Printer Friendly


Born: A.D. 354, Thagaste, Numidia (North Africa)

Died: A.D. 430, Hippo Regius, Numidia

Major Works: Confessions (c. 397), The Trinity (c. 397-401), The City of God (c. 413-426)

Major Ideas

Faith and understanding go hand in hand: "Understand that you may believe; believe that you may understand."

True happiness consists in knowledge of God.

Father, Son, and Spirit coinhere in the Godhead as the faculties of memory, intellect, and will coinhere in the human mind.

Individual beings in the empirical world have developed out of the primeval matter God created ex nihilo with the help of seminal powers implanted in it.

Not only sin but also guilt has been transmitted from Adam as a consequence of the "Fall" by way of concupiscence, which Christ alone has avoided.

As a consequence of Adam's sin, humankind was condemned, but God has chosen to predestine some to salvation as an act of grace while permitting others to be lost.

The Church on earth is a mixed body of saints and sinners outside of which there is no salvation.

So long as human civilization lasts, there will be two "cities," one composed of those who desire to serve themselves and to grasp worldly power, the other of those who desire to serve God and who would forfeit power.

The most influential figure in Western history, Augustine was born in Thagaste, a small town in the Roman province of Numidia in North Africa, on November 13,. 354. His mother, Monica, a devout and puritanical Christian, did her best to rear him in the Catholic faith, but his father, Patricius, not yet converted, placed before him a quite different example. Both parents had lofty ambitions for him. After educating him in schools at Thagaste and Madaurus, the neighboring village, they scraped to find money to send him to Carthage, where he found love as well as learning, entering into a long-term liaison with a woman who bore him a son named Adeodatus.

At age nineteen, Augustine experienced his first "conversion" through the reading of Cicero's Hortensius, a work known only in fragments today. "This book changed my desires," he wrote in the Confessions; "I began to arise and return to you. Burdened with guilt and troubled by the teachings of the Church, however, Augustine. joined the Manichaean sect. Manichaeism helped momentarily to assuage his conscience regarding his sexual liaisons and led him to dispense with the Old Testament. The death of a dear friend whom he had persuaded to join the sect, however, generated a profound personal crisis and proved to him how superficial Manichaean theology was. After nine years he broke with the Manichaeans and turned to Neoplatonism.

Neoplatonism offered Augustine a more satisfactory solution to the problem of evil. Whereas Manichaeism explained evil as a corporeal reality, Neoplatonism denied its very existence. Only good exists; evil, therefore, is the absence or the perversion of the good. Now Augustine knew he did what he did because he wanted to, not because he had to. At the same time, nevertheless, he realized that he could not take the decisive step away from the evil which he hated without the aid of divine grace. The conversion of the noted Neoplatonist philosopher Victorinus made him realize that he could be both a Christian and a philosopher.

The last decisive step in his conversion took place at Cassiciacum in July 386, in the presence of friends who had followed him from Carthage to Rome and to Milan. Ponticianus narrated the story of the conversion of two young Roman noblemen on hearing the story of Anthony's conversion in response to hearing Jesus' challenge to the rich youth. The story, as Augustine himself described its impact, took him "from behind his own back" and made him look at how "defiled and deformed" he was. Exasperated, he withdrew to another part of the garden to sulk. After a time a child's voice cried out, "Take up, read." The book he had hurled to the ground fell open at Romans 13:14, which urged him to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ and no longer take thought for the flesh and its concupiscences." On April 24, 387, he received baptism at the hands of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

Already thirty-two, Augustine's reputation spread rapidly on his return to North Africa. Immediately he formed around himself a monastic community at Thagaste. In 391, on a visit to Hippo Regius, however, Bishop Valerius conscripted him for the priesthood. Four years later, he installed Augustine as his coadjustor. Augustine served as Bishop of Hippo from that time until his death on August 28, 430, the beginning of the siege of the city by the Vandal king Genseric.

The Controversialist

Although bishop of a relatively small see, Augustine became the recognized leader of the Catholic Church in North Africa. He wrote as a controversialist rather than as a systematic theologian, replying by turns to his one-time comrades the Manichaeans, then to the Donatists and Pelagians, and then, after the fall of Rome to the Goths in 410, to pagans.

Augustine's debate with the Manichaeans (389-405) focused on the relationship between faith and knowledge, the origin and nature of evil, free will, and revelation through the Scriptures. His most effective response was the Confessions, composed between 397 and 400.

His reply to the Donatists (405-412) had to answer two basic questions they raised: (1) whether the guilt of ministers invalidates the sacramental acts they perform, and (2) whether toleration of such ministers by churches in North Africa defiles the whole Church. In response to the first, he distinguished between validity and efficacy. Christ alone, he argued, determines whether an act is valid; the faith of the recipient determines whether it is effective for salvation; the character of the minister does not affect the sacrament at all. In response to the second, he contended that the surrender of Scriptures by certain clergy in North Africa cannot have invalidated the Church everywhere. The Church is a corpus permixtum, whose holiness depends on Christ and not on the personal worthiness of each member.

Augustine's answer to Pelagianism (412-418) was deeply rooted in his own experience of grace. Pelagius, a British monk, picked up on Augustine's emphasis on free will in the anti-Manichaean writings and thought an emphasis on natural grace represented Augustine faithfully. Augustine, however, underscored super-natural grace.

In 418, Augustine initiated his critique of Arianism, a matter of increasing concern as the barbarians, most of whom were Arian, pressed farther and farther southwards.

