Augustine (354–430 CE)

St. Augustine of Hippo, whose full name was Aurelius Augustinus, was born in 354 CE, in the city of Tagaste, in the Roman North African province of Numidia (now Algeria). His moderately well-to-do family was religiously mixed. His father, Patricius, was a pagan who still adhered to the old gods of Rome, and his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. Such families were typical of this era, when paganism was in retreat and Christianity was spreading. Despite his mother’s strong influence, Augustine was not baptized a Christian until he was in his early thirties.

Augustine was an intellectually gifted child, and his parents carefully schooled him so he could secure a good position for himself in the Roman civil service. At the age of seventeen, his parents sent him to Carthage to study. There, he quickly discovered the joys of sex, and he soon fell deeply in love with a woman who became the mother of his son, Adeodatus. Augustine never married this woman, but she remained his mistress for many years, a common arrangement in the fourth century.

Augustine’s mother Monica still harbored her ambitions for Augustine, and she persuaded him to get rid of his mistress and move to Italy, where he could secure a good career for himself—the reason he’d been so carefully schooled. Augustine listened to his mother and headed to Italy with her and his son. The three of them settled in Milan, the administrative capital of the Roman Empire at that time, and Augustine took up teaching. His mother soon had him engaged to a girl half his age who came from a wealthy and well-placed family. Augustine never married this girl and instead took up with another woman.

In Milan, Augustine fell under the influence of Bishop Ambrose, and the two became good friends. In 386, a momentous event occurred in Augustine’s life: he heard a voice that told him to read the Bible. When he held the Bible, it fell open to Romans 13:13, a passage in the New Testament, in which he read that drunkenness and sexual indulgence should be abandoned. This passage had a profound effect on him, and there and then he decided to convert. Bishop Ambrose baptized both Augustine and his son. Not long afterward, Augustine’s mother died suddenly, and he went into deep depression. He emerged a changed man and decided to give up sex, leave the woman he was living with, and move back to North Africa with his son, where he would concentrate on being spiritual and contemplative.

He settled near the town of Hippo Regius, which is now Annaba, Algeria. The townsfolk liked the idea of having a learned man nearby, and they suggested to Augustine that he become their bishop, since the seat was currently vacant. Augustine refused. However, tragedy struck again: his son died, and Augustine mourned greatly. The townsfolk once again approached him about becoming the bishop, and this time Augustine accepted, hoping that the rigorous demands of the position might keep him from thinking about his son. He was ordained as a priest in 391, and in 396 he became the bishop of Hippo, a position he undertook with conviction and would hold until his death. He ministered to his flock with great dedication, especially in the ensuing years of troubling uncertainty when the Roman Empire crumbled away, one province after another falling to the invading Germanic tribes.

One tribe, the Vandals, who were responsible for the sacking of Rome in 410, sailed across the Mediterranean to North Africa and quickly overran it. The story goes that Augustine died in the year 430 in his bed, reading the Psalms, as the Vandals began to attack Hippo. He was buried in the city’s cathedral. In the 8th century, the Longobard king Liutprand removed Augustine’s remains to Pavia, Italy, to save them from the Muslims who had overrun North Africa. Augustine’s tomb is now in St. Peter’s Church in Pavia.

Augustine’s Works and Influence

Augustine wrote all his life, and his work includes books as well as letters and homilies, all written in Latin. His early works are purely philosophical, whereas his later writings concentrate solely on religious matters. After his conversion in 386, he wrote Against the Academics, in which he critiqued skepticism; On Free Choice of the Will, in which he dealt with the existence and problem of evil; The Catholic and Manichean Ways of Life, in which he explored the subject of ethics; and On the Teacher, in which he examined concepts of knowledge and language. These works formed the basis of his philosophy.

In 401, five years after he became the bishop of Hippo, he published his Confessions, which is the first work of autobiography in Western literature. Confessions is an account of his riotous early years of sensual living, but since he wrote the work in his later years, many philosophical passages appear as well. In the year 410, the unthinkable happened: the Vandals, a relatively obscure Germanic tribe, conquered Rome, looting and destroying much of the city and killing or raping many of its inhabitants. This calamitous event shook the entire Roman Empire to its core. In response to the anxiety and uncertainty felt by the Roman Christians, Augustine wrote The City of God, in which he reminds Christians that their true city was never Rome. Instead, their city is heaven itself, which alone is eternal. This attempt to understand a traumatic event gave Augustine the opportunity to elaborate his political theory, and The City of God became his most influential and widely read work.

Augustine shaped the medieval mind more than any other thinker. He was concerned not only with philosophical inquiry but with the construction of Christian wisdom itself. He stated that it was possible to learn about the good, or God, by way of reason. Augustine established the paradigms for a theology of history, which regarded history in its totality and set forth a new view of human society, one that was harmonious, whole, and in the image of heaven. This first description of utopia would prove to be a rich vein in philosophy, influencing such thinkers as Thomas More, Leibniz, Campanella, and Karl Marx.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Augustine