The Life of Augustine

Posted: January 27, 2010 in theological reflection

The theological genius of St. Augustine is one that is paralleled by few but honored by many. Whether in the capacity of teacher, son, student or pastor, Augustine’s views continue to provide massive amounts of study in many fields. His love for scholarship and people alike made him one of the most intriguing characters of the early church. This paper will seek to define some of the major themes that characterized the life of St. Augustine.

Early Life in Contrast

St. Augustine was born in Thagaste located in North Africa in the year 354.[1] There appeared to be a distance that developed between Augustine and his father, Patricius.[2]This came as a result of his father being “hot tempered.”[3] Though he was extremely generous his temper overshadowed his other great qualities. In contrast, Augustine’s view of his mother was on the opposite end of the spectrum.

His mother served as the place of reason for him as he moved through life. Later in his life it would be his mother, who would challenge him, when she learned that he had become a Manichean.[4] Her intentional contribution of displaying a “practical perspective of simple faith as opposed to adopting philosophical rhetoric showed that she placed greater value on the practical.”[5] Augustine writes,

You stretched out your hand from on high and pulled my soul out of these murky depths because my mother, who as faithful to you, was weeping for me more bitterly than ever mothers wept for the bodily death of their children…yes you did indeed hear her, for how else can I account for the dream by which you so comforted her that she agreed to live with me and share my table…She had initially been reluctant to do so, repelled by my errors…”

Throughout his classic work, The Confessions you begin to experience the loved shared between Augustine and his mother, Monica. Though strange in certain instances it proved to be a ‘voice of God”[6] for many of the decisions that Augustine would face. As he matriculates through life, she would continue to display practical Christianity that at times trumped the scholarship of Augustine.[7]

Poverty was a major issue that Augustine faced while growing up in Thagaste. To be considered a full citizen, one needed money or the accomplishment of being the product of a college education. Education would be the avenue which Augustine would venture but would soon be cut short due to lack of funds. The tides would change and evidently Augustine would return back to the halls of academia and later would become a professor in many different cities including Milan.[8]

While in Milan, Augustine began to see the noble side of life. It was in Milan while being a protégé of Symmachus, that he began to see many advantages of being affluent. Milan was a major metropolitan city with a political stronghold in the Western Empire.[9] Presuming that he would marry a Catholic woman, he left the lady of which he had been living with for 15 years. This subtle change would also begin to mark the beginning of conflicts in the life of Augustine.

The Importance of Friendship

The character of Augustine is one of many facets but the importance of friendship shines bright among those who knew him. In the monastery in which he lived, it was not unusual to find his door open and extra places set at the table for extra guest.[10] His love for people manifested itself by his constant level of respect. Growing up in such a “close-knit”[11] environment proved to be a valued characteristic that Augustine would spread throughout his travel. Augustine declares, “In this world two things are essential: a healthy life and friendship. God created humans so that they might exist and live: this is life. But if they are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship.”[12] Peter Brown echoes Augustine’s declaration with “Augustine will never be alone.”[13]Edward Sellner also states, “This is surely one of the predominant patterns in Augustine’s life: the constant presence of his friends, and his obvious appreciation of them.”[14]

It was in friendship that Augustine’s genius was always challenged by his peers and students. Augustine confesses,

“There were other joys to be found in their company which still more powerfully captivated my mind-the charms of talking and laughing together and kindly giving way to each other’s wishes, reading elegantly written books together, sharing jokes and delighting to honor one another, disagreeing occasionally but without rancor, as a person might disagree with himself, and lending piquancy by that rare disagreement to our much more frequent accord. We would teach and learn from each other, sadly missing any who were absent and blithely welcoming them when they returned. Such signs of friendship sprang from the hearts of friends who loved and knew their loved returned, signs to be read in smiles, words, glances and a thousand gracious gestures. So were sparks kindled and our minds were fused inseparably, out of many becoming one.”[15]

This constant exchanging of information was a valued trait of Augustine that highlighted his view of friendship. This would become a primary building block for the development of Augustine’s pursuit of the “happy life.”[16]

Alypius and Nebridius are two friends of Augustine that came from opposite sides of the track. You begin to observe the magnetic power of leadership and friendship that is possessed by Augustine. Alypius provided Augustine with an intellectual ear but also moral support for the endeavors which Augustine would undertake. He was a childhood friend who had an inclination toward the Manichees. Nebridius was from a wealthy Carthaginian family which allowed him the freedom of not being employed.

Augustine and his two friends engaged each other in philosophical issues as they grew in their perspective relationship. Though Augustine appeared to be the most intelligent of the three it was always apparent that he needed them in order to be successful. It was Nebridius who played a major part in convincing Augustine to give up his involvement in Manichean and astrology.[17] Augustine writes in the City of God, “And if we escape this pitiable blindness, is not the unfeigned confidence and mutual love of true and good friends our one solace in human society, filled as it is with misunderstandings and calamities?”[18]

The expressed need to engage in friendship appeared to be a must for Augustine. It is said that “no thinker in the Early Church was so preoccupied with the nature of human relationships”[19] like that of Augustine. This is once again a result of the “close-knit”[20] environment that he came from. This environment fostered the response of friendship through daily interaction of love.

