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The Core Curriculum

Augustine

354 CE – 430 CE

“The Conversion of St. Augustine” by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. (Wikimedia Commons)“The Conversion of St. Augustine” by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. (Wikimedia Commons) Aurelius Augustine, son of Patricius and Monica, was born in 354 in Tagaste, a Roman provincial town in North Africa. In 370 he moved to Carthage to study rhetoric and philosophy, where he became a rhetoric professor in 377. In 383 he sailed to Rome for the first time and in 384 he was appointed Chair of Rhetoric in Milan. In Milan Augustine heard Bishop Ambrose preach. His relationship with the bishop made him abandon his rhetoric career; he converted to Christianity and was baptized in Milan in 387. His mother Monica died later that same year. Augustine returned to Africa in 388 and was ordained priest at Hippo in 391. In 395 he became the bishop of Hippo and remained so up to his death in 430. He witnessed the decline of the Roman Empire and was heavily influenced by it. Rome was sacked in 410 and he died at Hippo in 430 while Vandals were besieging the city. 

Augustine is widely recognized for being one of the most prolific philosophers ever. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica writes, “Augustine is remarkable for what he did and extraordinary for what he wrote. If none of his written works had survived, he would still have been a figure to be reckoned with, but his stature would have been more nearly that of some of his contemporaries. However, more than five million words of his writings survive, virtually all displaying the strength and sharpness of his mind (and some limitations of range and learning) and some possessing the rare power to attract and hold the attention of readers in both his day and ours.”

Augustine is the author of the Confessions, an account of the author's young life, his intellectual struggles, and his conversion to Christianity. While many ancient Greeks and Romans wrote works about themselves, Augustine’s autobiography is unique for the degree to which it projects an individual’s personal history as a symbolic narrative. The Confessions is also written in a uniquely expressive style: Augustine combines his own Latin eloquence with elements of Hebrew syntax and word order, fluidly interweaves lines from the Scriptures, and creates startlingly physical metaphors designed to recall Song of Songs and Psalms.

The work’s boldness was met with shock and resistance from contemporaries. His theological opponents cast its contents back at him in debates about sexuality. Secundinus the Manichee, with whom Augustine spent some time in his Manichean phase, told him that he thought the work was stylistically brilliant but without any firm convictions or even truth (Contra Secundinum, CSEL 25.2.895). The most telling response of all is the recently-discovered letter to Augustine by the Spanish bishop Consentius (Divjak Epistle 12). He explains that, on the first reading, he could only make it through one or two pages, ‘shocked by your aggravating brilliance’ (molesto…splendore percussus) and alienated by the avant-garde literary style. But having returned to it and toiled passionately in contemplation of the text, he tells Augustine that he has begun to see his own self in the Confessions. The work has displayed to him, as in a picture, the ‘many forms of my own thinking’ (multas cogitationum mearum formas), which is surely a response Augustine intended for all readers.

 

Written by James Uden and Nina Papathanasopoulou Myers, Classics, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/EBchecked/topic/42902/Saint-Augustine

J.J O’Donnell, ‘The Next Life of Augustine’, in R. Markus et al (eds) The Limits of Ancient Christianity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 215-231

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 

James J. O’Donnell maintains an extensive site on Augustine.  http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/

Possidius’ Life of Augustine is also online.  http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/possidius_life_of_augustine_02_text.htm