413 and finished in 426, dealing with God, martyrdom, Jews and other Christian philosophies) and “De Trinitate” (“On the Trinity”, consisting of 15 books written over the final 30 years of his life, in which he developed the “psychological analogy” of the Trinity).
In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the “Enneads” of Plotinus (his generally favourable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to its entrance into the Christian, and subsequently the European, intellectual tradition). He was also influenced by the works of the Roman poet Virgil (for his teaching on language), Cicero (for his teaching on argument) and Aristotle (particularly his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”).
Augustine argued that Skeptics have no basis for claiming to know that there is no knowledge, and he believed that genuine human knowledge can be established with certainty. He believed reason to be a uniquely human cognitive capacity that comprehends deductive truths and logical necessity. In a proof for existence similar to one later made famous by Descartes, Augustine claimed “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I am”). He also adopted a subjective view of time, arguing that time is nothing in reality but exists only in the human mind’s apprehension of reality, and that time cannot be infinite because God “created” it.
Augustine struggled to reconcile his beliefs about free will and his belief that humans are morally responsible for their actions, with his belief that one’s life is predestined and his belief in original sin (which seems to make human moral behaviour nearly impossible). He held that, because human beings begin with original sin and are therefore inherently evil (even if, as he believed, evil is not anything real but merely the absence of good), then the classical attempts to achieve virtue by discipline, training and reason are all bound to fail, and the redemptive action of God’s grace alone offers hope. He opined that “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone”.
In his theological works, Augustine expounded on the concept of original sin (the guilt of Adam which all human beings inherit) in his works against the Pelagian heretics, providing an important influence on St. Thomas Aquinas. He helped formulate the theory of the just war, and advocated the use of force against the Donatist heretics. He developed doctrines of predestination (the divine foreordaining of all that will ever happen) and efficacious grace (the idea that God’s salvation is granted to a fixed number of those whom He has already determined to save), which later found eloquent expression in the works of Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and John Calvin(1509 – 1564), as well as Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1638) during the Counter-Reformation.
Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason (e.g. he believed that God created the world simultaneously and that the seven-day creationrecorded in the Bible merely represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way). Although he believed that God had chosen the Jews as a special people, he considered the scattering of Jews by the Roman empire to be a fulfillment of prophecy, and believed that the Jews would be converted at the end of time. He associated sexual desire with the sin of Adam, and believed that it was still sinful, even though the Fall has made it part of human nature.
In “The City of God”, he conceived of the church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which will ultimately triumph over all earthly empires which are self-indulgent and ruled by pride. He emphasized the church’s strict independencefrom, and its superiority over, the civil state. Begun in the aftermath of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, it was to some extent written as a defence against those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome, and to restore the confidenceof his fellow Christians.