Augustine of Hippo (Part 1 of 2): From Pagan, to Cultist, to Skeptic, to Christian Sage

Augustine of Hippo (Part 1 of 2): From Pagan, to Cultist, to Skeptic, to Christian Sage

The last and greatest of the men revered as the “Church Fathers” was Augustine of Hippo or “St. Augustine” (a.d. 354-430). Though Christianity has produced many prominent thinkers during the past two millennia, Augustine may be the most influential Christian thinker of all time outside of the New Testament. His significant influence, especially on Western Christianity, is directly tied to his profound work as a theologian, philosopher, apologist, and church bishop.

His theological and philosophical views significantly influenced great Roman Catholic thinkers such as St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Blaise Pascal, as well as the great Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Augustine was also an incredibly prolific classical author, with his surviving works comprising just over five million words. Several of his writings are included among the great literary classics of the Western world. Though Augustine lived in the latter stages of the ancient Roman Empire (late antiquity), many of his theological, philosophical, ethical, historical, and even political ideas are still prominent today.

Augustine was a versatile and intuitive Christian apologist. As an untiring and tenacious defender of catholic1 Christianity, his doctrinal and apologetic writings in large part ensured that ancient Christianity would remain a biblical religion of divine rescue and would not degenerate into a humanistic religion of self-help salvation. His efforts, more than anyone else’s in the first thousand years of the Christian church, were responsible for setting forth a systematic understanding of the Christian world-and-life view. According to the ancient biblical scholar Jerome (a contemporary of Augustine), as an apologist Augustine was universally admired in the church and, more importantly, hated by all the heretics. Augustine embraced this ill will from the enemies of orthodox Christianity as a badge of honor.2

Contemporary Christians and non-Christians alike should take note that one of the most influential thinkers in the entire history of the Western world was a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this brief historical profile, then, is to acquaint readers with one of Western Civilization’s most original and outstanding thinkers by surveying his extraordinary intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage. Part two will address some of Augustine’s major theological, philosophical, and apologetic ideas.3

A Wayward Youth in a Pagan Empire

Named after two Roman Emperors, Aurelius Augustinus was born on November 13 a.d. 354, in Thagaste, a small Roman province of Numidia in North Africa (present day Algeria). Augustine came from what might be called a lower middle-class family. His father, Patricius, was a small-landowner with pagan beliefs who seemed to care more about his son’s education than about his son’s character. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who sought to catechize her son in the doctrines and values of the Christian religion. Augustine remained extremely close to his mother throughout his life, and she wielded a great deal of influence over him. Both parents recognized early on their son’s tremendous intellectual promise and were committed to giving him the best education available.

Augustine received his early education in Thagaste and then in nearby Madaura, studying especially rhetoric (the persuasive use of language) and Latin literature. Augustine learned to read by studying the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 b.c.), and he learned to speak well by studying the Roman orator and politician Cicero (106-43 b.c.). Though acquainted with Greek, he preferred the Latin Virgil over the Greek Homer. Since he excelled as a student, his parents sent him to study in the North African capital of Carthage. This big city, pagan environment, combined with his own loose sexual morals, succeeded in detaching Augustine from the Christian value system he had known as a boy. In Carthage he experimented with the hedonistic lifestyle so prevalent in that pagan Roman city. He later wrote: “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.”4 At 17 years old, he took a mistress (with whom he cohabited for more than 14 years) and a year later had an illegitimate son, Adeodatus.

Though a rhetorician and man of letters by training, Augustine fell in love with the concept of “wisdom” through reading the works of Cicero. Cicero’s book Hortensius (which was lost in antiquity) taught Augustine “to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly.”5 Since Cicero makes no mention of Christ whom Augustine had heard of as a boy, he decided to compare the wisdom of Cicero to the Christian Scriptures. In light of Cicero, however, he found the Sacred Writings disappointing. He asserted: “To me they seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero.”6 Augustine had now decisively departed from the Christian teachings concerning truth and morality that he had received as a youth.

Ultimate Truth and the Manichean Sect

As a religious alternative to catholic Christianity, Augustine turned to a religious sect known as Manicheanism, which promised to synthesize the true teachings of Christ with classical wisdom. The Manichees7 followed the teaching of the Persian religious leader Mani (a.d. 216-277) who was crucified for claiming to be the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and the restorer of the true teaching of Christ. An odd blend of materialism and dualism, Manicheanism taught that the world was dominated by two co-eternal and opposed principles, one benevolent (Ormuzd: light), and one malevolent (Ahriman: darkness). These two “realities” were responsible for bringing eternal strife and conflict to the world. Like the Gnostics, the Manichees believed that Christ was solely spiritual, had no material body, and did not actually die on the cross. The Manichees strongly opposed catholic Christianity.

