Saint Augustine

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1589

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)....

(The entire section contains 3289 words.)

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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 lowest level of reality is the human body, whose greatest ethical happiness can only be realized 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, Augustine was an acute observer of the natural universe. By focusing on God in nature, however, and believing that true knowledge came only through spiritual introspection, he came to regard physical things as least important and science as having little utility, concluding that faith rather than reason provides the ultimate truth. By the same token, Augustine viewed history optimistically; humankind was saved by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the premier event of the past.

The collapse of Roman hegemony to barbarian invasions, even as Augustine preached his sermons on faith, caused many doubters to blame Christianity for Rome’s decline. Augustine refuted this accusation in The City of God. He envisioned two cities, the heavenly City of God and the other one an earthly entity, patterned respectively after the biblical examples of Jerusalem—which means “Vision of Peace”—and Babylon, permeated with evil. Whereas perfection is the hallmark of the City of God, Augustine offered important guidelines for the conduct of human cities. Earthly “peace” he defined as harmonious order, a condition whereby a person, a community, or a state operates by the ideals of felicity (good intentions) and virtue (good acts) without suffering under or imposing dominion.

No pacifist, Augustine believed that a nation might go to war—but only on the authority of God and then to achieve a “peace of the just.” “Good men undertake wars,” he wrote to Faustus the Manichaean in 398, to oppose evil enemies: “The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power.”

The greatest challenge to Augustine’s teachings centered on the issue of how the individual might escape the evils of the flesh—whether by one’s own choice or by the initiative of God through divine grace. Augustine insisted on the latter and regarded the Pelagians as heretics for arguing the former view. As Saint Paul taught, each person is guilty of Original Sin, must admit it, and can only accept salvation from God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Augustine concluded early in his episcopate that God decides which elected souls will receive divine grace—a clear belief in the predestination of each individual. The barbarian army of the Vandals was at the gates of Hippo when Augustine died.

Significance

Saint Augustine was, by any measure, a genius of Christian philosophy and has been so venerated since his death. That all subsequent Christian thinkers owe him an immense debt is evident from the continuous outpouring of reprints of his vast works and discussions concerning his ideas. He brought focus to the major issues that continue to challenge the Church to the present day, and he motivated key figures to adopt aspects of his thinking outright. In the early Middle Ages, Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire in the mistaken belief that Augustine’s The City of God had been written as a blueprint for a divine kingdom on earth. Saint Thomas Aquinas accepted Augustine’s notions of predestination for the later Middle Ages, as did John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. The power of Augustine’s theology has remained undiminished through the ages.

Further Reading:

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.

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.

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.

Wills, Garry. Saint Augustine: A Penguin Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. Examines Saint Augustine’s early days, his writings on the human condition, and age in which he lived.

Saint Augustine

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1700

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, Augustine was an acute observer of the natural universe. By focusing on God in nature, however, and believing that true knowledge came only through spiritual introspection, he came to regard physical things as least important and science as having little utility. Faith rather than reason provides the ultimate truth. By the same token, Augustine viewed history optimistically; humankind was saved by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the premier event of the past.

The collapse of Roman hegemony to barbarian invasions, even as Augustine preached his sermons on faith, caused many doubters to blame Christianity for Rome’s decline. Augustine refuted this accusation in The City of God. He envisioned two cities: the heavenly City of God patterned after the biblical city of Jerusalem, which means “vision of peace,” and an earthly city similar to the biblical Babylon and permeated with evil. Whereas perfection is the hallmark of the City of God, Augustine offered important guidelines for the conduct of human cities. Earthly “peace” he defined as harmonious order, a condition whereby a person, a community, or a state operates by the ideals of felicity (good intentions) and virtue (good acts) without suffering under or imposing dominion. No pacifist, Augustine believed that a nation might go to war but only on the authority of God and then to achieve a “peace of the just.” “Good men undertake wars,” he wrote to Faustus the Manichaean in 398, to oppose evil enemies. “The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power.”

The greatest challenge to Augustine’s teachings centered on the issue of how an individual might escape the evils of the flesh—whether by one’s own choice or by the initiative of God through divine grace. Augustine insisted on the latter and regarded the Pelagians as heretics for arguing the former view. As Saint Paul taught, each person is guilty of Original Sin, must admit it, and can accept salvation only from God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Augustine concluded early in his episcopate that God decides which elected souls will receive divine grace—a clear belief in the predestination of each individual. The barbarian army of the Vandals was at the gates of Hippo when Augustine died.

Influence

Augustine was a genius of Christian philosophy and has been venerated since his death. That all subsequent Christian thinkers owe him an immense debt is evident from the continuous outpouring of reprints of his vast works and discussions concerning his ideas. He brought focus to the major issues that continue to challenge the Church to the present day, and he motivated key figures to adopt aspects of his thinking outright. In the early Middle Ages, Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire in the mistaken belief that Augustine’s The City of God had been written as a blueprint for a divine kingdom on earth. Saint Thomas Aquinas accepted Augustine’s notions of predestination for the later Middle Ages, as did theologian John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. The power of Augustine’s theology has remained undiminished through the ages.

Additional Reading

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, 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.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. One of the best biographical accounts of Augustine, this book uses a chronological approach to reveal how Augustine’s writings evolved during his lifetime. Heavily annotated.

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, Herbert A. 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.

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.

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.

Bibliography by Glenn L. Swygart

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