Saint Augustine of Hippo (Aurelius Augustinus, 354-430 CE) was the first major philosopher of the Christian era. He was the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia during the waning years of the Roman Empire, and his most famous work, The City of God, described what he believed to be the cause of this decline. In his works, he also addressed such questions as the original sin or free will, and his ideas would have a profound effect not only during his lifetime but also on the development of the medieval church and, later on, on the theologians of the Protestant Reformation. He is recognized as a saint and a Doctor of the Church for his contribution to theology.
Augustine was born in 354 CE in the city of Tageste, Numidia (present-day Algeria), and attended school in both Madaura and Carthage, where he studied grammar and rhetoric. While his mother was a Christian, his father was a pagan, later converting, possibly on his deathbed, to Christianity. Years later, in his Confessions, Augustine would admit to having lived the life of a “libertine,” even fathering a child. He is known for the quote “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” Becoming disillusioned, he rejected Christianity because of the Bible’s writing style and the crudeness of its doctrines and turned to the teachings of the Persian prophet Mani (216-276 CE). Manichaeism was a mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Gnosticism and taught of the dualism of good and evil, where humanity was partly good but also partly evil. He would remain an adherent for over nine years, returning to his hometown to open a school and then leave to teach rhetoric in Carthage.
In 383 CE he was once again at crossroads, becoming dissatisfied with both Manichaeism and Plato’s old Academy in Athens. He traveled to Rome where he secured a position as the municipal professor of rhetoric in Milan. According to his own confession, when he returned to Rome, he had an experience that would change his life forever: he heard the voice of God. While in Milan, he became acquainted with the renowned theologian Bishop Ambrose (339-397 CE) who had fused Christianity with the teaching of the Athenian philosopher Plato. With a renewed awareness, Augustine began to study the writings of both Plato and Plotinus, which led him to an interest in Neo-Platonism. He would use this newfound passion for Neo-Platonism to defend and affirm Christian theology.
In his The City of God, Augustine speaks respectfully of both Socrates and Plato. He viewed Socrates as the “first to channel the whole of philosophy into an ethical system for the reformation and regulation of morals.” He considered Plato, Socrates’ disciple, to be both so “remarkable for his brilliance that he has deservedly outshone all the rest” and “a master rightly esteemed above all other pagan philosophers…” (Gochberg, 639/642). Augustine also returned to a childhood favorite and a source of inspiration: the Roman statesman and orator Cicero and his study of philosophy in Hortensius. At the age of 32, he returned to Christianity, and in 387 CE, he was baptized, traveling to Hippo in North Africa where he was ordained as a priest, becoming a bishop in 395 CE.
Augustine’s writings fall on a border between theology and philosophy. A prolific author, his major works include:
- Confessions - an autobiographical work written around 400 CE
- The City of God - a 22-volume work written between 413 and 425 CE
- Retractations - a reconsideration of his earlier works.
Lesser-known writings include:
- Against the Academics
- On the Greatness of the Soul
- On Free Will
- Against Faustus the Manichaean
- On Grace and Free Will
His works were a philosophical justification of Christianity, although some viewed this as heresy. While both were a search for the truth, Augustine believed that only Christianity was the real truth, and, without faith, philosophy could never attain truth. Both Platonius’ ideas and Neo-Platonic philosophy were absorbed into the Church’s view of the nature of reality, and only through faith could one achieve true wisdom. Voicing an opinion that would influence future rationalists, Augustine believed that faith comes first and is made clear and supported by reason.
The City of God
His most famous work, The City of God was written after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE. In this city of God, each individual is a citizen of two different worlds at the same time. One is the kingdom of God, which is unchanging and eternal, the other, although this idea was not new to many Christians, was the kingdom of the unstable world. In The City of God, Augustine wanted to refute the pagan allegations that the decline of the Roman Empire in the West was due to the people’s desertion of the ancient deities in favor of Christianity. In his rebuttal, Augustine pointed to the gradual decline of morality throughout the empire. Although many Romans continued to believe in their version of the empire’s collapse, Augustine said the empire’s success had only been due to its desire to dominate. He wrote:
Though crushed by the enemy, you put no check on immorality, you learned no lessons from calamity; in the depths of sorrows you still wallow in sin. ... In the city of the world both the rulers dominate and the people they dominate are dominated by the lust for domination, whereas in the City of God all citizens serve one another in charity. (Gochberg, 630-631)
In summation, he wrote that history is the unfolding result of God’s will, where people choose between the heavenly city and an earthly one.
The Question of Free Will
One of the areas where Augustine received some criticism was on the idea of free will. If God is all-knowing, how can humans still have free will? This conflict bordered on predestination, which was not officially accepted by the Church. It would not become a dominant theory until the Reformation and the appearance of John Calvin. While Augustine believed that God may be all-knowing, this does not have any bearing on free will. God allows some evil to exist. In fact, Augustine identifies two types of evil: moral evils such as murder or human plundering and natural evil which includes earthquakes and tidal waves. Moral evil is a choice, and one must overcome temptations. To be virtuous is to control one’s will, God only serves as a guide.
Augustine also attempted to clarify the concept of original sin. Evil did not exist before the “fall.” Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, and human suffering was the result of their disobedience. While God could have stopped Adam and Eve’s defiance, it would have prevented humanity from having free will. In his The City of God, Augustine wrote:
Regarding the Garden of Eden, the happiness that was possible there, the life of our first parents, their sin and their punishment, a great deal has been thought, said, and written. ... Actually, I think I have said enough on the really great and difficult problems concerning the origin of the world, the soul, and the human race. In regard to mankind I have made a decision. On the one side are those who live according to man; on the other, those who live according to God. (Gochberg, 632)
One gets the reward of heaven while the other gets eternal punishment.
Sainthood & Legacy
In 430 CE the Vandals sacked Augustine’s hometown of Hippo but he would not live to see the surrender of his city. As the Vandals laid siege to Hippo, Augustine remained, refusing to leave. Suffering from a fever, he requested solitude and seclusion and died on 28 August 430 CE. After his canonization by Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303 CE) as the patron saint of brewers and printers among others, the Catholic Church would recognize 28 August as his saint’s day.
After his death and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe would enter what is called, according to Petrarch, the “Dark Ages.” However, this period also saw the birth of organized religion, and Augustine’s theology was an integral part of the development of not only Christianity but also Western intellectual thought. Future theologians would read Augustine’s work, and the outspoken philosopher/theologian would influence others for years to come: Boethius, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Reformation thinkers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Cornelius Jansen, and Bernard of Clairvaux were among those influenced by Augustine and future philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche would draw on his ideas.