As a faithful Manichee, Augustine had three basic problems with Christianity. First, his materialism prevented him from conceiving of God as an immaterial (or incorporeal), transcendent reality, imperceptible to the senses. Second, Augustine had questions about the problem of evil, especially evil’s relationship to God. He asked: “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?”8 In his mind, Manicheanism provided a better explanation to the problem of evil through its dualism. Third, Augustine believed that while Christianity is based on faith, Manicheanism was based on reason, and thus provided the truth. Finding the truth was, after all, Augustine’s main objective. Furthermore, Manicheanism’s view concerning cosmic evil and strife in the world (a type of fatalism) allowed Augustine to justify his own sinful tendencies (especially sexual) as actions beyond his personal control.

While Augustine remained a Manichee for nine years, ultimately his keen analytical mind began to question the coherence of Manicheanism’s dualism, and thus he questioned whether this religious system could actually provide an adequate explanation of ultimate truth and reality. Manicheanism’s hold on Augustine finally broke when Augustine met with the highly regarded Manichee bishop, Faustus. Though Faustus was charming and articulate, he was unable to answer Augustine’s metaphysical and epistemological objections to Manicheanism. Augustine came to see this religious system’s deep philosophical flaws, and therefore deemed it unworthy of his deepest commitment. However, while he was no longer officially within the Manichee fold, some of its ideas continued to shape his philosophical and religious thinking. For example, he still retained his three aforementioned objections to Christianity.

Worldly Ambition and Dissatisfaction in the Eternal City

Augustine was a gifted rhetorician, and after teaching in his hometown of Thagaste for some time, he opened a school in Carthage. He soon decided to leave Carthage, however, because the students there were ill-mannered and difficult to control and because he hoped for greater career success in the “eternal city,” Rome. Augustine believed that a man of his immense talent and deep ambition could aspire to greatness and possibly reach the upper echelon of Rome’s power structure. He opened a school of rhetoric in Rome, but discovered that while the students were well-mannered, they nevertheless had the habit of failing to pay their tuition. Shortly after moving to Rome, Augustine, at the age of only 30, was appointed municipal professor of rhetoric in Milan. His new position brought him notable prestige and affluence. However, while Augustine’s career was definitely on the fast track, he still longed inwardly for ultimate truth. He wondered if there was a philosophy of life that could provide his restless heart with authentic meaning, purpose, and significance.

In Milan, Augustine’s intellectual and existential pilgrimage entered a new phase. Disillusioned in his pursuit of hedonism, paganism, Manicheanism, and even worldly power and ambition, he began to entertain the notion that ultimate truth might be simply unknowable or unattainable. He became impressed with the philosophical skepticism that had become prominent in Plato’s old school, the Academy. It was at this point that a number of factors began to coalesce that would lead Augustine to reassess the religion of his youth. Augustine later wrote about his intellectual, moral, and spiritual conversion in his classic work, Confessions.

The Grace of God Closes In

Six important apologetics-related factors paved the way for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.9 Augustine would later attribute all of these factors to the sovereign grace of God at work behind the scenes of his life. These six factors can be considered a broad apologetic model for how God, through His sovereign grace, prepares people for faith.

1. Removing philosophical objections to Christianity

Augustine’s interaction with the philosophy of Neoplatonism helped him overcome the last vestiges of Manicheanism in his thinking. Augustine’s materialism still kept him from envisioning the Christian God as an immaterial reality, and he still couldn’t understand how evil could emerge in a world made by this benevolent God. Some philosophical concepts inherent in Neoplatonism helped answer these objections. The distinguished historian of philosophy, Fredrick Copleston, explains:

At this time Augustine read certain Platonic treatises in the Latin translation of Victorinus, these treatises being most probably the Enneads of Plotinus. The effect of neo-Platonism was to free him from the shackles of materialism and to facilitate his acceptance of the idea of immaterial reality. In addition, the Plotinian conception of evil as privation rather than as something positive showed him how the problem of evil could be met without having to have recourse to the dualism of the Manichaeans. In other words, the function of neo-Platonism at this period was to render it possible for Augustine to see the reasonableness of Christianity, and he began to read the New Testament again, particularly the writings of St. Paul.10

Through the philosophical prism of Neoplatonism, Augustine came to see that materialism fails to account for the necessary conceptual, moral, and spiritual realities of life. As well, he embraced the Neoplatonic distinctive that while evil is real, it is not a substance or a stuff, but rather a privation (an absence of something good that should be in an entity). So then evil wasn’t actually some “thing” created by God. Augustine would later use Platonic or Neoplatonic concepts to a certain degree as a philosophical apparatus in order to explain and defend Christian truth-claims. Though some have called Augustine a Christian Platonist philosopher, the mature Augustine’s thinking was uniquely shaped by Scripture.11

2. Removing theological and exegetical objections to Christianity

While in Milan, Augustine came in contact with Ambrose, the distinguished Christian Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was known as a great orator. In fact, he is regarded in church history as one of Christianity’s greatest preachers. Initially, Augustine went to hear Ambrose just to observe his oratory skill. However, the two soon developed a friendly dialogue and discussed many issues relating to Christian theology and especially proper biblical interpretation. Ambrose was the first intellectual Christian that Augustine had encountered, and Augustine was impressed with Ambrose’s intellectual abilities as well as with his personal moral integrity. Augustine marveled at Ambrose’s commitment to the celibate lifestyle. Through their interactions Ambrose was able to correct certain misconceptions that Augustine had concerning the Bible and Christianity overall.

