Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2693
Saint Augustine belongs to a group of ecclesiastical writers from the Patristic Age, called Fathers of the Church, who wrote from the end of the first century to the close of the eighth century c.e. Augustine’s writings involve many spiritual and intellectual subjects and are written in many different forms;...
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- Critical Essays
Saint Augustine belongs to a group of ecclesiastical writers from the Patristic Age, called Fathers of the Church, who wrote from the end of the first century to the close of the eighth century c.e. Augustine’s writings involve many spiritual and intellectual subjects and are written in many different forms; no one work conveys all of his views. His writings are theocentric or God-centered, often focusing on God’s relation to human beings. For example, in accordance with Genesis 1:26, he asserts that each human being is made in the image of God; each person’s equality, freedom, and dignity are bestowed by God and are thus inalienable.
Augustine assumes the existence of God as self-evident because it cannot be proven rationally. Life holds more than what can be shown with absolute certainty. Knowledge of God derives from faith, which, in turn, seeks understanding. Augustine declares that God is omnipotent and has the ability to do anything: God created all things out of nothing and is beyond all things. God exists from all eternity and is infinite. God, then, is outside the scope of all categories of thought, logic, language, number, or perception. In addition, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-holy, and all-worthy of full love, adoration, and obedience. God is also provident, guiding the course of history and the course of each individual’s life.
The subject of God—a boundless, supernatural mystery—cannot even be glimpsed by the mind without the assent of the will and the heart and without the assistance of God’s grace. Faith needs divine authority—the disclosure of Christ found in scripture as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The vision of truth also requires the humility to learn and the diligence to strive and pray in the face of pain and sorrow. Humble faith attains what presumptuous knowledge cannot. One must possess the love that seeks, that reveals, and that brings confidence in what is revealed.
Augustine describes phases in the soul’s enlightenment, echoing 1 Corinthians 13:12 and 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4. The soul will rise from knowledge obtained through the senses, to knowledge obtained through imagination, and to knowledge obtained through spiritual, intelligent intuition, a vision of the immaterial realm of God. The human mind can construct indirect analogies of this realm but cannot understand it by using temporal categories of time, space, and matter. The simplicity of God and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are transcendent spiritual qualities. God’s inner light allows the soul to recognize those qualities. The soul will know what it is seeing, and the knowing will transform the soul. As Augustine indicates in Confessions, the soul is the place for dialogue with God, where God’s illumination occurs. He anticipates modern philosophers by making the inner life—the capacity to think, doubt, and believe—the starting point for knowledge.
Augustine writes that human beings cannot understand themselves other than through their relationship to God. They are a force directed toward God and will never find fulfillment until they turn to God. Although they have free will, human beings depend upon God, at once eternal and active. In Confessions, Augustine demonstrates these concepts through his own experience; in De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God, 1610), he demonstrates these ideas through human history.
First published: Confessiones, 397-400 (English translation, 1620)
Type of work: Autobiography
Using literary devices in new ways, Augustine describes how the experiences of his own life led to the assured and transformative love of God.
Augustine wrote Confessions when he was in his mid-forties, after he had joined the Church. He writes openly about his experiences, undaunted by those who, remembering his past life, would challenge the sincerity of his convictions. He traces how the power of God’s word can give victory over sin, closely following St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In titling his book Confessions, which he intends to be plural, Augustine drew upon Latin words signifying more than the word “confession.” For him, confession means the admission or confession of sin; the profession, demonstration, or conviction of faith; and the praise of God. It also implies the sense of agreement that results when the believer accepts what the Bible says about sin and salvation. Augustine’s book registers confession, testimony, or witness in all of these ways.
In composing his Confessions, Augustine drew upon Roman and Greek literary forms, including the meditation, a personal and philosophical or spiritual reflection and self-examination, in the manner of the meditation written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Augustine also drew upon the dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato and the Roman dialogues of Cicero.
In addition, Augustine includes qualities of prayer as a direct expression of an individual’s heart and mind to God, like David in the Psalms and Christ in the Gospels. He imparts a sense of spontaneous utterance or unstudied outpouring, moving from topic to topic and implying qualities of cross-examination. He depicts faith seeking understanding, with each having its own role, in harmony with the other. Augustine’s address to God proclaims how his confusion and despair were altered into the very means by which he is to see himself clearly for the first time before God and how God’s providence protected him.
