Category: Persons

Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine)

Augustine (354-430) was the most important theologian and philosopher of the early Latin medieval thought and is considered one of the founders of the Christian Platonism and of the western philosophical tradition.

1. Life and Work

Augustine was born in 354, in Thagaste, a city of Numidia in North Africa, to a humble family. In his autobiographical Confessions, one of the fundamental texts of Western literature, he narrates and gives meaning to the course of his tumultuous –and initially hedonistic– life. He managed with difficulty to study and came to love rhetoric and teach it at a young age (Carthage 376). He turned to Manichaeism (372/3), a religious trend that seemed to him intellectually sophisticated. He spent a period of time in Rome and was appointed as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan (384). At the meantime he attended speeches of Ambrose, the city’s Bishop, and lived for many years with a woman by whom he had a son (who died young).

Augustine later abandoned Manichaeism because it no longer covered his spiritual concerns and became Academician and Skeptic on the possibility of finding some definite truth. He was initiated into the ‘Platonic books’ (386) and discovered in the circle of Ambrose a form of Christianity interpreted in Neoplatonic terms. From this point of view he re-read the Gospels and converted to Christianity (386), changing his lifestyle.

He returned to Africa (388) and started to write intensively; he was consecrated (391) and was made bishop of Hippo (395). For thirty-five years, Augustine had a rich pastoral activity, participated in meetings and anti-heretic activities, and managed to complete a wide range of writings. He died on 28 August 430, during the city’s siege by the Vandals.

His purely philosophical works are early and comprise a refutation of Academic Skepticism (Contra academicos), a theodicy (De ordine) and am influential dialogue in the history of philosophy about the problem of free human choice within the benevolent divine plan (De libero arbitrio). In his theological works Augustine criticizes harshly the major sects of his time, Manichaeism and Donatism. Among his many texts stand out for their great philosophical interest On the Trinity, about the presence of signs of the Holy Trinty to the human triad (the soul), i.e. memory, intellect and will; On blissful life (De vita beata), about the attainment of happiness through the knowledge of God; The Christian teaching (De doctrina Christiana), which lays the foundations for an hermeneutics and a theory of signs. The City of God (De Civitate Dei, 413-426) is certainly his most impressive work: there Augustine criticizes Pagan religion and its philosophical presuppositions, explains the fall of Rome, and describes human history as a clash between selfish love (the terrestrial city) and divine love (the foundation of the celestial city). Thus he establishes a philosophy of history and a new political philosophy.

2. Platonic influence on his work

Augustine’s education was the standard of the late Roman world, with emphasis given on literature and an orientation towards rhetoric and memorizing classical literature works (Cicero, Virgil, etc.). Although he improved them gradually, his Greek was not good enough to give him an easy access to Greek writers. In this regard, his philosophical education was based on indirect sources. At the time the tension between classical culture and Christianity had significantly reduced, as the latter was strengthened, although without setting up its own separate culture. In the Latin-speaking West, Christianity did not pass the temporary wobble that Julian (361-363) brought to the eastern part of the Empire. However the effort of the Senators who considered themselves custodians of the traditional Roman values (that were against the new religion) escalated the conflict in the late fourth century; thus Augustine and other important Christians as Hieronymus were cautious with the Pagan culture.

At the time of his conversion (386), Augustine was particularly influenced by Platonic views on universe, human nature and fate. So he found no contradiction between his old (Platonic) environment and the Christian one. Here, one can not underestimate the influence of Plotinus, who represented an important moment of the later Platonic tradition. It has been proposed that later, when reading again and thoroughly St. Paul (in the mid-decade of 390), Augustine disputed the possibility for the coexistence of both spiritual structures. However, in the development of his thought philosophical ideas, especially of Platonic origin, never ceased to play a key role.

Knowledge of Plato: Augustine had no direct access to the Platonic works, since no Latin translation of them was available, besides Cicero’s translation of Timaeus (lost long ago). However, he knew many of Plato’s doctrines from indirect sources (Virgil, Varron, Apuleius, Plotinus, Porphyry), as well as by encyclopaedic summaries and doxography. The ‘Platonic books’ he mentions (Confessions 7.9.13) are Neoplatonic texts translated into Latin, probably in the form of anthologies or textbooks –through such works he had a knowledge of Phaedo, Phaedrus and Republic. Therefore, although the source of his every single philosophical inspiration remains controversial for us and for him maybe unclear, the impact of both Plato and Plotinus is indisputable. Augustine had the ability to synthesize ideas something that makes more difficult to find specific points of influence.

In his work, apart from the 250 named references to Plato, many Platonic and Neoplatonic theories have been identified. Augustine refers to them in order to comment upon them, to reject or to exploit them: the truth that is the subject of the contemplation of the educated intellect and the object of memory; the eternal and unchanging world of Ideas• God-creator of the world, the creation of the world that has a beginning but no end, the world as a product of the arrangement of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water); the soul of the world, and the immortality and spirituality of the human soul; the tripartite division of the soul, the purgative procedure of the soul through the four basic virtues; the philosopher-king of the ideal state; the allegory of the cave and the myth of Er, the poets’ exile.

In his reflective work Retractationes (426/7) Augustine expresses a fair judgment of his previous use of Plato. He regrets the excessive praise to Plato and his followers, but continues to consider that many Platonic notions are compatible with Christianity or at least can be harmonized to it because all that is true belongs to God, and Christians have to adapt it for their own use. In this perspective, the Platonic theory of Forms is accepted, but in its middle Platonic version where ideas exist in the divine intellect.

In many parts of his work Augustine offers interpretations and evaluations of Plato: Plato is the father of the ‘eternal philosophy’ (philosophia perennis), by suggesting the existence of two worlds, the sensible and the intelligible (in which true self-knowledge leads); he combines practical Socratic philosophy to the theoretical Pythagorean thinking; and Aristotle is much closer to Plato than many believe.

Augustine sees Plato as the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, situated very close to Christianity because of his perception of the ‘highest good’ (summum bonum). He maintained that his Platonic contemporaries can be converted to (or have become) Christians just by changing a few words (De vera religione, 390). However, his philosophy can not be adopted by the Christians, although it can be illuminated and corrected in the light of the Scriptures. The ‘foolishness’ of Incarnation constitutes the main obstacle for the Platonists, but is a non-negotiable condition for the Christian Augustine.

The work of Augustine, large in size and impressive in depth, influenced the spiritual world of Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages (Boethius, Erigena, Anselm, Bonaventure) while forming a main channel for Neoplatonic ideas. Its impact was restricted only by the dissemination of Aristotelian philosophy, although its presence in Aquinas is evident. Augustine influenced modern philosophers such as Descartes and, especially, Malebranche. In the twentieth century his thought was fruitfully studied and enriched discussions about the philosophy of language (see e.g. the references of Wittgenstein, who ascribes to Augustine a picture theory language), ethics or, even, the doctrine of just war.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Armstrong, A.H. St. Augustine and Christian Platonism. Villanova, 1966.
  • Beatrice, P.F. "Quosdam Platonicorum Libros: The Platonic Reading of Augustine in Milan.." Vigiliae Christianae 43 (1989)
  • Grandgeorge, L. Saint Augustin et le Néo-Platonisme. Paris, 1896.
  • Ivanka, E. von. Plato Christianus: Übernahme und Umgestaltung des Platonismus durch die Väter. Einsiedeln, 1964.
  • O’Connell, R. Saint Augustine’s Platonism. Philadelphia, 1984.
  • Rist, J. Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized. Cambridge, 1994.
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