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St. Augustine

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

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). □

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Aurelius Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo Regius (now Bona) in Africa, is by common consent the greatest name in political philosophy between Cicero and Thomas Aquinas. He was the first thinker to attempt the elaboration of a systematic Christian philosophy of society; he set the stage for the great controversy over the relation between church and state that was to be the central preoccupation of political philosophers throughout the ensuing centuries; and it has been claimed for him, variously, that he is the keystone of a supposed “bridge” that leads from classical political philosophy (much of which he certainly knew at first hand) to modern political philosophy, that he is the founder of the philosophy of history, and that he is one of the remote sources of that emphasis upon “the individual” and “individuality” that some authorities deem to be characteristic of the intellectual tradition of the West. His thought is known to us primarily through two books, The Confessions, written in the years 397–401, and The City of God, which he began in the year 413 and completed in 425. Augustine was, inter alia, a teacher of rhetoric, an ecclesiastical administrator who greatly influenced the history of the Roman Catholic church in Africa, a theologian, and the founder of the “rule” observed even today by many Catholic religious orders.

There are several major doctrines commonly associated with Augustine’s name. (1) Man, in his quest for knowledge of the highest good (which he is duty-bound to achieve) and of the greatest evil (which he is duty-bound to shun), can find infallible guidance only in sacred Scriptures. (2) Man must, therefore, cultivate the “sacred science,” which bases itself upon principles revealed to man by God and treats the subject matters of the several philosophical sciences (such as ethics, politics, and history) with an eye to those principles. (3) While the ancient philosophers rightly held that the life of politics is not the best life (Plato) and that man must pursue a way of life more divine than human (Aristotle), they could not, in the absence of sacred science, define the goal of the best life or discover the path that leads to it; concretely, the higher truth toward which they were groping is the truth that man owes absolute allegiance to no earthly society. (4) Man’s proper goal and the path he must follow are laid down by the holy laws that God gave to the people of Israel, by the Old Testament prophets, and in accordance with the latter’s prophecies, by Jesus Christ and the church Jesus founded; the man who follows that path follows God. (5) Both history and politics achieve a higher unity and acquire new and valid meaning when considered in the context of the principles of sacred science.

The Confessions, an autobiography, is superficially an account of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and of his subsequent spiritual struggles and ordeals. Many critics, indeed, have read it as merely the record of a single individual’s progress from bad to good and from unbelief to belief. More penetrating critics have seen in it a history, epic in conception and execution, of a representative man’s struggle to find a foothold that will enable him to contemplate reality from the point of view of the Divine. Confession, Augustine argued in Book x, i-iv, is less a profession of faith than a mode of discovery; and in Book x, v ff., he contended that the individual can, through the faculty of memory, become conscious of his own existence in history and thus of himself as the subject of history. Some scholars hold that Augustine’s act of self-awareness constitutes a major turning point in the intellectual and spiritual history of Western man.

Augustine’s contributions to political philosophy may be considered under two categories: “the two visible societies” and “the two invisible cities.”

The two visible societies. Although previous political philosophers had taught that the problems of politics necessarily transcend political philosophy and must be dealt with on the metaphysical or even the religious level and that political authority must therefore be confined within certain bounds, Augustine was the first political philosopher to pose the problem of the limits of political philosophy in the now familiar terms of two “spheres”: the secular, that is, the state, and the religious, or the church, each a distinct “society” and each beneficent. Augustine, echoing Aristotle, defined the state as the rule of free men over free men; it is rendered necessary by the “order of nature” and properly concerns itself with “just dealing” and “good manners.” He did not, as some interpreters suggest, attribute the existence of the state as such to “sin” and “guilt”; rather, sin and guilt, which take the form of “ambition” and “proud sovereignty,” explain only one kind of state, namely, the state whose characteristic is not rule of free men by free men through deliberation (which is the rule prescribed both by nature and by God) but rule by masters through coercive authority. Augustine thus enunciated ideas that are genuine landmarks in the development of antiauthoritarian political philosophy in the West.