Augustine puts readers in the position of hearing a soliloquy, a word he may have invented; it involves preestablished terms of conflict regarding characters and events associated with other times and places. Readers participate with Augustine in his questioning, there being no knowledge without it.
Moreover, in Confessions Augustine combines features of prose and verse. He uses poetic devices—simile, metaphor, rhythm, and literary vocabulary—to convey concentrated imaginative experience. Still, he writes with a quality of realism, of fidelity to fact, in a style close to everyday speech, as in a letter to a friend—in this instance, to God. As a prose poem, Confessions conveys a multitude of meanings, its language permeated by the language of the Bible.
Augustine’s blend of literary forms, patterns of thought, feeling, and action, paganism and Christianity, resulted in a new literary category: the spiritual autobiography, an account of the individual’s relation to God and how God’s word, through Jesus Christ, becomes a living actuality in a believer’s heart and mind. Confessions declared the importance of the individual soul and its relation to God. In addition, Augustine’s book, the first ancient autobiography, includes the first detailed account of childhood. It also is one of the great documents in the study of memory and imagination.
Books 1 and 2 of Confessions concern Augustine’s life prior to his arrival in Carthage. He describes his infancy and the recurring question of beginnings, his fascination with language, his boyhood, and his conflicting attitudes toward Christian and pagan wisdom and truth. He also describes his school days at Tagaste and Madauros, his adolescence, friendships, faults, and chaotic indirection.
Books 3, 4, and 5 recount his life in Carthage, his brief stay in Tagaste, his return to Carthage, and his years in Rome and Milan. While pursuing worldly ends, he leads the life of a seeker of truth, hoping to grasp it with the force of reason alone, endlessly curious. He studies theological and philosophical aspects of human free will and sin and ways in which the physical order of nature, the science of his day, reveals the spiritual order of God. Although the teachings of Plato and his contemporary followers, the neo-Platonists, have a strong impact on him, he is ultimately inspired by Ambrose’s sermons to reconsider Christianity.
Books 6, 7, 8, and 9 focus on Augustine’s life in Milan, his career goals, and his conflicts with physical desire. He struggles to understand how God, a spiritual entity who, while absolutely good, allows the existence of evil. He decides that evil has its origins in the weak will of human beings, owing to the Fall of Adam and Eve, which corrupted human ability to know or to will the good. He contemplates the necessity of divine grace through Christ as mediator between God and humankind. He feels his accumulating experience preparing him to understand how all things are from God, and, if not perverted by evil, will return to God. In July or August, 386, while in grief and agony, he hears a child’s voice telling him to read scripture. At first he thinks he overhears children at play but concludes the command is divinely inspired and meant for him. He opens the Bible and reads the first words his eyes fall upon, Romans 13:13, and then a friend asks him to read the next verse. The light of conversion and conviction fills his soul, revealing the untold horizons of God. Later, through baptism, Augustine “puts . . . on the Lord Jesus Christ.” He prepares to return to Africa. His mother, who has joined him in Milan, dies. He retells her life story and recounts their last conversation. His autobiography ends, having shown God’s power and concern for him and for others.
In book 10, Augustine inquires into the nature of memory and self-awareness. He studies how the mind can transcend the sequence of time—past, present, and future—and how it can move in and out of these states in any order as desired, and thereby find evidence of God.
In books 11, 12, 13, Augustine explores the meaning of time, creation, and Genesis 1. He explains the simultaneous emergence of space, time, and matter; God’s words bring immediate fulfillment, as well as sequential or interactive, cumulative development. God sustains creation as it embodies change, and though God himself remains changeless, creation moves toward its appointed end, as Augustine elaborates in The City of God. Augustine records his experiences in Confessions to help others find the path toward God and reach the goal, or at least find consolation, and readers for centuries have found both Christian faith and comfort in his book.
The City of God
First published: De civitate Dei, 413-427 (English translation, 1610)
Type of work: Nonfiction
Initially countering the pagan explanation for the decline of Rome, Augustine describes the drama of God’s plan of salvation, the struggle of all people throughout history.
Augustine’s The City of God, its title deriving from Psalms, as in 46:4 and 87:3, depicts a Christian world order guided by God’s providence, as presented in the Bible. The Visigoth sacking of Rome on August 24, 410, one of the increasing number of attacks upon the Roman Empire, prompted many citizens, Christian and pagan, to account for these events. Augustine, now bishop of Hippo, was asked to explain. While the Roman Empire worshiped pagan gods, the empire grew to dominate the world; now, almost one hundred years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in 312, the empire is failing.
