St. Augustine

The Christian philosopher and theologian St. Augustine (354-430) is best known for "The Confessions" and "The City of God." After the authors of the New Testament, he has probably been the most influential Christian writer.

The greatest of the Latin Fathers of the Church, Augustine lived during a period in which the Roman Empire was in deep decline and Christianity was taking root as the official religion. It was a time of great political stress and widespread religious anxiety. Augustine's own spiritual struggles reflect the historical transition from a dying pagan antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages. The Confessions reveals much about his formative years, when he strove to overcome his sensual desires, find faith, and understand religious and philosophical doctrines.

Augustine was born at Tagaste (modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria) on Nov. 13, 354. Though his father, Patricius, was to become a Christian only when he was near death, Augustine's mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. She saw to his education in this religion, but in accord with what was then the custom, his baptism into the faith of his mother was deferred. Schooled in Latin grammar and literature at Tagaste and Madaura, Augustine showed promise and was sent to Cartage in 370 to study rhetoric. In Cartage, while successfully pursuing his studies, he abandoned the Christian moral teachings of his early years. He took a mistress, with whom he was to live for 10 years, and fathered a son, Adeodatus (The God-given).


Influence of Manichaeism

At the age of 19 Augustine read Cicero's dialogue Hortensius, a work that was an exhortation to philosophy. According to Augustine, "Suddenly all the vanity that I had hoped in I saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire I longed after immortal wisdom" (Confessions, III, 4). To this end, Augustine embraced the Persian religion of Manichaeism. The Manichaeans held that in the world there were opposing forces of good and evil, called Ormuzd and Ahriman, respectively. Their struggle with one another was represented in man by the conflict between the soul, the good element, and the body, the evil one. Manichaeism made a very strong appeal to Augustine because of its materialistic outlook and account of evil.

After having taught Latin grammar and literature at Tagaste, Augustine opened a school of rhetoric in Carthage in 373. During this time his confidence in Manichaeism was eroded. In particular, he found in its doctrines neither a satisfactory reason for the conflict of the forces of good and evil nor an account of the nature of human certitude.

In 383 Augustine went to Rome to teach rhetoric. But his students had the unpleasant habit of leaving their instructors just before the payment of fees was due. So the following year he took a civic post in Milan as professor of rhetoric. In Rome, Augustine had become sympathetic to the academic skepticism of Carneades and Cicero. The skeptics thought that certitude about any topic was not attainable and that therefore all of man's beliefs should be regarded as dubious.


Influence of Platonism

In Milan, Augustine was deeply impressed by the sermons of the bishop Ambrose. Around Ambrose there was a community whose members were as much Platonists as Christians. They regarded Platonism as compatible with, and an anticipation of, Christianity. Through reading certain Platonic writings, probably those of Plotinus and Porphyry, and meetings with Christian Platonists, Augustine was brought to accept such a viewpoint. The platonists' spiritualistic metaphysics and their idea that evil was only a privation of good replaced in Augustine's mind his earlier Manichaean materialism.

Augustine's skepticism began to dissolve in the face of his newly acquired convictions. Still, this extraordinary transformation was to him only an intellectual one. What was lacking, and what he now longed for in a state of torment, was the conversion of his will to Christianity and the acceptance of Christ.


Conversion to Christianity

This event is described in the famous "garden scene" in Augustine's Confessions (VII, 12). Upon hearing a child's voice repeating the words "Take and read," Augustine opened his Scriptures at random and saw this passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (13:13): "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences." Augustine then notes, "I had no wish to read further and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart."

From then on Augustine was a confirmed Christian, and he was baptized by Ambrose on Easter 387. In 388 Augustine returned to Tagaste and established a religious community. Ordained a priest in 391, he founded a similar community in Hippo (modern Bone, Algeria), becoming bishop there in 396. Until 430 Augustine busied himself with pastoral labors and wrote theological and philosophical works. On Aug. 28, 430, Augustine died, while Hippo was under siege by the Vandals.