The two invisible cities. History, for Augustine, is the unfolding relation between the “earthly city,” the abode of all men dominated by self-love, and the “heavenly city,” made up of men dominated by the love of God. The history of the former is “profane history,” an account of man’s actual political life; the history of the latter is “salvation history,” that is, an account of man’s relatedness to God. Armed with these two concepts—which must not be confused with those of church and state— Augustine attempted (a) a total critique of pagan political order, especially the Roman Empire, which he deemed bad in principle because wrongly related to God and divine law, and (b) the outlines of a Christian philosophy of right order and of the conditions under which man’s history becomes meaningful.

To do justice to Augustine’s theory of the state and to his indictment of the pagan empire one must understand the visible societies against the background of the invisible cities. Despite what some commentators have said, Augustine was not a detractor of the state but taught rather that the citizens of the heavenly city have a duty to work within the state on behalf of the rule of free men and so against the ambition and pride that are its typical vices; only the “blessed” can move the state toward its proper end, which is the temporal common good; any attempt, like that of the empire, to develop within the state the virtues necessary to that end without reference to God and divine law, is foredoomed to failure; the virtues it develops, because pursued not for God’s sake, but their own, are in fact vices. The state, then, far from being simply evil, is more or less good to the extent that it is penetrated—through the ministrations of the second visible society, the church—by the heavenly city. The critical problem for political philosophy thus became with Augustine (and continued to be through many centuries) that of the relation between church and state.

The meaning of history, Augustine argued, is not to be found within history itself, since historical events are, as such, empty of inner significance; it is to be found rather in the eruption into history of transhistorical purpose. The history of the earthly city is a history of sin, death, and human failure; that of the heavenly city, beginning with Adam, is a record of meaningful growth and development down through the centuries to the time of Christ, whose redemptive ministry initiates a final, nondevelopmental historical epoch, to end with the Second Coming of Christ. Augustine repudiated the hitherto regnant notions of historical inevitability and of historical development as “cyclical” and taught that while God “foreknows” some events and while there is a Divine Providence at work in history, historical events are nevertheless caused by free decisions made by man in the context of Divine Governance. If Western man typically thinks of himself as living in a historical present, between a past made by the free decisions of his forbears and a future for whose shape he and other men are responsible—that is, in historical time—Augustine has certainly been one of his great teachers.

Willmoore Kendall

[Related to Augustine’s work arePolitical theory; State; and the biographies ofAquinas; Aristotle; Plato.]


Basic Writings of Saint Augustine. 2 vols., edited with an introduction and notes by Whitney J. Oates. New York: Random House, 1948. → Volume 1: The Confessions; Twelve Treaties. Volume 2: The City of God; On the Trinity.

Introduction to St. Augustine: The City of God, Being Selections From the De civitate Dei, Including Most of the XIXth Book, With Text. Translated and with a running commentary by A. H. Barrow. London: Faber, 1950.

The Works of Aurelius Augustine. 15 vols., edited by Marcus Dods. Edinburgh: Clark, 1872–1934.


Andresen, Carl (editor) 1962 Zum Augustin-Gespräch der Gegenwart. Darmstadt (Germany): Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. → See especially the bibliography on pages 459–583.

Burleigh, John H. S. 1949 The City of God: A Study of St. Augustine’s Philosophy. London: Nisbet.

Callahan, John F. 1948 Four Views of Time in Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Chroust, Anton-hermann 1950 St. Augustine’s Philosophical Theory of Law. Notre Dame Lawyer 25:285–315.

Deane, Herbert A. 1963 The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Figgis, John N. 1921 The Political Aspects of St. Augustine’s City of God. London: Longmans.

Friberg, Hans D. 1944 Love and Justice in Political Theory: A Study of Augustine’s Definition of the Commonwealth. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Garrett, Thomas M. 1956 St. Augustine and the Nature of Society. New Scholasticism 30:16–36.