In books 1 through 9, Augustine examines Roman polytheism. He indicates, for example, that Rome had suffered defeats long before the Christian era and had endured catastrophe. Pagan deities provided no protection then, even though Rome was believed to be partners with these gods. At one time, Romans demonstrated great human virtues, and God’s providence allowed Rome to prosper, but its reward extended to the earthly realm and is subject to change. Moreover, Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire resulted in declining moral standards and few checks upon its government. Emperors, assuming sacred status, undertook any manner of activity; even a Christian emperor could not dedicate the empire to Christ. That Rome attained an empire beyond its control resulted more from continual warfare and the quest for glory and renown than it did from the effort to improve the lives of its citizens. In addition, pagan deities, having their own areas of responsibility, could bring no stability or lasting happiness; they could only provide gratifications of the moment, empty gestures toward the unknown. Some of these pagan deities included local gods from the nations Rome had conquered, and the resulting mix of deities defied each others’ morality and rationality.
Augustine explains that pagan deities, evil spirits, fallen angels, or mere glorified humans represented an attempt to imitate God. The once-official paganism of imperial Rome signified dangers. Roman emperors, along with their subjects, wanted flattery and comfort, not facts. As a whole, Romans did not understand that the coming of Christ marked the purpose toward which all creation draws. The Roman Empire could be a means of God calling all people—-Romans, as well as Hebrews, Greeks, and barbarians—to Christ, whose kingdom, not of this world, demanded prior allegiance.
Augustine also indicates that worldly life affords no protection from evil, sorrow, and death. Still, adversity can hold treasures; what the world calls downfall and disaster often prove to be a blessing. God can bring good out of evil, though the loss is real.
In books 10 through 14, Augustine develops the Christian scheme of cosmic history and contrasts it with the alternative. He draws upon the account in Genesis of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the doctrine of Original Sin and Redemption. All human beings share in the sin of Adam and Eve and suffer the consequences: exile, pain, struggle, and death. Christ, however, triumphed when human beings were defenseless and brought salvation. Human beings are thus dependent upon divine grace; humankind’s merits are God’s gifts.
The Fall and the deeds of Christ gave rise to two cities: the Celestial City or the City of God, and the city of this world—the Earthly City or the city of the devil. Augustine uses the word “city” figuratively, referring to people of all times and places who do or do not love God as manifested in Christ. The conflict between these two cities is universal, which puts the situation in fifth century Rome within the context of eternity. The two cities offer opposing choices of the will, as with the fallen angels who sought to defy God. The love of God draws human beings outside and beyond themselves, upward toward eternal life; the love of the things of this world draws human beings inward and downward toward death.
Human beings define themselves through their commitments, and their commitments, as social beings, produce two distinctive cultures—one of God and the other of the devil. One culture lives by God’s word; the unselfish love of God and of other people in God unites this culture. The other culture lives in contempt of God’s word; selfish love, although self-defeating, unites this culture. The state or government reflects these contrasting commitments. Government can and should bring ideals of justice and peace into a sinful world, although life will seem to reward the wicked and punish the good.
Books 15 through 18 trace the temporal destinies of the two cities, their achievements, and how they intermingle and coexist. Augustine describes human life as a pilgrimage from the Earthly City to the Celestial City, a version of the theme of exile, wandering, and banishment. The faithful, exiled through the Fall of Adam and Eve from their true home with God, struggle to return. Spiritual priorities, driven by attachment to the goods of the Celestial City, must predominate over attachment to the goods of the Earthly City. Although living in both cities, the faithful must maintain a certain detachment from the Earthly City. If they persist, they will perceive the higher order of God and eventually enter the Celestial City; nothing can separate them from God’s love. The saved, chosen from the City of God as it existed throughout time, are known to God only. Others, bound by the limits of the Earthly City, where all things end, will find no fulfillment; they duplicate the sin of the devil, rejecting God.
Books 19 through 22 describe the final destiny of the two cities and Christian teachings about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. At the end of the world, God will identify those who belong to the City of God and those who belong to the city of the devil. Their respective inhabitants will include both angels and the souls of human beings whose fates will be sealed eternally. Justice will reach from the deepest past to the farthest future. Christ will fulfill the purpose of creation—life in the City of God.