1902 Encyclopedia > St. Augustine
Early Christian leader and writer, and one of the Fathers of the Church
AUGUSTINE (AURELIUS AUGUSTINUS), one of the four great fathers of the Latin Church, and admittedly the greatest of the four, more profound than Ambrose, his spiritual father, more original and systematic than Jerome, his contemporary and correspondent, and intellectually far more distinguished than Gregory the Great, the last of the series. The theological position and influence of Augustine may be said to be unrivalled. No single name has ever exercised such power over the Christian church, and no one mind ever made such an impression upon Christian thought.
as painted by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli in 1480
Aurelius Augustinus was born at Tagaste (Tajelt), a town of Numidia, on the 13th of November 354 A.D. His father, Patricius was a burgess of this town, and was still a pagan at the time of his son's birth. His mother, Monica was not only a Christian, but a woman of the most elevated, tender, and devoted piety, whose patient prayerfulness for both her husband and son (at length crowned with success in both cases), and whose affectionate and beautiful enthusiasm, have passed into a touching type of womanly saintliness for all ages. She early instructed her son in the faith and love of Jesus Christ, and for a time her instruction seems to have impressed his youthful mind. Falling ill he wished to be baptised; but when the danger was past, the rite was deferred, and, notwithstanding all his mother's admonitions and prayers, he grew up without any profession of Christian piety, or any devotion to Christian principles. Inheriting from his father a vehement and sensual disposition, he early gave way to the unbridled impulses of passion, and while still a mere youth, formed a connection, common enough at the time, but at variance with the principles of Christian morality. As the result of the connection he became the father of a son, whom he named Adeodatus in a fit of pious emotion, and to whom he was passionately attached.
In the midst of all his youthful pleasures Augustine was an earnest student. His father, observing the early development of his talents, formed the ambition of training him to the brilliant and lucrative career of a rhetorician, and he seems to have spared no expense to equip him for this career. The youth studied not only at his native town, but at Madaura and Carthage, and especially devoted himself to the Latin poets--many traces of his love for which are to be found in his writings. His acquaintance with Greek literature was much more limited, and, indeed, it has been doubted whether he could use, in the original, either the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures [Footnote 75-1]. Apparently, he was in the habit of using translations of Plato (Confess., viii 2), but, on the other hand, Greek words frequently occur in his writings correctly rendered and discriminated; aud he speaks in one of his epistles to Marcellinus (LIX. tom. ii. 294) of referring to the Greek Psalter and finding, in reference to certain difficulties, that it agreed with the Vulgate. Clausen, who has particularly investigated the point, sums up the evidence to the effect that Augustine was "fairly instructed in Greek grammar, and a subtle distinguisher of words," but that beyond this his knowledge was insufficient for a thorough comprehension of Greek books, and especially for those in the Hellenistic dialect.
While a student at Carthage he was particularly attracted by the theatre, the spectacles at which were of unusual magnificence. To his enthusiastic and sensuous spirit they were irresistible, and the extent to which he seems to have yielded to the fascination is sufficient proof of his active alienation from Christianity at this period. The Christian church, as it has been said, "abhorred the pagan theatre. The idolatrous rites, the lascivious attitudes, the gladiatorial shows, which were its inseparable accompaniments, were equally opposed to the dogmatic monotheism, to the piety, and to the mercy of the gospel." One of the most significant signs of a man having become a Christian was his habitual absence from the theatre. No one was more emphatic on this point afterwards than Augustine himself, and as the result of his own experience, he seems to have doubted, apart from the gross immoralities of the pagan stage, whether the indulgence in fictitious joys and woes is a warrantable excitement (Confess., iii. 2).
