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Augustine of Hippo - Biography

Augustine of Hippo was born in Thagaste, (the modern day city of Souk Ahras in Algeria), on the 13th of November in 354. He died on the 28th of August in 430 in Hippo Regius (the modern day city of Annaba in Algeria), where he had been named Bishop thirty-five years earlier. As it is difficult to encapsulate any renowned figure, it is especially difficult to do so with Augustine of Hippo. As a philosopher and theologian, Augustine of Hippo vacillated between an optimistic Hellenistic view in his earlier years and a more pessimistic Christian view in his later years. Moving between such extremes, he accommodated a wide array of disciplines and thought in his over-arching desire to make sense of a world, in both theory and practice, seemingly so full of conflict, strife, and loss. Thus, it is one of his most revered traits and innovative aspects of his writings that he was able to commune diverging aspects from the four schools of Hellenistic philosophy (Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics, and Platonists) along with various doctrines of Christian ideology. Among his voluminous body of work that includes numerous letters, sermons and exegetical texts, he is most known for his Confessiones (Confessions) 397–401, De civitate dei (On the City of God) 413–427, De trinitate (On the Trinity) 399–422/6, and De libero arbitrio (On Free Will), 386/8.

Except for approximately four years of his life, Augustine of Hippo spent his life in northern Africa. He was the son of Patricius, a pagan and Roman (either through ancestry, legal citizenship or both) who was a member of the council, and Monnica, a Christian and presumably of Berber origin. After his initial studies in Greek and Latin in Thagaste, Augustine of Hippo studied Latin and literature in Madaurus and eventually came under the influence of Cicero. He would credit Cicero’s Hortensius (the entirety of which no longer remains) as being the catalyst to his life-long relationship with, not just philosophy, but psychology, human nature and religion—essentially ‘wisdom’ in the ancient sense. Shortly thereafter, around the age of seventeen, Augustine of Hippo would continue his studies in Carthage with the generous support of a patron, Romanianus. He focused on studies in rhetoric, which would lead him to his first profession. While in Carthage, Augustine of Hippo became greatly influenced by the Manichaean religion and, essentially, a follower for roughly nine years. He lived large and well in Carthage where he met a young woman who became his lover for more than thirteen years and bore him a son, Adeodatus in 372. She would later become known as “The One” in his Confessions.

After a short return to Thagaste, Augustine of Hippo returned to Carthage to teach rhetoric and remained there until 383 when he left for Rome in search of more engaging and enlightened students. The Roman schools proved to be a disappoint for him and a year later he would find himself in Milan having won the prestigious position as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court. Between the influences of Skepticism at the New Academy in Rome to that of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo was moving fast away from Manichaean beliefs and on the threshold of his great, and now infamous, conversion. In particular, a reading on the life of St. Anthony of the Desert yielded Augustine of Hippo’s final turn towards embracing Christianity in total, giving up his pending future of an arranged marriage (already a grave provision of conflict and pain for him due to his lost lover), a burgeoning career in rhetoric and a privileged life. His conversion was incited by a young child’s voice:

“‘Take up and read; Take up and read.’” … “I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

Confessions, Book VIII, 28 & 29

The account, in many ways, accounts for one of the untenable aspects Augustine of Hippo had with the Manichaean belief, which was the always presence of darkness over lightness, in which the latter could only strive to overshadow. While Augustine of Hippo fully converted and embraced Christianity, many scholars agree that the Manichaean influence can be read in his writing “if” only in deference or as repudiation. He, and his son, was baptized on the Easter Vigil in 387 by Ambrose in Milan. Shortly thereafter they, along with Augustine of Hippo’s mother who had accompanied him, embarked on their return to Africa. Unfortunately, his mother never made the final journey, dying in Ostia and his son died soon after their return.

After he returned home Augustine of Hippo would soon adopt a monastic way of life, like that he had been told of by his friend Pontitianus in Milan just prior to his conversion. He gave away his luxuries and eventually sold his inheritance to pursue a monastic foundation in Hippo Regius, where he was ordained as a priest in 391 and made Bishop four years later. He was at first quite reluctant to become priest and tried to avoid it, but obliged out of the community’s appeals. Augustine of Hippo’s preaching, orations and sermons became infamous and hundreds of his sermons have remained persevered.

The conversion of Augustine of Hippo was most clearly the most significant event in his life and it marks his evolution as a thinker. The Manichaean beliefs were influential in his youth and in his conversion as he was unable to attend to their over-arching and inexplicable cosmology. And while Cicero’s text pointed him in the direction of a more holistic way of study, in which he became quite influenced by the New Academy in Rome as well as Christian theology in Milan, it was perhaps the Platonists (or as referred to today, Neo-Platonists) that he came to regard that had even more of a considerable effect on his thinking and practice as it is ‘them’ he credits with enabling Christianity a viable option for him.

Scholars argue as to which particular Platonic texts he was exposed to, but most agree they were those of Plotinus and Porphyry. The Platonic readings vivified his idealist manner, which reified his will. More specifically, it aided him in his disregard from the purely moral dualistic nature of good and evil encouraged by his Manicheanist foundation. Such can be traced in the Confessions, which is essentially a form of autobiography (many call it the first), yet more importantly a rhetorical exposition that employs his life in yielding a lesson of loss and ascension. Thus, like Augustine of Hippo, one may find oneself lost in the materiality of life and its illusions and desire though one can find a way through scholarship (NeoPlatonism) and triumph, through an awareness of unity, over one’s sense of isolation and come to a place with/in God.