Augustine's works are far too extensive to list even by title. There are commentaries on parts of the Bible and many disputatious tracts against the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. His main works are Contra academicos, De beata vita, De ordine, De immortalitate animae, Soliloquia, De libero arbitrio, De quantitate animae (all completed between 386 and 388), De musica (begun between 386 and 388 and finished between 388 and 391), De magistro (composed between 388 and 391), De doctrina Christiana (composed in 396 with a fourth book added in 426), Confessions (400), De Trinitate (begun in 400 and finished in 417), De genesi ad litteram (begun in 401 and completed in 415), The City of God (begun in 413 and finished about 420), and Retractions (composed in 426-427).


Theory of Knowledge

One of Augustine's earliest works is Contra academicos, in which he attacks skepticism and lays the groundwork for the possibility of knowledge. He does so by calling attention to propositions that even the skeptic cannot doubt. First, one can be certain of exclusive disjunctive propositions. For example, it is certain that there is one world or more than one. It is also indisputable that, with respect to the world's having a beginning and an end, both are the case, or one and not the other, or neither. Second, though the senses are sometimes deceptive concerning the facts in a situation, one is certain of what appears to be the case. Error arises in man's judgments only when appearance is taken as reality. For example, one is not deceived in judging that a stick looks bent in water; error arises, however, when one states that the stick is actually bent. Third, the truth of mathematical judgments like two and two make four is immune from doubt. Lastly, in anticipation of René Descartes, Augustine points out that the experience of doubt and error presuppose the existence of oneself. A person cannot be in doubt or error unless he exists. In order to exist one has to be alive. Since both are known to be the case, one also realizes that he understands. Thus existence, life, and understanding are indubitable even to the skeptic.

Propositions of mathematics and logic have the special features of being eternally and necessarily true. Knowledge of these tends to be grouped by Augustine with the knowledge of standards that he thinks implied in comparative judgments about sensible things (for example, a standard of perfect beauty is implied in the statement, "This is more beautiful than that"). But cognitions of eternal truths and standards are acts beyond the natural capacity of man's intellect, since this faculty is mutable and temporal. Required then, says Augustine, is an illumination from a source that is itself eternal, necessary, and unchanging— namely, God.

Augustine shares the view of many Greek philosophers that the end of man is happiness or beatitude and that such a condition is a consequence of the possession of wisdom. But, by contrast, wisdom for Augustine is Christian wisdom. Philosophical conceptions are useful to faith only as preparatory and explanatory devices.


Creation from Nothing

Augustine's Christian philosophy has as one of its cornerstones the thesis that God freely created the world from nothing. Augustine thus opposed the Neoplatonic notion of a world emanating from God through necessity. "Creation from nothing" also involves the rejection of the Greek view of world formation, which is based upon the model of an artist making a finished product from materials at hand. Such a model requires preexisting and independent material for a divine craftsman to work upon. According to Augustine, either such unformed matter must be conceived so abstractly as to be the same as nothing at all, or it is something having form and made by the Creator.

At first sight, Augustine would seem to have mitigated his uncompromising position on creation by his further theory of seminal reasons (De genesi ad litteram, VI, 6, 12). This theory, found also in Plotinus and the Stoics, claims that things may exist in a seminal or germlike condition, having a potentiality for form that is actualized only over a period of time and if circumstance permits. Augustine's acceptance of this theory was dictated largely by considerations of scriptural interpretation. It is, however, consistent with his view of creation from nothing and affords an illustration of his use of a philosophical idea to clarify a theological issue.

According to Genesis, different forms of things appeared at different times, the successive days of creation. On the other hand, Ecclesiasticus teaches that all things were made together. The appearance of inconsistency vanishes, however, if one says, as Augustine recommends, that all things were created together from nothing but that some were created from nothing in a seminal condition, to be brought to actual formation later.

