A. Life and Works
Aurelius Augustinus was born at Tagaste in preconsular Numidia in 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan; his mother, Monica, a Christian. After his first studies in his native city, he went to Carthage, with the financial aid of Romanianus, to complete his studies in rhetoric. At the same time, however, he fell a slave to his youthful passions and even became connected with the Manichaean religious sect.
After completing his studies, he first established his school at Tagaste, and later at Carthage, where he taught rhetoric for eight years, at the same time studying philosophy and the natural sciences.
In 383, desirous of honors and a more disciplined group of students, he evaded his mother's vigilance, abandoned Carthage, and went to Rome. He did not find there, however, the satisfaction he sought; nor did his students bring him any remuneration. He therefore sought the directorship of rhetoric in Milan. This he obtained, and transferred to that city in 384. There his saintly mother joined him.
The Bishop of Milan at that time was Ambrose, and the prayers of Augustine's mother, together with the eloquence of Ambrose, reportedly triumphed over the tormented spirit of the young Augustine. In 387 he asked to receive baptism. The sacrament was conferred by Ambrose on Easter of that year.
Augustine's spiritual conversion had been preceded by an intellectual one. Dissatisfied with the doctrinal vanity of Manichaeism, he abandoned the sect. After a brief period in the Skeptic Academy, he had given himself to the study of Neo-Platonism, in which he grasped the idea of the spirituality of God and the concept of evil as the privation of good. Thus his baptism signalized the complete and absolute conversion of Augustine to Christianity.
Augustine had already renounced his teaching office, and now he left Milan to return to Tagaste and live in solitude. He undertook the journey home in company with his son, Adeodatus, Monica, and some friends, and stopped en route at Ostia, where his mother died. After her death, he resumed his journey toward Africa and arrived ultimately at Tagaste, where he sold his worldly goods, distributed the proceeds to the poor, and attempted to live the life of perfection according to the standard of the Gospel.
In 391 Augustine went to Hippo, probably to select a suitable place for himself and his friends who had been living a common life of study and devotion at Tagaste in a monastery built by Augustine. In Hippo, at the will of the people, Augustine was ordained a priest. The newly ordained priest, while continuing his monastic life, entered into the mission of the apostolate, preaching against vice and voicing his formidable opposition to the heresies which at that time were harassing Africa.
Consecrated coadjutor Bishop of Hippo in 395 and titular Bishop of the same city in the following year, Augustine transformed his episcopal residence into a monastery, in which he lived together with his clerics, who assisted him in giving religious instructions and carrying on all forms of charitable works.
Always ready to argue on theological, philosophical and moral questions, he took part in all the difficult theological disputes which disturbed the Church in Africa. He opposed Donatism, which denied the validity of sacraments administered by ecclesiastics in the state of sin, and advocated a church of pure and perfect men, withdrawn entirely from the life of the world. He vigorously argued against Pelagianism, which exalted the absolute liberty of the human will and denied original sin and the necessity of divine grace. He fought against Manichaeism, the doctrine which he has formerly espoused, and the Skepticism of the Academicians whom he had once joined when his mind was assailed by doubt.
A fatal illness overtook Augustine in the year 430, at a time when the Vandals, barbarians of exceptional ferocity, were laying siege to the city of Hippo. Augustine was seventy-five years old, and had spent thirty-four years as Bishop of Hippo.
The literary output of St. Augustine was prodigious. The prevalent purpose of his writings is dogmatic and moral; i.e., he dwells on the problems which most directly concern the answer to the question of life. But because of his particular tendency to consider the problems of life in connection with speculative knowledge, he treats philosophical problems to some extent in every one of his works.
From the point of view of philosophy the most important are: the Confessions in thirteen books, a profound and suggestive autobiography; Soliloquia, in two books; De immortalitate animae; De libero arbitrio; Contra Academicos; De beata vita; De magistro. His two masterpieces are De civitate Dei (City of God) and De Trinitate (On the Trinity), and despite the prevalent dogmatic and apologetic character of these works, they are very rich in philosophical considerations. Augustine's style is human and provocative, thus rendering his books suitable for all times.
Augustine, who during his formation in philosophy had made contact with the Skepticism of the Academicians, knew that the problem of knowledge involved two difficulties, one regarding the existence of the knowing subject (which fact was denied by the Academicians), and the other regarding the origin of knowledge itself. As for the first question, Augustine overcame the Skepticism of the Academy and arrived at the affirmation of the existence of the knowing subject with the famous argument: "If I doubt, I exist -- Si fallor, sum."
