St. Augustine of Hippo: Summary of His Life, Philosophy, and Message

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

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Date written: May 29th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

If I had to pick the two most important conversion stories in the history of Christianity, one would be Paul's and the other Augustine's. 

Of all the people who lived during the 4th and early 5th centuries, St. Augustine is the one whom we know the most intimately. He was the most prolific Latin author in the ancient world and on top of that, he wrote the first work in the genre of autobiography. 

His candid reflections in Confessions provide a glimpse into his tumultuous journey to Christianity and offer a profound psychological insight into a man wrestling with questions of faith, morality, and human existence.

Augustine is a towering figure in the annals of Christian theology and philosophy, whose ideas forged the doctrinal bedrock for much of Western Christian thought. Born in 354 C.E. in present-day Algeria (Thagaste), his life and works spanned a period of significant religious and socio-political change in the period historians labeled late antiquity. 

In this article, we explore Augustine’s life, from his early days in Thagaste to his philosophical quests and eventual embrace of Christianity. 

Furthermore, we’ll take a look at his ongoing influence on Christian thought and even science! You’ll find out how, according to some historians, Augustine’s theology influenced the rise of the scientific revolution. 

Needless to say, approaching Augustine’s legacy requires a scholarly perspective, stripped of religious partiality. As much as he was a Christian, Augustine was a brilliant intellectual whose endeavors and insights made their mark on the history of the Western world!

As we explore his biography, his major works, and the philosophical underpinnings of his teachings, we’ll maintain an academic yet accessible perspective to ensure a balanced presentation of one of Christianity’s most profound thinkers.

St. Augustine of Hippo - Summary of His Life, Philosophy, and Message

Augustine’s Early Life and Education

St. Augustine's journey began in the modest town of Thagaste, a community of farmers in North Africa, where he was born in 354 C.E. His early life painted the picture of a talented young provincial, typical of those times but marked by an intellectual restlessness that would define his path.

In this rural backdrop, as Peter Brown in Augustine of Hippo: A Biography notes, life's simple pleasures were cherished because the misery of poverty was very close. (Affiliate Disclaimer: We may earn commissions on products you purchase through this page at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our site!). Augustine’s father, Patricius, was a pagan with a modest local stature, while his mother, Monica, was adherent to Christianity - a religion that gained the upper hand during the reign of Constantine (c. 272 - 337. C.E.). 

Understanding the importance of education as (alongside a military career) a key to upward mobility, Patricius sacrificed greatly to provide Augustine with the tools needed for success beyond provincial life. 

Through the patronage of Romanianus, a local aristocrat, Augustine received a substantial education that laid the foundation for his future achievements. He started his education in his hometown. 

Henry Chadwick notes in his book Augustine: A Very Short Introduction: "As a schoolboy at Thagaste, Augustine began to learn Greek. Although he disliked the toil of learning the language, he was soon able to use a Greek book whenever necessary, and in his maturity, he was competent to make his translation of quite technical philosophical texts."

Augustine's academic pursuits led him to specialize in rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking and writing, which was revered as the supreme academic discipline in the Roman world.

With his formidable rhetorical skills, he aspired to secure a prestigious teaching position, a dream that echoed the ambitions of many young scholars of his era. During this period of intense scholarly activity, Augustine's personal life was equally complex.

He took a concubine in North Africa, with whom he fathered a son. Tragically, his son passed away at the age of 16. Details about his concubine remain scarce, as St. Augustine offers little information about her, not even her name.

Augustine also experienced a significant religious transformation amid these personal and academic endeavors. To the dismay of his Christian mother, he became a follower of Manichaeism.

Did You Know?

The title "Doctor of the Church" is bestowed by the Catholic Church on saints recognized for their significant contributions to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing. There are 36 of them, often categorized by historical periods for easier reference.

The list of early Church doctors includes St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great, and, of course, St. Augustine. Each has left a lasting impact on the Church's teachings and Christian theology. St. Jerome, for instance, was of paramount importance in the development of the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary - a belief that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus’ birth.

This religion posited a dualistic universe where good and evil were seen as equal and opposing forces, a doctrine that appealed to Augustine at the time. 