Augustine perspective of friendship was a biblical view that also came across in his doctrine as well. Because he believed that man was the product of sin by way of Adam, Fallen Man and thereby grace was the only avenue for productive relationship. So outside of grace it was impossible to have genuine, loveable friendships. Augustine writes to a couple of recently converted Donatist priests,”

“Your coming to see me has given me joy, but do not let my absence cause you sadness. Even if my absence were as far as the most distant lands, we should still be united through Christ. If we lived together in the same house, we certainly would be said to be together. But how much more are we together, when we are joined together as members of the one body of Christ, the Church?”[21]

The emphasis placed upon them being together as friends in Christ is evident as Augustine tried to assure the priest that that there is something intrinsically important within a Christian friendship.

In the City of God, Augustine develops a dichotomy of the life of man versus life in a city with God. He draws upon the conclusion that the purity of God will always win over the sinfulness of man. Etienne Gilson states, “… the moral life as something interwoven with social life. In his eyes, the individual is never separated from the city. To find the basic reason for this, however, we must return once more to the root of all moral life, i.e. to love and therefore, to the will.[22] Brown asserts, “So the City of God, far from being a book about flight from the world…it is a book about being other worldly in the world.”[23] Augustine position is one of a man trying to develop heavenly friendship in the midst of utter chaos and mayhem on Earth. White states, “His ideal was no earthly society but a heavenly community of mutually loving members of the City of God (described as ‘a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God and a mutual fellowship in God’) and only here would men be able to know one another completely and to form a perfect intimacy, as friends aimed to do.”[24]

The City of God exposed the thinking of Augustine as he searched for the ultimate friendship in which he would never obtain. He never encountered a friendship like he described because ultimately it was in God that he would find that relationship. Nevertheless he would push the envelope to reach the pinnacle of what he envisioned friendship to engross. Carolinne White suggests, “If God is seen as the highest good towards which everything must be directed and if all love must focus on God before all else for it to be truly Christian, friendship among Christians gains a new perspective.”[25] From this perspective it is clear to see that Augustine was moving in the right direction. The impact of friendship for Augustine can be summed up in the death of his childhood friend. The death of this childhood friend “shook him out of his home-town”[26] and displayed a connection that his “soul could do nothing without him.”[27]

Augustine’s Influence on John Calvin

Many of the great minds of the Reformation and beyond followed the teaching of Augustine. Those from Martin Luther, John Von Staupitz, John Wycliffe and Thomas Aquinas all followed the footsteps of Augustine. But it was John Calvin who appeared to present many of the teachings of Augustine throughout his writings. C. Gregg Singer said, “The main features of Calvin’s theology are found in the writings of St. Augustine to such an extent that many theologians regard Calvinism as a more fully developed form of Augustinianism.”[28]Henry H. Milman states “Augustinianism was worked up into a still more rigid and uncompromising system by the severe intellect of Calvin.”[29]

Calvin was student of the writings of Augustine which become tremendously evident as you read the Institutes. John Calvin himself states,

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”[30]

Calvin’s love for the work and life of Augustine is so expressed in his writings that it is impossible not to notice the impact. Will Durant classifies John Calvin as the “most medieval thinker between Augustine and Dante.”[31] Calvin owes much to the teaching of Augustine and many of his doctrines were greatly connected with those of Augustine.

Two Literary Classics of Augustine

Augustine wrote many letters, sermons and book during his lifetime. But two of them remain as classic; City of God and Confessions. These classics serve as scholarly evidence of the genius of Augustine. From the sheer volume of the two classical works you begin to see the years of study and learning that has taken place in Augustine’s life. The two works display the character of Augustine as he transitioned through life and doctrine.

City of God is considered by many to be his magnum opus to the field of writing. Taking more than 13 years to complete, the book came as a result of a letter received from Marcellinus. In the letter Marcellinus stated that Christianity was being falsely accused and he wanted Augustine to address the issued presented. Though calamity had befallen the Christians in Rome, Augustine still saw it as an act of the sovereign God doing his will. Instead of addressing the evil that had captured Rome, Augustine attempted to develop a Christian worldview that would serve as an example for “reconstructing the very fabric of the civilized world.”[32]

City of God was Augustine’s rejection of the paganism of the aristocracy that has claimed to dominate the intellectual life of Rome.[33] It displays the battle of two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Throughout this book you find Augustine vacillating between the two wills. Etienne Gilson remarks, “Created spirits are capable of turning upward to God with their wills (conversion) or downward toward bodies (aversion). Thus there are two distinct commitments of will-or two loves.”[34] Housed within the two love or cities rest the different aspects of man-good and evil. Augustine objective in the pages of City of God were to reconcile the two in one place. Augustine presented a query that has continued to mystify many until this day.