Regarding the second question, i.e., the origin of knowledge, Augustine as a Platonist underrates sensitive cognition, which he does not make the foundation of intellective knowledge. (Thus he differs radically from Aristotle and Aquinas in this important question.)
Whence, then, does intellective cognition draw its origin? From illumination. As the eyes have need of the light of the sun in order to see sensible objects, so the intellect needs the light of God to know the world of intelligible beings. Eternal truths, ideas, species, formal principles are imparted to our intelligence by Wisdom, the Word of God. Intellectual knowledge is not the result of the acquisitive operation of the intellect, but a participation or grant of God. It is in this participation that Augustine's innatism with regard to ideas consists.
It follows from this that the intellect, considered in itself, is incapable of acquiring knowledge of intelligible beings, but is made capable of such knowledge through illumination. The mystic schools of the Middle Ages were to appeal to this natural inability of the intellect in order to affirm that humility and prayer are the best means to acquiring wisdom.
Augustine proves the existence of God through a priori and a posteriori arguments. However, if we keep in mind what has been said about illumination, the more convincing arguments for Augustine will be those a priori proofs drawn from the presence within us of this special illumination. In fact, the presence of this illumination is proof of the existence of God. Such a priori arguments can be reduced to the following formula: We are conscious of possessing within ourselves ideas and formal principles which are by nature universal and necessary, outside the confines of time and space, eternal.
But such universal and necessary principles cannot take their origin from the external world nor from us, who, as contingent beings, are devoid of these characteristics of universality and necessity. Therefore, such universal principles presuppose God, who is a necessary being, unlimited by space and time. The universal principles are communicated to us by Him, by the Wisdom of God, the Word of God. As we said above, Augustine also appeals to a posteriori arguments, when, for instance, from change and the imperfections of beings he rises to the perfect being, the being above all change, God.
Regarding the nature of God, Augustine assumes a position opposed to all the errors of Platonism. For Augustine, God is immutable, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely devoid of potentiality or composition, a pure spirit, a personal, intelligent being. The mystery of the Trinity of God induces Augustine to consider God as being, knowledge, and love; and since the world has been created by God, it reveals a reflection of these three attributes of God: every creature should consist essentially of being, knowledge, and volition.
Against the dualism of Plato and against the pantheism of the Stoics and the Neo-Platonists, for whom the world was a physical derivation or emanation of God, Augustine affirms that the world was created by God from nothing, through a free act of His will. With regard to the manner in which creation was effected by God, Augustine is inclined to admit that the creation of the world was instantaneous, but not entirely as it exists at present.
In the beginning there were created a few species of beings which, by virtue of intrinsic principles of reproduction, gave origin to the other species down to the present state of the existing world. Thus it seems that Augustine is not contrary to a moderate evolution, but that such a moderate evolution has nothing in common with modern materialistic evolutionist teaching.
Connected with the creation of the world is the problem of time, for time has its beginning with creation. But what is time? What is its real nature? Augustine observes that time is essentially constituted of a past, a present, and a future; without this division it would be impossible to speak of time. But the past is not existent, for it has passed; nor does the future exist, for it has yet to come; the present is the moment which joins the past with the future.
Now it would be foolish to deny the reality of time. We speak of time as long or short, and that which has no reality cannot be either long or short. To solve the difficulty Augustine has recourse to the intellective memory, which records the past and foresees the future. Thus both the past and the future are made present to the memory, and here time finds its reality of length and brevity. For Augustine, then, as the Scholastics were to say later, time is a being of reason with a foundation in things which through becoming offer to the mind the concept of time as past, present, and future.
Augustine affirms the absolute unity and the spirituality of the human soul. And yet, considering Augustine's Platonic tendency, the union of the soul with the body is somewhat extrinsic. In regard to the origin of the soul, Augustine's teaching varies from creationism to traducianism. According to creationism, the soul of each man is created immediately by God in the very moment it comes to animate the body. On the other hand, according to traducianism the soul of every man proceeds from the souls of the parents. Augustine, for polemical motives in his controversy with Pelagius (who denied original sin), leans toward traducianism.
