St Augustine was a very voluminous writer, mainly on theological subjects. Some of his controversial writing was topical, and lost interest through its very success; but some of it, especially what is concerned with the Pelagians, remained practically influential down to modern times. I do not propose to treat his works exhaustively, but only to discuss what seems to me important, either intrinsically or historically. I shall consider:

First: his pure philosophy, particularly his theory of time;

Second: his philosophy of history, as developed in The City of God;

Third: his theory of salvation, as propounded against the Pelagians.


St Augustine, at most times, does not occupy himself with pure philosophy, but when he does he shows very great ability. He is the first of a long line whose purely speculative views are influenced by the necessity of agreeing with Scripture. This cannot be said of earlier Christian philosophers, e.g. Origen; in Origen, Christianity and Platonism lie side by side, and do not interpenetrate. In St Augustine, on the other hand, original thinking in pure philosophy is stimulated by the fact that Platonism, in certain respects, is not in harmony with Genesis.

The best purely philosophical work in St Augustine's writings is the eleventh book of the Confessions. Popular editions of the Confessions end with Book X, on the ground that what follows is uninteresting; it is uninteresting because it is good philosophy, not biography. Book XI is concerned with the problem: Creation having occurred as the first chapter of Genesis asserts, and as Augustine maintains against the Manichæans, it should have occurred as soon as possible. So he imagines an objector arguing.

The first point to realize, if his answer is to be understood, is that creation out of nothing, which was taught in the Old Testament, was an idea wholly foreign to Greek philosophy. When Plato speaks of creation, he imagines a primitive matter to which God gives form; and the same is true of Aristotle. Their God is an artificer or architect, rather than a Creator. Substance is thought of as eternal and uncreated; only form is due to the will of God. As against this view, St Augustine maintains, as every orthodox Christian must, that the world was created not from any certain matter, but from nothing. God created substance, not only order and arrangement.

The Greek view, that creation out of nothing is impossible, has recurred at intervals in Christian times, and has led to pantheism. Pantheism holds that God and the world are not distinct, and that everything in the world is part of God. This view is developed most fully in Spinoza, but is one to which almost all mystics are attracted. It has thus happened, throughout the Christian centuries, that mystics have had difficulty in remaining orthodox, since they find it hard to believe that the world is outside God. Augustine, however, feels no difficulty on this point; Genesis is explicit, and that is enough for him. His view on this matter is essential to his theory of time.

Why was the world not created sooner? Because there was no 'sooner'. Time was created when the world was created. God is eternal, in the sense of being timeless; in God there is no before and after, but only an eternal present. God's eternity is exempt from the relation of time; all time is present to Him at once. He did not precede His own creation of time, for that would imply that He was in time, whereas He stands eternally outside the stream of time. This leads St Augustine to a very admirable relativistic theory of time.

'What, then, is time?' he asks. 'If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.' Various difficulties perplex him. Neither past nor future, he says, but only the present, really is; the present is only a moment, and time can only be measured while it is passing. Nevertheless, there really is time past and future. We seem here to be led into contradictions. The only way Augustine can find to avoid these contradictions is to say that past and future can only be thought of as present: 'past' must be identified with memory, and 'future' with expectation, memory and expectation being both present facts. There are, he says, three times: 'a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future'. 'The present of things past is memory,' the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation.'1 To say that there are three times, past, present, and future, is a loose way of speaking.

He realizes that he has not really solved all difficulties by this theory. 'My soul yearns to know this most entangled enigma,' he says, and he prays to God to enlighten him, assuring Him that his interest in the problem does not arise from vain curiosity. 'I confess to Thee, O Lord, that I am as yet ignorant what time is.' But the gist of the solution he suggests is that time is subjective: time is in the human mind, which expects, considers, and remembers.2 It follows that there can be no time without a created being,3 and that to speak of time before the Creation is meaningless.

I do not myself agree with this theory, in so far as it makes time something mental. But it is clearly a very able theory, deserving to be seriously considered. I should go further, and say that it is a great advance on anything to be found on the subject in Greek philosophy. It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant's of the subjective theory of time—a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers.