Cicero's Hortensius, which he read in his nineteenth year, first awakened in Augustine's mind the spirit of speculation. He engaged restlessly in philosophical studies, and passed from one phase of thought to another, unable to find satisfaction in any. Manichaeism first enthralled him. Its doctrine of two principles, one of good and one of evil, seemed to answer to the wild confusion of his own heart, and the conflict of higher and lower impulses which raged within him. It seemed to solve the mysteries which perplexed him in his own experience and in the world. He became a member of the sect, and entered into the class of auditors . His ambition was to be received among the number of the Elect and so get to the heart of what he believed to be their higher knowledge. But falling in with Faustus, a distinguished Manichaean bishop and disputant, and entering into discussion with him, he was greatly disappointed. The system lost its attraction for him; he gradually became disgusted, and abandoned it. But before this he had left Carthage, shocked with the license of the students, and had betaken himself for a time to Rome in the pursuit of his profession. There he also soon became dissatisfied, and accepted an invitation to proceed to Milan, where the people were in search of a teacher of rhetoric. He travelled thither at the public expense, and was welcomed by friends who already seem to have recognised his distinction (Confess., i. 16).
At Milan the conflict of his mind in search of truth still continued. He was now in his thirtieth year, and for eleven years he had been seeking for mental rest, unable to find it. "Tomorrow," he said to himself, "I shall find it: it will appear manifestly, and I shall grasp it " (Confess., vi. 18). But it still eluded his grasp, and he sunk back again into despondency. The way, however, was being prepared for his conversion. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, and, although he had a weak voice, was noted for his eloquence. Augustine was attracted by his reputation, and went to hear the famous Christian preacher in order, as he himself relates (Confess., v. 23), "to see whether his eloquence answered what was reported of it. I hung on his words attentively," he adds, "but of the matter I was but an unconcerned and contemptuous hearer. " He confesses his delight so far: "The bishop's eloquence was more full of knowledge, yet in manner less pleasurable and soothing, than that of Faustus." He wished an opportunity of conversation with him, but this was not easily found. Ambrose had no leisure for philosophic discussion. He was accessible to all who sought him, but never for a moment free from study or the cares of duty. "Augustine used to enter, as all persons might, without being announced; but after staying for a while, afraid of interrupting him, he departed again." He continued, however, to hear Ambrose preach, and gradually the gospel of divine truth and grace was received into his heart. First Plato and then St Paul opened his mind to higher thoughts, and at length certain words of the latter were driven home with irresistible force to his conscience. He was busy with his friend Alypius in studying the Pauline epistles. His struggle of mind became intolerable; the thought of divine purity fighting in his heart with the love of the world and of the flesh. He burst into an incontrollable flood of tears and rushed out into his garden, flinging himself under a fig tree that he might allow his tears to have full vent, and pour out his heart to God. Suddenly he seemed to hear a voice calling upon him to consult the divine oracle, "Take up and read, take up and read." He left off weeping, rose up, and sought the volume where Alypius was sitting, and opening it read in silence the following passage: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. viii. 13, 14). He adds, "I had neither desire nor need to read farther. As I finished the sentence, as though the light of peace had been poured into my heart, all the shadows of doubt dispersed. Thus hast Thou converted me to Thee, so as no longer to seek either for wife or other hope of the world, standing fast in that rule of faith in which Thou so many years before hadst revealed me to my mother" (Confess., viii. 30).
After his conversion, which is supposed to have occurred in the summer of 386, Augustine gave up his profession as a teacher of rhetoric, and retired to a friend's house in the country, in order to prepare himself for baptism. His religious opinions were still to some extent unformed, and even his habits by no means altogether such as his great change demanded. He mentions, for example, that during this time he broke himself off a habit of profane swearing, and in other ways sought to discipline his character and conduct for the reception of the sacred rite. He received baptism in Easter following, in his thirty-third year; and along with him his son Adeodatus and his friend Alypius were admitted to the Christian church. Monica, his mother, had rejoined him, and at length rejoiced in the fulfilment of her prayers. Dying before his return to his native country, her last hours were gladdened by his Christian sympathy. She implored him to lay her body anywhere, but wherever he might be to remember her "at the altar of the Lord," a devout duty which he invites others to share with him, so that her last request may, "through the prayers of many," receive a more abundant fulfilment.
