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Brief Lives

Augustine (354-430)

Hilarius Bogbinder on the philosophical life of a key figure of the Catholic Church.

Augustine was a saint. Not, mind you, merely because the Catholic Church bestowed the epithet upon him (which they did), but because he was, well, a good guy mostly. Thus it is reported that the Bishop of Hippo (as he was) “used the church chest to emancipate slaves oppressed in bad households” (Augustine, Henry Chadwick, p.110, 2001). And who could not be moved by the sensitive tenderness of his almost poetic prose in his Epistolae (Letters)? Few write more compassionately about how we “move towards God not by walking but by loving.” Being in the company of uneducated people, he even had the humility to continue that “moral character is assessed not by what we know but by what we love” (Epistolae p.155). In this light, it is not difficult to understand why Hannah Arendt wrote her doctorate on ‘The Concept of Love in Augustine: An Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation’. Yet at the same time, this kind-hearted cleric sometimes fell short of ethical behaviour. When, he was Professor of Rhetoric in Milan, he sent his common-law wife, the mother of his son, back to Africa from whence he came in order to advance his own career prospects.

Seeds of Thought

The son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Augustine was born in Hippo (present-day Annaba in Algeria) on 13 November 354 AD. Young Augustine was a model student, who with the help of a benefactor earned an education, went on to study in Rome, and was given a chair at a learned institution in Milan. A gifted stylist (the study of rhetoric was not wasted on him), he wrote engaging Latin, with a turn of phrase that draws in readers without philosophical training.

A very successful academic, and man of the world, it is well-known from his famous Confessions (397 AD) – the world’s first autobiography – that he was a bit of a lad in his youth. Indeed, Augustine was aware that he had been a bit too much of a party boy, and famously wrote that the truth was, “Not [to be found] in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies” (Confessions, p.202). But even after he had converted to Christianity, he clearly struggled to keep his toga on. He readily acknowledged that he was far from perfect, and that only Christ was flawless (De Natura et Gratia, p.42, 415).

Human imperfection is also key to understanding his political philosophy. Those who write on politics with a philosophical eye are usually either utopians (like Plato when he wrote The Republic) or realists (as the same writer was in The Laws). Augustine, to be sure, outlined a utopia, but one that was impossible to realise, as it was the eponymous City of God (413) which was to be established at the end of time, when, as it says in the New Testament, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 21:4). This city would be perfect. But until the Second Coming of Christ, we have to be content with second best, which we might call ‘the city of man’, though Augustine never used that term himself.

Being a worldly writer, and as a Bishop, a local administrator, he had a clear view of what earthly society should be like. Some of his views were rather liberal, you might be surprised to learn. For example, in The City of God he opposed capital punishment and spoke in favour of progressive taxation. At a time when politics was moving away from democracy, he was willing to contemplate a role for the people: in his book On Free Choice (388) he asked rhetorically, “if a people is moderate and serious and a most diligent guardian of common utility, and if everyone in it thinks less of private good than of public good, is it not right to enact a law permitting the people to choose for itself the magistrates through whom it’s affairs…are to be administered?” (1.6). Not exactly a ringing endorsement of popular government, but certainly a good deal more progressive than other writers at the time.

Many years later these ideas inspired politicians, including the current President of the USA: “Many centuries ago, St Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” So said Joe Biden in his inaugural address. Philosophers are rarely name-checked by presidents of the United States. Indeed, this was the first time that this honour was bestowed upon any of the classical writers since George Washington. To be sure, Augustine did write broadly that, though not exactly in the words Biden quoted. Rather, in The City of God he said that “a people is a multitude of reasonable creatures conjoined in a general agreement of those things it respects”, and went on to say that “the better that their higher interests are, the better they are themselves” (p.264).

The Triumph of St Augustine
The Triumph of St Augustine Claudio Coello, 1664

Ancient & Modern

It might seem particularly surprising that the 46th President of the United States of America chose to quote Augustine in his inaugural address, because the philosopher was preoccupied with things that many of us moderns would find rather strange. For example, the saint spent considerable energy on pondering what fuel would keep the pyres of Hell burning eternally, and wondered how the bodies tormented there did not wither away as a result (City of God, p.322). Certainly, Augustine was not a twenty-first century writer. It is always easy to find incriminating evidence of bigotry and sexism in writers from bygone ages, and Augustine is no exception. Take this sentence, for example: “Had Adam needed a helpmeet in the sense of a partner in really intelligent conversation… God would surely have provided another man” (De Genesi, p.9, 408). Maybe such utterances are just unforgivable regardless of the historical circumstances that give rise to them.

