Augustine of Hippo

Augustine was a Roman philosopher born in Thagaste (present day Algeria) in 354 AD. He would combine Greek and Roman philosophy with the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to create a philosophy which would come to serve as the foundation of Christian theology. Augustine embraced the Neoplatonic view of the soul as existing within a material universe, as well as the possibility of ascending to a higher divine realm. Augustine is most famous for his Confessions, where he explains how he came to become a Christian, and City of God, where he describes what he believes to be the one true spiritual community. Augustine is known for his understanding of original sin, his concept of just war, for trying to reconcile free will with predestination, and his argument for how we can know that more than one mind exists.

Born in North Africa, Augustine studied rhetoric (public speaking) until becoming inspired to study philosophy after reading the Roman philosopher Cicero. In Carthage, he became a member of the Manicheans, a religious sect which believed that saw the world as being made of Light and Darkness. The Manicheans believed that the soul as well as the body were material substances, and that evil existed as the result of the presence of this Dark force. Although not one of the “elect,” Augustine would be a “listener” of the Manicheans for nine years. During this time, he engaged in sexual acts and famously said “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Augustine would make his way to Rome and then Milan, where he came in contact with Academic Skepticism and Platonic philosophy. Augustine had found the Manichean’s cosmology (understanding of the world) lacking, and he was attracted to the Neoplatonists’ understanding of the world which emphasized man as a rational being. Augustine embraced the Neoplatonic belief that through the intellect, man can rise above the material world and it’s sensual desires, to find unity on a higher spiritual realm. Within this Neoplatonic framework, Augustine came to understand the soul as a non-material entity and therefore fundamentally different from the body.

With this Platonic understanding, Augustine was able to make sense of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which he began to read allegorically (i.e. symbolically). Augustine converted to Christianity, and returned to North Africa where he would live a simple life of prayer and philosophical reflection in a monastery. In Hippo, he became a bishop, and with his immersion on Scripture his concerns became more theological. His earlier optimistic understanding of the possibility for the soul to ascend to a higher, divine realm would be replaced with a more grim picture where each person is predestined to be saved or not based on God’s will.

In his Confessions, in addition to providing an autobiographical portrayal of his life, Augustine provides his own understanding for why evil exists (the problem of evil) to replace the Manicheans’ understanding of evil as a negative force. For Augustine, evil is not a force, but rather the absence (or privation) of good. Because our souls are within our bodies and the material world, humans will focus on base desires such as lust. When we do this, we are not directing our attention towards the higher rational realms which are good. Therefore, evil occurs because of our focus on earthly concerns, which he considers an aspect of Original Sin.

In the Confessions, Augustine also puts forth a theory of language. While language immerses us in the world of the senses, it can also aid us in transcending to a higher realm. For example, Augustine was originally turned of by the crudeness of the Bible, but with a Neoplatonic understanding, he was able to see the text as symbolically reflecting higher truths.

Augustine also develops his own understanding of time, which he sees as having been created when the world was created. Therefore, time is not infinite. He sees time as something used by humans to make sense of reality, while for God the world simply exists. Augustine also sees time in a linear fashion, which emphasizes the historical progression from Creation to the Fall, Resurrection and Final Judgement. This view of time is in contrast to the Greeks, who emphasized the circularity of the days, months and seasons, as well as other repeatable patterns such as times of peace and times of war.

Augustine sees the soul as greater than the body, since the soul allows humans to understand things that are beyond the realm of the senses. In his doctrine of illumination, he explains that God provides a divine light which allows our mind’s to apprehend intelligible truths. Just as the senses require light to see things, likewise only the light of God makes reason possible. While each person has their own subjective experience of sensible things, the experience of the intelligible realm is common to all in the same way that Plato believes all philosophers see the same Forms.

Augustine will argue against the Academic Skeptics, believing that certain things can be known. For example, he argues that he must exist by saying “If I am mistaken, I am.” In the 17th century, Descartes will appeal to this notion with his own famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” Augustine also argues against solipsism (the belief that one’s own mind is the only thing that exists) by using what is known as the argument by analogy. He explains that since there are other bodies that exist that appear to act similar to our own, we are therefore justified to believe that likewise these bodies will also have mental activity. As Augustine becomes more involved in scripture, he will become more anti-skeptical, explaining that it isn’t possible to know all the truths of Christianity through the intellect.

While Augustine used Neoplatonism to understand our actions as rational beings, he will discuss the will to address why we also act irrationally. Augustine maintains that we have free will, and that this both accounts for why there is evil in the world as well as for why we are morally responsible for our actions. Because as humans we have Original Sin, we choose to focus on material concerns instead of that which is good. As Augustine becomes more theological later in life, the question of the freedom of the will gets more complicated.

Augustine comes to believe in predetermism, the doctrine that God decides before we are born who will be saved and who won’t. The question then becomes how can Augustine believe in free will when everything is predetermined? Augustine says that our freedom to choose is a part of God’s predetermined plan for the world. The implications of these new theological beliefs will dramatically affect Augustine’s worldview. Earlier, a human could transcend the earthly realm by using his reason to come to understand the things of the intelligible world. Now, Augustine’s newly adopted theological doctrines replace this Neoplatonic understanding with a view of the world where the many are damned, and only a select few will achieve salvation through the grace of God.

In City of God, Augustine explains that there are two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. Having Original Sin, most people do not receive the grace of God, and therefore live a life of earthly concerns. They will suffer a second death where their resurrected bodies are tortured by eternal flames. In contrast, the City of God refers to the select few who receive God’s grace and therefore are able to experience the joyous vision of God. In this way, Augustine’s later theological understanding of the world stands in contrast to his earlier Platonic understanding. These views will come to serve as the foundation for Christianity, where he is revered as a Saint and is called “Augustine the Blessed.”

As a Christian, Augustine believes in pacifism, although he acknowledges the possibility of engaging in a defensive war, with the goal of reestablishing peace. This is known as the just war theory, and would be taken up by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, as well as political philosophers since. Augustine would greatly influence Medieval philosophers including Boethius, John Scotus, Anselm of Canterbury, and Bonaventure. He also inspired Reformation thinkers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. In the Modern period, he would influence philosophers such as Descartes and Malebranche, as well as recent developments in understanding the role of memory and language. In bringing together the Greco-Roman as well as the Judeo-Christian traditions, Augustine paved the way for future developments in Western philosophy and European civilization, and in this way can be seen as both the last classical man as well as the first medievalist.