Augustine of Hippo, Saint

   Saint Augustine of Hippo is perhaps the most influential of the fathers of the western Christian church. He wrote voluminously, helping to establish what became orthodox Christianity as distinguished from what are now seen as heretical sects of Manichaeism and Pelagianism. For literature, his most important contributions are probably his CONFESSIONS (his spiritual autobiography telling the story of his early life and his eventual conversion to Christianity) and his development of a fourfold method of reading Scripture—an exegetical approach that became important in the writing and interpretation of later medieval literature. Augustine was born in the North African city of Thagaste on November 13, 354. His father was a pagan but his mother,Monica, was Christian, so he grew up acquainted with the Christian faith.He received a classical Roman education in nearby Madaura and, in 371, traveled to Carthage to continue his instruction. He became devoted to philosophy, especially that of Cicero, and while studying the Christian Scriptures was appalled by the immoral behavior of the patriarchs and by the anthropomorphic depictions of God.He turned to Manichaeism, with its idea of a finite God and warring good and evil principles, as a rational alternative and remained a member of that sect for nine years.
   In 375 Augustine returned to Thagaste to teach, but he quickly went back to Carthage and, in 383, to Rome in search of better students. He became disenchanted with Manichaeism and became a skeptic for several years. But in Rome, he met Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who showed him a different, spiritual way to read the Scriptures, and ultimately he was converted to Christianity and baptized by Ambrose in 387. He then returned to Africa to found a monastery and to write. It was about this time that he wrote what is still his most popular work, his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography describing his journey to embrace the Christian faith. In 396, he was made bishop of Hippo, and his fame as a theologian and champion of orthodox Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
   In his early years as bishop, Augustine’s efforts were spent chiefly in writing against the Manichean heresy he had himself been part of. Since the Manicheans rejected the Old Testament, particularly the book of Genesis, Augustine felt he had to rescue Genesis from the absurdities of a literal reading.His major text in this debate, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, was begun and abandoned in about 393, and finally published in 413. In the earlier version Augustine speaks of the spiritual understanding of Scripture, and details three spiritual levels of reading beyond the literal level. While Augustine’s categories—allegorical or figurative, analogical (which saw Old Testament figures as prefiguring New Testament ones), and etiological (which deals with causes)—are not quite identical with the categories later used by Thomas AQUINAS and DANTE, Augustine here does set the groundwork for that kind of reading of Scripture and, by extension, of literature. Augustine turned to the Donatist sect next. A sect of the church claiming that sacraments performed by sinful priests were null and void, the Donatists outnumbered orthodox Christians in Hippo when Augustine first arrived in the city. He argued that the sacrament is holy in itself, and that it did not depend upon the holiness of the priest. Eventually the Donatists were outlawed by the Roman emperor.
   After this the Pelagian heresy demanded much of Augustine’s attention until about 430. The controversy with the Pelagians was over the nature of grace. Pelagius had claimed that human beings, by their own free will, could perform good works and thereby be saved. Augustine argued that no good deed could be done without God’s grace. He proposed that humans were predestined by God to receive grace—no one could merit the gift of grace, and no one could fail to be saved if he had received God’s grace. The doctrine became important for John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. In the meantime, however, the classical world was shaken by Alaric the Visigoth’s sacking of Rome in 410. Looking for a scapegoat, many Romans blamed the downfall of the empire on Christianity. Augustine took it upon himself to defend the church against these charges, and in response wrote his most influential book, De civitate Dei, or The CITY OF GOD. Finally finished in 427, the book argues that the world has always been divided into two cities: the City of God and the earthly city. The City of God is eternal, and peopled by all those God has saved through his grace. The earthly city is the city of the damned. The cities exist simultaneously in the world, but only the inhabitants of the one are destined for salvation.
   Saint Augustine died in Hippo on August 28, 430, even as another Germanic tribe, the Vandals, were besieging his own city. He left nearly 120 major treatises, as well as hundreds of sermons and letters. His powerful writing, his profound thought, and his skillful rhetoric made him the dominant voice in the formative years of Latin Christendom. No less a figure than St. JEROME, author of the Vulgate translation of the Bible, called Augustine “the second founder of the faith.”
   ■ Augustine. City of God. Edited by David Knowles and translated by Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 1984.
   ■ ———. Confessions. Translated by Philip Burton. London: Everyman, 2001.
   ■ Brown, Peter Robert Lamont. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
   ■ Fitzgerald, Allan D., et al., eds. Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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