Gilson, ÉTienne H. (1931) 1960 The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. New York: Random House. → First published as Introduction à l’étude de Saint Augustin.

Guardini, Romano (1935) 1960 The Conversion of Augustine. Westminster, Md.: Newman. → First published as Die Bekehrung des heiligen Aurelius Augustinus.

Hearnshaw, Fossey J. C.; and Carlyle, A. J. (1923) 1950 St. Augustine and The City of God. Pages 34–52 in Fossey J. C. Hearnshaw (editor), The Social and Political Ideas of Some Great Mediaeval Thinkers. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Ladner, Gerhart B. 1953 The History of Ideas in the Christian Middle Ages From the Fathers to Dante in American and Canadian Publications of the Years 1940–1952. Traditio 9:439–514.

Ladner, Gerhart B. 1959 The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → See especially pages 153–283 on “St. Augustine and the Difference Between the Reform Ideas of the Christian East and West.”

McCoy, Charles N. R. 1963 The Structure of Political Thought: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: McGraw-Hill. → See especially pages 99–131 on “Christianity and Political Philosophy: The Relation of Church and State.”

Marshall, Robert T. 1952 Studies in the Political and Socio-religious Terminology of the De civitate Dei. Washington: Catholic Univ. of America Press.

Millar, Moorhouse F. X. 1930 The Significance of St. Augustine’s Criticism of Cicero’s Definition of the State. Volume 1, pages 99–109 in Philosophia perennis: Abhandlungen zu ihrer Vergangheit und Gegenwart. Edited by Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen. Regensburg (Germany): Habbel.

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Augustine (354430 c.e.) was born on November 13 in Thagaste in present-day Algeria. His father Patricius, a town councilor with a modest income, was a pagan who was only baptized on his deathbed. Patricius was married to a Christian woman named Monnica, with whom he had three children.

As a young man, Augustine studied grammar and rhetoric in Madaura. Owing to the limited financial means of his family, he was obliged to return home when he was sixteen. Thanks to help from friends, however, he was able to travel to Carthage, where he completed his studies. At the age of eighteen he read Cicero's Hortensius, which impressed him and awakened in him a desire for wisdom. He was disappointed with his first reading of the Scriptures, however, largely because of what he deemed to be their inferior literary quality. He turned to the Manichaeans for the next nine or ten years, attracted by their promise of knowledge without faith. Around 372 he met a woman, with whom he would live for thirteen years and with whom he would have a son, Adeodatus. To earn a living, he taught rhetoric in Carthage, but he was disappointed in his students, who apparently were far from attentive and did everything to disrupt the classes. In 383, he left Carthage and traveled to Rome but was similarly dismayed when his students there failed to pay for their lessons. He then traveled to Milan, at that time the capital of the Roman Empire in the West, where his Manichaean friends and the prefect of Milan, Symmachus, secured for him a post as a teacher of rhetoric.

While in Milan, Augustine heard sermons by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, whose stylish appearance and impressive performance profoundly impressed Augustine. Disappointed by the Manichaeans' failure to deliver the promised insight, Augustine decided to leave the movement, and for a short time he leaned toward skepticism because he thought he would never gain the truth he desired.

In Milan he was joined by his mother, who sent away Augustine's mistress and sought a fitting wife for him. Adeodatus remained with his father. The matchmaking efforts failed, however, when Augustine came under the influence of Platonism, in part due to the strong Platonic bias of Ambrose's sermons. In Platonic thought, Augustine found an answer to the then existential question: unde malum (Where does evil come from?). His inability to renounce physical desire delayed his conversion until the autumn of 386. But after reading Romans 13:1314 he became convinced of the need to renounce "worldly depravity," and on Easter night 387 he received baptism. He thereafter decided to return to Africa but was forced to wait until 388 because of the political turmoil. A revolt of the Roman troops in Africa postponed his return.

