Saint Augustine

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Life

Augustine was the son of Patricius, a Roman official, and his Christian wife, Monica. He was commonly known as Aurelius Augustinus, but there is no proof this name was given him either at birth or baptism. He had at least one brother, Navigius, and a sister, Perpetua (who became...

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Life

Augustine was the son of Patricius, a Roman official, and his Christian wife, Monica. He was commonly known as Aurelius Augustinus, but there is no proof this name was given him either at birth or baptism. He had at least one brother, Navigius, and a sister, Perpetua (who became a nun). Except for the five years he taught in Italy, Augustine spent his entire life in North Africa. Following a classical education at a Tagaste grammar school, Augustine attended the Madauros academy. Fond of the Latin language and literature, he never knew or liked Greek. The patronage of a local noble, Romanianus, allowed Augustine to go to the University of Carthage. There in 371 c.e., his mistress gave birth to their son, Adeodatus.

After reading Cicero’s Hortensius (now lost), Augustine embraced the life of a philosopher. In 373-374 c.e., he taught grammar at Tagaste, and until 383 c.e., he lectured on rhetoric in Carthage. Next he went to Italy, teaching rhetoric in Rome and Milan. Successively, Augustine accepted and rejected various philosophies. For a while, he was a Manichaean, then affirmed the Skepticism of the New Academy. In a memorable work, Contra academicos (386 c.e.; Against the Academicians, 1957), Augustine repudiated Skepticism and took up Neoplatonism, which profoundly affected his character and career.

In Milan, Augustine was influenced by the preaching of Bishop Ambrose and the prayers of his mother. Following a dramatic conversion, Augustine and Adeodatus were baptized on Easter, April 25, 387 c.e. Returning to Africa, in 388 c.e., Augustine divested himself of his wealth, living a life of poverty and celibacy. He retained only his home, which became a monastery. By popular demand, against his will, he was made deacon and then priest in Hippo in 391 c.e. Five years later, Augustine became bishop of Hippo, a city of 30,000 largely non-Christian inhabitants. Until his death, Augustine expounded and extended the Catholic faith as prelate, preacher, apologist, philosopher, theologian, and author.

Augustine left behind a large body of surviving writing, including one hundred books and treatises, two hundred letters, and more than five hundred sermons. His major works include De Trinitate (399-419 c.e.; On the Trinity, 1948), an exposition of the Christian doctrine of God; Confessiones (c. 397-401 c.e.; Confessions, 1912), an adventure in autobiography that amounted to “one long extended prayer”; and De civitate Dei (413-427 c.e.; The City of God, 1610), composed after the Fall of Rome to refute the accusation that Christians caused it. As bishop, Augustine promoted orthodoxy by refuting Donatism (the belief that sacraments are valid only if performed by “worthy” priests) and Pelagianism (the teaching that humans, being inherently good, “merit” grace). As the last great Christian mind of antiquity and the first of the Middle Ages, Augustine was a bridge between the classical world and the Catholic centuries.

Influence

Regarded as “the greatest of all the Doctors of the Church,” Augustine profoundly influenced all subsequent Western theology, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, as well as Occidental philosophy, from Saint Anselm to René Descartes.

Further Reading:

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.

Bourke, Vernon J. The Essential Augustine. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1974. An excellent collection of excerpts from Augustine’s principal writings, introduced topically by this Thomist writer. Includes a bibliography.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. One of the best biographical accounts of Augustine, which uses the chronological approach to show Augustine’s writings as they evolved during his lifetime. Heavily annotated.

Chadwick, Henry. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This volume in the Past Masters series provides a concise introduction to Augustine’s thought.

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, Herbert A. The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A treatment of the theology and psychology behind Augustine’s notion of “Fallen Man.” Focuses on morality and justice, the state and order, war and relations among states, the church, state, heresy, and Augustine’s view 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.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. Among the best and most scholarly works on Augustine’s philosophy. A translation of the 1943 version in French, more than half of which is annotations. Gilson regards Augustinianism as the discovery of humility, built on charity.

Lawless, George P. Augustine of Hippo and His Monastic Rule. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. An excellent summary of the lifetime work of the late Luc Verbraken, tracing the monastic orientation of Augustine’s life and showing how his love of friends in a community setting established the monastic tradition in the Christian West.

Markus, R. A., ed. Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1972. An anthology of in-depth essays by prominent interpreters of Augustine, extensive in its coverage of his various interests.

Meer, F. G. L. van der. Augustine the Bishop. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Reviews Augustine’s adult life after he became bishop of Hippo. Augmented by archaeological information from North African digs.

O’Daly, Gerard. Augustine’s Philosophy of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. The first monograph in more than a century to analyze Augustine’s arguments about the mind.

O’Donnell, James. Augustine: A New Biography. New York: Ecco, 2005. An interesting biography, written by a respected Augustine scholar, that includes much interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions.

Wills, Garry. Saint Augustine. New York: Lipper/Viking Press, 1999. An introduction to Augustine and a basic examination of his works. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review)

Saint Augustine

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327

Author Profile

For centuries, the immense influence of Augustine of Hippo has been felt in the life of the Christian Church in the West. Theologians, preachers, ecclesiastical officials, and laity alike have been guided by, or forced to respond to, the power of his ideas and ethical teachings. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, to name only a few, formulated their own theological positions with special reference to Augustinian thought. A prolific and brilliant writer whose works range from spiritual autobiography to biblical interpretation, Augustine was also a man of the people and a man of action. Born of a pagan father and a Christian mother, he received a first-rate education in the Roman province of Numidia and later became a teacher of rhetoric in Italy. Reconverted to Christianity in 386, Augustine went on to become bishop of Hippo Regius in 395/396 and served in that capacity until his death.

