Early Christian bishop
Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus) was bishop of Hippo, a town in North Africa. Through his writings, Augustine became one of the most significant figures of the early Christian church. His works include texts on philosophy* and religious education as well as a major autobiography. His books about theology* greatly influenced other Christian writers.
Augustine was born in North Africa into a family of mixed faiths. His father was a pagan* and his mother was a Christian. As a teenager, he traveled to Carthage to study rhetoric* at the university. During this period, he showed little interest in Christianity, and instead learned about various other beliefs. From Cicero, he learned about the importance of true wisdom, and began to follow Manicheanism—an eastern religion concerned with the conflict between goodness and evil in the world. He saw Manicheanism as the way to gain wisdom.
At the same time, Augustine pursued a career as a teacher of rhetoric. He taught at Carthage and Rome and, in 384, moved to Milan in northern Italy. In Milan, he heard the brilliant preaching of Bishop Ambrose, who later became St. Ambrose. Ambrose taught that evil is merely the absence of good, not a force in its own right. Augustine was impressed by Ambrose’s arguments and, at the age of 31, decided to become a Christian.
The conversion to Christianity affected Augustine deeply. He returned to Africa and was ordained as a priest in A.D. 391. Four years later, he became bishop of Hippo. There he turned his skill and knowledge to writing. Unlike many thinkers of his time who wrote in Greek, Augustine wrote in Latin. Nevertheless, his works became some of the most influential in all of Western civilization.
His early works, produced before he became a priest, include The Life of Happiness and On Free Will. They take a thoughtful tone, comparing Christian ideas with those of other philosophies. Later, as a priest and then as a bishop, he focused more on issues that troubled the Christian church. Several of his books defend Christian belief against other systems that were considered heretical*, including the ideas of Manicheanism.
Augustine wrote Confessions, his autobiography, to provide guidance for others. His account of his own spiritual growth shows a deep understanding of himself and of human nature in general. Augustine also wrote about basic Christian beliefs in books such as On Christian Doctrine. Most famous, however, is a 22-volume work called The City of God. It contrasts life in an earthly city with life in the ideal city of heaven. The ideas he expressed about faith and politics include some of the most influential teachings of Christianity.
The City of God was written to support the Roman Church at a time of crisis. In A.D. 410, the Goths invaded the city of Rome. They brought with them their version of Christianity, known as Arianism. Augustine’s passionate defense of Roman Christianity, however, helped to ensure its survival as the dominant church of western Europe. (See also Christianity.)
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
* theology study of the nature of God and of religious truth
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* heretical characterized by a belief that is contrary to church doctrine