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Aurelius Augustinius is another name for Augustine of Hippo, later canonized St. Augustine. He wrote his best-known work, The City of God, in the early Fifth Century. It's still one of the most influential works of Christian theology, but it's more than that. It's a history book, a savage polemic, and a treatise of moral philosophy. It's a long, dense book, but it rewards careful reading. You should check it out, and you should read the excellent study guide available on this website.
The fall of Rome to the Visigoths in the Fifth Century was a catastrophe for Christians. Rome was the seat of the Popes, the epicenter of their faith. Everyone called it The Eternal City, and this reinforced the notion that Christianity, too, was forever. The adoption of the faith into the Roman Empire made it seem invincible into the bargain. So, when the city was abandoned by the Imperium and sacked by Gothic armies, it seemed like Christianity, like Rome, was finished. Recriminations began while the rubble was still smoldering. Tradition-minded Romans blamed Christians, who now counted the Emperor among them, for abandoning ancient gods, bringing their wrath down on the city. Augustine, who was by now Bishop of Hippo, defended Christian doctrine and tried to persuade influential Church and Imperial figures to look elsewhere to explain the fall of Rome by publishing The City of God.
The book re-tells the history of the world as a struggle between good and evil forces, between the forces of light and darkness, between God and the Devil. It portrays Earthly and Heavenly cities, standing in for spiritual and temporal empires, and its central message is, "Don't worry, because the spiritual empire will win in the end." Augustine went to great lengths to shift the blame for Rome's decline away from Christianity. He went so far as to argue that, but for Christianity, the decline would have been swifter, and worse. Christianity, in other words, saved Rome from itself. This, and the idea that Christians should stop worrying about Earthly affairs, which were in the hand of the Devil, and focus only on Heavenly affairs, which were in the hand of God and were supposed to deflect the public's anger over the supposed betrayal of Rome by the baptized Emperor and citizens.
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The whole of Christian thought may be seen as variations on the essential positions of two men—Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This contention is closely related to another—that the history of philosophy is wisely seen as variations on the work of Plato and Aristotle. It is inevitable that when religious thinkers express the content of their faith, they will use the most appropriate words, concepts, and even systems available in their culture. Consequently, Augustine was a Platonist, Thomas was an Aristotelian. Any attempt to gloss over this fundamental difference between these two leading theologians of Christendom is to pervert both.
In the thirteenth century, Thomas was very influential in establishing Aristotelian empiricism, thereby creating a momentous division between philosophy and theology. Thomas held that there were certain areas unique to each discipline, while other matters could be properly understood from either perspective. The Trinity and Incarnation, for example, could be known only through revelation; the nature of the empirical world was properly the jurisdiction of philosophy and was almost perfectly understood by Aristotle. However, God’s existence, and to a certain extent his nature, could be known either through revelation or by the processes of natural reason, operating on sense perception. Thus, natural theology was strongly defended as a legitimate discipline and a fitting handmaiden of the Catholic Church.
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Augustine, however, writing eight centuries before, drew his inspiration from Plato, strongly tempered by the theology of Saint Paul. For Plato, “knowledge” through the senses was inferior to intuitive knowledge, which he defined as knowledge of the essential nature of all things without which people perceive only dim shadows in a darkened cave. Augustine coupled this Platonic distrust of the senses with his preoccupation with the problem of evil and his own personal problems of morality. At first, this concern had driven him to the position of Manicheanism, a philosophy that holds to a metaphysical dualism of good and evil and to the inherent evil of matter. Disillusioned by the naïveté of this philosophy’s spokesperson, Augustine turned to Neoplatonism, finding there a suitable explanation of evil in terms of a theistic universe, intuitively understood. “I found there,” he said, “all things but one—the Logos made flesh.”
The significance of this omission rested in Augustine’s common confession with Paul: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Truth is not a matter simply of knowledge but of action; the problem is not knowing the truth but living the truth. With this awareness came Augustine’s baptism of Neoplatonism into the Christian worldview—the result has been called a complete break with all previous understandings of humankind.
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In opposition to the Greek philosophers, Augustine insisted that to know the truth is not necessarily to do the truth, for the essential nature of humankind is not reason but will. Human beings are so created that they have no option but to love, to orient their being to some object, principle, or person with an ultimate devotion. The supreme object willed by people characterizes their total being and endows them with presuppositions, motivations, rationale, vitality, and goal. There is no person without such a faith, “religion,” or “god.” One does not reason to such an object, but reasons from it. No one believes in the true God, the God of moral demand, unless the individual wills it; but no amount of persuasion can change an unwilling will. Since human beings are essentially self-centered, they will always will something other than the true God to be god—human beings will create god in their own image. Only when human beings are touched by divine grace can they will God alone as true center.