He was particularly burdened with the problem of evil summarized in a series of rhetorical questions Augustine penned in his Confessions: “Where then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world?… Where then does evil come from, if God made all things and, because he is good, made them good too?”

Consequently, Augustine was particularly drawn to Manichaeism's explanation, which argued that evil persisted because God was no more powerful than Satan. In the equal division of dualism, St. Augustine found a way to answer probably the most difficult philosophical question there is. 

Furthermore, Manicheism advocated a type of fatalism in the everlasting cosmos that gave Augustine the necessary justification for his sinful nature. 

In Augustine: Confessions Books I-IV, Gillian Clark summarizes the initial causes of attraction between Augustine and Manicheism: “Manichaeism offered Augustine a way to accommodate his conflicts: he could pursue his career, and retain his partner while purging his sins through his service to the pure Elect; and he could blame those sins on his lower, alien nature, which like the material world had been made by the power of evil, but which his true self would eventually shed.”

This phase of St. Augustine's life in North Africa was crucial, setting the stage for his later philosophical and theological explorations. It was here that he began to build the intellectual framework that would accompany him throughout his life, even as he prepared to leave for Italy, where his views and career would undergo profound transformations.

From Manicheism to Christianity: St. Augustine’s Path to Conversion

In 383, St. Augustine left the familiar surroundings of North Africa for Italy, a move that marked the beginning of significant transformations in his life, career, and philosophical outlook. He settled in Milan, the bustling hub of imperial administration at the time. 

There, Augustine was appointed as a professor of rhetoric through the support of Symmachus, a notable pagan official who recognized his talents despite his allegiance to Manichaeism. This role was prestigious, requiring Augustine to deliver speeches to and on behalf of the imperial court.

During his time in Milan, Augustine encountered Bishop Ambrose, whose formidable reputation as a Christian thinker and rhetorician greatly influenced him. Ambrose's eloquent sermons gradually drew Augustine away from Manichaeism toward Neoplatonism.

This philosophy, which originated from the teachings of Plotinus (d. 270 C.E.), proposed that evil was not an actual substance but a lack of good. This perspective reshaped Augustine's understanding of evil and morality, steering his intellectual journey toward a deeper theological inquiry.

St. Augustine's personal life also underwent dramatic changes during his stay in Milan. His mother, Monica, followed him to Italy around this period and played a pivotal role in his spiritual development. She persuaded Augustine to sever ties with his concubine and began arranging a more socially advantageous marriage for him with a young Catholic heiress.

However, Augustine’s internal conflict continued to deepen which culminated in a profound spiritual crisis in July 386 C.E. This crisis reached its apex in a now-famous episode in a Milanese garden - an event Augustine vividly described in his Confessions. 

Tormented by his past actions and current indecisions, Augustine heard a childlike voice telling him to "take up and read”. He interpreted this as a divine command, picked up a Bible, and read the first passage he saw - a passage from Romans 13:13-14. 

This moment was transformative. As he recounts: “For I felt that I was still captive of my sins, and in my misery, I kept crying ‘How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow?’ Why not now? Why not make an end to my ugly sins at this moment?”

Here, Augustine decisively turned to Christianity, abandoning his previous beliefs and setting the stage for his subsequent baptism by Ambrose in 387 C.E. 

St. Augustine: Bishop of Hippo and Later Life in Africa

Shortly after his baptism in 387 C.E., St. Augustine planned to return to Africa but was temporarily delayed by the outbreak of a minor civil war. During this period, he and his family stayed in Ostia, the Mediterranean port city near Rome, where his mother Monica passed away.

Upon finally arriving in North Africa, Augustine visited Hippo Regius, where he intended to establish a monastic community. Instead, the local Christian community, recognizing his intellectual and spiritual prowess, compelled him to take up the priesthood.

In 395, merely a few years after his ordination, Augustine was elected as the bishop of Hippo. This new role marked the beginning of a long and influential tenure that lasted until he died in 430. As bishop, Augustine of Hippo faced numerous challenges, including dealing with internal church politics and external threats.

