'The reader who has never met Augustine before ought to go first of all to the Confessions,' reflected the Trappist monk and scholar Thomas Merton. 'Augustine lived the theology that he wrote. . . . He experienced the reality of Christ living in his own soul.'
Saint Augustine, the celebrated theologian who served as Bishop of Hippo from A.D. 396 until his death in A.D. 430, is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the Western world. Written in the form of a long prayer addressed directly to God, Augustine's Confessions, the remarkable chronicle of his conversion to Christianity, endures as the greatest spiritual autobiography of all time.
'Augustine possessed a strong, capacious, argumentative mind,' wrote Edward Gibbon. 'He boldly sounded the dark abyss of grace, predestination, free-will, and original sin.' And the eminent historian Jaroslav Pelikan remarked: 'There has, quite literally, been no century of the sixteen centuries since the conversion of Augustine in which he has not been a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force.'
Saint Augustine, a seminal thinker and prolific writer widely regarded as one of the greatest Fathers of the Catholic Church, was born Aurelius Augustinus, a citizen of Rome, on November 13, A.D. 354, in the North African town of Tagaste (today the Algerian village of Souk Ahras). His pagan father, Patricius, was a property owner and minor official; his revered mother, Monnica, was of native Berber descent and a devout Christian. Augustine received a classical Latin education at the local school and later studied rhetoric in the nearby town of Madaura. While a university student in the cosmopolitan seaport of Carthage he fathered a son, Adeodatus, by an unnamed mistress who remained his lover for many years. At the age of nineteen Augustine read Cicero's Hortensius, a now lost treatise that inspired him to seek true wisdom through the study of philosophy. During this period he also joined the pseudo-Christian sect known as the Manichaeans.
Augustine embarked on a teaching career in 374. Over the next years he conducted a school for rhetoric in Carthage and published his first book, Beauty and Proportion (380), a no-longer-extant work on aesthetics. In search of greater horizons as a master of rhetoric, Augustine left for Rome in 383 but soon resettled in Milan. Inspired by the Neoplatonic writings of Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), who had taught that man is awakened to a sense of divine destiny through purification from carnal appetites, and moved by the eloquent sermons of Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he gradually became attracted to Christianity. In 387, having been baptized by Bishop Ambrose, Augustine abandoned teaching and embraced a life of contemplation. His earliest philosophical dialogues, including Against the Academicians (386) and On the Immortality of the Soul (387), date from this time.
Upon returning to North Africa in 388 Augustine established a lay monastery and was ordained a priest at Hippo (now the port of Annaba in Algeria) in 391. Consecrated Bishop of Hippo in 396, he soon began composing the Confessions (397-400), the remarkable chronicle of his conversion to Christianity. Written in the form of a long prayer addressed directly to God, the work endures as the greatest spiritual autobiography of all time. 'The reader who has never met Augustine before ought to go first of all to the Confessions,' reflected Trappist monk and scholar Thomas Merton. 'Augustine lived the theology that he wrote. . . . He experienced the reality of Christ living in his own soul.' Over the next three decades Augustine exerted enormous influence as a thinker, writer, and spiritual leader. He waged an arduous battle against two powerful heresies' Donatism, which sought to set up a schismatic national church in North Africa, and Pelagianism, a doctrine accepting the importance of individual will. In addition to turning out numerous polemical tracts, sermons, and biblical commentaries, he published On the Trinity (416), a profound defense of the crucial dogma of the Christian Church, and Retractions (427), a review of his voluminous writings.
In 426 Augustine completed The City of God, one of the great cornerstones of Western thought. Begun in 413, the book's initial purpose was to refute the charge that Christianity was to blame for the fall of Rome, which had occurred just three years earlier. Augustine produced a wealth of evidence to prove that paganism bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction. He went on to present a cosmic interpretation of history in terms of the struggle between good and evil. As Thomas Merton observed: 'Here is a book that was written over fifteen hundred years ago by a mystic in North Africa. Yet to those who have ears to hear, it has a great deal to say to many of us who are not mystics, today, in America. The City of God is a monumental theology of history . . . the autobiography of the Church written by the most Catholic of her great saints. . . . The City of God, for those who can understand it, contains the secret of death and life, war and peace, hell and heaven.'
Augustine died on August 28, 430, as the Vandals lay siege to Hippo. Though the city was partly burned, the theologian's vast library, which contained hundreds of his manuscripts, letters, and sermons, escaped destruction. 'Augustine possessed a strong, capacious, argumentative mind; he boldly sounded the dark abyss of grace, predestination, free-will, and original sin,' wrote Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 'Augustine, the first Christian philosopher and, one is tempted to add, the only philosopher the Romans ever had, was also the first man of thought who turned to religion because of philosophical perplexities,' observed twentieth-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt. And celebrated historian Jaroslav Pelikan concluded: 'There has, quite literally, been no century of the sixteen centuries since the conversion of Augustine in which he has not been a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force. For more than a millennium and a half, continuity with the thought of Augustine has been one of the most persistent history.'