St. Augustine



Who was Saint Augustine?

augustine of hippo

Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine, is one of the most important and well-known theologians in the history of the Christian religion. Augustine has one of the most dramatic conversions ever in the Church, a change of belief and behavior, which led to his most influential written works, Confessions and the City of God.

Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste (modern-day Algeria, North Africa) and died on August 28, 430 in Hippo. He was born Aurelius Augustine to a pagan father and devout Christian mother. Augustine was born with a brilliant mind and enjoyed academic success and worldly pleasures at Carthage, that is until he became restless for truth and virtue. Successively disappointed by Platonic philosophy and Manichaen theology, he found his rest in the God of Christianity at the age of 32. Ten years later, Augustine reluctantly became Bishop of Hippo.

A prolific writer and original thinker, Augustine's treatises, sermons and letters number into the hundreds. He put his gifted mind to work on subjects such as grace, the Trinity, the soul, predestination, the sacraments, sexuality and free will. Augustine's thought has had a profound impact on both Roman Catholicism (primarily in his doctrine of the church) and Protestantism (especially in his concept of salvation).



The Life of Augustine of Hippo

Augustine is one of the precious few ancient figures who recorded a great deal of information about their life and times. In fact, he is one of very few historical figures to have written an autobiography, a genre that until recent centuries was rarely seen. In his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography chronicling his adventurous journey to salvation, Augustine offers historians a detailed account of his life and experiences up to his conversion.

Although artistic license is certainly utilized, the Confessions nevertheless provide theologians with valuable insight into the background and influences of Augustine's thought, and historians with important information on life in the Roman Empire at the close of the 4th century. Moreover, average readers are often struck by how remarkably modern and relevant Augustine's story seems to be. Most of what follows is taken directly from Augustine's own account, with supplemental information provided by his contemporaries, his other writings, and modern scholarship.

Early Life

Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, a town in in what is today Algeria. His mother was Monica, a pious Christian who was later canonized as a saint for her influence on her son's life. His father, Patricius, was a pagan of significant social status in society. Patricius converted to Christianity and was baptized shortly before his death.

At age 17, Augustine fell in love with a woman whom he never named. Although Augustine largely downplays the relationship in the Confessions, explaining that he was infatuated with the idea of romantic love and had no control of his lustful desires, it seems clear he loved her deeply. Unfortunately, however, he felt he could not marry her because she was of a lower social class.

This unnamed women therefore became Augustine's concubine for 13 years. By all accounts he was faithful to her. In their second year together, when he was 18, she gave birth to a son. He was given the name Adeodatus, meaning "gift from God."

The first of several significant turning points in Augustine's life occurred when, upon reading Cicero's Hortensius at the age of 19, he was converted to the higher life of philosophy. He later recalled, 'it gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart.' Augustine's new desire for wisdom sent him to the Scriptures, but he was disappointed by its unsophisticated Latin prose, which he felt paled in comparison to "he dignity of Cicero." {1}

Manichaeism

For a time Augustine was attracted to Manichaeism, a Christian heresy {2} to which he would be devoted for nine years. Its founder was Mani, who regarded himself as 'the Apostle of Jesus Christ' and was martyred in 277 in Persia. Within only twenty years of the founder's death, Manichaean missionaries had brought the faith to North Africa, where it became an established tradition. {3} Manichaeism was an eclectic mix of traditions, characterised primarily by dualism, asceticism, and determinism.

augustine of hippo

Although it may seem surprising that the bright Augustine could be a devoted follower of such a belief system, which Bonner describes as one of the 'strangest and most bizarre of the many strange and bizarre fantasies which the human mind has conceived,' {4} it in fact held many attractions for him.

He was impressed, first of all, by its appeal to philosophy and wisdom instead of authority. {5} Secondly, the Manichees believed the God of the Old Testament to be different from that of the New Testament, even declaring the former to be evil and consequently refusing to accept the Old Testament.