Consequently, there must be no severance of theology and philosophy: There can be no reasoning to faith, to truth; there can only be reasoning from faith. Only from the rightly oriented will, the mind already turned toward the redeeming God, can human beings discover truth. The keystone of Augustinianism is this—”I believe in order to understand,” or even better, theology is “faith seeking understanding.” The same applies to morality, for every “virtue” that makes no reference to God is a vice. This insistence, essentially discounted by Thomas Aquinas and the philosophers of much of the medieval period, was revived as an essential proclamation of the Protestant Reformation. Through Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, it has become an adapted tenet of existentialism.
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This understanding is the foundation for Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. Augustine’s writing career was largely consumed in apologetics, in defending orthodox (Nicene) Christianity against its antagonists both within and without the Church. Occasioned by the sack of Rome in 410, The City of God arose as an answer to pagan critics who insisted that Christianity was the principal cause of the weakening of the Roman Empire. The reasons documenting this charge ranged from the religious position that avowal of the Christian God had elicited the vengeance of the true pagan gods, to the secular charge that Christian otherworldliness had undermined the internal solidarity of the empire. With a brilliant display of concerned patience, Augustine produced one of the most detailed, comprehensive, and definitive apologies ever written. Augustine not only answered major charges but also dealt with every conceivable attack. He answered the critics in terms of the Christian position and defended his answers in detail from the writings of the honored spokespeople of the empire throughout its history. Augustine’s second purpose with this work was to help Christians who had been weakened or perplexed by persecution and by the disastrous events of history.
Yet from this apology emerged what has made this not only a work of historic interest but also a classic. The City of God is one of the first attempts at a theology or philosophy of history. Although Greek concepts of history differed somewhat, they were essentially in agreement that history was cyclic, characterized by an endless round of recurring events. In effect, there was no telos, no final goal, toward which history moved. Augustine’s apology developed the cosmic implications of Christian revelation, defending history as a linear pattern. The Christian God is Triune; that is, God operates in the three eternal modes of creator-sustainer, redeemer, and inspirer. History as the plane of divine activity has as its beginning Creation, as its center point God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ, and continues in the Spirit toward the consummation, the judgment, and transformation of all into a new heaven and a new earth. From the perspective of faith, the pattern of history is visible and the meaning of life perceivable. Augustine’s work set the basic view of much of the Middle Ages and of Western culture, and he, perhaps more than any other person, provided the fundamental theology of Christendom.
The situation confronting Augustine was fraught with theological difficulties. He could easily counter petty charges, pointing to the Church as a refuge during the sacking, to Christian teachings as having tempered pagan bloodthirstiness, and to pagan respect for possessions of the Christian God. Equally easy was Augustine’s proof of the moral decadence of Rome, a condition with disastrous consequences that had long been warned against by the Roman orators. Although Augustine may have had an apology of this scope in mind at first, the work, once begun, held vast implications. Involved here were the problems of Divine Providence, the justification of evil in a theistic world, the reconciliation of unmerited suffering, and the meaning of a history interrupted by disasters. Nothing short of a cosmology, a total worldview, could do justice to the questions forcing such an apology.
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The overarching problem was Providence. If God does not know what evils will occur, is he God? If he does know, is God not then either impotent or evil? Augustine answers the first question in the negative—God must have foreknowledge to be God. The problem exists only if one holds that infallible foreknowledge implies necessity. For Augustine, God can know all things without undermining free will, for the free wills themselves are included in the order of causes that God foreknows. It is God’s knowledge of a thing that gives it not only being but also its specific nature; therefore, it is the very fact of God’s knowledge of humankind’s free will that makes it free—it is known as free and not as determined. Freedom does not mean uncaused but self-caused, and it is the very self that God knows even more intimately than the self does. Consequently, God’s knowledge of a person is that the individual will sin, not that the person will be forced to sin.
In this manner, God’s immediate responsibility for evil is met. Yet there is a larger problem, for God still permits people in their freedom to do evil. The Roman Empire provided the framework for Augustine’s answer. The empire, at its beginning, was dedicated to truth, justice, and the good of humankind—it was blessed by God. However, love of liberty became love of domination, desire for virtue became intoxication for pleasure, and glory in well-doing became vaunted pride. Herein is portrayed the dilemma of humankind from the beginning. In the beginning, God created all things and continues to create, for all would relapse into nothingness if he were to withdraw his creative power. All that God created is good, yet mutable; having been created from nothing, it is absolutely dependent on God. Everything was graduated according to being, and the opposition of contraries serves to heighten the beauty of the universe. It was with the act of creation that time began, for time means movement and change—none of these applies to God. As a result, God’s foreknowledge applies to all time, for his eternal envisagement is unchangeable; although God knows what people in their freedom will do, he also knows what he will do to bring from every evil a greater eventual good. It is in knowing all time as present that the evil in each human is redeemed. For Augustine, everything adds to God’s cosmic whole; even sinners beautify the world.
