Who was St. Augustine of Hippo?

Introduction

St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) was born in Algeria and later moved to Rome. He was a philosopher and theologian in the late Roman / early Medieval period. St. Augustine is primarily recognised as one of the most important figures in the development of Christianity, especially due to his immense influence on early developments of the doctrine, because it was through him that Christianity was brought to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire. Furthermore, he is considered the father of orthodox theology and stands at the forefront of the other ‘four great fathers’ of the Latin Church (the other three being St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, and St. Jerome).

Philosophically, St. Augustine stands apart from the later scholastics, who took Aristotle as their model teacher and someone whose thought should be integrated into Christian dogma. St. Augustine, by contrast, developed a philosophical and theological system which employed elements of the Platonic tradition in support of Christian orthodoxy. His many works are believed to have shaped the medieval worldview and continue to influence philosophical work well into the twentieth century (e.g. Wittgenstein and Arendt).

Life

St. Augustine (or Aurelius Augustinus) was born on 13 November 354 CE in the Roman-Berber city of Thagaste (or Tagaste), in present day Algeria. He was by descent a Berber. While his father Patricius was pagan, his mother Monica was a devout Catholic – she too is canonised as a saint by most Christian denominations for her suffering. St. Augustine’s early upbringing was Catholic. At the age of 11, he was sent to school in an old Numidian town of Madaurus just south of Thagaste. The school was famed for its pagan influence and St. Augustine quickly became familiar with pagan beliefs and practices. He read Latin literature, though especially noteworthy is Cicero’s Hortensius (sometimes translated as On Philosophy – the original title was inspired by Cicero’s friend Quintus Hortensius Hortalus). This dialogue set forth an interest in philosophy in the young Augustine.

When St. Augustine turned 17, he left for Carthage, Tunisia. At the time, Carthage was the centre of Roman occupied Northern Africa. He continued his education; however, much to the dismay of his devout mother, he also became influenced by Manichaeism – a controversial religious system with elements of Christianity, Gnosticism and pagan elements. It is believed that this religious influence led to a hedonistic lifestyle, including visits to brothels, extramarital relationship with a young woman called Floria Aemilia that lasted for over 15 years (including giving birth to a son named Adeodatus).

St. Augustine briefly returned to Thagaste and took on teaching grammar, but moved back to Carthage soon after to teach rhetoric. At the age of 29 (383 AD), he moved to Rome where he taught rhetoric for a just a year. His disappointment with lack of interest by his students, as well as what he believed to be a rather dubious educational system in Rome, he quickly accepted an appointment for the imperial court in Milan.

The move to Rome and later Milan also led to a move away from Manichaeism. St. Augustine did not immediately accept Christianity after this move, first delving into a kind Scepticism. It was a combination of reading Plato, reading the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, his upbringing by a devout Christian mother, and probably most influential his friendship with the Bishop of Milan – Saint Ambrose (338 – 397), that gradually led St. Augustine back towards Christianity.

We know from his Confessions (which remains a bestseller to this day, even if not for the same reasons) that about two years after moving to Milan, in the summer of 386, St. Augustine officially converted to Catholicism. He abandoned rhetoric and teaching at the court, and instead devoted himself wholeheartedly to serving God. He also decided to become celibate and join the priesthood.

In 388, he once again returned to the African continent. On the way there his mother died, and his son Adeodatus died soon after. He sold his patrimony and gave the money to the poor, and fittingly opted for a reclusive lifestyle by converting the family house into a monastic foundation. In 391, he was ordained a priest (and later bishop) at Hippo Regius (Algeria). Once in that position, he preached opposing Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism. He remained in Hippo until his death in 430, converting the diverse groups living in the region to Catholicism.

Augustine died at the ripe age of 75, on 28 August 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Germanic Vandals. For some reason the Vandals did not destroy the cathedral where St. Augustine would preach, nor its library. His body is said to be moved to mainland Italy in Pavia or to the island of Sardinia in Cagliari (accounts on this vary). Another interesting, though equally unverifiable account, is that he is believed to have been the only person in possession of books in his town when he passed away.

St. Augustine became a patron saint of brewers, printers, sore eyes and theologians for the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. In Eastern Orthodox Churches is known as the Blessed Augustine. There is also a religious order named after him that lives according to what is known as the ‘Rule of Saint Augustine’.

Theological Works

As noted above, St. Augustine is best known for his Confessions, which is a biographical account of his early life and conversion to Christianity. It was completed between 397 and 400, and consists of 13 books (the complete title is Confessions in Thirteen Books). Where the first nine are personal accounts and certainly of anecdotal interest, it is the last four books that are of interest to philosophers most as the tone changes from memories of deeds to reflections on the value of these memories and confessions more generally.

Confessions is considered St. Augustine’s most important book – likely being the first autobiography written in the Western canon, but mostly because it set a precedent for Christian authors in the Middle Ages. While Confessions is considered one of his most important books, St. Augustine wrote over 100, where some other prominent works include The City of God (426 AD) and On the Trinity (a prolonged work written over the last 30 years of his life).