Time as Extension

The dependence of creation upon God is also stressed in Augustine's treatment of time. (His most sustained and interesting treatment is in Book XI of The Confessions. ) The Manichaeans claimed that the doctrine of creation from nothing contains no sufficient explanation of why God should create at any given moment rather than any other and that it further poses the unanswerable question of what God was doing before he created the world. Augustine rebuts such objections by insisting that they rest upon a mistaken assimilation of time to an event in time. Creation from nothing entails that time too is a creature, which came into being with other things created. Thus the notion of events before the beginning of time becomes meaningless.

Augustine became genuinely perplexed about the existence of the past and the future. He saw that man's temporal notions require time to be measurable and that measurability requires time to have magnitude. Yet, the past is what was and is not, the future is what will be and is not, and the present is indivisible and extensionless. How then does time exist as a magnitude? His tentative answer is: "The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight and the present of things future is expectation. … It seems to me that time is nothing else than extension; but extension of what I am not sure—perhaps of the mind itself" (Confessions, XI, 20, 26).

Eternal Soul

Among the things that come to be in time is the soul of man. Augustine's view of the soul is thoroughly Platonic. For him it is a substance distinct from and superior to the body, which is joined to the body by a sort of vital attention. (In sensory experience the soul uses the body as an instrument, increasing its vital attention in one organ.) Augustine states that, though the soul is something that came to be, it cannot cease to be. To show this, he adapts arguments used in Plato's Phaedo. For example, the soul is what it is because it shares in a principle, life, which does not admit of a contrary. So, being a soul, it cannot die.

A theological problem attends the genesis of the human soul. Does God create each soul individually or did He create all souls together in making Adam's? On the former view, combined with a belief in original sin, God would create something that is evil. On the latter view, Adam would have passed on a human soul to his descendants that was made evil by his sin but was not evil when God created it. Traducianism is the name of the second position, and it was the one to which Augustine was inclined.

Philosophy of History

Augustine's interest in time also includes a view of historical time. In The City of God he makes a striking departure from Christian thinking about the historical significance of the Roman Empire. Before the 4th century Christians had naturally tended to look upon Rome as a satanic oppressor. When Christianity was officially recognized in 312, the empire seemed to may to have become the instrument for the fulfillment of the Gospels. Such people were stunned by the Ostrogoths' sacking of Rome in 410.

Three years later Augustine began The City of God. In it, Rome differs from the Church both as a reality and as an ideal. As a reality, Rome is one empire among others that have come and gone, and the fate of the Church need not be bound up with it. As an ideal, Rome is the earthly city opposed to the ideal of the heavenly city. According to Augustine, a people is a "multitude of reasonable beings united by their agreement in the things that they respect" (City of God, XIX, 24). The character of a society then is determined by the choices of the individuals who make it up. If the choice is of self-love rather than love of God, then one has the earthly city; if of God rather than self, then one has the heavenly city.

In contrast to Greek thinkers like Hesiod and Plato, Augustine does not talk about ideals as having existed in a remote past. Rather, he claims that the two ideals will only become historical realities at the end of time. Then the two cities will exist actually and separately. Members of the heavenly city will be with God, but members of the earthly city will suffer eternal punishment. Meanwhile, in the present, the two ideals are commingled in one historical reality. However qualified by Augustine, the implication is that Church and state can have at best an uneasy unity and that the true Christian will look elsewhere than to Rome, or any other state, for the fulfillment of his hopes.

Further Reading on St. Augustine

One of the most commonly used translations of Augustine's works is Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, edited by Whitney J. Oates (2 vols., 1948). Henri I. Marrou, Saint Augustine and His Influence through the Ages (trans. 1957), is a fine introduction, which includes an account of Augustine's life and thought along with brief translations from his writings. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967), is an outstanding biography covering both the theological and practical aspects of Augustine's career. Other works on Augustine's career and writings include Vernon J. Bourke, Augustine's Quest for Wisdom: Life and Philosophy of the Bishop of Hippo (1945); Jacques Chabannes, St. Augustine (trans. 1962); and Gerald Boner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963).

Written from a Thomistic perspective, but still the most thoughtful account of Augustine's philosophy, is étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (trans. 1960). See also Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (1963). For the thought of the period consult the monumental survey, A. H. Armstrong, ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967).