Augustine went back to Rome for a short period and then returned to his native city, where he took up his abode in retirement, forming, with some friends who joined him in devotion, a small religious community, which looked to him as its head. They had all things in common, as in the early church, and fasting and prayer, Scripture reading and almsgiving, formed their regular occupations. Their mode of life was not formally monastic according to any special rule, but the experience of this time of seclusion was no doubt, the basis of that monastic system which Augustine afterwards sketched, and which derived from him its name. Solitary monasticism had sprang up in the Egyptian deserts before this. The life of St Anthony by Athanasius had widely diffused the fervour for religious solitariness, and greatly touched Augustine at this period of his profession. It did not remain for him, therefore, to originate the monastic idea; but the association of monks in communities under a definite order and head received a special impulse both from Ambrose and his illustrious convert. As may be imagined, the fame of such a convert in such a position soon spread, and invitations to a more active ecclesiastical life came to him from many quarters. He shrank from the responsibility, but his destiny was not to be avoided. After three years spent in retirement he took a journey to Hippo, to see a Christian friend, who desired to converse with him as to his design of quitting the world and devoting himself to a religious life. He was the less reluctaut to make this journey, because there being already a bishop at Hippo he hoped to escape all solicitation. But although the Christian community there had a bishop, they wanted a presbyter; and Augustine being present at the meeting called to choose a presbyter, the people unanimously chose him. He burst into tears, and would fain have escaped; but the church could not spare his services. He was ordained to the presbyterate, and in a few years afterwards he was made coadjutor to the bishop, and finally became sole bishop of the see.
Henceforth Augustine's life is filled up with his ecclesiastical labours, and is more marked by the series of his numerous writings and the great controversies in which they engaged him than by anything else. Already he had distinguished himself as an author. He had written several philosophical treatises; he had combated the scepticism of the New Academy (Contra Academicos libri tres, 386 A.D.); he had treated of the " Blessed Life" (De vita beata, 386) and of the "Immortality of the Soul" (De Immortalitate Animae, 387); he had defended the church against the Manichaeans whose doctrines he had formerly professed. "When I was at Rome," he says (Retract., i. 7), "after my baptism, and could not hear in silence the vaunting of the Manichaeans over true Christians, to whom they are not to be compared, I wrote two books, one on The Morals of the Catholic Church, and the other on The Morals of the Manichaeans." These tracts or pamphlets, for they are little more, were written in the year 388, about two years after his conversion. Later, in 395, and again in 400, he pursued the controversy with the Manichaeans, making an elaborate reply, in the latter year, to his old associate and friend Faustus. The reply was provoked by an attack made by Faustus on the Catholic faith, which the "brethren" invited Augustine to answer. This he did characteristically and energetically by giving in succession "the opinions of Faustus, as if stated by himself," and his own in response. It was natural that the Manichaean heresy, which had so long enslaved his own mind, should have first exercised Augustine's great powers as a theological thinker and disputant. He was able from his own experience to give force to his arguments for the unity of creation and of spiritual life, and to strengthen the mind of the Christian church in its last struggle with that dualistic spirit which had animated and moulded in succession so many forms of thought at variance with Christianity.
But the time was one of almost universal ecclesiastical and intellectual excitement; and so powerful a mental activity as his was naturally drawn forth in all directions. Following his writings against the Manichaeans come those against the Donatists. This controversy was one which strongly interested him, involving as it did the whole question of the constitution of the church and the idea of catholic order, to which the circumstances of the age gave special prominence. The Donatist schism sprang out of the Diocletian persecutions in the beginning of the century. A party in the Church of Carthage, fired with fanatical zeal on behalf of those who had distinguished themselves by resistance to the imperial mandates and courted martyrdom, resented deeply the appointment of a bishop of moderate opinions, whose consecration had been performed, they alleged, by a traditor . They set up, in consequence, a bishop of their own, of the name of Majorinus, succeeded in 315 by Donatus. The party made great pretensions to purity of discipline, and rapidly rose in popular favour notwithstanding a decision given against them both by the bishop of Rome and by the Emperor Constantine, to whom they personally appealed. Augustine was strongly moved by the lawlessness of the party, and launched forth a series of writings against them, the most important of which survive, though some are lost. Amongst these are Seven Books on Baptism, and a lengthened answer, in three books, to Petilian, bishop of Cirta, who was the most eminent theologian amongst the Donatist divines. At a somewhat later period, about 417, he wrote a treatise concerning the correction of the Donatists (De Correctione Donatistarum), "for the sake of those," he says in his Retractations, ii. c. 48, " who were not willing that the Donatists should be subjected to the correction of the imperial laws." In these writings, while vigorously maintaining the validity of the Catholic Church as it then stood in the Roman world, and the necessity for moderation in the exercise of church discipline, Augustine yet gave currency, in his zeal against the Donatists, to certain maxims as to the duty of the civil power to control schism, which were of evil omen, and have been productive of much disaster in the history of Christianity.