Augustine founded a religious community in Thagaste, where he spent his time in study and writing, and soon became a respected scholar. He traveled to nearby Hippo in 391, where he was persuaded to become a priest and to assist Valerius, the bishop of Hippo. Augustine succeeded Valerius as bishop in 395 or 396, a role he fulfilled with great dedication for the rest of his life. He also served as pastor in the liturgy and as a judge, and he took great care in attending to people's material needs. Letters discovered in 1975 (first critical edition: 1981) reveal his profound concern for the condition and well-being of the poor and the slaves. Augustine also worked to refute the Manichaeans, and he was involved in discussions with the Donatists, a local Christian movement, which actively opposed Roman oppression.

Around 411, Augustine decided to address Pelagianism, a strong ascetically oriented movement, which Augustine felt put too little emphasis on God's saving grace in Jesus Christ and depended too heavily on the moral potential of human beings themselves. Augustine's dispute with the Pelagians lasted until the end of his life. Especially in his last works, which were destined to be read by monks in Hadrumetum and Marseille, Augustine emphasized predestination, creating the impression that he had given up on the capacity of the human will. Because of this, and also because of his negative opinion of concupiscentia carnis (sinful desire, mainly in its sexual manifestation), scholars assess this period of his life to have been pessimistic.


Augustine was the most productive author in Latin antiquity. His autobiographical Confessions describes his life up to his conversion. This work and Augustine's De civitate Dei (City of God ), written after the fall of Rome in 410, have become classics of world literature. Because of his intellectual prestige, he was asked to offer his views on a wide range of matters. In addition to Confessions and De civitate Dei, his most important works are Enarrationes in Psalmos (Explanations of the Psalms c. 418), De Trinitate (The Trinity c. 420), and Enchiridion (A Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 422). His late works form part of the basis for the theological developments of the Reformation and the Jansenism movement during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Views on science and religion

The correlation between faith and reason arose during Augustine's time, and his thinking was influenced by such trends as Stoicism, neo-Platonism, and Manichaeism. He was, of course, greatly influenced by the Scriptures and the writings of his Christian predecessors. The Scriptures represented ultimate authority and the source of all truth for Augustine. His reflections on the relation between faith, knowledge, and "science" developed within his theocratic image of the world and humankind. For Augustine, the one and only ( Jewish-Christian) God is the creator of the universe and humankind (body and soul). Humans, like all parts of nature, are dependent on the creator. Such a view involves an inherent teleology, toward which the universe as process is ultimately ordered (Confessions 9, 23, 24). It also means that true knowledge is dependent on having a correct relationship with a personal and provident God, a view that deviates from the classical philosophy of, for example, the Stoa, where the cosmos as a whole represents a living and rational reality. According to Augustine, humans look for knowledge of self and God through reason because this will provide them with true happiness; religion cannot be disconnected from an active pursuit of truth. Religion and truth are closely bound, and knowledge occurs by means of an inward upward movement in the course of which truth reveals itself. For Augustine, one must search for truth in one's heart, and this inward movement must lead to a transcendent movement toward God, the truth. In this process God, who is love, plays an essential role because knowledge and love are bound together: As Augustine states in De Trinitate (9, 2, 2), "There is no knowing without loving, and no loving without knowing." For Augustine, body and soul are also closely linked, and Augustine's reflections on body and soul helped form the basis of the Western concept of "self." Furthermore, human freedom and autonomy for Augustine do not have the same importance as they enjoy in modern thought. Philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and theology are always intrinsically linked and cannot be separated. Augustine's view of human history is essentially determined by his belief in the God of Jesus Christ and in the crucial part that Christ, as sole intermediary, plays in history. Augustine was convinced that there can be no true knowledge, salvation, or welfare outside of faith in Christ. The only criterion of judgment is the Christian faith.

The soul must guide the body and serve as reference to God; it is the image and likeness of God, which is why human beings, of all creatures, are closest to God. The soul hosts the memory and makes humans rational beings. Augustine distinguishes between superior reason (also called intellectus and sapientia ), which is concerned with knowledge of unchanging principles, and inferior reason, which is focused on temporary things and is related to science. It is via superior reason that humans can see the truth "in" God.