3. The example of other believers

Augustine witnessed not only Ambrose’s testimony to the truth of Christianity, but that of several other prominent individuals as well. Victorinus, the Neoplatonic scholar who had translated the Greek philosopher Plotinus’s work Enneads into Latin, had also converted to Christianity. Victorinus’s conversion was an example of another first-rate intellectual who had embraced the truth of Christianity. Other people testified to Augustine about the distinguished moral example of Christians, such as St. Anthony of Egypt. And, of course, Augustine knew firsthand of his own mother’s abiding commitment to the Christian faith.

4. The existential reality of death

Augustine had a close friend who became mortally ill, and during the illness the friend was baptized catholic. When this friend recovered briefly, he rebuked Augustine for rejecting Christianity. His friend relapsed and died, sending Augustine into a period of intense grief, which he described in the Confessions (Book IV). This experience forced Augustine to face the existential reality of death. The human predicament is that mankind is stalked by death.

5. Confronting man’s sinful condition

While Augustine had become intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, he still found his will getting in the way. He was increasingly confronted with his glaring lack of moral integrity, and ultimately with his total inability to live up to God’s moral standards revealed in Scripture. Augustine was embarrassed that he had encountered so many people whose moral lives put his immoral life to shame. These were people who couldn’t come close to matching his intellectual brilliance and rhetorical eloquence, but their commitment to living morally upright lives made Augustine truly envious.

6. The study of Scripture

The writings that Augustine had once regarded as disappointing had now become the definitive text in his ongoing pursuit of truth. Augustine’s previously limited study of Scripture had greatly increased through his interaction with Ambrose. Augustine’s mind was now captive to the Holy Scriptures, the same Scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15), and a source by which God imparts the gift of faith (Rom. 10:17).

The Restless Soul Finds Peace in Christ

Augustine’s dramatic conversion to Christianity came in the summer of a.d. 386. It came after much sorrowful reflection concerning his sinful state before God. In his own words:

I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.12

Augustine opened the Scriptures to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 13:13-14, which read as follows: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissention and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

Again Augustine describes the event in these words:

“I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.“13

Augustine immediately informed his mother, Monica, who was overwhelmed with joy. She had prayed for his conversion to Christ for many years. On the eve of the following Easter, a.d. 387, Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose in Milan. Looking back, Augustine would later describe his life before encountering Christ as a misguided and vain quest. “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”14 He had discovered the indispensable truth that the creature can only find rest and peace in the Creator. In what is probably his most famous quotation, Augustine declared to God in prayer: “[Y]ou made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”15

Suffering from a lung ailment (possibly asthma), Augustine resigned his teaching position in Milan and returned to North Africa. He hoped to establish a small monastic community in his hometown and commit his life to prayer and study. However, his reputation as a scholar was well known, and he was ordained as a priest against his own wishes. Five years later, in a.d. 396, Augustine became the Bishop of Hippo Regius, a seaport city about 150 miles west of Carthage. Augustine served as the distinguished Bishop of Hippo until his death 34 years later. During this period, Augustine earned his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest theologians, philosophers, apologists, and writers.

On August 28, a.d. 430, the Vandals (Germanic people from the area south of the Baltic Sea) besieged the city of Hippo. As the mighty Roman Empire, in which he had wielded great influence, began to crumble, Augustine succumbed to illness. He died just a couple of months shy of his 76th birthday, while reciting the Penitential Psalms that were written on the ceiling above his bed.

With the passing of the man, however, also came the passing on of Augustine’s legacy as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Christianity and Western civilization. Augustine’s major contributions as an author, theologian, philosopher, and apologist have spanned the centuries and will be the focus of the second part of this article in the next issue of Facts for Faith.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. When written in lower case, “catholic” refers to the universal or orthodox Christian church.
  2. J. Stephen Lang, “Influential Antagonists,” Christian History, Iss. 67 vol. XIX no. 3, 35.
  3. Concerning Augustine’s life and theological controversies, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California, 1969) and Gerald Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (Norwich: Canterbury, 1986); concerning Augustine’s philosophical ideas, see Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 40-90, and Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University, 1986).
  4. Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), Book III, Section 1.
  5. Confessions, III, 4.
  6. Confessions, III, 5.
  7. Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “Mani, Manicheism;” and Ed L. Miller, Questions That Matter, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), 374-75.
  8. Confessions, VII, 5.
  9. See University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Alfred J. Freddoso’s lecture notes and class handouts available on the web:
  10. Copleston, 42-43.
  11. Fitzgerald, s.vv. “Plato, Platonism,” “Plotinus, The Enneads.”
  12. Confessions, VIII, 12.
  13. Confessions, VIII, 12.
  14. Confessions, I, 20.
  15. Confessions, I, 7.