Introducing Saint Augustine:
Anyone even remotely interested in the major disciplines of the humanities – be it history, philosophy, theology, ethics or politics – must know about Augustine. He is such a huge figure in the history of western thought and culture that his influence cannot adequately be measured.
As with another intellectual giant of the West, Aquinas, my piece will have to be just a very brief introduction to the man and his thought, and not any sort of learned treatise. The volumes I list below are where the curious reader can turn for much more on Augustine.
A very brief timeline of his life would include these key dates:
354 Born at Thagaste, North Africa
365 Goes to Madauros for more studies
371 Studies rhetoric at Carthage
375 Returns to Thagaste to teach rhetoric
376 Begins teaching rhetoric in Carthage
383 Sails to Rome with his concubine and son
384 Becomes professor of rhetoric in Milan
386-387 Converts to Christianity and is baptised
387 His godly mother Monica dies
388 He returns to North Africa
396 Made bishop of Hippo
397-401 Writes Confessions
427 Finishes The City of God
430 Dies, aged 75
I mentioned just above his two most well-known works. But he wrote so very much more. All up some 117 books came forth from his pen. However, let me offer a few words on his two classic works. Bradley Green says this about his City of God:
The City of God is clearly Augustine’s magnum opus. Filling 22 books and 867 pages in the English translation that is in front of me, it is one of the truly classic works of Western thought. Augustine wrote The City of God from 413-427. In 410 Alaric and the Visigoths had successfully invaded Rome, and it seemed that Rome was no longer impenetrable. Why was Rome susceptible to defeat? Augustine authors The City of God – in part – to counteract certain persons who wanted to blame Rome’s adoption of Christian faith for Rome’s susceptibility. He says:
“The glorious city of God is my theme in this work …. I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city – a city surpassingly glorious, whether we view it as it still lives by faith in this fleeting course of time, and sojourns as a stranger in the midst of the ungodly, or as it shall dwell in the fixed stability of its eternal seat, which it now with patience waits for, expecting until ‘righteousness shall return unto judgment,’ and it obtain, by virtue of its excellence, final victory and perfect peace.” (pp. 169-170)
Matthew Levering says this about the book:
The City of God contrasts the power of Rome (and the god Romulus) with the power of the apostolic Church (and the God Jesus Christ). Rome builds the city first and then justifies it by deifying its purported founder, and Rome relies on political power to spread the worship of Romulus. The apostles have no worldly glory, erudition, or power. They are martyred for their efforts. Their proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord of all does not have the backing of an already built, powerful Church. Their miracles are not self-serving, as are those of pagan gods, but instead point away from themselves to the living God who alone is worshiped. In short, the power of their witness comes from their participation in God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. (p. 149)
I have written often about this amazing book. In one piece I quote Malcolm Muggeridge:
Christendom has played a tremendous role in the art and literature, in the mores and jurisprudence, in the architecture, values, institutions, and whole way of life of Western man during the centuries of his dominance in the world. But now as Western man’s power and influence recede, so Christendom itself comes to have an evermore ghostly air about it….
I conclude that civilizations, like every other human creation, wax and wane. By the nature of the case there can never be a lasting civilization any more than there can be a lasting spring or lasting happiness in an individual life or a lasting stability in a society….
I think of St. Augustine when in A. D. 410 the news was brought to him in Carthage that Rome had been sacked. It was a sore blow, but as he explained to his flock: “All earthly cities are vulnerable. Men build them and men destroy them. At the same time there is the City of God which men did not build and cannot destroy and which is everlasting.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/10/20/22775/
As to his Confessions, Rowan Williams reminds us how unique they are. What he covers and how he does so “are in no other comparable work in the ancient world.” (p. 4) Gerald Bray says this about the famous book:
Augustine’s Confessions are unique in the annals of Christianity because they are the only important book addressed to God. Obviously this was a rhetorical device. God did not need Augustine to tell him about his life, and Augustine knew perfectly well that this book would be read not by God but by other people. Other great leaders, including Paul, have sought to explain themselves by expounding the ups and downs of their spiritual journeys to their human audiences. By contrast, Augustine told his story as part of an extended prayer for forgiveness. In baring his soul, he was not trying to impress other people but to make peace with the God who had already made peace with him by the cross of Christ. The importance of this theme is underlined in the opening paragraph of the Confessions… (p. 50)
The brutal honesty of the man is also noteworthy: Says Smith:
Augustine’s spiritual realism doesn’t shrink from honesty about this ongoing struggle [with sin and self]….