As with any great thinker, Augustine’s ideas developed and changed somewhat over the years, but there is also a remarkable consistency to much of his thought, especially in the area of ethics. Augustine’s views on ethics were conditioned by his own powerful, personal experiences as well as by the theological and ecclesiastical controversies that erupted during his period of service in the Church. Although he had some knowledge of the ethical theories of both Plato and Aristotle, his familiarity was derived second-hand from his reading of Cicero, Plotinus, and others. Nevertheless, his high regard for Platonic thought can be seen in his attempts to reconcile Christian ideals and Platonic teachings.

God, Love, and Desire

On the general issues of human conduct and human destiny, Augustine’s thinking was naturally conditioned by the New Testament and by Church tradition. A person, he states, is truly blessed or happy when all of his or her actions are in harmony with reason and Christian truth. Blessedness, accordingly, does not mean simply the satisfaction of every desire. Indeed, the satisfaction of evil or wrong desires provides no ultimate happiness: “No one is happy unless he has all he wants and wants nothing that is evil.” Central to Augustine’s understanding here is his emphasis on God and love. Indeed, for Augustine, virtue can be defined as “rightly ordered love.” Throughout his writings, he stresses that for the Christian an action or work can have value and be worthy only if it proceeds from the motive of Christian love, that is, love of God. Augustine’s famous and often-misunderstood injunction “Love, and do what you will” is to be understood in this context.

For Augustine, there exists in humans a conflict of wills, a struggle between original human goodness and the later, inherited desire for lesser things. Although, as he states, “the guilt of this desire is remitted by baptism,” nevertheless, “there remains the weakness against which, until he is cured, every faithful man who advances in the right direction struggles most earnestly.” In time, as a person matures in the Christian faith, the struggle lessens. As long as humans allow God to govern them and sustain their spirits, they can control their lower natures and desires, and advance on the Christian path. As the concluding prayer of The Trinity (420) puts it: “Lord, may I be mindful of you, understand you, love you. Increase these gifts in me until you have entirely reformed me.”

Sin, Moral Conduct, and Society

According to Augustine, the essential task of humans is to attempt the restoration of the image of God within themselves through prayer, meditation on Scripture, worship, and moral conduct. Sin, by its very nature, obscures and imprisons this image. Especially dangerous to people is the sin of pride, which opens the soul to other vices such as earthly desire and curiosity. Each is destructive of the human soul as well as of human society. A properly ordered moral life not only marks a person’s individual movement toward God but also contributes to the improvement of earthly society. Although Augustine believed that humans are social animals by nature and that human potential can be realized only within such an environment, he did not agree that the machinery of political organization is natural. Rather, government institutions are at most a necessary check on the worst excesses of human behavior following the fall of Adam and Eve. The best government is one that provides a peaceful, stable environment in which people can work out their own salvation. For Augustine, as for other early Christian teachers, humans are earthly pilgrims in search of a final resting place. God is both the goal and the means of attaining such: “By means of him we tend towards him, by means of knowledge we tend towards wisdom, all the same without departing from one and the same Christ.”

Further Reading:

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.

Bourke, Vernon J. The Essential Augustine. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1974. An excellent collection of excerpts from Augustine’s principal writings, introduced topically by this Thomist writer. Includes a bibliography.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. One of the best biographical accounts of Augustine, which uses the chronological approach to show Augustine’s writings as they evolved during his lifetime. Heavily annotated.

Chadwick, Henry. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This volume in the Past Masters series provides a concise introduction to Augustine’s thought.

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, Herbert A. The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A treatment of the theology and psychology behind Augustine’s notion of “Fallen Man.” Focuses on morality and justice, the state and order, war and relations among states, the church, state, heresy, and Augustine’s view 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.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. Among the best and most scholarly works on Augustine’s philosophy. A translation of the 1943 version in French, more than half of which is annotations. Gilson regards Augustinianism as the discovery of humility, built on charity.

Lawless, George P. Augustine of Hippo and His Monastic Rule. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. An excellent summary of the lifetime work of the late Luc Verbraken, tracing the monastic orientation of Augustine’s life and showing how his love of friends in a community setting established the monastic tradition in the Christian West.

Markus, R. A., ed. Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1972. An anthology of in-depth essays by prominent interpreters of Augustine, extensive in its coverage of his various interests.

Meer, F. G. L. van der. Augustine the Bishop. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Reviews Augustine’s adult life after he became bishop of Hippo. Augmented by archaeological information from North African digs.

O’Daly, Gerard. Augustine’s Philosophy of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. The first monograph in more than a century to analyze Augustine’s arguments about the mind.

O’Donnell, James. Augustine: A New Biography. New York: Ecco, 2005. An interesting biography, written by a respected Augustine scholar, that includes much interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions.

Wills, Garry. Saint Augustine. New York: Lipper/Viking Press, 1999. An introduction to Augustine and a basic examination of his works. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review)

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 110

How does Saint Augustine describe God’s word as a living actuality in the hearts and minds of believers?

What do Augustine’s Confessions and City of God indicate about the overall situation of human beings and their particular situations?

How might those two works be explained as a process of vision—of spiritual, intellectual, and intuitive seeing?

For Augustine, how does God speak in the events of history and in the personal lives of believers?

How does Augustine provide multiple perspectives on human life, and how does he set it in the widest of all contexts?

Describe Augustine’s treatment of the theme of exile, of life as pilgrimage.

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