St. Augustine’s philosophical background and influence can be traced back to Platonism and Neo-Platonism. Of particular influence were the Enneads of Plotinus. It is widely believed that Neo-Platonic considerations in Christianity and philosophy more generally are to be traced back to St. Augustine. Next to Platonism and Neo-Platonism, St. Augustine was influenced by Stoicism, the Roman poet Virgil, Cicero, and Aristotle. From each of these, St. Augustine takes aspects that would benefit his early teaching career – e.g. Rhetoric and Poetics from Aristotle, and language and argumentation from Virgil and Cicero respectively.

Most of the work St. Augustine wrote is of theological interest. For example, he thought that original sin is the guilt of Adam, and that the Bible is not to be interpreted literally – especially if the Bible contradicts God-given human reason and scientific advances. One example of the latter is his belief that creation in seven days is meant to be understood as a logical framework for creation, rather than the actual time frame. There is, after all, an immediate contradiction that most human beings can grasp in the passage of days: if the sun only appears on the fourth day, how is one to understand what a day is? In fact, St. Augustine’s conception of time is that it is but a figment of our imagination, necessary to make sense of things around us. Human beings only attribute time to reality in order to understand finitude and infinity. In actuality, God who created time is only entity that can be called infinite.

He also believed that human beings live a predestined life and God has preordained all that will happen, and in ‘efficacious grace’ being the view that salvation is granted only to selected few. All these views would become extremely influential in the Early Modern period and cause a rift in Christianity with Martin Luther and John Calvin and to some extent with Cornelius Jansen during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

On a different note, he accepted that the Jews were a special people, chosen by God – but also understood their prosecution to be in line with God’s will and believed that they would convert to Christianity before the Last Judgment.

Philosophy Works

There remain a few philosophical aspects in St. Augustine’s work. For one, he was one of the early developers of Just War theory, in particular advocating to use force against Donatists. For St. Augustine, individuals should refrain from direct violence – however, he did see governments as different entities that were given permission to wage war under God. He in particular points out that Christians are should not refrain from protecting themselves or in order to maintain peace. Furthermore, there is a certain obligation towards punishing evil-doers when so desired by a government. In his own words:

They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” (The City of God, Book I, Chapter 21).

It would seem that the very notion ‘just war’ originates from St. Augustine himself, in particular in Book IV, Chapter 15:

Let them ask, then, whether it is quite fitting for good men to rejoice in extended empire. For the iniquity of those with whom just wars are carried on favors the growth of a kingdom, which would certainly have been small if the peace and justice of neighbors had not by any wrong provoked the carrying on of war against them; and human affairs being thus more happy, all kingdoms would have been small, rejoicing in neighborly concord; and thus there would have been very many kingdoms of nations in the world, as there are very many houses of citizens in a city. Therefore, to carry on war and extend a kingdom over wholly subdued nations seems to bad men to be felicity, to good men necessity.

And Book XIX, Chapter 7:

If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing.

Some philosophers have opined that St. Augustine’s Just War theory does not allow for descent, and that the individual is under an obligation to obey the government engaged in a war, whether the individual finds that war to be morally just or not. It remains the divine rule that individuals are subjects to the political elite and, because whether a war is just is up to the government and not the individual to decide upon, they are subjected to obey and wage war on the side of the political elite. Just war is for governments and not individuals.

On this note, the city of God is also to be understood as one independent of early affairs such as just war. The Church, is understood as a heavenly city ruled by love (and thus not sword or reason), and, rather curiously for this time frame, as an independent and even superior entity from the state (we will see that with Thomas Hobbes the roles become reversed). Some commentators have noted that this position may have been adopted due to sacking of Rome in 410 AD, where Christianity was blamed and St. Augustine sought his line of defence for Christianity as well as boost morale of Christians.

St. Augustine argued that epistemic scepticism is groundless – quite the opposite, he thought that knowledge could be established with absolute certainty through reason. Reason, for St. Augustine, is a uniquely human capacity through which deduction and logical necessity follow. Very much like Descartes after him, St. Augustine’s proofs for certainty flowed from the dictum: “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistake, I am” – that is, “I am because I can be mistaken”, or less ambiguously, “If I can be wrong about certain matters, that already proves that I exist”). We can see how this would later become the Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”).

One major aspect of St. Augustine’s philosophical reflection is his view of free will. He in particular struggled to reconcile free will and moral responsibility on the one hand, and his beliefs on original sin and predestined lives that he inherits from his religiosity. In particular, belief in original sin would make any kind of moral behaviour nearly impossible – because ‘evil’ for St. Augustine is the absence of ‘good’, and we are all born with the original sin (i.e. we are inherently evil), then it becomes impossible for human beings to better themselves through virtuous acts (as Aristotle believed), or through use of reason (as Kant believed – in fact, as St. Augustine notes: “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone” (Confessions, Book IV, Chapter 5)), or any other kind of training that human beings can take on in order to better themselves. The ethical perspective drawn from this would only lead to God’s Grace to be the only redemption from original sin – and thus, the lack moral culpability.

Further Reading

St. Augustine, (1961). Confessions, London: Penguin Classics.

St. Augustine, (2003). The City of God, London: Penguin Classics.

St. Augustine, (2012). On the Trinity, CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

Elshtain, J. B. (1996). Augustine and the Limits of Politics, University of Notre Dame Press.

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