Augustine of Hippo

354-430. Aurelius Augustinus (Austin), bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia in Roman North Africa, and greatest of the Latin Fathers. Born at Tagaste of middle-class parents, Patricius (converted only shortly before his death in 372) and the devout, domineering Monica, he was educated locally, then at Madaura and Carthage (371-75). He excelled in the rhetoric-centered training of late antiquity, but failed to master Greek. A catechumen since infancy, he nevertheless indulged a passion for the theater and disciplined his sexuality only by an unofficial marriage (372) which lasted until 385 and produced a son, Adeodatus (“gift of God,” died c.390).

Cicero's (lost) Hortensius converted Augustine to philosophy, the pursuit of divine wisdom (373), which precipitated him, disillusioned with the Bible's style and substance, into Manichaeism.* Attracted by its claim to rational demonstration of wisdom, its rejection of the OT, and the lofty spirituality of its “elect,” he remained a Manichaean auditor (“hearer”) for a decade; at first an enthusiastic proselytizer but progressively disabused of its intellectual pretensions, he was yet unable to abandon its philosophical materialism and dualistic resolution of the nagging problem of evil. At Tagaste (375-76) and Carthage, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric and wrote his first (lost) work, The Beautiful and the Fitting (c.380). Ambition took him briefly to Rome (383) and then-through the patronage of Symmachus, the city prefect and doyen of the pagan aristocracy-to Milan, the imperial seat, as professor of rhetoric (384), soon pursued by Monica to mother his professional advance and Catholic recovery. In anticipation of a suitable marriage, his unnamed concubine was dismissed.

Though tempted by academic skepticism, Augustine succumbed to the learned eloquence and allegorism of Ambrose,* bishop of Milan. Prominent Milanese Christian intellectuals introduced him to writings by Neoplatonists Plotinus* and Porphyry* (early 386), which consummated his emancipation from Manichaeism and fanned his devotion to spiritual philosophy. Their vision of transcendent, immaterial being and evil as privation of goodness dissolved his difficulties and exposed him to the impact of repeated accounts of Christian “conversion from the world.” His struggles to follow these exempla climaxed in the famous garden with the reading of Romans 13:13,14 (late summer 386). Abandoning a public career, he retreated with family, friends, and pupils to an estate at Cassiciacum for the untrammeled pursuit of wisdom, which the classical dialogues and Soliloquies written there delineate as the quest of a confident Catholic Neoplatonist. Baptism by Ambrose in Milan followed at Easter 387.

On his return to Tagaste, following Monica's death at Ostia after their ecstatic (Neoplatonic?) vision, Augustine formed a fellowship of “the servants of God” committed to contemplative philosophy (cf. True Religion, 389-91). He had already started writing against Manichaeism. While visiting Hippo for ascetic purposes, he was press-ganged into the priesthood (391), first begging time to improve his biblical knowledge. He founded a monastery there, and on succeeding Bishop Valerius in 396 (having been consecrated in advance in 395), turned the episcopal house into a clerical monastic community, a nursery of future African bishops. As Augustine reconciled himself to being Catholic bishop in the teeth of Donatist* ascendancy, Manichaean persistence, and “catholicized” paganism, his outlook changed decisively. A more biblically radical diagnosis of man and history (even church history) progressively displaced an optimistic, Neoplatonic “humanism.” The Confessions (c.397-401) interpret his past up to Monica's death in this severer light. Though in emphasis they diverge from his pre-Hippo writings, their basic historicity is unquestioned.

He became deeply involved in a bishop's usual duties-liturgical, pastoral, disciplinary, administrative, judicial. He preached assiduously, with long series on the Psalms and John's gospel, in a style as appealing and profound as any of the Fathers. He traveled often, around his diocese, to Carthage and elsewhere, especially for synods, consultations, and disputations, but never again left Africa. He propagated the monastic life and in league with Aurelius of Carthage reinvigorated African Catholicism.

His theology ripened in controversy. Against the Manichaeans he defended the goodness of creation qua being, defining evil as absence of good and ascribing sin to abuse of free will, and he developed a rationale of faith as evoked by the impressive authority of the universal church and leading to understanding.