The theory that time is only an aspect of our thoughts is one of the most extreme forms of that subjectivism which, as we have seen, gradually increased in antiquity from the time of Protagoras and Socrates onwards. Its emotional aspect is obsession with sin, which came later than its intellectual aspects. St Augustine exhibits both kinds of subjectivism. Subjectivism led him to anticipate not only Kant's theory of time, but Descartes' cogito. In his Soliloquia he says: 'You, who wish to know, do you know you are? I know it. Whence are you? I know not. Do you feel yourself single or multiple? I know not. Do you feel yourself moved? I know not. Do you know that you think? I do.' This contains not only Descarte's cogito, but his reply to Gassendi's ambulo ergo sum. As a philosopher, therefore, Augustine deserves a high place.


When, in 410, Rome was sacked by the Goths, the pagans, not unnaturally, attributed the disaster to the abandonment of the ancient gods. So long as Jupiter was worshipped, they said, Rome remained powerful; now that the Emperors have turned away from him, he no longer protects his Romans. This pagan argument called for an answer. The City of God, written gradually between 412 and 427, was St Augustine's answer; but it took, as it proceeded, a far wider flight, and developed a complete Christian scheme of history, past, present, and future. It was an immensely influential book throughout the Middle Ages, especially in the struggles of the Church with secular princes.

Like some other very great books, it composes itself, in the memory of those who have read it, into something better than at first appears on re-reading. It contains a great deal that hardly anyone at the present day can accept, and its central thesis is somewhat obscured by excrescences belonging to his age. But the broad conception of a contrast between the City of this world and the City of God has remained an inspiration to many, and even now can be restated in non-theological terms.

To omit detail in an account of the book, and concentrate on the central idea, would give an unduly favourable view; on the other hand, to concentrate on the detail would be to omit what is best and most important. I shall endeavour to avoid both errors by first giving some account of the detail and then passing on to the general idea as it appeared in historical development.

The book begins with considerations arising out of the sack of Rome, and designed to show that even worse things happened in pre-Christian times. Among the pagans who attribute the disaster to Christianity, there are many, the Saint says, who, during the sack, sought sanctuary in the churches, which the Goths, because they were Christians, respected. In the sack of Troy, on the contrary, Juno's temple afforded no protection, nor did the gods preserve the city from destruction. The Romans never spared temples in conquered cities; in this respect, the sack of Rome was milder than most, and the mitigation was a result of Christianity.

Christians who suffered the sack have no right to complain, for several reasons. Some wicked Goths may have prospered at their expense, but they will suffer hereafter: if all sin were punished on earth, there would be no need of the Last Judgment. What Christians endured would, if they were virtuous, turn to their edification, for saints, in the loss of things temporal, lose nothing of any value. It does not matter if their bodies lie unburied, because ravenous beasts cannot interfere with the resurrection of the body.

Next comes the question of pious virgins who were raped during the sack. There were apparently some who held that these ladies, by no fault of their own, had lost the crown of virginity. This view the Saint very sensibly opposes. 'Tush, another's lust cannot pollute thee.' Chastity is a virtue of the mind, and is not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed. It is suggested that God permitted rapes because the victims had been too proud of their continence. It is wicked to commit suicide in order to avoid being raped; this leads to a long discussion of Lucretia, who ought not to have killed herself, because suicide is always a sin.

There is one proviso to the exculpation of virtuous women who are raped: they must not enjoy it. If they do, they are sinful.

He comes next to the wickedness of the heathen gods. For example: 'Your stage-plays, those spectacles of uncleanness, those licentious vanities, were not first brought up at Rome by the corruptions of men, but by the direct command of your gods.'4 It would be better to worship a virtuous man, such as Scipio, than these immoral gods. But as for the sack of Rome, it need not trouble Christians, who have a sanctuary in the 'pilgrim city of God'.

In this world, the two cities—the earthly and the heavenly—are commingled; but hereafter the predestinate and the reprobate will be separated. In this life, we cannot know who, even among our seeming enemies, are to be found ultimately among the elect.

The most difficult part of the work, we are told, will consist in the refutation of the philosophers, with the best of whom Christians are to a large extent in agreement—for instance as to immortality and the creation of the world by God.5

The philosophers did not throw over the worship of the heathen gods, and their moral instructions were weak because the gods were wicked. It is not suggested that the gods are mere fables; they are held by St Augustine to exist, but to be devils. They liked to have filthy stories told of them, because they wanted to injure men. Jupiter's deeds count more, with most pagans, than Plato's doctrines or Cato's opinions. 'Plato, who would not allow poets to dwell in a well-governed city, showed that his sole worth was better than those gods, that desire to be honoured with stage-plays.'6

Rome was always wicked, from the rape of the Sabine women onwards. Many chapters are devoted to the sinfulness of Roman imperialism. Nor is it true that Rome did not suffer before the State became Christian; from the Gauls and the civil wars it suffered as much as from the Goths, and more.

