Saint Augustine

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


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...

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Saint Augustine

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.