Augustine is less univocal in his discussion of the body, which he judges in both positive and negative terms. He often spoke of love for the body and the duty to take care of it. When reacting to Manichaean dualism, he emphasized that the body is an essential part of the human person, and he strongly defended the resurrection of the body. At the same time, he regarded the body as a hindrance to the soul in the search for true happiness and as a source of sinfulness and mortality. In this connection he often spoke in a Pauline sense about life according to the flesh, in which the soul itself is always actively involved. Especially during the Pelagian controversy, Augustine emphasized that there is a sinful longing in all people (concupiscentia carnis ), which prevents them from doing the good they want to do.

Augustine's life can be described as a continuous search for the truth, although he was not a scientific theologian in the medieval or modern meaning of the word. Especially in his early period, he looked for mathematical (positive-scientific) certainty in his search for truth, which helps explain his interest in astrology. Augustine quickly discovered, however, that astrology did not lead him to the truth he sought, and his initial sympathy would, after a period of skeptical doubt, disappear. Around 400, he rejected the power of astronomy to predict people's fate on the basis of heavenly signs. He thereafter fiercely and repeatedly criticized astrology, although Bernard Bruning has suggested that Augustine may have traded his initial astrological fatalism for a divine fatalism (predestination). Nonetheless, after his conversion Augustine became convinced that true knowledge could only be gained through Christian revelation, even though this knowledge would always remain fragmentary and incomplete in this world.

See also Embodiment; Faith; Freedom; God; Imago Dei; Revelation; Soul; Teleology


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mathijs lamberigts

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Augustine, St. (354–430)

AUGUSTINE, ST. (354430)

St. Augustine was bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, and his writings established the intellectual foundations of Christianity in the West. He was born in Thagaste, a town forty-five miles south of Hippo in the Roman province of Numidia, which is now Algeria. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, a Christian. In his late teens he went to Carthage for further study, and through his reading of Cicero, he became enthused about philosophy. He became a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage and later in Rome and Milan. Augustine was a restless seeker rather than a systematic thinker, and after a brief flirtation with the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeanism, he immersed himself in the Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus. His whole life may be characterized as an intellectual and moral struggle with the problem of evil, a struggle that he worked out through synthesizing the ideas of the Neoplatonists with Christianity. He upheld the teachings of the Bible, but he realized that maintaining them in the intellectual and political climate of his age required a broad liberal education.

In his struggle against evil, Augustine believed in a hierarchy of being in which God was the Supreme Being on whom all other beings, that is, all other links in the great chain of being, were totally dependent. All beings were good because they tended back toward their creator who had made them from nothing. Humans, however, possess free will, and can only tend back to God by an act of the will. Man's refusal to turn to God is, in this way of thinking, nonbeing, or evil, so although the whole of creation is good, evil comes into the world through man's rejection of the good, the true, and the beautiful, that is, God. The ultimate purpose of education, then, is turning toward God, and Augustine thought the way to God was to look into oneself. It is here one finds an essential distinction Augustine makes between knowing about something (cogitare ), and understanding (scire ). One can know about oneself, but it is through understanding the mystery of oneself that one can come to understand the mystery of God. Thus the restless pursuit of God is always a pursuit of a goal that recedes from the seeker. As humans are mysteries to themselves, God is understood as wholly mysterious.

Augustine and Teaching

To be a teacher in the context of this struggle was, for Augustine, an act of love. Indeed, he advised teachers to "Imitate the good, bear with the evil, love all" (1952, p. 87). This love was required, for he knew the hardships of study, and the active resistance of the young to learning. He also considered language to be as much a hindrance as a help to learning. The mind, he said, moves faster than the words the teacher utters, and the words do not adequately express what the teacher intends. Additionally, the student hears the words in his own way, and attends not only to the words, but also to the teacher's tone of voice and other nonverbal signs, thus often misunderstanding the meaning of the teacher. The teacher, thus, must welcome students' questions even when they interrupt his speech. He must listen to his students and converse with them, and question them on their motives as well as their understanding. He saw education as a process of posing problems and seeking answers through conversation. Further, he saw teaching as mere preparation for understanding, which he considered an illumination of the "the teacher within," who is Christ.