Regarding the former, St. Augustine found himself at the center of theological controversies - most notably the conflict with Donatism. Their name derives from Donatus Magnus, a prominent early leader of the movement who became the bishop of Carthage (North Africa) in 313 C.E.

This movement, predominant in North Africa, argued that the sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had cooperated with Roman persecutors during the Diocletianic Persecution were invalid. 

In other words, if a priest had betrayed fellow Christians by handing over sacred texts to Roman authorities, any baptism or communion performed by that priest would be considered ineffective and illegitimate by the Donatists. This, of course, meant the immediate expulsion of a significant part of people from the Christian community. 

Needless to say, this position challenged the very integrity of the Church's sacramental functions and its unity. 

St. Augustine argued vehemently against the Donatists, even supporting the use of imperial force to suppress the movement and reintegrate its followers into the mainstream Christian community. 

He believed that forcing Donatists to give up their radical views and accept the position of the majority in the Church wasn’t only a legal necessity but also a condition for their salvation. In Augustine’s view, by obstinately rejecting all the priests who succumbed during the persecution, the Donatists miss the essence of the faith and endanger their salvation.  

However, fighting against the Donatists wasn’t an easy task. As James J. O’Donnell notes in Augustine: A New Biography: “The Donatists were the majority church of Africa. To attack them was to attack African Christianity, and to invoke imperial assistance was to change the history of Africa forever.”

Augustine's last days were overshadowed by the siege of Hippo by the Vandals in 430. During this turmoil, he devoted himself to prayer, pastoral care, and strengthening the spiritual resilience of his community.

St. Augustine died on August 28, 430, amidst the third month of the Vandal siege. His death marked the end of an era in the Christian West but also began his enduring legacy as a Doctor of the Church - a legacy born out of his captivating writings. To those, we turn our attention now. 

St. Augustine’s Books and the Influence on Western Thought

St. Augustine's contributions to Christian theology and philosophy are embodied in his prolific writings, which remain influential in both religious and academic circles. Here is an overview of some of his major works, including the seminal "Confessions." Through these, we’ll get a glimpse of Augustine of Hippo’s profound influence on the development of Western thought. 

a) Confessions

This autobiographical work in thirteen books is perhaps St. Augustine's most famous. In it, he explores his earlier missteps, philosophical quests, and eventual conversion to Christianity. The first nine books chronicle his life up to the death of his mother Monica - an event that had a profound impact on Augustine’s life. 

The remaining four books shift focus to Augustine’s present concerns and challenges as a person who went from paganism and Manichaeism to Christianity. Through Confessions, Augustine provides a unique examination of his life filled with sins, theological search, and finally consolation in accepting the good news.

Referring to the content of Confessions, Henry Chadwick observes: “Augustine understood his story as a microcosm of the entire story of the creation, the fall into the abyss of chaos and formlessness, the conversion of the creaturely order to the love of God as it experiences griping pains of homesickness.” 

b) The City of God

Written as a response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, this extensive piece defends Christianity against pagan claims that it led to the decline of Rome. “Augustine denied that”, notes Larry Siedentop, “by overthrowing the old civic deities, Christianity was responsible for that disaster. Instead, he sought to minimize the significance of the event, arguing that all human institutions were subject to decay and disaster.” 

Moreover, St. Augustine contrasts the earthly city (the city of man) with the heavenly city (the city of God), advocating for the spiritual kingdom over the earthly one.

In Augustine's City of God: A Critical Guide, James Wetzel provides a crucial distinction between those two: Members of the earthly city bind themselves through sin to a demonic love… so thoroughly perverted that it has become both impossible to satisfy and an endless source of suffering. Meanwhile, members of the heavenly city on earth, who through grace are being made fit company for angels, endure the purgation that rids their love of its demonic propensities.”

Finally, this work profoundly influenced Western political philosophy and the concept of just war with the eight principal elements that can justify Christian leaders to engage in warlike conflict. 

c) On Christian Doctrine

This is a practical guide for interpreting Scripture and is fundamental in the field of Christian exegesis - a field of study that deals with the critical interpretation and explanation of the Bible.

