Saint Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430 and was a successful Christian theologian who wrote bountifully. He developed Christian thought and influenced Western philosophy along with many other philosophers after him, like Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica. Honestly, this man’s story truly impressed me.
He was a young man devoted to the pleasures of the flesh who was a hearer of Manichaeanism (philosophy that says there are two principles or gods in an infinite gigantic struggle; a good and an evil one). On the other hand, his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian that cried unceasingly to God in prayer for her son. One day, she decided to go to her local bishop and expose her son’s living and he let her know that her unending clamor would save her son.
Meanwhile, lots of questions were being formed in Augustine’s mind. He wondered about the certainty of knowing an eternal truth if our carnal mind is limited. The need of understanding the reason of there being a conflict between the two gods of Manichaeanism also unsettled Augustine. One day, a Manichaean bishop known as Faustus was in Augustine’s town and he went to see the bishop to see if he could answer his questions. The bishop was unable to answer them leaving Augustine completely disappointed.
Later, he shortly abandoned manichaeanism, moved to Rome to teach rhetoric and became a Skeptic (philosophy that says nothing can be known as an absolute truth with certainty). In Rome he wasn’t cracking a good profit as the students didn’t pay for the lessons, so he moved to Milan. Not a lot of time passed until he became a Neo-Platonist (philosophy that followed Plato). In this philosophy he began to accept the possibility of there being an immaterial realm. Neo-Platonism also solved Augustine’s question of there being a conflict between the good and evil gods or principles. They said that evil is merely a privation of good, just as darkness is only the absence or privation of light. In other words, darkness has no substance, but light does. An unturned lightbulb is not shinig darkness, but it is actually not lighting or having substance. The same is true for good and evil, according to the Neo-Platonists explanation.
In Milan he went to listen to one of the greatest speakers of the time, St. Ambrose of Milan. Augustine went interested in the rhetoric techniques, but it came to be that the Saint and Augustine became close friends. Nevertheless, Augustine was not yet convinced of entering Christianity, despite the fact he was little by little abandoning Neo-Platonism. A time came when he was sitting in a garden with his friend Alypius talking about their spiritual journeys. Here Augustine wondered if his time had come to become a Christian and as he was wondering he heard a childlike voice from another side of the wall that said “tolle lege” (pick up and read). He thought this to mean that God was telling him to pick up the Bible and read the first passage that he came across to. This passage was the following:
Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. Romans 14:13-14
Considering his sinful past, Augustine was practically slapped on the face by reading this. The scripture hit him right in the heart and was converted into Christianity in 386 to be baptized later by St. Ambrose of Milan in 387. It turned out that his mother, Monica, was still alive to see the fulfilment of her prayers. Four years later, St. Augustine was ordained into the priesthood and in a few years became the bishop of Hippo.
Two of the most famous writings that St. Augustine wrote are Confessions and the City of God. I find it very interesting to see how Augustine abandoned every philosophy tht he followed to permanently stay in the belief of Christianity. It is also attention grabbing to see how the prayers of a mother to God (not a Saint or man) for her son are answered.
St. Augustine’s Works
The two most well known literary works of St. Augustine are his very famous autobiography Confessions and his book City of God. His works are influenced by Plato like his philosophy of the eternal forms. This philosophy says that the material things we see are a copy of an invisible, immaterial, and indestructible form that is eternal. Forms are the reason why we have comparative judgment, which implies we have an absolute standard. The reason we know something is more beautiful than another thing is because we have an eternal standard or form of beauty. Plato was never really able to tell people the origin of the forms and Augustine simply said that they were in the mind of God.
In christianity Augustine acquired his answer about the capability of a limited, time-bound, and changeable mind to comprehend eternal, unchangeable truths. He said that our mind obviously needs outside help to understand what is unchangeable and beyond its capacity, this is divine illumination. Just as the sun makes things visible, divine light makes eternal truths visible so that we perceive that they are necessary and eternal truths. Simply speaking, our mind can’t create eternal truths but we get them from a changeless being who is God. Therefore, our soul, which apprehends the eternal and indestructible forms, is similar to them and is immortal.
Augustine’s moral theory is resemblant to that one of the greeks that says that the end of human conduct is happiness. Yet, Augustine’s eudaimonia is when you have achieved to possess God. God’s eternal laws are written in man’s heart and following these laws is what makes man what God meant him to be. Original sin doesn’t let us follow the laws, thus we need God’s grace to observe them. Moral perfection amounts to loving God, while evil is falling away from God.
That last statement is what most of City of God is about. In 410 Rome was being attacked and sacked by the Barbarians so they all blame the wimpy religion of Christianity that made them weak. Augustine disproves this argument in his book. He speaks of rome of a decadent and corrupt society that is responsible of its own fall, not Christianity. Augustine says that we should think in moral terms, not political or economic. Real human drama involves the salvation of individual souls and whether or not Rome survives is not relevant to this. Political systems do not save souls, but only God’s grace. Either we love God or we love ourselves that is the key question. The pagan empire of Rome is the embodiment of Babylon and its fall will not damage the city of God. The city of man and the city of God are found in the hearts of every single individual being and the love you have depends to which one you will belong.
Answering Augustine’s Questions
I would like to try to answer Augustine’s questions, if you don’t mind.
Let’s begin with the question of the ability of a limited mind to understand eternal truths. The Bible says that we are a tripartite being in Thessalonians 5:23, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Two thirds of our whole being (spirit and soul) are of eternal substance, while our body and all it contains, or all that conforms it, is perishable.
The mind that God gave us in essence is not limited but carnal or humane mind is because it’s corrupted and bounded by worldly structures. Augustine says that our minds can only grasp eternal truths by Divine illumination or revelation, however a person need not believe in God to comprehend that 2+2=4. Since they are created, our spirit and soul that are gifted by God already contain the ability to understand eternal truths. As a matter of fact, they were designed to know the Truth (Jesus whom is eternal). So our mind is not limited, but, as I have been saying throughout other essays, reason is. In other words, reason cannot completely grasp the absolue eternal Truth, but the mind of the Spirit can.
The mind of the flesh that is molded by reason develops all laws through what is physically and emotionally proven or experienced. That is to say that this previous mind will never discern spiritual reality, just ask science or psychology for that matter. This will necessarily take me to err in the illusive reality that I form because all true or real things come from the spiritual realm. They come from God or the devil, which are both spirits.
This leads me to answer Augustine’s next question, “Why is there a conflict between good and evil”. The truth is that there isn’t. Good and Evil are from the same real and substantial fruit in the garden of Eden, the real conflict resides in life and death. To understand this, we must know what real life is. Real life never dies, our soul and our spirit live forever, but our body dies. In other words, our body is not truly alive, but our eternal parts in it are. It is like a CPU. The cover of the CPU is not what makes the CPU function or be alive, but the mechanism within it. If the cover is destroyed and somehow the mechanism survives, all you do is change the cover. When our body returns to dust, our soul and spirit change residence, so to speak.
Therefore, we have a tree of life that gives life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil that gives death. To be blunt, doing good or doing evil causes no difference, but doing things that give life or death does. You can ask Adam and Eve when you see them in eternity or you can ask God now.
Knowing the last mentioned words we can better understand this scripture: For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Romans 8:5
Everything we think and do now determines what our tomorrow will look like. However, there are things we do that do not have any real impact. For example, we can create robots using the eternal truths of mathematics, but these creations will not have an impact in eternity because they are not done in the spiritual realm. That is to say that only what we do in what is purely eternal, which is our spirit, will touch or even shape eternity. There are people that are only remembered on earth, others are remembered in heaven and earth because they shook eternity. Where and how do you want to be remembered?