Augustine, then, thought teachers should adapt their teaching to their students, whom he distinguished into three kinds: those well educated in the liberal arts, those who had studied with inferior teachers of rhetoric and who thought they understood things they did not actually understand, and those who were uneducated. The teacher needs to begin with all students by questioning them about what they know. When teaching well-educated students, Augustine cautioned teachers not to repeat for them what they already knew, but to move them along quickly to material they had not yet mastered. When teaching the superficially educated student, the teacher needed to insist upon the difference between having words and having understanding. These students needed to learn docility and to develop the kind of humility that was not overly critical of minor errors in the speech of others. With regard to the uneducated student, Augustine encouraged the teacher to be simple, clear, direct, and patient. This kind of teaching required much repetition, and could induce boredom in the teacher, but Augustine thought this boredom would be overcome by a sympathy with the student according to which, "they, as it were, speak in us what they hear, while we, after a fashion, learn in them what we teach" (1952, p.41). This kind of sympathy induces joy in the teacher and joy in the student.

All three of these kinds of teaching are to be done in what Augustine called the restrained style. This style requires the teacher not to overload the student with too much material, but to stay on one theme at a time, to reveal to the student what is hidden from him, to solve difficulties, and to anticipate other questions that might arise. Teachers also should be able from time to time to speak in what he called the mixed style using elaborate yet well-balanced phrases and rhythmsfor the purpose of delighting their students and attracting them to the beauty of the material. Teachers should also be able to speak in the grand style, which aims at moving students to action. What makes the grand style unique is not its verbal elaborations, but the fact that it comes from the heartfrom emotion and passionthus moving students to obey God and use his creation to arrive at full enjoyment of God. This hoped-for response is wholly consistent with what is probably the most famous quotation from Augustine's autobiography, The Confessions: "You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you" (1997b, p. 3).


Of the two great traditions in liberal education, the oratorical and the philosophical, Augustine is distinctly an orator. He believed more in imparting the truth to students than in supporting the individual student's quest for truth. He used the dialogical mode as one who knows the truth, unlike the Greek philosopher Socrates, who used dialogue as one who does not know anything. He thus established a Christian philosophy, which has influenced scholars and educators throughout the history of the West.

Augustine directly influenced the Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus and the Spanish prelate and scholar Isidore of Seville who, in the sixth and seventh centuries, established the seven liberal arts as a way of enriching the study of the Scriptures. The Anglo-Saxon scholar and headmaster Alcuin, in the eighth century, used Augustine's works on Christian teaching as textbooks. The Italian philosopher and religious leader Thomas Aquinas's attempt in the thirteenth century at synthesizing Aristotle and Christian faith may be understood as an extension of the work of Augustine, as can the Christian humanism of the Dutch scholar Erasmus in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Augustine's use of psychological autobiography speaks directly to those educators who view introspection and empathy as critical features in the life of a teacher. His awareness of the centrality of personal and political struggle in human existence, and of the educative and healing power of human dialogue still speaks to the condition of many teachers and educators.

See also: Philosophy of Education.


Augustine, St. 1952. The First Catechetical Instruction (400), trans. Joseph P. Christopher. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.

Augustine, St. 1968. The Teacher (389), trans. Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Augustine, ST. 1997a. On Christian Teaching (426), trans. R. P. H. Green. New York: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, St. 1997b. The Confessions (400), trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books.

Brown, Peter. 1969. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chadwick, Henry. 1996. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rist, John M. 1999. Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stock, Brian. 1996. Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Timothy Leonard

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For over 1,600 years, the works of Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.), the great Christian theologian and teacher, have strongly influenced religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. His ideas of mortality were informed by various belief systems, such as the early Christian view that death is punishment for original sin and the Platonic notion of the immaterial and immortal essence of the soul.

