St. Augustine

St. Augustine (A.D. 354 – 430) was a religious philosopher who bridged the gap between Greek philosophy and early Christianity.

The medieval philosophers almost took for granted that Christianity was true. The question was whether we must simply believe the Christian revelation or whether we can approach the Christian truths with the help of reason.

What was the relationship between the Greek philosophers and what the Bible said?  Was there a contradiction between the Bible and reason, or were belief and knowledge compatible?

Almost all the mediaeval philosophy centred on this one question.

In St. Augustine’s life and approach to Christianity you can observe the actual transition from late Antiquity to the early middle ages.

Augustine was born in the little town of Tagaste in north Africa, which at the time was part of the declining Roman empire. At the age of 16 he went to Carthage to study. Later he travelled to Rome and Milan, and lived the last year of his life in the town of Hippo, a few miles west of Carthage.

However, he was not a Christian all his life. Augustine examined several different religions and philosophies before he became a Christian.

For a time he was part of the Manichchaeans  a religious sect that was extremely characteristic of the late Antiquity. The doctrine was half religion and half philosophy, asserting that the world consisted of individualism good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and matter. With his spirit, mankind could rise above the world of batter and thus prepare for the salvation of his soul. But this sharp division between good and evil gave the young Augustine no peace of mind. He was  preoccupied with the problem of evil.

the problem of evil

Where does evil come from?

Augustine’s belief on this question was partly influenced by Stoic philosophy and according to the Stoics, there was no sharp division between good and evil. However, his principal leanings were toward the other significant philosophy of the late Antiquity, Neoplatonism.

Here he came across the idea that all existence is divine in nature.

There is no dramatic break with the Greek philosophy the minute we enter into the Christian Middle Ages. Much of Greek philosophy was carried over to the new age through fathers of the church like St Augustine.

He pointed out that there are limits to how far reason can go in your religious questions. Christianity is a divine mystery that you can only perceive through faith. But if you believe in Christianity God will illuminate the soul so that you can experience the sort of supernatural knowledge of God.

St Augustine had felt within himself that there was a limits to how far philosophy could go. Not before he became a Christian did he find peace in his own soul. “Our heart is not required until it rests in thee”, he wrote.

In keeping with philosophy of Plato and applying it to Christianity, St Augustine certainly maintained that God created the world out of the void and that was a biblical idea. The Greeks preferred with the idea that the world had always existed.

But St Augustine believed that before God created the world the ‘ideas’, as Plato called them, were in the divine mind. So he located the eternity of God and in that way preserved the Platonic view of the eternal ideas.

Augustine also inclined to Neoplatonism in his view of evil. He believed like Plotonius that evil is the ‘absence of God’. Evil has no independent existence, it is something that is not. For God’s creation is in fact only good. Evil comes from mankind’s disobedience. Augustine believed. Or in his own words, “The good will is God’s work; the evil where is the falling away from God’s work.”

St. Augustine maintained that there is an insurmountable barrier between God and the world. In this he stands firmly on biblical ground, rejecting the doctrine of Plotonius that everything is one. But he nevertheless emphasises that every person is a spiritual being. You have a material body which belongs to the physical world which, “Moth and rust. doth corrupt” but you also have a soul which can know God.

According to St Augustine the entire human race was lost after the fall of man. But God nevertheless decided that certain people should be safe from damnation. This can be seen as a return to a belief in fate and prophesy.

This went against Socrates view that we always had the same chance because we all had the same common sense of dust burning divides people into two groups. One group gets saved and the other gets damaged. St Augustine’s owns theology is considerably removed from humanism of Athens.

city of god

 

St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) was an Algerian-Roman philosopher and theologian of the late Roman / early Medieval period. He is one of the most important early figures in the development of Western Christianity, and was a major figure in bringing Christianity to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire. He is often considered the father of orthodox theology and the greatest of the four great fathers of the Latin Church (along with St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory).

Unlike the later Scholastics who took Aristotle as the classical model to be integrated into Christian thought, Augustine developed a philosophical and theological system which employed elements of Plato and Neo-Platonism in support of Christian orthodoxy. His many works profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.

Life
Aurelius Augustinus (usually known as simply Augustine) was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (or Thagaste), a provincial Roman city in Algeria, North Africa, and he was, by descent, a Berber. His father Patricius was a pagan, but his mother Monica (or Monnica) was a devout Catholic (and is herself revered as a Christian saint), so he was raised as a Catholic. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus, an old Numidian town just south of Tagaste, famed both for its schools and for its pagan influence, where he became very familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. Later he read the “Hortensius”, a dialogue by the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, which was largely responsible for sparking his interest in philosophy.

At the age of 17, he went to Carthage, Tunisia (the metropolis of Roman Africa) to continue his education in rhetoric, and there he came under the influence of the controversial Persian religious cult of Manichaeism, much to the despair of his mother. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, including frequent visits to the brothels of Carthage, and developed a relationship with a young woman named Floria Aemilia, who would be his concubine for over fifteen years, and who bore him a son, Adeodatus.

