Saint Augustine

Article abstract: Numidian bishop{$I[g]Africa;Saint Augustine[Augustine]}{$I[g]Roman Empire;Saint Augustine[Augustine]}{$I[g]Carthage;Saint Augustine[Augustine]} Renowned for his original interpretations of Scripture and extensive writings, Augustine was the greatest Christian theologian of the ancient world.

Early Life

Augustine (AW-guh-steen) was born Aurelius Augustinus to middle-class parents, Patricius and Monica, in the Roman province of Numidia (now Algeria). His pious mother imbued him with a reverence for Christ, but as he excelled in school he found the Church’s teachings and practices unsatisfactory. As he studied at nearby Madauros and then Carthage, he was swayed by various philosophies. From 370 to 383, with the exception of one year spent in Tagaste, he taught rhetoric in Carthage. Part of these early years were wasted (he later regretted) on womanizing, but this experience created in him a lifelong sensitivity to overcoming the desires of the flesh.

On the birth of an illegitimate son, Adeodatus, in 373, Augustine identified himself with the prophet Mani, who had preached a belief in the spiritual forces of light and darkness, which also included Christ as the Redeemer. Hoping to explore the tension in this dualism, Augustine was disappointed by the shallow intellect of the Manichaean bishop Faustus and became disillusioned with that faith.

Desirous of a fresh outlook and a better teaching position, Augustine sailed to Rome in 383 and the next year began teaching rhetoric in Milan. There he was awakened to the potential of Christian theology by the sermons of Saint Ambrose and, in particular, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. In this philosophy—the beliefs of Plato adapted to Christianity by Plotinus—the individual can only know true existence and the one God by searching within, to attain unity with God’s love. Only spiritual faith, and not reason or physical appearances, could provide the ultimate answers. At first a skeptic, Augustine began his inner search and in 386 had a mystical experience in which he believed he had discovered God. Resigning his teaching position, Augustine converted completely to Christianity and was baptized by Ambrose at Milan in the spring of 387.

Life’s Work

Augustine plunged into the cause of discovering and articulating God’s will as a Christian philosopher. He did so with such zeal that a steady stream of treatises flowed from his pen. He returned to Numidia in 389 and established a monastery at Hippo, intending to live there quietly and write. He was ordained as a priest in 391, and he became bishop of Hippo in 396. Thus, instead of developing his theological ideas systematically, Augustine revealed them in sermons, letters in reply to queries for guidance, tracts against separatists, and books. In addition, he wrote a lengthy autobiography of his early life, Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620).

God, in Augustine’s view, is at the center of all events and explanations. Such a theocentric philosophy depends on Holy Scripture; for Augustine, the Psalms, Genesis, and the First Letter of John were especially important. His commentaries on the first two sources are famous treatises, along with De Trinitate (c. 419; On the Trinity, 1875) and De civitate Dei (412-427; The City of God, 1610).

God, as “the author of all existences” and “the illuminator of all truth,” is Wisdom itself and therefore the highest level of reality. The second level is the human soul, which includes memory, understanding, and will. By looking to God, the individual discovers the true knowledge that God has already bestowed on him or her. All things emanate from that ultimate authority; through faith, one gains truth, the use of reason being only secondary. The third and...

(The entire section is 1589 words.)

Saint Augustine

Article abstract: Renowned for his original interpretations of Scripture and extensive writings—in particular, his Confessions—Augustine was the greatest Christian theologian of the ancient world.

Early Life

Aurelius Augustinus was born of middle-class parents, Patricius and Monica, in the Roman province of Numidia (now Algeria). His pious mother imbued him with a reverence for Christ, but as he excelled in school, he found the Catholic Church’s teachings and practices unsatisfactory. As he studied at nearby Madauros and then Carthage, he was swayed by various philosophies. From 370 to 383, with the exception of one year in Tagaste, he taught rhetoric in Carthage. Part of these early years were wasted (he later regretted) on womanizing, but this experience created in him a lifelong sensitivity to overcoming the desires of the flesh. Upon the birth of an illegitimate son, Adeodatus, in 373, Augustine identified himself with the prophet Mani, who had preached a belief in the spiritual forces of light and darkness that also included Christ as the Redeemer. Hoping to explore the tension in this dualism, Augustine was disappointed by the shallow intellect of the Manichaean bishop Faustus and became disillusioned with that faith.

Desirous of a fresh outlook and a better teaching position, Augustine sailed to Rome in 383 and the next year began teaching rhetoric in Milan. There he was awakened to the potential of Christian theology by the sermons of Saint Ambrose and, in particular, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. In this philosophy—the beliefs of Plato adapted to Christianity by Plotinus—the individual can know true existence and the one God only by searching within to attain unity with God’s love. Only spiritual faith, and not reason or physical appearances, can provide the ultimate answers. At first a skeptic, Augustine began his inner search and in 386 had a mystical experience in which he believed he had discovered God. Resigning his teaching position, Augustine converted completely to Christianity and was baptized by Ambrose at Milan in the spring of 387.

Life’s Work

Augustine plunged into the cause of discovering and articulating God’s will as a Christian philosopher. He did so with such zeal that a steady stream of treatises flowed from his pen. He returned to Numidia in 389 and established a monastery at Hippo, intending to live there quietly and write. He was ordained as a priest in 391, and he became bishop of Hippo in 396. Therefore, instead of developing his theological ideas systematically, Augustine revealed them in sermons, letters in reply to queries for guidance, tracts against separatists, and books. In addition, he wrote a lengthy autobiography of his early life, Confessions.

God, in Augustine’s view, is at the center of all events and explanations. Such a theocentric philosophy depends on Holy Scripture; for Augustine, the Psalms, Genesis, and the First Letter of John were especially important. His commentaries on the Psalms and Genesis are famous treatises, along with On the Trinity and The City of God.

God, as “the author of all existences” and “the illuminator of all truth,” is wisdom itself and therefore the highest level of reality. The second level is the human soul, which includes memory, understanding, and will. By looking to God, one discovers the true knowledge that God has already bestowed upon oneself. All things emanate from that ultimate authority. Through faith, one gains truth; the use of reason is only secondary. The third and lowest level of reality is the human body.

A human’s greatest ethical happiness can be realized only by aspiring to God’s love. Human beings are endowed with the free choice to do good or evil, but God by divine grace may bestow the greater freedom of enabling a person to escape an attraction to evil. Similarly, revelation frees the mind from skepticism. By grappling with the elusive problem of evil, Augustine managed to bring better focus to an issue of universal concern to all religions.

Also a practical thinker,...

(The entire section is 1700 words.)