Nothing, however, is evil by nature, for all natures are created by God. Evil can be nothing but privation, lack of good. Only the will, not one’s nature, is the source of evil. Both the highest of the angels and Adam became inflated by pride in their God-given capacities, craving to become ends in themselves—”ye shall be as gods.” Thus evil entered the world, for humankind made what was good into an evil by elevating it as the supreme good. Sex, for example, is a good but is made evil when claimed as the center and meaning of life. It is not the thing turned to, but the turning itself, that is evil. Since people are sustained in being by their relation to the supreme good, any substitution of a lesser good brings with it a disruption in which their nature is injured. Although by such action people come to approximate a nonentity, God does not revoke his nature totally, but sustains people enough for them to be aware of their self-inflicted loss.
The result is a creature frustrated in the conflict between nature and will: ”O Lord. Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” People, in first not wanting to will what they could, will to do what they cannot. This is evil as privation—the impotence of an essentially good nature. Because God alone truly exists, that which is opposed to God is nonbeing; in willing less than fullness of being, people do not create evil but give to nonbeing the existential status of being. Expressed in another way, sin is living the lie of believing oneself to be self-created, self-sustained, and self-dependent. Such confusion establishes the duality, the fall, of creation—death is the most obvious consequence. Evil then has no efficient cause but a deficient one—the will. As humankind is insubordinate to God, the “flesh” becomes insubordinate to the will.
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According to Augustine, evil is misdirected love. Adam’s sin so altered the nature of humankind that the human will is incapable of redirecting itself and no longer regarding itself as center. Therefore, for most of humankind, history is simply cyclic. However, God’s foreknowledge includes not simply the fall of humankind, but God’s election of some people through grace to a redirected love. For these people, history is linear, marked at its center by Jesus Christ, moving toward consummation in eternal life. Therefore, in God’s cosmic plan, there are two histories, indicated by two cities. The existence of these cities was permitted by God to show the consequences of pride and to reveal what good can be brought from evil by Grace.
Augustine states, “A people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” History, from beginning to end, is divided by the two “cities” formed by these alternative loves—”the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Of the first parents, Cain belonged to the city of people and Abel to the city of God. However, since all are condemned by God, those in the latter are there only because of God’s undeserved election.
Augustine’s descriptions of these cities is all the more interesting because he refuses to overstate his case. In the first place, he refuses, for the most part, to equate the human city with historic Rome or the divine city with the visible Church—the churches are “full of those who shall be separated by the winnowing as in the threshing-floor.” These are invisible cities, and their members are interspersed in these institutions, to be separated only at the end of history. In the second place, he refrains from painting the human city with totally black strokes—”the things which this city desires cannot justly be said to be evil, for it is itself, in its own kind, better than all other human good. For it desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain to this peace.” This city is characterized not by its goods but by its supreme love of them.
With meticulous care, Augustine traces the history of both cities, carefully explaining scriptural history as both literal and allegorical of the abiding presence of the city of God. Augustine sees Christ’s coming prophesied and prepared for throughout history, in event, figure, and word. Because not even the Jews held that they alone belonged to God, Augustine maintains that it cannot be denied that other people and nations prophesied concerning Christ, and therefore, many of these may belong to the heavenly city.
After his resurrection, Christ opened the Scriptures to the disciples so that they could understand the eternal foundation of history and God’s dual plan. However, the instruments of God’s grace to the elect were Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Through his Incarnation, God became mediator, partaking of humanity so that in its purification by atonement on the cross, humanity could be resurrected with him in glory and so that through faith humankind could participate in his divinity. Faith begins purification not only of the will and thus of one’s nature but also of the mind. As Augustine says, impregnated with faith, reason may advance toward the truth. Theology and philosophy belong together because will and reason are inseparable, both in impotence and in restoration.
Throughout history, those of the divine city will know suffering at the hands of the human city, yet, being of the elect, they will not fall again. No evil will be permitted although ultimately evil results; through suffering, God bears witness to himself, and through suffering, the believer is tempered and corrected. Members of the divine city (striving for the ideal balance of contemplation and action) obey the laws of the earthly city and are concerned with the necessities that do not undermine faith. To the end, the true Church goes forward “on pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God.” Its life is aimed at universal love, and its endurance based on the hope of future happiness. The peace of the city of God is “the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.” However, in this life such peace is more the “solace of misery,” and righteousness consists more in forgiveness than in the perfecting of virtues. The peace of the unbeliever is earthly pleasure, but in the life to come it will be an eternal misery of the will and passions in conflict. Expressed in terms of sin, history began with humankind’s ability to sin or not to sin; it will end for the elect with humankind’s higher freedom, the ability not to be able to sin, for in true freedom, sin no longer has delight.