The third controversy in which Augustine engaged was the most important, and the most intimately associated with his distinctive greatness as a theologian. As may be supposed, from the conflicts through which he had passed, the bishop of Hippo was intensely interested in what may be called the anthropological aspects of the great Christian idea of redemption. He had himself been brought out of darkness into "marvellous light," only by entering into the depths of his own soul, and finding, after many struggles, that there was no power but divine grace, as revealed in the life and death of the Son of God, which could bring rest to human weariness, or pardon and peace for human guilt. He had found human nature in his own case too weak and sinful to find any good for itself. In God alone he had found good. This deep sense of human sinfulness coloured all his theology, and gave to it at once its depth --its profound and sympathetic adaptation to all who feel the reality of sin--and that tinge of darkness and exaggeration which as surely have repelled others. When the expression Augustinianism is used, it points especially to those opinions of the great teacher which were evoked in the Pelagian controversy, to which he devoted the most mature and powerful period of his life. His opponents in this controversy were Pelagius, from whom it derives its name, and Coelestius and Julianus, pupils of the former. Pelagius was a British monk. Augustine calls him Brito; and Jerome points to his Scottish descent, in such terms, however, as to leave it uncertain whether he was a native of Scotland or Ireland (habet progeniem Scotiae gentis de Britannorum vicinia). He was a man of blameless character, devoted to the reformation of society, full of enthusiasm, and that confidence in the natural impulses of humanity which often accompanies philanthropic enthusiasm. Travelling to Rome about the beginning of the 5th century, he took up his abode for a time there, and soon made himself conspicuous by his activity and opinions. His pupil Coelestius carried out the views of his master with a more outspoken logic, and was at length arraigned before the bishop of Carthage for the following, amongst other, heretical opinions:--(1.) That Adam's sin was purely personal, and affected none but himself; (2.) That each man, consequently, is born with powers as incorrupt as those of Adam, and only falls into sin under the force of temptation and evil example; (3.) That children who die in infancy, being untainted by sin, are saved without baptism. Views such as these were obviously in conflict with the whole course of Augustine's experience, as well as with his interpretation of the catholic doctrine of the church. And when his attention was drawn to them by the trial and excommunication of Coelestius, he undertook their refutation, first of all, in three books on Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism , addressed to his friend Marcellinus, in which he vindicated the necessity of the baptism of infants because of original sin and the grace of God by which we are justified (Retract., ii. c. 23). This was in 412. In the same year he addressed a further treatise to the same person, "My beloved son Marcellinus," on The Spirit and the Letter . Three years later he composed two further treatises on Nature and Grace, and the relation of the Human to the Divine Righteousness . The controversy was continued during many years in no fewer than fifteen treatises. Upon no subject did Augustine bestow more of his intellectual strength, and in relation to no other have his views so deeply and permanently affected the course of Christian thought. Even those who most usually agree with his theological stand-point will hardly deny that, while he did much in these writings to vindicate divine truth and to expound the true relations of the divine and human, he also, here as elsewhere, was hurried into extreme expressions as to the absoluteness of divine grace and the extent of human corruption. Like his great disciple in a later age--Luther--Augustine was prone to emphasize the side of truth which he had most realised in his own experience, and, in contradistinction to the Pelagian exaltation of human nature, to depreciate its capabilities beyond measure. There are few thoughtful minds who would not concede the deeper truthfulness of Augustine's spiritual and theological analysis, in comparison with that of his opponent, as well as its greater consistency with Scripture; but there are also few who would now be disposed to identify themselves with the dogmatism of the orthodox bishop any more than with the dogmatism of the heretical monk. And on one particular point, which more or less runs through all the controversy--the salvation of infants--the Christian consciousness, in its later and higher growth, may be said to have pronounced itself decisively on the side of the monk rather than of the bishop.
