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The Core Curriculum

Augustine

354 CE – 430 CE

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 (Classics, Columbia University) and Nina Papathanasopoulou Myers (Classics, Columbia University)

Sources consulted: Encyclopedia Britannica at 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.

James J. O’Donnell maintains an extensive site on Augustine: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/. Possidius’ Life of Augustine is online here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/possidius_life_of_augustine_02_text.htm. The classic modern biography is that by Peter Brown, the revised edition of which takes account of the newly discovered letters and sermons: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Historical Contexts

Confessions

Aurelius Augustinus (‘Augustine’) lived through a period of religious and political upheaval, and spent an immensely productive lifetime at the center of innumerable personal, philosophical, religious and political controversies. When Alaric and the Visigoths swept through Rome in 410, he assumed the incredible task of making theological sense of the disaster in his massive work, City of God. His combative letters and vehement treatises, which crisscrossed the Empire in his lifetime and enjoyed a large readership, attest to his central position in the most important debates of his age. A constant stream of letters and sermons, dictated from his home in Hippo Regius (a Roman colony in North Africa, now in Algeria), equally demonstrate his standing in his parish as judge and administrator, sometimes interceding to civil authorities on behalf of prisoners. (More such sermons and letters were found as recently as 1975 and 1990; it is often said that, due to the size of his surviving corpus, we know Augustine better than any other ancient figure, except Cicero). When his pupil Possidius came to compose a biography of his master (which still survives), he spent little time detailing his master’s ideas; instead, he wanted to highlight for posterity all of the manifold controversies and personal dangers faced by Augustine throughout his life. So we hear, for example, about terrorists called Circumcellions from the so-called Donatist heresy, who launched raids on Catholic churches with a crude tear gas made of lime juice and vinegar, and allegedly laid an ambush to kill Augustine himself. Finally, Augustine lived to see the catastrophic invasion of Africa by the Vandals, and Possidius gives a vivid picture of the struggle to assemble and safeguard his works amidst the general destruction. Possidius’ biography also appends a letter in which Augustine encourages anxious bishops not to flee, so as to provide a ‘place of refuge’ for the displaced. The psychological conflicts depicted in the Confessions are intense, but also largely interior and personal. It is salutary, then, to remember that Augustine was far from detached from the political upheavals that marked the period in which he lived.  

Written by James Uden (Classics, Columbia University)

Sources consulted: 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.

James J. O’Donnell maintains an extensive site on Augustine: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/. Possidius’ Life of Augustine is online here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/possidius_life_of_augustine_02_text.htm. The classic modern biography is that by Peter Brown, the revised edition of which takes account of the newly discovered letters and sermons: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

City of God

Augustine’s City of God is arguably the first magnum opus of Christian philosophy. The work covers, among other topics, theodicy, civil and natural theology, the history of creation, philosophy of history, eschatology, and martyrdom. Completed by the year 426 (CE), City of God took Augustine at least a decade to write.

City of God is, in at least some broad sense, a response to the trauma of the Visigoth attack on Rome in 410. Up to that point, the Roman Empire had dominated Mediterranean civilization for nearly a thousand years. When the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked and plundered Rome, its citizens were deeply shocked and devastated. The city’s walls had not been breached in eight hundred years. Not only a calamity for the city’s citizens, the attack was symbolic of a crumbling empire.  

Many Romans interpreted the sack as punishment for abandoning the traditional gods and goddesses in favor of the new state religion, Christianity. Augustine wrote City of God in part to rebut this notion. He endeavored to show that the Christian God, far from being blameworthy, is actually a source of solace and strength.

To do this, Augustine puts forth two main arguments in City of God. The first speaks directly to those who had criticized the Christian God for failing to protect Rome and its citizens. Augustine points out that Christianity actually did offer protection, since many refugees from the attack used Christian basilicas as safe havens from the invaders. For Augustine, this is at least some evidence of God’s mercy and compassion.

The second argument is that Romans had not lost anything of genuine value in the attack. Rome, Augustine argues, is quintessentially a city of man. It is ephemeral, earthly, and – like all other cities – destined to eventually pass away. The City of God, on the other hand, is stable, eternal, and the source of ultimate consolation. It is the city under God’s command, and hence the city that will ultimately come to triumph.


Sources:
Augustine. City of God. London: The Penguin Group, 1972.
Possidius. Life of St. Augustine. Accessed via The Tertullian Project
James J. O’Donnell of Georgetown University maintains an extensive site on Augustine: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography California, 1967, revised ed. 2000.


Patrick Comstock, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University