Astrology is not only wicked, but false; this may be proved from the different fortunes of twins, who have the same horoscope.7 The Stoic conception of Fate (which was connected with astrology) is mistaken, since angels and men have free will. It is true that God has foreknowledge of our sins, but we do not sin because of His foreknowledge. It is a mistake to suppose that virtue brings unhappiness, even in this world: Christian emperors, if virtuous, have been happy even if not fortunate, and Constantine and Theodosius were fortunate as well; again, the Jewish kingdom lasted as long as the Jews adhered to the truth of religion.

There is a very sympathetic account of Plato, whom he places above all other philosophers. All others are to give place to him: 'Let Thales depart with his water, Anaximenes with the air, the Stoics with their fire, Epicurus with his atoms.'8 All these were materialists; Plato was not. Plato saw that God is

not any bodily thing, but that all things have their being from God, and from something immutable. He was right, also, in saying that perception is not the source of truth. Platonists are the best in logic and ethics, and nearest to Christianity. 'It is said that Plotinus, that lived but lately, understood Plato the best of any.' As for Aristotle, he was Plato's inferior, but far above the rest. Both, however, said that all gods are good, and to be worshipped.

As against the Stoics, who condemned all passion, St Augustine holds that the passions of Christians may be causes of virtue; anger, or pity, is not to be condemned per se, but we must inquire into its cause.

Platonists are right about God, wrong about gods. They are also wrong in not acknowledging the Incarnation.

There is a long discussion of angels and demons, which is connected with the Neoplatonists. Angels may be good or bad, but demons are always bad. To angels, knowledge of temporal things (though they have it) is vile. St Augustine holds with Plato that the sensible world is inferior to the eternal.

Book XI begins the account of the nature of the City of God. The City of God is the society of the elect. Knowledge of God is obtained only through Christ. There are things that can be discovered by reason (as in the philosophers), but for all further religious knowledge we must rely on the Scriptures. We ought not to seek to understand time and space before the world was made: there was no time before the Creation, and there is no place where the world is not.

Everything blessed is eternal, but not everything eternal is blessed—e.g. hell and Satan. God foreknew the sins of devils, but also their use in improving the universe as a whole, which is analogous to antithesis in rhetoric.

Origen errs in thinking that souls were given bodies as a punishment. If this were so, bad souls would have bad bodies; but devils, even the worst of them, have airy bodies, which are better than ours.

The reason the world was created in six days is that six is a perfect number (i.e. equal to the sum of its factors).

There are good and bad angels, but even the bad angels do not have an essence which is contrary to God. God's enemies are not so by nature, but by will. The vicious will has no efficient cause, but only a deficient one; it is not an effect, but a defect.

The world is less than six thousand years old. History is not cyclic, as some philosophers suppose: 'Christ died once for our sins.'9

If our first parents had not sinned, they would not have died, but, because they sinned, all their posterity die. Eating the apple brought not only natural death, but eternal death, i.e. damnation.

Porphyry is wrong in refusing bodies to saints in heaven. They will have better bodies than Adam's before the fall; their bodies will be spiritual, but not spirits, and will not have weight. Men will have male bodies, and women female bodies, and those who have died in infancy will rise again with adult bodies.

Adam's sin would have brought all mankind to eternal death (i.e. damnation), but that God's grace has freed many from it. Sin came from the soul, not from the flesh. Platonists and Manichæans both err in ascribing sin to the nature of the flesh, though Platonists are not so bad as Manichæans. The punishment of all mankind for Adam's sin was just; for, as a result of this sin, man, that might have been spiritual in body, became carnal in mind.10

This leads to a long and minute discussion of sexual lust, to which we are subject as part of our punishment for Adam's sin. This discussion is very important as revealing the psychology of asceticism; we must therefore go into it, although the Saint confesses that the theme is immodest. The theory advanced is as follows.