With meticulous detail, often disturbing in its literalness, Augustine outlines the epochs of future history, climaxing with the “new heaven and the new earth.” Such an attempt escapes the charge of speculation, Augustine believes, because it has as its point of departure scriptural revelation, interpreted from the perspective of the Christ event. Throughout these reflections, there is a tension that has its roots in Augustine’s own life. On one hand is the rejection of this world in otherworldliness, holding alone to God’s unfailing omnipotence and justice, and the eternal duality of heaven and hell. On the other hand, Augustine is world-affirming, straining for a transformational vision of which God’s love gives foretaste. Both have their basis expressed in one of Augustine’s concluding statements, emerging not only as a statement of faith but also as a yearning hope issuing from his own tempestuous life. Speaking of that which is to be, he says that “then there shall be no more of this world, no more of the surgings and restlessness of human life.”
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Sources for Further Study
Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1946. Out of fifty-seven volumes in this collection of early Christian theologians, eight volumes (9, 12, 15, 22, 29, 30, 41, and 42) are devoted to Saint Augustine. Includes background and biographical material. Helps in understanding Augustine’s doctrinal views.
Augustine. Augustine: Major Writings. Edited by Benedict J. Groeshel, C.F.R. New York: Crossroad, 1995. Offers a chapter on Augustine as historian and political philosopher, emphasizing his teachings on spiritual and civic life and earthly war and peace as treated in The City of God.
Augustine, Saint. The Essentials of Augustine. Selected with commentary by Vernon J. Bourke. New York: New American Library, 1964. A topical collection of excerpts from Augustine’s major writings.
Augustine, Saint. Saint Augustine’s Childhood: Confessiones. Edited and translated by Garry Wills. New York: Viking, 2001. Wills’s commentary draws comparison between Augustine’s theory of language and that of Noam Chomsky.
Battenhouse, Roy W., ed. A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. A collection of essays about Augustine’s life and works. Contains an essay by Edward R. Hardy, Jr., on The City of God and other essays that help interpret The City of God in the context of Augustine’s thought.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. The standard biography of Augustine, which devotes significant space to the composition and themes of The City of God.
Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. This volume places Saint Augustine in his historical context.
Clark, Mary T. Augustine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994. A good biographical sketch of the life of Augustine, including his long search for truth that led to his conversion to Christianity. Evaluates many of Augustine’s ideas. Gives an excellent summary of the nature and impact of The City of God.
Deane, Henry. The Political and Social Philosophy of Saint Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. A treatment of the theological basis of Augustine’s belief about the “fallen man” or the idea of Original Sin and the resulting sinful nature of man. Also covers morality and justice, the state and order, the church, heresy, and Augustine’s philosophy of history.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Augustine and the Limits of Political Power. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Written to show the relevancy of Augustine’s political theories to modern politics. Author tries to adapt The City of God to twentieth century conditions. Although some of the arguments are good, Elshtain’s conclusions are not entirely realistic.
Evans, G. R. Augustine on Evil. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Begins with Augustine’s thoughts on the nature of humankind as a young pagan philosopher, then shows the changes in his thinking after his conversion to Christianity. Epilogue covers later philosophers and their interpretations of Augustine’s ideas.
Fortin, Ernst. “De Civitate Dei.” In Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1999. A fine summary of the basic themes and historical and political significance of The City of God.
Markus, R. A. Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. A study of The City of God that examines Augustine’s concept of history and the political place of society in history that he develops in this work.
Scott, T. Kermit. Augustine: His Thought in Context. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. Discusses the philosophies and the ideologies that influenced Augustine’s early life, then traces his spiritual search and the results of that search. Interprets Augustine in light of his own time. Good discussion of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination.
Smith, Warren Thomas. Augustine: His Life and Thought. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1980. A very well-written and readable biographical account of Augustine’s early life, home and parents, years of searching, conversion to Christianity, and life as a Christian leader. Puts Augustine’s writings in the context of defending the doctrines of the Christian church.
Trapè, Agostino. “Saint Augustine.” In Patrology, edited by Johanness Quasten. Vol. 4. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1992. A superb summary of the life, works, writings, philosophy, and theology of Augustine, with an extensive bibliography.
van Oort, Johannes. Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine’s “City of God” and the Sources of His Doctrine of the Two Cities. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991. A complete study of The City of God, its compositional structure, the meaning of the two cities, and its character as an apologetic and theological work. The sources of Augustine’s ideas receive full examination.
Versfeld, Marthinus. A Guide to “The City of God.” London: Sheed & Ward, 1958. A study of the second part of Augustine’s The City of God. The interpretation is taken from the standpoint of moral philosophy.