In it, Augustine of Hippo outlines how to understand the literal and allegorical meaning of biblical texts thus following in the tradition of those who early on realized that the Bible is composed of different texts and requires different modes of interpretation. 

d) On the Trinity

In this theological masterpiece, St. Augustine explores the concept of the Trinity, attempting to explain and defend the doctrine that defines God as three consubstantial persons or hypostases - the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit—as "one God in three Divine Persons." 

This philosophical and theological study comes as a culminating mark within a longer process of debates about Jesus’ precise identity and his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. If you assumed Christians had all the answers from the start, you couldn’t be wrong. For more details, I highly recommend Bart D. Ehrman's captivating studyHow Jesus Became God”. 

In Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Peter Brown notes that Augustine wrote On the Trinity in later years when he regarded his intellectual activity as primarily happening in a Christian community. For St. Augustine, such a community provided a field for vigorous intellectual activity.

These works collectively showcase St. Augustine's theological depth, his philosophical insights, and his enduring impact on Christian thought and beyond. He is an author I greatly admire and often come back to - a true intellectual giant of late antiquity! That being said, it’s no surprise that the Catholic Church venerated him as a great saint and a Doctor of the Church. 

What is St. Augustine Known For

St. Augustine in the Catholic Church

Augustine of Hippo holds a position of profound significance within the Catholic Church, not only as a revered saint but also as a Doctor of the Church - a title bestowed upon him because of his extensive and impactful theological contributions.

One of the most evident indicators of Augustine's enduring influence on Catholic theology is his contribution to the understanding of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church extensively references Augustine’s theology to explain the Eucharist’s significance.

Augustine of Hippo articulately described the Eucharist as a participation in Christ's sacrifice, emphasizing the unity it brings to believers.

Moreover, Augustine’s sainthood and recognition as a Doctor of the Church signify his exemplary model of Christian philosophy and spiritual leadership. His teachings on grace, divine predestination, and free will have shaped the doctrines of original sin and salvation that are central to Catholic theology.

Furthermore, in his excellent study The Fall of Man and the Foundation of Science, Peter Harrison argued that the theological and philosophical perspectives on the Fall of Man significantly influenced the development of modern science in the 17th century. 

Harrison particularly emphasizes St. Augustine's views on the effects of the Fall on human nature and reason. According to Harrison, Augustine’s ideas about the weakened will and darkened intellect of humans after the Fall echo through the early modern justifications for scientific methods that sought to circumvent these limitations.

Finally, St. Augustine's legacy within the Catholic Church isn’t just historical but vibrantly alive in the liturgy, pastoral practice, and theological education. His thoughts on faith, the human condition, and the path to salvation remain integral to Catholic teaching and pastoral care. 

Summing up Conclusion

Upon submitting my PhD thesis, the head of our doctoral studies, a respected historian, offered me a gift - It was Augustine's Confessions. Upon my comment that I'd already read it, he noted, "It's a book that deserves to be read multiple times.” And he was right! 

In summing up the life and legacy of St. Augustine of Hippo, we encounter a figure whose intellectual and spiritual journeys profoundly shaped the contours of Western Christian thought. 

From his earnest autobiographical reflections in Confessions to his extensive theological treatises like The City of God and On Christian Doctrine, Augustine’s writings continue to influence both religious and secular realms. 

His explorations of human nature, sin, and grace not only addressed the theological debates of his time but also provided a framework that would echo through the corridors of history, influencing the development of Western philosophy and even the scientific methodology of the early modern period.

Finally, St. Augustine's role as a bishop also highlighted his pastoral and administrative acumen, navigating the Church through turbulent times marked by theological disputes and external threats. His efforts to unify Christianity under orthodox views, particularly against Donatism, underscore his commitment to a cohesive ecclesiastical community.

The Christian tradition gave us numerous intellectual and profound thinkers. However, only a few were instrumental in the origins of Christianity. The two most important were without a doubt Jesus and Paul. To learn more about their intellectual worlds and great disagreements, join Bart D. Ehrman’s excellent course “Paul and Jesus: The Great Divide”.

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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