After a year or two teaching grammar back in his hometown, he returned to Carthage where he spent nine years conducting a school of rhetoric, until, in 383 (at the age of 29), he moved to Rome to teach rhetoric. However, he was disappointed with the apathetic and crooked Roman schools, and the next year he accepted an appointment as professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a highly visible and influential academic chair.

During his time at Rome and Milan, he had moved away from Manichaeism, initially embracing the Skepticism of the New Academy movement. A combination of his own studies in Neo-Platonism, his reading of an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, and the combined influence of his mother, his friend Simplicianus and, particularly, the influential bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (338 – 397), gradually inclined Augustine towards Christianity. In the summer of 386, he officially converted to Catholic Christianity, abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and gave up any ideas of the society marriage which had been arranged for him, and devoted himself entirely to serving God, the priesthood and celibacy. He detailed this spiritual journey in his famous “Confessions”, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature.

In 388, he returned to Africa, although his mother died on the way there, and his son Adeodatus died soon after, leaving him alone in the world, without family. He sold his patrimony, giving the money to the poor, and converted the family house into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends. In 391, he was ordained a priest (and later bishop) at Hippo Regius on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria, and he became a famous preacher, particularly noted for opposing Manichaeism and heresies such as Donatism and Pelagianism. He remained in this position at Hippo until his death in 430, working tirelessly to convert the diverse local racial and religious groups to the Catholic faith.

Augustine died on 28 August 430, aged 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Germanic Vandals, who destroyed all of the city except Augustine’s cathedral and library. His body was later moved to Pavia, Italy (or, according to another account, to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia). Almost throughout his life he had been a lonely, isolated figure, not attached to any intellectual or academic movement, and without any university or institutional support for his work. At the time of his death, he was apparently the only person in his whole town who possessed any books at all.

He was made a saint (patron saint of brewers, printers, sore eyes and theologians) of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and among the Orthodox he is known as Blessed Augustine or St. Augustine the Blessed. He is the patron of the Augustinian religious order (the Catholic monastic order of both men and women living according to a guide to religious life known as the Rule of Saint Augustine). In 1298, he was made a pre-eminent Doctor of the Church.

Work Back to Top
Augustine wrote over 100 works in Latin, many of them texts on Christian doctrine and apologetic works against various heresies. He is best known for the “Confessiones” (“Confessions”, a personal account of his early life, completed in about 397), “De civitate Dei” (“The City of God”, consisting of 22 books started in 413 and finished in 426, dealing with God, martyrdom, Jews and other Christian philosophies) and “De Trinitate” (“On the Trinity”, consisting of 15 books written over the final 30 years of his life, in which he developed the “psychological analogy” of the Trinity).

In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the “Enneads” of Plotinus (his generally favorable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to its entrance into the Christian, and subsequently the European, intellectual tradition). He was also influenced by the works of the Roman poet Virgil (for his teaching on language), Cicero (for his teaching on argument) and Aristotle (particularly his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”).

Augustine argued that Skeptics have no basis for claiming to know that there is no knowledge, and he believed that genuine human knowledge can be established with certainty. He believed reason to be a uniquely human cognitive capacity that comprehends deductive truths and logical necessity. In a proof for existence similar to one later made famous by Descartes, Augustine claimed “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I am”). He also adopted a subjective view of time, arguing that time is nothing in reality but exists only in the human mind’s apprehension of reality, and that time cannot be infinite because God “created” it.

Augustine struggled to reconcile his beliefs about free will and his belief that humans are morally responsible for their actions, with his belief that one’s life is predestined and his belief in original sin (which seems to make human moral behavior nearly impossible). He held that, because human beings begin with original sin and are therefore inherently evil (even if, as he believed, evil is not anything real but merely the absence of good), then the classical attempts to achieve virtue by discipline, training and reason are all bound to fail, and the redemptive action of God’s grace alone offers hope. He opined that “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone”.

In his theological works, Augustine expounded on the concept of original sin (the guilt of Adam which all human beings inherit) in his works against the Pelagian heretics, providing an important influence on St. Thomas Aquinas. He helped formulate the theory of the just war, and advocated the use of force against the Donatist heretics. He developed doctrines of predestination (the divine foreordaining of all that will ever happen) and efficacious grace (the idea that God’s salvation is granted to a fixed number of those whom He has already determined to save), which later found eloquent expression in the works of Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and John Calvin (1509 – 1564), as well as Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1638) during the Counter-Reformation.

Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason (e.g. he believed that God created the world simultaneously and that the seven-day creation recorded in the Bible merely represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way). Although he believed that God had chosen the Jews as a special people, he considered the scattering of Jews by the Roman empire to be a fulfillment of prophecy, and believed that the Jews would be converted at the end of time. He associated sexual desire with the sin of Adam, and believed that it was still sinful, even though the Fall has made it part of human nature.

In “The City of God”, he conceived of the church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which will ultimately triumph over all earthly empires which are self-indulgent and ruled by pride. He emphasized the church’s strict independence from, and its superiority over, the civil state. Begun in the aftermath of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, it was to some extent written as a defense against those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome, and to restore the confidence of his fellow Christians.

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