In regard to the nature of the soul he affirms that the soul is simple and immortal. The sensitive soul, besides having the five senses, is endowed also with a sensitive cognition which is common to animals and which judges the proper object of each of the senses. The intellective soul has three functions: being, understanding, and loving, corresponding to three faculties: intellective memory, intelligence, and will. The primacy among these three faculties is given to the will, which in man signifies love.
The will of man is free. United to the question of the liberty of man is the problem of evil, which for many years tormented the mind of Augustine. Three kinds of evil can be distinguished: metaphysical, physical, and moral, and each of them consists in a deficiency in being, a descent toward non-being.
Metaphysical evil is the lacking of a perfection not due to a given nature and hence is not actually an evil. Under this aspect, all creatures are evil because they fall short of full perfection, which is God alone.
Physical evil consists in the privation of a perfection due to nature; e.g., blindness is the privation of sight in a being which ought to have sight according to the exigencies of its nature. Augustine, under Platonic and Stoic influence, justifies the presence of physical evil in the general order of nature, in which dissonance serves to greater accentuate the general harmony. The solution, certainly, is not very pleasant.
The only true evil is moral evil; sin, an action contrary to the will of God. The cause of moral evil is not God, who is infinite holiness, nor is it matter, as the Platonists would have it, for matter is a creature of God and hence good. Neither is the will as a faculty of the soul evil, for it too has been created by God. The cause of moral evil is the faculty of free will, by which man is able to deviate from the right order, to oppose himself to the will of God.
Such opposition gives moral evil reality -- negative, metaphysical reality in the sense of decadence of the order established by God, and hence decadence of being or descent toward non-being. Sin, from the very fact that it is a decadence of being, carries in itself its own punishment. By sinning man injures himself in his being; for he falls from what he ought to be. As a result of this fall there exist the sufferings which he must bear, such as remorse in the present life, and the sufferings which God has established in the life to come for those who violate the laws laid down by His will.
Augustine sustained a long debate against Pelagianism. Pelagius, who gave origin to the heresy which bore his name, held that the freedom of the human will is a gift of God, a grace of God. But from the moment he has received free will man no longer has need of further graces to attain his moral perfection: the powers of his nature are sufficient for this. Human nature has not been corrupted by original sin, but remains integral, and is able of itself to attain the perfection that is due to it.
Augustine hence found it necessary to defend orthodox doctrine regarding both the redemptive work of Christ and the necessity of grace for attaining moral perfection. The teaching of Augustine is summarized in the following points:
- Adam was created by God in integrity of nature, and was further enriched with preternatural and supernatural gifts.
- Although more inclined to good than to evil, there remained in Adam the possibility of committing sin.
- Adam abused this power and sinned, and since in him were the beginnings of all mankind, all humanity has sinned with him.
- Thus evil took its beginning with original sin.
As a consequence of original sin, the human race has not only been deprived of preternatural and supernatural gifts, but the whole of nature has been upset, so that after original sin man is naturally unable not to sin. Christ, by his death on the cross, has remedied this disorder. But if the Redemption worked by Christ has given us once more the possibility of regaining supernatural goods, still it has not restored to us the preternatural gifts. It has left human nature unchanged from what it was a consequence of sin; all the sufferings which entered the world with original sin remain as a means of purification and mortification.
Hence, granted this natural weakness of human nature, the will, in order to attain moral perfection, needs grace. Now grace comes from God and is external to the will. How is grace to be reconciled with liberty? This was one of the problems which disturbed the mind of Augustine, and he, in order to uphold the efficacy of grace, neglected the second element, liberty.
We have already had occasion to explain certain basic points of Augustine's moral or ethical doctrine when we spoke of the human will as the sole cause of moral evil. Augustine's theory concerning evil is his greatest philosophico-theological discovery -- particularly his distinction between metaphysical evil, which is a deficiency or lack of being, and moral evil, which is a deficiency or lack of good.
Another important point in Augustine's moral teaching is his doctrine of voluntarism, or the primacy of the will over the intellect. The will is love, and according to Augustine it is necessary to love in order to know, and not vice versa. The primacy of the will is the intrinsic law of being, which finds its first actuation in God, who has created out of love.
This love or desire reaches down even to inferior beings, in which it is manifested as instinct and blind appetition or appetite. Since the first love must be love of God, and all other loves must be subordinated to this first love, Augustine teaches that love signifies order. Action is activity according to love. Any sin is an act of hatred, for sin is separation (aversion) from the order or love which has its center in God.