This instinct is the basis for morality, as the rational self strives to preserve its rational nature and not to become irrational or inorganic in nature. Augustine takes from Greco-Roman culture, particularly from the Stoics, the notion that every living thing has an "instinct" for self-preservation. From the books of the Pentateuch, Augustine receives a juridical account of the origin and character of death: Death is a punishment (Gen. 3:19). In his epistles to early Christian communities, the apostle Paul (an ex-rabbi) makes a juridical understanding of death central to the Christian faith (2 Cor. 1:9); these letters become increasingly important for Augustine's understanding of the significance of death.

Augustine's evaluation of death undergoes a profound change after he encounters the theology of Pelagius. In his earlier writings, such as On the Nature of the Good, Augustine regards death as good because it is natural: Death is the ordered succession of living entities, each coming and going the way the sound of a word comes and goes; if the sound remained forever, nothing could be said. But in Pelagius's theology, Augustine encounters a radical statement of the "naturalness" of death: Even if there had never been any sin, Pelagius says, there would still be death. Such an understanding of death is very rare in early Christianity, and Augustine eventually stands with the mass of early Christian tradition by insisting upon the exegetically derived (from the Pentateuch) judgment that death is a punishment that diminishes the original "all life" condition of human nature. It is a distinctive and consistent feature of Augustine's theology of death that it is developed and articulated almost exclusively through the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.

The fact of death has ambivalent significance. On the one hand, death is an undeniable reality, universally appearing in all living organisms: Life inevitably ceases, however primitive or rational that life may be. On the other hand, just as inevitably and as universally, death demands denial: Consciousness rejects the devolution from organic to inorganic.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Death Rites, History of; Philosophy, Western


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Augustine of Hippo, St

Augustine of Hippo, St (354–430). Christian father and doctor of the Church. He was a native of Tagaste in N. Africa. His mother Monica was a Christian, but as a young man he gradually abandoned what Christian belief he had. For nine years he was associated with the Manichaeans, but had left this religion also by the time he came to Rome as a teacher of rhetoric. Becoming a professor of rhetoric at Milan, he became a Neoplatonist and, under the influence of Ambrose, was converted to Christianity in 386, after responding to a command, ‘Tolle, lege’, and opening the New Testament at Romans 13. 13 f. He returned to N. Africa, was ordained priest in 391 and became bishop of Hippo (modern Bōne in Algeria) c.396. His own life and conversion were the subject of his deeply moving Confessions.

Augustine's influence on Christian thought and theology, especially down to the 13th cent., has been immense. His own theology was formulated in controversy with three opponents in particular. First, against Manichaeism, he defended the essential goodness of all that God, as sole creator, has created. Thus evil could only be privatio boni, the absence of the good which ought to be. Second, the Donatist controversy caused him to formulate systematic doctrines of the church and sacraments. Augustine's last battle was with the Pelagians, clarifying his teaching on the fall, original sin, and predestination. He held that man's original endowment from God was lost by the fall of Adam, so that now all suffer from an inherited defect and liability from Adam's sin; and from this the whole human race is justly massa damnata, to be saved only by the grace of God. Since God knows what he intends to do, Augustine is inevitably predestinarian to some extent, and this influenced especially Calvin and other Reformers. Apart from his polemical works, the Confessions and The City of God are most important.

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Augustine, Saint

Augustine, Saint (354–430) Christian theologian and philosopher. Augustine's Confessions provide a psychological self-portrait of a spirit in search of ultimate purpose. This he found in his conversion to Christianity in 386. As Bishop of Hippo, n Africa (395–430), he defended Christian orthodoxy against Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism. In Enchiridion (421) he emphasized the corruption of human will and the freedom of the divine gift of grace. The City of God (426) is a model of Christian apologetic literature. Of the Four Fathers of the Latin Church, Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory I, Augustine is considered the greatest. His feast day is August 28.

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