In addition to these controversial writings, which mark the great epochs of Augustine's life and ecclesiastical activity after his settlement as a bishop at Hippo, he was the author of other works, some of them better known and even more important. His great work, the most elaborate, and in some respects the most significant, that came from his pen, is The City of God. It is designed as a great apologetic treatise in vindication of Christianity and the Christian church,--the latter conceived as rising in the form of a new civic order on the crumbling ruins of the Roman empire,--but it is also, perhaps, the earliest contribution to the philosophy of history, as it is a repertory throughout of his cherished theological opinions. This work and his Confessions are, probably, those by which he is best known, the one as the highest expression of his thought, and the other as the best monument of his living piety and Christian experience. The City of God was begun in 413, and continued to be issued in its several portions for a period of thirteen years, or till 426. The Confessions were written shortly after he became a bishop, about 397, and give a vivid sketch of his early career. To the devout utterances and aspirations of a great soul they add the charm of personal disclosure, and have never ceased to excite admiration in all spirits of kindred piety. His systematic treatise on The Trinity, which extends to fifteen books, and occupied him for nearly thirty years, must not be passed over. "I began," he says (Retract., ii. 15), "as a very young man, and have published in my old age some books concerning the Trinity." This important dogmatic work, unlike most of his dogmatic writings, was not provoked by any special controversial emergency, but grew up silently during this long period in the author's mind. This has given it something more of completeness and organic arrangement than is usual with him, if it has also led him into the prolonged discussion of various analogies, more curious than apt in their bearing on the doctrine which he expounds. The exegetical writings of Augustine,--his lengthened Commentary on St John and on the Sermon on the Mount &c.,--and then his Letters remain to be mentioned. The former have a value from his insight into the deeper spiritual meanings of Scripture, but hardly for their exegetical characteristics. The latter are full of interest in reference to many points in the ecclesiastical history of the time, and his relation to contemporary theologians like Jerome. They have neither the liveliness nor variety of interest, however, which belong to the letters of Jerome himself. The closing years of the great bishop were full of sorrow. The Vandals, who had been gradually enclosing the Roman empire, appeared before the gates of Hinpo, and laid siege to it. Augustine was ill with his last illness and could only pray for his fellow-citizens. He passed away during the progress of the siege, on the 28th of August 430, at the age of seventy-five, and was spared the indignity of seeing the city in the hands of the enemy.
The character of Augustine, both as a man and a theologian, has been briefly indicated in the course of our sketch. Little remains to be added without entering into discussions too extended for our space. None can deny the greatness of Augustine's soul--his enthusiasm, his unceasing search after truth, his affectionateness, his ardour, his self-devotion. And even those who may doubt the soundness or value of some of his dogmatic conclusions, cannot hesitate to acknowledge the depth of his spiritual convictions, and the strength, solidity, and penetration with which he handled the most difficult questions, and wrought all the elements of his experience and of his profound Scriptural knowledge into a great system of Christian thought.
The best complete edition of Augustine's writings is that of the Benedictines, in 11 vols. folio, published at Paris, 1679-1800, and reprinted in 1836-38 in 22 half-volumes. Tillemont, in his Ecclesiastical History, has devoted a quarto volume to his life and writings. Two extensive monographs have appeared on him; the one by Kloth, a Roman Catholic (Aachen, 1840) and the other by Bindemann, a Protestant (Berlin, 1844, 1855). See also Ritter's Hist. of Christian Philosophy, vol. i.; Bohringer's Hist. of the Church; Dr P. Schaff's St Augustine Berlin, New York, and London, 1854); Nourrisson, La Philosophie de S. Augustine (Paris, 1866); A. Dorner, Augustinus (Berlin, 1872); Neander's Church History; Mozley's Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination, 1855; Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art . (J. T.)
75-1 "Augustinus extitit, ut alii Ebraeae ac Graecae linguae ignarus." (Walch, Bibl. Patrist., p. 352.) "Imperitus non tantum Hebraicae sed etiam Graecae linguae, ipsos fontes adire non potuit, sed solam fere translationem Latinam explicare conatus est."--(Rosenmuller, (Hist. Interpret., iii. 40.)
The above article was written by the Very Rev. John Tulloch, D.D., LL.D., Principal of St Mary's College, University of St. Andrews; author of Leaders of the Reformation, English Puritanism and its Leaders, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, and Pascal; editor of Fraser's Magazine.