St. Augustine was a roman citizen and bishop at a place known as Hippo in north Africa, modern Algeria, during the years 354AD (birth) – 430 AD (death): just about the time of the fall of the Roman empire of the west. As a thinker/philosopher his writings were deeply influential in the formation of early Christianity and he is therefore considered as one of the early “doctors of the church”.
What makes him particularly interesting is his ability to draw learning and understanding from different view-points. An ability which was perhaps enabled by his journey towards Christianity, passing first via Manichaeism and NeoPlatonism before landing on Christianity – a journey which also had him live with a long term concubine and have a child, live in a variety of places not least of which Rome, and work as a teacher/schoolmaster at a Roman school of rhetoric, before going back home to north Africa and dedicating himself to Christian pastoral work.
It is interesting to note that the figure of St. Augustine and his teachings continues to be highly regarded by all major parts of the Christian church: Protestants and Orthodox as well as Roman Catholics, obviously because at that time the Christian church was still a single entity (though made up of many bishops of equal standing) but also because his teachings bear a degree of universal relevance.
St Augustine was essentially of classical upbringing in spite of his condemnation of paganism. His language of work was Latin – it seems he barely knew Greek. He wasn’t overly interested in general philosophy though the NeoPlatonism of Plotinus was clearly a strong driving force for him. According to his book “Confesions” his decision to dedicate his life to philosophy and truth came as a result of reading Cicero though by and large it might be said that his contribution to western philosophy hardly compares to his great contribution to Christian theology.
Even when he life was taken over by his duties as bishop of Hippo he continued to write: his is perhaps the most complete set of late Roman writings and literature to have reached us, though much of it excepting his great works “Confessions” (insights into his own conversion to Christianity) and “City of God” (an attack on pagan culture) was dedicated to polemics and the many currents and counter currents of thinking at the time.
As a result of his work concepts such as “original sin” and “just war” were given strong definition within Christianity. Cicero’s scepticism might be at the root of his thoughts around “just war”. Platonism is certainly at the root of much of his work overall:
- God is both the creator of all things as well as the light which enables us to see truth
- Relationship between soul and physical being.
- Different nature of “things” and of their relationship with time and tendency to change or remain unchanged (this is rather closer to Epicurean atomism as might have been written by Lucretius.
- In pondering scepticism (which at its extremes suggests we can known nothing at all) Augustine’s answer was “if I am wrong, I exist” (City of God 11:26) – remind you of anything which a French philosopher might have said over a millennium later?
- It is interesting that within City of God Augustine devotes a degree of thought to causality and time and indeed has god as being beyond time: not distant from the figure of the indo-european Chronos/Saturn.
“For what other creator could there be of time, than He who created those things whose movements make time?” (City of God Ch.26, last sentence)
- The issue of time is important because it is linked with causality and by extension to the human condition: free will or predestination. This is clearly important in its relationship to original sin which we already mentioned further above – because how can anyone be considered to be a sinner if he has no power of decision in sinning or not sinning…
St. Augustine can therefore be seen as a wonderful example of the mutating times which underwent ancient Roman religion. He was relatively compliant with Roman imperial power (which by now was heavily Christianised) as a form of lesser evil in increasingly dangerous times. In this sense we can see Augustus as having been pragmatic in his approach – very Roman.
Ancient Roman Gods | ancient roman religion | The Gods of Rome and Politics | Christianity in Ancient Rome |
Christianity in Ancient Rome | christian persecution in the Roman empire | Roman Catholic Church | saint peter | st augustine |