An exemplary form of rhetoric, Augustine of Hippo begins the Confessions with a discussion on language itself, which can aid one in connection with or to the world, and has the propensity to transcend the world ascending to a higher realm that while less intelligible is more unifying—the material and the immaterial. Essentially, this first dialogue prologues the journey of the Confessions. Particularly noteworthy sections of the most widely read text of medieval philosophy, are Book VIII, IX, and XI. In the first, Augustine of Hippo deals with the issue of “will” and how he attends to that in relation to his faith. An amazing account of ascension is made in Book IX, often referred to as the “vision at Ostia,” in which he and his mother ascend together beyond the worldly senses. This particular account of ascension is poignant in its acknowledged divergence from the Platonic ascent of the individual soul, (again accounting for and accommodating both).

In Book XI of the Confessions, Augustine of Hippo delves into an innovative discussion of time through a dialogue on creation via Genesis. Breaking with Platonism (and the overall Greek tradition) he accepts the notion that the world was created from nothing, that God created substance, and that the world was created when the world was created, neither before nor after anything, as “time” was created when the world was created and since God is eternal there is no before or after. His account of time he realizes is not sufficient, but it is an illuminating account that positions time as both relative and subjective. As God is only present (presence), so too is time. There is no ‘true’ past or future time—there is “a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.” Furthermore he psychologizes his account such that one understands that “the present of things past is memory; the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation.” In a very extreme point he posits time not only as relative, but also as subjective such that time is in concert with being, and that prior to Creation time has no meaning.

For Augustine of Hippo, God is the eternal point of origin and the unifying factor for all else. This is a perfect example of merging sensibilities such that in the Platonic tradition there is a divide, for instance, body and soul, but it is in God that thus is unified. Of course, it is not that simple, but for the sake of this summary, Augustine of Hippo begins with an absolute unity in God that as the hierarchy descends eventually becomes fragmented at the most base material level. This is further expounded upon in his text The City of God, in which Augustine of Hippo accounts for original sin and the issue of evil, an issue that he grappled with since his Manichean period. To begin with, sin is of the soul and not of the flesh, as both the Manicheans and Platonists had ascribed. He follows that the soul of Adam was the only, and hence “original,” soul God created. One’s individual soul is thus the soul of Adam, first and foremost, until it is individualized in one’s being. As such, original sin is thus universally accounted for and justified such that a child who dies and was not baptized can be automatically relegated to Hell because it is essentially original sin. God’s grace will save some from “eternal death,” which Adam’s sins originally ensured, but not all.

In regards to evil, there is a similar type of hierarchical structure that Augustine of Hippo puts forth to account for its presence. Against the Manichean notion that evil (and darkness) are intrinsic and, to a certain extant, over-riding, Augustine of Hippo employs Platonic form and Christian ideology that posits evil as a product of the lower realm, but not as a “thing” itself. Evil is the result of being misguided; it is the result of a deficiency in one’s will, taking up the mores of the inferior, adhering to a lower realm of ‘ascension’ as if it were of the higher realm. ‘True’ ascension is resting with the goodness of God and it is man’s responsibility to apply him/herself towards this goodness. In this way, evil is a byproduct of a deficiency of the human will and it is the responsibility of one’s will to ascend from one’s ‘lowly’ self obsession and to not “fall” again.

And, it is after the Fall that the world was divided into two cities—the city of God and the city of man. Clearly the latter is less than, yet it is most populated, and is God’s way to emphatically underscore the need for ascension. Only a few are selected by his grace to occupy the city of God—and it is not based on merit—as this constant reminder of adjudication. This masterful text, The City of God, was primarily written in refute to the growing desire for a polytheistic resurgence in Rome. Another ingenious work of moral rhetoric, it is the story of human history as told through a ‘tale of two cities’ in which it is utterly clear which city one should strive to become a citizen. Through a philosophical framework Augustine of Hippo psychologizes history, providing God as the light at the end of the tunnel. The text is innovative as well in its positioning of a separation between church and state, with the latter needing to be submissive to the former in order to attain a sense of unity.

The work reveals his greater shift towards the morality of his religion over the rationality of his philosophy, and is a much bleaker view of man’s destiny. His final views of man’s fate, though he will note his own misgivings on the soul in his late writings, are much more severe than his early days and come up against, and perhaps are strengthened by, his fighting against the Pelagians. The latter gave much more “freedom” and “ability” to the will of the individual over the predominance of “original sin,” which Pelagius questioned. In brief, Pelagius asserted that man essentially had a ‘second’ chance in light of the lesson learned from Adam’s sin. In this way, everyday man could will his way to goodness, so-to-speak. If one lived a good and virtuous life then one would be rewarded in passage to heaven. This of course flattens the preordained hierarchies set forth by God according to Augustine of Hippo and he was, of course, vehemently opposed. It was only by God’s grace that a few, “the elect,” would be saved from eternal damnation and this salvation revealed God’s mercy, as eternal damnation reveals his justice, and together his overall goodness as a just creator. Other than maintaining a paramount belief in this fated authority and hierarchy (which formally comes from a Platonic influence), the only other motivation was in the possibility of ascension, albeit temporary, as one—the majority—will still be damned.

While he continued to maintain, commensurate with both his philosophy and theology, that the everyday of man’s life is but a small percentage of reality, the reality of the everyday man became quite bleak. The gravity of his thinking and late morality had a long lasting effect on much of medieval philosophy and western Church doctrine. In particular he was an influential figure for Boethius, Anselm of Cantebury, and Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther and John Calvin employed much of his late Christian doctrine in defense of the Reformation. His earlier discussions of the will were an influence on more modern figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt. The latter wrote her dissertation on Augustine’s concept of love, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation (1929). His notion of time was recognized by Edmund Husserl and proved to be inspiring for Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927). Augustine of Hippo was a relentless and devout practitioner whose output, diversity, range and form remains a hallmark today.

Augustine of Hippo was a Romanized Berber Philosopher, Theologian (November 13, 354 - August 28, 430 ACE)