Because sin is an act of hate, the man who sins, not being able to destroy the order established by God, harms himself and falls from his being. Every good action is an action according to love: "Love," says Augustine, "and do what you wish -- Ama et fac quod vis."
The voluntarism of Augustine indicates the clear separation of the Latin ethical concept from the Greek. Greek genius, theoretical, speculative, creator of philosophy, makes the intellect -- conscience -- the basis of morality; theory takes precedence over practice. Augustine, representing the genius of Rome, which loved the practical and active life, and created law, defends the greater value of activity over speculation, prefers fact to theory, and hence the primacy of the will over the intellect. The voluntarism of Augustine found in the Middle Ages great champions in the mystics and in the Franciscan School.
Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God, while the Roman empire was falling into ruin under the barbarian invasions and the Church was rising from the imperial remains. There was need of justifying these two events, which disturbed the spirits not only of pagans but of believers as well. With this purpose in mind, Augustine undertook his work, which can be considered the first in the philosophy of history.
Augustine's view of the history of humanity is organic and unified, but it is also ascetic and Christian. Christ is the very soul of history. The coming of Christ presupposes another truth of Christianity, original sin. In consequence of original sin, men are divided into two distinct cities: one of God, the other earthly. Both, however, are at the service of Christ.
The city of God, prior to the coming of Christ, was represented by the people of Israel; the earthly city was represented by the Roman empire. The two cities had a different purpose, the one religious and the other political. The first had the task of preparing for the coming of Christ with prophecies; the second was to prepare for his coming politically.
After the coming of Christ and the founding of the Church, the purpose of the Roman empire had been fulfilled, and hence it fell under the assaults of the barbarians. If in the Christian era the Church represents the city of God, moral evil, wherever it be found, will be the representative of the earthly, the satanic city.
These two cities now are politically unseparated and only religiously diverse, for the Church has a universal task and must embrace the elect and the predestined of all times and of all races. The complete division will be made on the Great Sabbath, when the good will be made eternal citizens of the city of God, the eternal Jerusalem, and the evil will be confined forever to the city of Satan, hell. But who are those who will end in glory and who will end in torment? This, too, was one of the many problems that tortured the mind of Augustine. The answer to this is among the secrets of God.
I. Influence as a Theologian and Thinker
Augustine was a bishop, priest, and father who remains a central figure, both within Christianity and in the history of Western thought, and is considered by modern historian Thomas Cahill to be the first medieval man and the last classical man. In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-platonism, particularly by the work of Plotinus, author of the Enneads, probably through the mediation of Porphyry and Victorinus (as Pierre Hadot has argued). Although he later abandoned Neoplatonism some ideas are still visible in his early writings. His generally favourable view of Neoplatonic thought contributed to the "baptism" of Greek thought and its entrance into the Christian and subsequently the European intellectual tradition. His early and influential writing on the human will, a central topic in ethics, would become a focus for later philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In addition, Augustine was influenced by the works of Virgil (known for his teaching on language), Cicero (known for his teaching on argument), and Aristotle (particularly his Rhetoric and Poetics).
Augustine's concept of original sin was expounded in his works against the Pelagians. However, St. Thomas Aquinas took much of Augustine's theology while creating his own unique synthesis of Greek and Christian thought after the widespread rediscovery of the work of Aristotle. Augustine's doctrine of efficacious grace found eloquent expression in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux; also Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin would look back to him as their inspiration.
Augustine was canonized by popular acclaim, and later recognized as a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface. His feast day is August 28, the day on which he died. He is considered the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, sore eyes, and a number of cities and dioceses.
The latter part of Augustine's Confessions consists of an extended meditation on the nature of time. Even the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell was impressed by this. He wrote, "a very admirable relativistic theory of time. It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant's of the subjective theory of time a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers. Catholic theologians generally subscribe to Augustine's belief that God exists outside of time in the "eternal present"; that time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change. His meditations on the nature of time are closely linked to his consideration of the human ability of memory. Frances Yates in her 1966 study The Art of Memory argues that a brief passage of the Confessions, 10.8.12, in which Augustine writes of walking up a flight of stairs and entering the vast fields of memory clearly indicates that the ancient Romans were aware of how to use explicit spatial and architectural metaphors as a mnemonic technique for organizing large amounts of information.