Given Augustine’s preoccupation with odd-to-us matters, one could be forgiven for thinking that his philosophy is merely of historical interest. This has been a popular view among historians of ideas – especially those of the so-called Cambridge School, who think that statements by classical writers are addressed to “the solution of a particular problem and specific to its situation in a way that it would be naïve to transcend” (Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas, Quintin Skinner, 1969, p.50). But it does not follow from this that “there is simply no hope” that we can “learn directly from classical authors” (p.50). Certainly, Augustine was preoccupied with contemporaneous issues. The sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths prompted some Roman pagans to blame the humiliating destruction of the purported Eternal City on the Romans’ official conversion to Christianity. It was the dispute this disaster generated that prompted Augustine to write his magnum opus, The City of God, to outline a theory of history, a doctrine of theology, and a political philosophy which defended Christianity. But to reject Augustine and his whole oeuvre on the grounds that he was only concerned with current affairs misses the point. By dismissing ancient thinkers on account of their culturally-coloured prejudices, we deny ourselves the opportunity to appreciate their philosophical wheat among the chauvinistic chaff.

Augustine himself was aware of this. Like few other thinkers before him, he was aware that our views are coloured by historical context. But he believed that we are capable of rising above our prejudices through the power of abstraction: “To see”, he wrote in his first book after his conversion, “we must withdraw from plurality not only of men but from sense-perceptions; we seek, as it were, the centre of the circle which holds the whole together” (De Ordine, p.3, 386). By following this procedure he was able to transcend his own times and even his own deeply held faith, and arrive at paradoxical, almost post-modern sounding, observations; like, for example, “It is better to find God by not finding him” (Confessions, p.10).

Augustine the Philosopher-Saint

Augustine regarded himself as a theologian, but he could not help being a philosopher.

Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher whose views on Christianity are summed up in the title of his book Why I am Not A Christian (1927), nevertheless held the Catholic saint in high regard, noting that when Augustine occupied himself with pure philosophy “he shows very great ability” (History of Western Philosophy, p.351). But even this ringing endorsement is almost an understatement. Augustine was also, by the way, the inventor of the word ‘soliloquy’. In Soliloquia (387), it was Augustine, not Descartes, who first came up with the argument ‘I think therefore I am’ (although the Frenchman came up with the catchphrase ‘ cogito, ergo sum’). Not only that, in addition to being the world’s first autobiography, The Confessions also contain a digression on the concept of time that foreshadowed many of the ideas later expressed in more dense language by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) [see earlier in this very Issue, Ed]. In the last section of The Confessions, Augustine regards time as a kind of ‘filter’ through which we perceive things. As human beings, we can only think in terms of past, present, and future, but this does not mean that the world is like that beyond our senses. In this sense, Augustine was the first ‘transcendental idealist’ – though as a philosopher who wanted to address a broad audience, he stayed clear of the heavy phrases and jargon that Kant used a millennium and a half later to articulate his own transcendental idealism.

“In the beginning was the Word”, it says in the Gospels (John 1:1). So it is no wonder that Augustine also reflected on the nature of language. Indeed, in many ways he foreshadowed the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ of mid-twentieth-century philosophy, and like the British philosophers associated with it, Augustine thought deeply about the relationship between words and objects. It is telling that Augustine is one of only a handful of philosophers quoted by Ludwig Wittgenstein; though the Austrian-born philosopher of language failed to do his homework when he wrote, “Augustine, in describing his learning of language, says that he was taught to speak by learning the names of things” (Blue and Brown Books, p.77, 1935).

Wittgenstein had written that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, p.149, 1921), and then changed his mind. Actually, Augustine had reached the same conclusion, and observed that “man can say nothing of what he is incapable of feeling” – but added that, “he can feel what he is incapable of putting into words” (Sermones, p.117).

Augustine’s fundamental view is summed up in the words ‘believe so that you may understand’, or as he put it, ‘ crede ut intellegas’. But he was not merely interested in faith: it seems that the latter – the understanding part – was the true aim. Whether he was indeed right that “vision will be granted to him [or her] who lives well, prays well, and studies well” (De Ordine, ii, 51), can be debated – though Augustine’s own example was certainly impressive. Perhaps inadvertently, St Augustine showed himself to be more a philosopher than a theologian. As a true philosopher, a lover of wisdom, he correctly appreciated that it is “an important element in discovery to ask the right question and to know what it is you wish to find out” (Seven Questions Concerning the Heptateuch).

Augustine died in Hippo on 28 August 430, as the Vandals were besieging the city.

Tolle, lege’ – ‘Pick up and read’, a little voice said to St Augustine as he was sitting in a garden in Milan in 386 (Confessions, p.200). This prompted him to take up the Bible and read it. It changed his life, and the history of philosophy. So, maybe, dear reader, a little voice in your head will urge you to pick up one of the saint’s own books and read? And maybe, through that, your life will be changed too. Or maybe you have other things to do first. Who knows, perhaps, you are not quite ready yet. Maybe you rather share the youthful Augustine’s sentiment: “Lord give me chastity and continence, just not yet” (Confessions, p.191).

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2023

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish born translator and writer who studied theology at Oxford University.

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