Confessions was another great literary masterpiece that left a mark on the word of theology and philosophy. Confessions was a look at a life through the eyes of a man who lived life in prayer. It was written to the spiritual minded, as a confession that many would not be so inapt to write.[35] Augustine documents his life through the pages of this great work. He shares intimate details of his life that are monumental in understanding the person of Augustine. The intimacy that is shared during his writing leaves the reader with a sense of familiarity.

Augustine never tried to isolate himself from his errors but used them as tools to help others. His life was balanced with the transparent example of one who continues to struggle with sin.[36] He states, “I also confess to other people in your presence not what I have been, but what I still am?”[37] Augustine was not afraid to let others know that he had problems that were constantly being worked out in his life. His candidness throughout his writings and lifestyle proved to be positive characteristic for many that would follow. Whether in the course of reading his books or personal fellowship, Augustine lived a life of confession.

Conclusion

Augustine was a man that changed the face of Western culture with his scholarship. His writings were controversial but yet needed during a time where heroes of the faith were minimized. There are many episodes in his life that I have not mentioned but provided major impacts on the outcome of Augustine. As you take the time to view his work and analyze his writings you find a man with a heart to be a true friend.

Nothing sticks out more to me than his press to befriend any and all. His love for people appeared to be the main objective for him working so hard within academia. The more he interacted with others the more you would see work being produced. His work reflected upon the nature of his relationship with others. It was not a novelty for Augustine to be engaged in rhetoric with his peers or students. It was in these conversations that Augustine would be challenged to grow and share.

Augustine was a spiritual leader that shaped the thinking of a city with his words. Robert Clinton asserts that a spiritual leader is “a person with a God given capacity and a God given responsibility to influence a specific group of God’s people toward His purpose for the group.”[38] Augustine had this quality and his life was devoted to sharing it with others. He was one of the major catalysts for the Christian faith and continues to be introduced to many through his writings.

I believe he is one of the greatest thinkers that this world has ever encountered. Whether in philosophy or theology he has set a standard for others to follow. Coming from such an obscure place in Africa, to being one the most influential minds in philosophy and theology, he is considered an inspiration for many who will rise from the ashes of mediocrity. He serves as an example of what study and drive will accomplish in a person’s life. But he would be inclined to say that it was all part of God’s plan anyway.


[1] Peter Brown. Augustine of Hippo: a Biography.(Berkley: University of California Press,1967,2000)pg.19

[2] Richard Price. Augustine.(Liguori, Missouri: Triumph, 1996) pg.1

[3] St. Augustine. The Confessions.(New York: New City Press, 1997) pg.224

[4] Ibid.,pg.89

[5] Edward Smither. Augustine as Mentor. (Nashville:Broadman and Holden Publishing, 2008) pg.96

[6] Brown, pg.30

[7] Edward Smither. Augustine as Mentor. (Nashville:Broadman and Holden Publishing, 2008) pg.100

[8]. Peter Brown. Augustine of Hippo: a Biography.(Berkley: University of California Press,1967,2000)pg. 21

[9] Ibid.,pg. 71

[10] Smither, pg. 2

[11] Brown, pg.32

[12] Sermon 299D, 1.

[13] Brown, pg.61

[14] Edward C. Sellner, “Like a Kindling Fire: Meanings of Friendship in the Life and Writings of Augustine,” Spirituality Today (Fall 1991, v.43.3), pp 24-257.

[15] Augustine,pg.100-101

[16] Smither, pg.100

[17] Smither,pg.102

[18] The City of God, 19.8

[19] Brown, pg.32

[20] Ibid.

[21] Letter 142.1

[22] Etienne Gilson. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Random House, 1967), pg.171

[23] Brown, pg.324

[24] Carolinne White. Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)pg.205

[25] White,pg.197

[26] Brown, pg,61

[27] Augustine,pg.156

[28] C. Gregg Singer. John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits. (A Press, 1989), pg. vii.

[29] Henry H. Milman, History of Christianity (A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1886) pg.176.

[30] John Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” in John Calvin, Calvin’s

Calvinism, trans. Henry Cole (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1987) pg.38

[31] Will Durant. The Reformation. (New York: Simon and Schuster,1957) pg.465

[32] Terry Miethe. Augustine’s City of God.(Nashville: Broadman and Holman,1998) pg.5

[33] Brown,pg.302

[34] Etienne Gilson. City of God.(New York: Image Books,1958) pg.30-31

[35] Augustine,pg.129

[36] Smither, pg.94

[37] Augustine,pg.239

[38] Robert Clinton. The Making of a Leader. (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988).pg.245

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