This is why book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions is such a gift: it is the testimony of a broken bishop in the present. You realize Augustine isn’t just narrating past temptations he has escaped: he’s confessing all the ways he’s still tempted to camp out in alcoves of creation as if they were home. “I struggle every day,” he admits, and I love him for doing so. (p. 17)
As to the overall work of Augustine, Chadwick presents us with this summary: “Through his writings, the surviving bulk of which exceeds that of any other ancient author, he came to exercise pervasive influence not only on contemporaries but also in subsequent years on the West.” He looks at seven key areas of influence, then says this:
Anselm, Aquinas, Petrarch (never without a pocket copy of the Confessions), Luther, Bellarmine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard all stand in the shade of his broad oak. His writings were among the favourite books of Wittgenstein. He was the bête noire of Nietzsche. His psychological analysis anticipated parts of Freud: he first discovered the existence of the ‘sub-conscious’.
He was ‘the first modern man’ in the sense that with him the reader feels himself addressed at a level of extraordinary psychological depth and confronted by a coherent system of thought, large parts of which still make potent claims to attention and respect. (1986, 2001, pp. 1-4)
Or as Warfield says of his literary output:
It was through his voluminous writings, by which his wider influence was exerted, that he entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but has determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day. He was already an author when he became a Christian… But his amazing literary productivity began with his conversion. (p. 306)
A few famous quotes (of so many) can be offered here:
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
“Our whole business therefore in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”
“Oh, God, to know you is life. To serve You is freedom. To praise you is the soul’s joy and delight. Guard me with the power of Your grace here and in all places. Now and at all times, forever. Amen.”
“There can only be two basic loves… the love of God unto the forgetfulness of self, or the love of self unto the forgetfulness and denial of God.”
“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
“Late have I loved you. Beauty so very ancient and so ever new. Late I have loved you! You were within, but I was without.”
“If you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you are pleased with yourself there you have remained. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing.”
“An unjust law is no law at all.”
And two of my favourite Christmas quotes of his:
“He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.”
“Maker of the sun, He is made under the sun. In the Father He remains, from His mother He goes forth. Creator of heaven and earth, He was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, He is wisely speechless. Filling the world, He lies in a manger. Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom. He is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of a servant.”
There are plenty of excellent volumes to choose from here. These 14 are worthy additions to such a list.
Battenhouse, Roy, ed., A Companion To Study of St. Augustine. Baker, 1955, 1979.
Boice, James Montgomery, Foundations of God’s City: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture. IVP, 1999. (First released as Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture. IVP, 1996.)
Bray, Gerald, Augustine on the Christian Life. Crossway, 2015.
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo. University of California Press, 1967, 2000.
Chadwick, Henry, Augustine of Hippo: A Life. OUP, 2009, 2010.
Chadwick, Henry, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction. OUP, 1986, 2001.
Chatraw, Joshua and Mark Allen, The Augustine Way: Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness. Baker, 2023.
Cooper Stephen, Augustine for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Augustine and the Limits of Politics. University of Notre Dame, 1996, 2015.
Green, Bradley, Augustine of Hippo: His Life and Impact. Christian Focus, 2020.
Levering, Matthew, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide To His Most Important Works. 2013.
Smith, James K. A., On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. BrazosPress, 2019.
Warfield, B. B., Calvin and Augustine. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956, 1974.
Williams, Rowan, On Augustine. Bloomsbury, 2016.
The large and updated biography by Brown remains the classic text on the life of Augustine. As to brief introductions to the man and his thought, Bray, Chadwick, Cooper, Green and Smith would be worth starting with.