The City of God

The City of God, composed serially between 413 and 426, was Augustine's reply to pagan criticism of Christianity after the sack of Rome in 410 and is his most significant contribution to Western thought. In the first ten books, he examined critically pagan charges that Christianity, by undermining the devotion of Romans to the gods that had made Rome great, was responsible for the fall of Rome. In books 11 through 22 he constructed his grand scheme for the operation of divine providence in history.

In books 1 through 5, Augustine answered two questions: (1) Was Christianity responsible for Rome's fall or paganism for its rise? (2) If not the gods of Rome, then what spiritual power made Rome great? To the first he answered a resounding no. Christianity had mitigated, not exacerbated the fury of the Goths. Moreover, it offered consolation in its constant reminder that we have no enduring habitation here. The eternal City remains for the righteous who turn to Christ. Quite clearly, on the other side, preposterous pagan religion could offer little support. Rome suffered wars and disasters long before Christianity appeared on the scene. What, then, accounted for Rome's rise to power? Neither the gods, nor Roman devotion to them but God's, providential purpose in history. God raised up the Empire to give Roman. laws and literature and civilization So Rome's greatness has not been due to fate but to God s foreknowledge and providence.

In books 6 through 10, Augustine disputed the claims of all pagan systems to authenticity. He recounted facts taken chiefly from Varro to point up the folly of polytheism and cited Socrates and Plato in support of monotheism. Although not an exposition of philosophy, books 8-10 clearly reflect Augustine's struggle to define his stance against Neoplatonism, especially concerning the incorporation of popular paganism into its system. He contrasted the Christian cult of martyrs, despite its similarities, with the worship of wandering spirits. Platonists vainly seek to mediate between God and humankind through their demons; Christians have a true mediator in Jesus Christ. They offer true sacrifices to God through the Eucharist.

In books 11-22, Augustine spun out his philosophy of history in terms of the struggle between two "cities"--two types of human beings and societies. The story begins in prehistory with "the holy and faithful angels who never were nor ever will be deserters from God" and "those who rejected the eternal light and were turned toward darkness." What happened there was replicated in the human creation and fall. Created good, humankind fell by disobedience and became subject to death of both body and soul. Hereafter there are two cities--one of those who live according to the flesh under and like the Devil, the other of those who love God and other human beings. The former will perish the latter will reach their immortal home. "What we see, then, is that two societies have .issued from two kinds of love. Worldly society has issued from selfish love, which dared to despise even; God, whereas the communion of saints is rooted in a love of God that is ready to trample on self."

In the next four books (15-18) Augustine sketched the tale of twos: Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Remus and Romulus. Evidences of the City of God are slim from Noah to Abraham. With Abraham, however, began its clear history, in which one can see promises eventually fulfilled in Christ. The Old Testament supplies "types." Paralleling the story of the City of God is that of the earthly city characterized by constant conflict because humankind did not adhere to Absolute Being. God chose through Rome "to subdue the whole world, to bring it into the single society of a republic under law, and to bestow upon it a widespread and enduring peace." But at what great price-bloodshed and war! Meantime, in difficult times, the Church learns by tears to hope. Spreading under the power of the Spirit and in fulfillment of prophecy, she perseveres as the pilgrim City of God until the Second Coming.

In book 19, Augustine arrived at his own time and presented his case for Christian rather than Platonist ethics. Christians hold that eternal life is the supreme good and that virtues are real only when one believes in God. Philosophers fail because they seek the temporal rather than the eternal. Christians too desire peace and recognize its limitations until mortality ceases, but they seek it in obedience to God and possess it already by faith. Philosophers lack such faith.

In the last three books, Augustine looked to the future. He repudiated millenarianism. The Millenium applies either to what remains of the thousand years since Christ or to the entire time the world still has to go. The Devil has been bound since the day the Church began its expansion from Judea into the whole world. The two cities, of God and of the Devil, will reach their consummation at the final judgment, the subject of book 21. Unlike Origen, Augustine held out no hope for the redemption of all, even the Devil. Even faithful Catholics must beware; salvation depends on living an upright life and not merely on baptism or Eucharist or almsgiving. Neither heretics nor schismatics nor evil Catholics will escape punishment if they do not repent. In book 22, Augustine delineated the eternal blessedness of the City of God, but spent much of his space sustaining the doctrine of resurrection and miracles. He contended that there was no dearth of miracles in his own day. Although pagan philosophers deny resurrecti on, Augustine wrote, they agree with Christians about rewards after death; both Plato and Porphyry, moreover, believed God could do the impossible. In the eternal City, Christians will attain perfect freedom, and their wills will be in perfect harmony with God's in the promised Sabbath Rest.

Further Reading

Battenhouse, Roy W., ed. A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Essays on different facets of Augustine's thought.

Bonner, Gerald. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. London: SCM. Press, 1963. An excellent sketch of Augustine's life and writing as a controversialist.

Brown, Peter R. L. Augustine of Hippo, A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. The best current biography.

Chadwick, Henry. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A brief but competent interpretation of Augustine in his context.

Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. New York: Random House, 1960. A classic study of Augustine and Neoplatonism.

Kirwan, Christopher. Augustine. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. A fine summary of Augustine's thought as evolved in the North African context.

O'Meara, John J. Charter of Christendom. New York: Macmillan, 1961. A brief introduction to The City of God.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:PLOTINUS.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters