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Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo authored two of the most important books written in the 4th and 5th centuries: Confessions and The City of God. The first recounts Augustine’s journey from heresy, to philosophy, to a full commitment to Christ. The second book was written to explain to the Roman world why the sack of Rome in 410 AD by barbarians was not the end of the world.

Augustine was born in 345 in Thagaste, a town south the port city of Hippo in North Africa. This area was then part of the Roman province of Numidia. Augustine was born into a Roman family possessed of a large farm. His mother Monica was a devout Christian, his father a pagan, (until his deathbed when he converted).

Augustine attended local schools where he excelled. At age 17 he transferred to a much better school in Carthage, 100 miles to the east, where he studied logic and rhetoric (i.e. public speaking and debate). He then taught in Thagaste for several years.

Roman Empire - Africa Proconsularis (125 AD).svg
Thagaste (diocese)  Roman Empire – Africa Proconsularis (125 AD) By Milenioscuro – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

During this period, he was exposed to the works of Cicero (particularly an essay entitled, Hortensis, which has since been lost to us) on Plato’s philosophy which stimulated an interest in the writings of the Neoplatonists (e.g. Plotinus and Porphyry) and Plato himself. These writers supported the idea of a human soul. They also promoted the idea of human “free will” where each man makes his own decisions for good or ill.

(Neoplatonist ideas are more explicitly religious than those of Plato, and they developed largely to counter dualistic interpretations of Plato’s thought. For example, Neoplatonism sought to overcome the Platonic cleavage between thought and reality, or Ideal and Form.)

This paper caused Augustine to give up his loose attachment to Christianity and take up with the Manicheans (i. e. a heretical sect that taught each man has possessed two natures one filled with God’s light, the other divorced from God and filled with darkness and a tendency to sin). Augustine involvement with the Manicheans ended when the Manichean Bishop, Faustus while visiting Carthage, was unable to satisfy the logical concerns that Augustine raised. 

Shortly thereafter Augustine, who was living with a concubine, decided to seek his fortunes in Italy by opening his school of rhetoric in Rome. 

After about a year and a half, Augustine gave up his school in Rome and took a permanent teaching position in Milan. This move brought him into contact with Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who was generally considered the best informed, most capable speaker among the Christians. Augustine went to hear Ambrose’s sermons were delighted by his rhetorical skills, but Augustine was also surprised by how logical the substance of his sermons was. Suddenly he had a person who could answer his questions about philosophy and religion. However, Augustine remained a religious skeptic.


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In the fall of 386, Augustine was reading in his garden when a child’s voice rang in his head. It said, “take and read”. At his elbow was a copy of Paul’s Epistles which he opened. His eyes fell on Romans Chap. 13:13 – 14. 

This event caused him to decide to become a Christian. He spoke to Ambrose who said he could be baptized in the Spring of 387. His father died, but his mother was in Milan to see him baptized and initiated into the Christian faith. Her prayers were being answered. 

At this time, she convinced her son to give up his common-law wife, who was by then the mother of Augustine’s son, Adeodatus (372 – 388), and take a proper wife in an arranged marriage. Monica had a suitable 10 yr old girl in mind who she felt would make Augustine a suitable wife. Augustine sent the concubine away while retaining his son. He and Monica made arrangements to return to North Africa with Adeodatus. 

Back in Africa, Augustine faith deepened and he began to think about total commitment to Christianity. At this point, his son died and that event helped Augustine decide on a life of total commitment to his faith. So he broke off his engagement to the 10 yr old and sold his family’s land giving the money to the poor and creating a small monastery in the farmhouse where he had grown up.

This suited Augustine until one day he was at mass in Hippo when he was spotted by the local bishop who changed his sermon and essentially harangued the congregation into surrounding Augustine demanding that he accept appointment as a Presbyter (i.e. a modern-day parish priest). The congregation obeyed and Augustine found himself moving into the clergy by the end of the day. 

In a few years, Augustine himself was elevated to the position of Bishop of Hippo. In this position he delivered many sermons, 350 of these survive; he wrote several books of a religious and philosophical nature.   

Augustine’s Most Famous Work The Confessions was produced following Augustine’s return to North Africa.  

The work is not a complete autobiography, as it was written during Augustine’s early 40s. He lived another 30 years. Nonetheless, it does provide an unbroken record of the development of his thought and is the most complete record of any single person from the 4th and 5th centuries. It is also a significant theological work, featuring spiritual meditations and insights.

In the work, Augustine writes about how much he regrets having led a sinful and immoral life. He discusses his regrets for following the Manichean religion and believing in astrology. He came to feel both were not only incorrect but evil. He praises Ambrose’s role in his conversion to Christianity. 

The first nine books are autobiographical and the last four are commentary and significantly more philosophical. The books were written as prayers to God, thus the title, which is based on the Psalms of David. The work begins with “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”

The First Nine Books 

Starting with his infancy, Saint Augustine reflects on his childhood to draw universal conclusions about the nature of infancy: the child is inherently violent if left to its own devices because of Original Sin. Later, he reflects on choosing pleasure and reading secular literature over studying Scripture, choices which he comes to understand deserved the punishment of his teachers, although he did not recognize that during his childhood.

Then Augustine reflects on his adolescence during which he recounts two examples of grave sins that he committed as a sixteen-year-old: the development of his God-less lust and the theft of a pear from his neighbor’s orchard, despite never wanting for food. In this book, he explores the question of why he and his friends stole pears when he had many better pears of his own. He explains the feelings he experienced as he ate the pears and threw the rest away to the pigs. Augustine argues that he most likely would not have stolen anything had he not been in the company of others who would share in his sin.

He begins the study of rhetoric at Carthage, where he develops a love of wisdom through his exposure to Cicero’s Hortensis (Quora: What was Cicero’s Hortensius about? How did it influence St. Augustine?). He blames his pride for lacking faith in Scripture, so he finds a way to seek the truth regarding good and evil through Manichean belief. 

Between the ages of 19 and 28, Augustine forms a relationship with an unnamed woman who is not his lawfully wedded wife, and with whom he has a son. At this same time that he returned to Tagaste, his hometown, to teach. Augustine’s had an unnamed friend who fell sick, was baptized in the Catholic Church, recovered slightly, then died. The death of his friend depresses Augustine, who then reflects on the meaning of love of a friend in a mortal sense versus the love of a friend in God; he concludes that his friend’s death affected him severely because of his lack of love in God. Things he used to love become hateful to him because everything reminds him of what was lost. Augustine then suggests that he began to love his life of sorrow more than his fallen friend. He closes this book with his reflection that he had attempted to find truth through the Manicheans and astrology, yet devout Church members, who he claims are far less intellectual and prideful, have found truth through greater faith in God.

At age 29, he begins to lose faith in Manichean teachings, a process that starts when the Manichean bishop Faustus visits Carthage. Augustine is unimpressed with the substance of Manichaeism, but he has not yet found something to replace it. He feels a sense of resigned acceptance to these fables as he has not yet formed a spiritual core to prove their falsity. He moves to teach in Rome where he thinks the education system is more disciplined. He does not stay in Rome for long because his teaching is requested in Milan, where he encounters the bishop, Ambrose. He appreciates Ambrose’s style and attitude, and Ambrose exposes him to a more spiritual, figurative perspective of God.

The sermons of Saint Ambrose draw Augustine closer to Catholicism, which he begins to favor over pure philosophy. In this section, his troubles, including ambition, continue, at which point he compares a beggar, whose drunkenness gives “temporal happiness,” with his ongoing failure to discover happiness.[5]

In his mission to discover the truth behind good and evil, Augustine is exposed to the Neoplatonists view of God. He finds fault with this. Nevertheless, he thinks that they understand the nature of God without accepting Christ as a mediator between humans and God. He explains his opinion of the Neoplatonists using the likeness of a mountain top: “It is one thing to see, from a wooded mountain top, the land of peace, and not to find the way to it […] it is quite another thing to keep to the way which leads there, which is made safe by the care of the heavenly Commander, where they who have deserted the heavenly army may not commit their robberies, for they avoid it as a punishment.”[7] From this point, he picks up the works of the apostle Paul which “seized [him] with wonder.”[8]

He further describes his inner turmoil on whether to convert to Christianity. While reflecting in a garden, Augustine hears a child’s voice chanting “take up and read.”[9] Augustine picks up a Bible and reads the passage in Romans 13:13–14: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”[10] This incident confirms his conversion to Catholicism. 

In preparation for his baptism, Augustine stops teaching rhetoric. Saint Ambrose baptizes Augustine along with his son, Adeodatus. He begins to return to Africa with his mother and son. Monica and Augustine have a joint religious vision at Ostia, shortly before she dies. 

The Last Four Books

Augustine shifts from personal memories to introspective evaluation of the memories themselves and of the self. He continues to reflect on the value of Confessions, the significance of prayer, and the means through which individuals can reach God. It is through both this last point and his reflection on the body and the soul that he arrives at a justification for the existence of Christ.

Augustine analyzes the nature of God’s creation and of time. He explores issues surrounding presentism. He considers that there are three kinds of time in the mind: the present to past things, which is the memory; the present to things that are present, which is contemplation; and the present to things that are in the future, which is the expectation. He relies on Genesis, especially the texts concerning the creation of the sky and the earth, throughout this book to support his thinking.

Through his discussion of creation, Augustine relates the nature of the divine and the earthly thorough analysis of both the rhetoric of Genesis and the many interpretations that one might apply to Genesis. Comparing the scriptures to spring with streams of water spreading over an immense landscape, he considers that there could be more than one true interpretation of a given passage.

He concludes the text by exploring an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, through which he discovers the Trinity and the significance of God’s creation of man. Based on his interpretation, he espouses the significance of God’s periodic rests as well as the divinity of Creation: “For, then shalt Thou rest in us, in the same way, that Thou workest in us now […] So, we see these things which Thou hast made, because they exist, but they exist because Thou seest them. We see, externally, that they exist, but internally, that they are good; Thou hast seen them made, in the same place where Thou didst see them as yet to be made.”[12]Confessions was not only meant to encourage conversion, but it offered guidelines for how to convert. Augustine extrapolates from his own experiences to fit others’ journeys. Augustine recognizes that God has always protected and guided him. This is reflected in the structure of the work. Augustine begins each book within Confessions with a prayer to God. For example, both books VIII and IX begin with “you have broken the chains that bound me; I will sacrifice in your honor.”[13] 

Because Augustine begins each book with a prayer, Albert C. Outler, a Professor of Theology at Southern Methodist University, argues that Confessions is a “pilgrimage of grace […] [a] retrac[ing] [of] the crucial turnings of the way by which [Augustine] had come. And since he was sure that it was God’s grace that had been his prime mover in that way, it was a spontaneous expression of his heart that cast his self-recollection into the form of a sustained prayer to God.”[14] Not only does Confessions glorify God but it also suggests God’s help in Augustine’s path to redemption.

 

Written after the legalization of Christianity, Confessions dated from an era where martyrdom was no longer a threat to most Christians as was the case two centuries earlier. Instead, a Christian’s struggles were usually internal. Augustine presents his struggle with worldly desires such as lust. Augustine’s conversion was quickly followed by his ordination as a priest in 391 CE, and then his appointment as bishop in 395 CE. Such rapid ascension certainly raised some criticism of Augustine. Confessions were written between 397–398 CE, suggesting self-justification as a possible motivation for the work. With the words “I wish to act in truth, making my confession both in my heart before you and in this book before the many who will read it” in Book X Chapter 1,[15] Augustine both confesses his sins and glorifies God through humility in His grace, the two meanings that define “confessions,”[16] in order to reconcile his imperfections not only to his critics but also to God.

The City of God

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 left Romans in a deep state of shock and many Romans saw it as punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religion for Christianity. In response to these accusations, and to console Christians, Augustine wrote The City of God, arguing for the truth of Christianity over competing religions and philosophies. He also asserted that Christianity was not responsible for the Sack of Rome, but instead was responsible for its overall success. He attempted to console Christians, writing that even if the earthly rule of the Empire was now imperiled, it was the City of God that would ultimately triumph. Augustine’s eyes were fixed on Heaven, a theme of many Christian works of Late Antiquity, and despite Christianity’s designation as the official religion of the Empire, Augustine declared its message to be spiritual rather than political. Christians, he argued, should be concerned with the mystical, heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, rather than with earthly politics.

The book presents human history as a conflict between what Augustine calls the Earthly City (often colloquially referred to as the City of Man, but never by Augustine) and the City of God, a conflict that is destined to end in victory for the latter. The City of God is marked by people who forego earthly pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God, now revealed fully in the Christian faith. The Earthly City, on the other hand, consists of people who have immersed themselves in the cares and pleasures of the present, passing world.

Augustine’s thesis depicts the history of the world as universal warfare between God and the Devil. This metaphysical war is not limited by time but only by geography on Earth. In this war, God moves (by divine intervention/ Providence) those governments, political /ideological movements and military forces aligned (or aligned the most) with the Catholic Church (the City of God) in order to oppose by all means—including military—those governments, political/ideological movements and military forces aligned (or aligned the most) with the Devil (the City of the World).

This concept of world history guided by Divine Providence in a universal war between God and Devil is part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church as most recently stated in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes document: “The Church … holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history … all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness … The Lord is the goal of human history the focal point of the longings of history and civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.”

The following is a translation of Augustine’s summary of this work:

This great undertaking was at last completed in twenty-two books. Of these, the first five refute those who fancy that the polytheistic worship is necessary to secure worldly prosperity and that all these overwhelming calamities have befallen us in consequence of its prohibition. In the following five books I address myself to those who admit that such calamities have at all times attended, and will at all times attend, the human race, and that they constantly recur in forms more or less disastrous, varying only in the scenes, occasions, and persons on whom they light, but, while admitting this, maintain that the worship of the gods is advantageous for the life to come. But that no one might have occasion to say, that though I had refuted the tenets of other men, I had omitted to establish my own, I devote to this object the second part of this work, which comprises twelve books, although I have not scrupled, as occasion offered, either to advance my own opinions in the first ten books, or to demolish the arguments of my opponents in the last twelve. Of these twelve books, the first four contain an account of the origin of these two cities—the city of God, and the city of the world. The second four treat of their history or progress; the third and last four, of their deserved destinies.

The 22 books can be divided into the following 5 groups

Book I–V: A critique of pagan religions

Augustine realizes the Roman world is shocked by the sack of Rome which occurred in 410. He realizes that non-Christians are saying it was the rise of Christianity that had weakened the Empire and reduced its ability to resist the invaders. He also realizes the adherents to the old religion are saying the old Gods are using the sack of Roman as a punishment of the people for turning toward the new Christian God. Augustine points out that Rome had been sacked before the Christian era (in 390 BC). He points out that since 315 when Christians were allowed to operate openly, the Empire has been improving by allowing Christian values to shape government policy and enter the public square. Augustine asserts that it was not God who sacked Rome but other humans using their own “free will.    

Books VI–X: A critique of pagan philosophy

Here Augustine systematically refutes the religious and philosophical beliefs of traditional Romans. Augustine points out that even Varro, a pagan theologist held Rome Gods in contempt. Turning to philosophy, he says the Platonists have a philosophy that is closest to Christianity. He condemns those that feel man must pray to ask devils to mediate between God and man. On the positive side, Augustine proves the devils are evil and should be avoided and he points out that good angels want all mankind to worship God. He notes no sacrifice is efficacious except for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Books XI–XIV  City of God and the to the Earthly City

Here Augustine talks about the two cities their origins and characteristics. The City of God results from the work of the angels, the city of man is from the devil. Augustine does a detailed analysis of Genesis to support his belief. He then gets into showing how original sin promotes man’s proclivity for temporary pleasure as opposed to the true happiness that comes from following God’s plan. Augustine asserts that death is a consequence of original sin. He also points out that evil tendencies like lust are the consequence of Original Sin. Augustine feels those who sin should feel shame.

Books XV–XVIII: History of the two cities

The history or progress of the two cities, including foundational theological principles about Jews. – Here Augustine reviews God’s action, as reported in the Old Testament, protecting and bringing forth the Jewish people to promote the city of God idea on earth from Abel to Abraham to Moses to David to Christ. This process of promoting the City of God is now capped off by the Jewish dispersion across the world that occurred after Rome destroyed Jerusalem. He mentions all the prophecies that occurred during the Old Testament that pointed to Christ. 

Books XIX–XXII: The deserved destinies of the two cities

Here Augustine discusses the eventual fates of the two cities. Those who live in the City of God will experience eternal happiness. Here he uses the term the “city of the devil”, and he assigns eternal punishment to occupants of this city. Of course, he mentions the passages in the New Testament spoken by Christ and those reported in the Book of Revelation that supports this view.

Conclusion

Conclusion and Comment on Augustine’s View of Free Will, Predestination, and Several Heresies:

  1. Regarding free will and predestination, Augustine’s views evolved. This makes sense given His history of first being a Manichean, then an admirer of Neoplatonic philosophy, and finally a Christian.
  2. His movement was compounded by the fact that the Church he joined was itself changing. Recall the Nicene Creed, the first definitive doctrinal statement was only finalized in 381 AD.
  3. He lived in a time of a steady flow of new heresies, he dealt with perhaps five heresies that were operating during his lifetime. 

With the foregoing in mind, consider the seeming dichotomy between free will and predestination (i.e. God’s foreknowledge of whether or not an individual will make it to heaven). Early in his career as a bishop, Augustine sort of felt God had predetermined who would be saved and who would end up being damned, and that despite all of a man’s efforts in this life his fate was already set. Later on, Augustine came to the view that though God knows each man’s fate, he wants to provide help (grace) to each man so every man will have a chance, using their free will and His grace, to achieve heaven. The former view is a Calvinists (Protestant) view on this issue His later position is the current Catholic position on this issue. Thus Augustine is everyone’s favorite on this issue.

Regarding heresy, three heresies most fully engaged Augustine. The first was the Donatists who believed that a priest that had committed a serious sin could not validly administer any sacrament until the sin was forgiven. Augustine opposed the Donatist saying the sacraments were coming from God and so they could validly be administered by a tarnished vessel. Another heresy involved the Pelagians who believed the man was good and could though his effort achieves heaven. Augustine helped flesh out Paul’s teaching that God’s grace is necessary for us to overcome our fallen nature and then using our free will perform acts pleasing to God. The Manichean heresy engaged Augustine personally for several years. Augustine realizing that God being all-powerful precluded a world 50% controlled by God and 50% controlled by evil beings.  

Final Thought

Augustine is one of four men in Western Christianity whose work enabled Christianity to successfully transit from the ancient work of Rome into the fragmented new world of medieval Europe. The other leaders were two contemporaries of Augustine – Jerome and Ambrose. The last was Gregory, who lived in Rome a century later. Of these four, Augustine’s personal story is most interesting and compelling.  

The English historian Christopher Dawson noted that Augustine “was, to a far greater degree than any emperor or barbarian warlord, a maker of history and a builder of the bridge which was to lead the old world to the new.”

Augustine’s Prayer

Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new.
Too late have I loved you!
You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you!
In my weakness, I ran after the beauty of the things you have made.
You were with me, and I was not with you.
The things you have made kept me from you – the things which would have no being unless they existed in you! You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness.
You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly, and you have dispelled my blindness.
You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you.
You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace.
– Confessions, X, 27, 38

Also known as: Aurelius Augustinus and Doctor of Grace
Memorial (Feast Day): August 25th
Born: November 13th, 354 at Tagaste, Numidia, North Africa (Souk-Ahras, Algeria)
Died: August 28th 430 at Hippo, North Africa
Why He’s Important: He is one of the most important early figures in the development of Western Christianity, and was a major figure in bringing Christianity to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire.

Patronage

  • against sore eyes
  • against vermin
  • brewers
  • printers
  • theologians
  • Bridgeport, Connecticut, diocese of
  • Ida, Philippines, diocese of
  • Kalamazoo, Michigan, diocese of
  • Laredo, Texas, diocese of
  • Saint Augustine, Florida, diocese of
  • Superior, Wisconsin, diocese of
  • Tucson, Arizona, diocese of
  • Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
  • Carpineto Romano, Italy
  • Isleta Indian Pueblo
  • Ponte Nizza, Italy
  • Saint Augustine, Florida
  • San Austin, Ibiza, Spain
  • Valletta, Malta

Prayers by Saint Augustine

  • Act of Hope
  • Act of Petition
  • Breathe in Me, Holy Spirit
  • Lord Jesus, Let Me Know Myself
  • Prayer for the Indwelling of the Spirit
  • Prayer for the Sick
  • Prayer of Joy at the Birth of Jesus
  • Prayer of Trust in God’s Heavenly Promise
  • Prayer on Finding God after a Long Search
  • Prayer to Our Lady, Mother of Mercy
  • Prayer to Seek God Continually
  • Watch, O Lord

    “Saint Augustine of Hippo“. CatholicSaints.Info. 2 September 2019. Web. 10 September 2019. <https://catholicsaints.info/saint-augustine-of-hippo/>

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