The Donatists evaded the personal confrontations in which Augustine worsted Manichaean notables, but his tireless historical and theological refutation, popularized in rhyme, slogan, and poster, advanced African views of the church and sacraments yet left them still underdeveloped. Building on Tyconius's ecclesiology, he stressed that the church's purity was eschatological, incapable of present realization, and its universality as certain as prophecy. Sacraments outside the church are real, because their minister is Christ, but profitless until their recipients rejoin the only body wherein the Spirit, the bond of love and unity, bestows life. Pragmatic considerations led Augustine to abandon his disapproval of the coercion of heretics and schismatics, but he justified it as a corrective, not a punitive, function of the Christian magistrate, and merely one facet of divine discipline for man's good (“Love, and do what you will”).

His typically African preoccupation with the church and baptism persisted against Pelagius* and his followers. He refined the African conception of original sin, as the inherited guilt and corruption of Adam, and taught the necessity of inward grace to enable man to obey God, apparently denying his anti-Manichaean voluntarism which Pelagius cited. The impossibility of sinlessness on earth, the indispensability of baptismal forgiveness for infants, and the inclusive “hospitality” of the church were stressed against Pelagius's perfectionist élitism. The inscrutable predestination and perseverance of the elect (but not the reprobate) came to the fore against Julian of Eclanum, and the semi-Pelagian (better, semi-Augustinian) monks of S Gaul. The City of God (c.413-27) began as an apologia against allegations that Christianity was ultimately answerable for the sack of Rome in 410. It became a disorderly review of Roman and Christian history, interpreted theologically and thus eschatologically, through the entangled earthly fortunes of two “cities” created by conflicting loves.

Augustine died as Roman Africa succumbed to the Vandals besieging Hippo. His friend Possidius, bishop of Calama, compiled a Life and a catalogue of his works. One of the last was the Revisions (Retractationes, 426-27), in which Augustine listed his writings, correcting and defending himself at points. The Trinity (399-419) sums up the patristic Trinitarian achievement and advances psychological analogies, while Christian Instruction (396-426) became an influential manual of Christian culture and hermeneutics. In addition to numerous contributions to controversies, there survive extensive exegetical works, and hundreds of letters (including the monastic Rule) and sermons.

These voluminous writings massively influenced almost every sphere of Western thought in later centuries. In many conflicts, including the Reformation, both sides could claim his patronage, appealing to selected facets of his ever-shifting mind. One of the four Doctors of the Latin Church, he became post apostolos omnium ecclesiarum magister (Gottschalk).

Editions: PL 32-47 (by Maurist Benedictines, 1679-1700) and PL Suppl. 2; collected editions in process in CSEL and Corpus Christianorum and in Latin-French Bibliothèque Augustinienne; convenient editions of Confessions by J. Gibb and W. Montgomery (2nd ed., 1927), and of City of God by J.E.C. Welldon (2 vols., 1924).

English translations of many works in NPNF; more recently, of a few in LCC, of increasing numbers in FC and ACW; of Confessions by F.J. Sheed (1943), of City of God by H. Bettenson (1972); of Possidius's Life in F.R. Hoare, The Western Fathers (1954).

Selected studies in English: J. Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (1938); J.H.S. Burleigh, The City of God (1949); R.H. Barrow, Introduction to St. Augustine's “The City of God” (1950); G.G. Willis, St. Augustine and the Donatist Controversy (1950); J.J. O'Meara, The Young Augustine (1954) and The Charter of Christendom: The Significance of the “City of God” (1961); H.I. Marrou, Saint Augustine and His Influence Through the Ages (1957); S.J. Grabowski, The Church: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Augustine (1957); a.d.R. Polman, The Word of God According to Saint Augustine (1961); E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine (1961); F. Van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop (1961); H.A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (1963); G. Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963) and Augustine and Pelagianism in the Light of Modern Research (1973); A.H. Armstrong, St. Augustine and Christian Platonism (1967); R.A. Markus in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (ed. A.H. Armstrong, 1967); P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967, with chronological tables, listing works, editions, and translations) and Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (1972); R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (1970); E. TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (1970). See also B. Altaner, Patrology (1960), pp. 487-534; and Revue des études Augustiniennes for current literature.