This was a relief to Augustine, who had found several Old Testament passages quite troublesome. Of further appeal was the Manichaean solution to the problem of evil, which had greatly perplexed Augustine. They simply answered that evil exists independently of the good God, who is powerless to stop it. Finally, Augustine was impressed by its asceticism and pious spiritual devotion to 'Christ.' {6}

Despite such attractions, over the years Augustine became increasingly dissatisfied with the sect, finding particularly worrying the discrepancy between the cosmological teachings of the Manichees and the astronomy he learned from his wide reading. He began asking questions, but was repeatedly deferred to the great leader Faustus, who, he was assured, would have all the answers. He looked forward to the teacher's arrival in Carthage, but when the meeting finally occurred in 383, Augustine was left badly disillusioned. After this disappointment, he ceased to progress in the religion, eventually becoming a Manichee only nominally and socially.

Later that year Augustine departed Carthage for Rome, where he stayed with a fellow Manichaean and worked as a teacher. But by the autumn of 384, alarmed by rumors of the tendencies of Roman undergraduates to avoid paying tuition fees, he secured a position as Public Orator in Milan. He arrived in Milan just before his thirtieth birthday, and it was there that he would experience once of the most famous conversions in Christian history.

Milan

Numerous significant experiences in Milan led up to the dramatic moment, beginning with the influence of the great Ambrose of Milan. Originally attending Ambrose's sermons to observe the preacher's celebrated oratorical skills, Augustine was unexpectedly influenced by the message itself. He discovered that Catholic Christianity could be reasonably defended, particularly against the Manichees, and that many of the troubling Old Testament passages could be interpreted allegorically. {7}

Augustine was now able to dismiss Manichaeism completely, turning briefly to Academic skepticism instead. Soon after, Monica arrived in Milan, still praying fervently for her son's salvation. Augustine was becoming more and more persuaded by Ambrose's sermons. He was no longer held back from conversion by any intellectual doubts, but primarily by ambition and the irresistible pull of sexual desire. At the insistence of his mother, he gave up his mistress, but immediately replaced her with another concubine while he waited for his arranged bride to come of age. {8} It was during this time of despair and indecisiveness that Augustine discovered Neo-Platonism. He was pleasantly surprised by its agreement with Christianity, and found also in its writings a cure for his doubt and a solution to the problem of evil.

augustine

He turned enthusiastically to the epistles of St. Paul, which revealed the weaknesses of the Neo-Platonists. {9} But still unable to take the final step, Augustine consulted the priest Simplicianus, who recounted to him the inspiring conversion of the pagan Victorinus. Soon after, another Christian friend told Augustine about the life of St. Anthony. These stories greatly inspired Augustine, and he was left with a great desire to give up the world for God as they did. Yet still he could not do it. Though he longed to give all to God, he felt inescapably held back by his ever-present lusts and ambitions.

Conversion to Catholic Christianity

Augustine's internal conflict came to a head in a garden in August of 386, as he sat tormented by indecision and powerlessness. Finally, weeping with despair and crying out to God, he thought he heard a child's voice chanting, as if in a game, "Take and read! Take and read!" Understanding this to be a sign from God, Augustine opened his copy of Paul's epistles and read the first thing he saw. His eyes fell on Romans 13:13-14: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof."

Augustine later wrote of the moment, "I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled."{10} Following a quiet winter spent at Cassiacum with family and friends, the newly-converted Augustine was baptized, along with his son and a friend, on Easter 387.

Augustine as Bishop of Hippo

After a year in Rome, Augustine eagerly headed home to Thagaste, where he set up a study-focused monastic community with several friends. Augustine quickly gained a great reputation, but feeling called to the monastic life, he carefully avoided being pressured into becoming a bishop by avoiding all churches lacking such a leader. In 391, he visited Hippo Regius in hopes of assisting a friend to conversion, and attended church services there. The church did have a bishop by the name of Valerius, but unbeknownst to Augustine, the bishop was looking for a presbyter. Coerced by the congregation, Augustine reluctantly but obediently became priest of Hippo, beginning his duties in 391. He spent his early clerical career in study, contending against the Manichees, completing On Free Will, and battling with the Donatists, a schismatic Christian group.

In 395 Bishop Valerius nominated Augustine as his successor. The bishop died a year later, and despite his initial reluctance, Augustine devoted himself to his role as Hippo's new bishop. He took on a remarkable amount of duties. In addition to the regular tasks of administering the sacraments, visiting the afflicted, preaching, judging disputes, and helping the needy, he wrote an extraordinary amount and engaged in several heated controversies. Augustine was intimately involved in three major controversies: Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. All three dealt, at least in part, with issues relating to our discussion - free will, baptism, and the meaning of grace, respectively - and all served to develop Augustine's thought. {11}

Augustine's Last Days

In May 429, the Vandal army began advancing across Africa, arriving at Hippo Regius a year later. Augustine was devastated by these events, but his trust in God bore him up and he refused to flee and abandon his flock. Hippo was under siege for fourteen months, but after only three of these Augustine fell ill with a fever. St. Augustine died on 28 August, 430, at the age of seventy-six.

Works of Augustine

Augustine was a prolific author in several genres-theological treatises, sermons, scripture commentaries, philosophical dialogues, and autobiography. His Confessions is usually accorded the position of the first autobiography in history; Augustine moves from his conception to his current (at about the age of fifty) relationship with God, and ends with a long excursus on the book of Genesis in which he demonstrates how to interpret scripture. The psychological awareness and self-revelation of the work still impress readers.

At the end of his life (c.426-428) Augustine revisited his previous works in chronological order and suggested what he would have said differently in a work titled the Retractions, which gives us a remarkable picture of the development of a writer and his final thoughts.

Thought and Legacy of Augustine

Augustine remains a central figure both in Christianity and in the history of Western thought. Heavily influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonism, particularly by Plotinus, Augustine was an important part of the "baptism" of Greek thought and its entrance into the Christian, and subsequently the European, intellectual tradition. Also important was his early and influential writing on the human will, which is a central topic in psychology and ethics, and one which became a focus for later philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

It is largely due to Augustine's influence that Western Christianity subscribes to the doctrine of original sin, and the Roman Catholic Church holds that baptisms and ordinations done outside of the Roman Catholic Church can be valid (the Roman Catholic Church recognizes ordinations done in Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, but not in Protestant churches, and recognizes baptisms done in nearly all Christian churches). Catholic theologians generally subscribe to Augustine's belief that God exists outside of time in the "eternal present," with time existing only within the created universe.

Augustine's writings helped formulate the theory of just war. He also advocated the use of force against the Donatists, asking "Why... should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction?" (The Correction of the Donatists, 22–24)

St. Thomas Aquinas took much from Augustine while creating his own unique synthesis of Greek and Christian thought. Two later theologians who claimed special influence from Augustine were John Calvin and Cornelius Jansen. Calvinism developed as a part of Reformation theology, while Jansenism was a movement inside the Catholic Church; some Jansenists went into schism and formed their own church.

Augustine was canonized by popular recognition and recognized as a Doctor of the Church in 1303.. His feast day is August 28, the day on which he is thought to have died. He is the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, sore eyes, and a number of cities and dioceses.


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References

  1. Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford World's Classics), trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.4.7, 3.5.9.
  2. It has been debated whether the sect was even Christian enough to be labeled a heresy (see Gerald Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. 3rd edition. (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2002), 58.
  3. Bonner, 161. 4. Bonner, 157.
  4. Confessions 3.6.10, De beata vita 1.4.
  5. Bonner, 62.
  6. Bonner, 72.
  7. See Confessions 4.2.2, 6.15.25; Bonner 78-79.
  8. Bonner, 85.
  9. Confessions, 8.12.29.
  10. Augustine himself recognised this: "I have learned that each particular heresy raises in the church its own peculiar challenges, against which the holy Scripture is to be defended more carefully than if no such necessity required"' (On the Gift of Perseverance, 20.53).
  11. "Augustine." Wikipedia, 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo>

Augustine's Writings

On Augustine's Life and Thought Books on Augustine