It must be admitted that sexual intercourse in marriage is not sinful, provided the intention is to beget offspring. Yet even in marriage a virtuous man will wish that he could manage without lust. Even in marriage, as the desire for privacy shows, people are ashamed of sexual intercourse, because 'this lawful act of nature is (from our first parents) accompanied with our penal shame'. The cynics thought that one should be without shame, and Diogenes would have none of it, wishing to be in all things like a dog; yet even he, after one attempt, abandoned, in practice, this extreme of shamelessness. What is shameful about lust is its independence of the will. Adam and Eve, before the fall, could have had sexual intercourse without lust, though in fact they did not. Handicraftsmen, in the pursuit of their trade, move their hands without lust; similarly Adam, if only he had kept away from the apple-tree, could have performed the business of sex without the emotions that it now demands. The sexual members, like the rest of the body, would have obeyed the will. The need of lust in sexual intercourse is a punishment for Adam's sin, but for which sex might have been divorced from pleasure. Omitting some physiological details which the translator has very properly left in the decent obscurity of the original Latin, the above is St Augustine's theory as regards sex.

It is evident from the above that what makes the ascetic dislike sex is its independence of the will. Virtue, it is held, demands a complete control of the will over the body, but such control does not suffice to make the sexual act possible. The sexual act, therefore, seems inconsistent with a perfectly virtuous life.

Ever since the Fall, the world has been divided into two cities, of which one shall reign eternally with God, the other shall be in eternal torment with Satan. Cain belongs to the city of the Devil, Abel to the City of God. Abel, by grace, and in virtue of predestination, was a pilgrim on earth and a citizen of heaven. The patriarchs belonged to the City of God. Discussion of the death of Methuselah brings St Augustine to the vexed question of the comparison of the Septuagint with the Vulgate. The data, as given in the Septuagint, lead to the conclusion that Methuselah survived the flood by fourteen years, which is impossible, since he was not in the Ark. The Vulgate, following the Hebrew manuscripts, gives data from which it follows that he died in the year of the flood. On this point, St Augustine holds that St Jerome and the Hebrew manuscripts must be right. Some people maintained that the Jews had deliberately falsified the Hebrew manuscripts, out of malice towards the Christians; this hypothesis is rejected. On the other hand, the Septuagint must have been divinely inspired. The only conclusion is that Ptolemy's copyists made mistakes in transcribing the Septuagint. Speaking of the translations of the Old Testament, he says: 'The Church has received that of the Seventy, as if there were no other, as many of the Greek Christians, using this wholly, know not whether there be or no. Our Latin translation is from this also. Although one Jerome, a learned priest, and a great linguist, has translated the same Scriptures from the Hebrew into Latin. But although the Jews affirm his learned labour to be all truth, and avouch the Seventy to have oftentimes erred, yet the Churches of Christ hold no one man to be preferred before so many, especially being selected by the high priest, for this work.' He accepts the story of the miraculous agreement of the seventy independent translations, and considers this a proof that the Septuagint is divinely inspired. The Hebrew, however, is equally inspired. This conclusion leaves undecided the question as to the authority of Jerome's translation. Perhaps he might have been more decidedly on Jerome's side if the two Saints had not had a quarrel about St Peter's time-serving propensities.11

He gives a synchronism of sacred and profane history. We learn that Æneas came to Italy when Abdon12 was judge in Israel, and that the last persecution will be under Antichrist, but its date is unknown.

After an admirable chapter against judicial torture, St Augustine proceeds to combat the new Academicians, who hold all things to be doubtful. 'The Church of Christ detests these doubts as madness, having a most certain knowledge of the things it apprehends.' We should believe in the truth of the Scriptures. He goes on to explain that there is no true virtue apart from true

religion. Pagan virtue is 'prostituted with the influence of obscene and filthy devils'. What would be virtues in a Christian are vices in a pagan. 'Those things which she [the soul] seems to account virtues, and thereby to sway her affections, if they be not all referred unto God, are indeed vices rather than virtues.' They that are not of this society (the Church) shall suffer eternal misery. 'In our conflicts here on earth, either the pain is victor, and so death expels the sense of it, or nature conquers, and expels the pain. But there, pain shall afflict eternally, and nature shall suffer eternally, both enduring to the continuance of the inflicted punishment.'

There are two resurrections, that of the soul at death, and that of the body at the Last Judgment. After a discussion of various difficulties concerning the millennium, and the subsequent doings of Gog and Magog, he comes to a text in II Thessalonians (ii, 11, 12): 'God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.' Some people might think it unjust that the Omnipotent should first deceive them, and then punish them for being deceived; but to St Augustine this seems quite in order. 'Being condemned, they are seduced, and, being seduced, condemned. But their seducement is by the secret judgment of God, justly secret, and secretly just; even His that hath judged continually, ever since the world began.' St Augustine holds that God divided mankind into the elect and the reprobate, not because of their merits or demerits, but arbitrarily. All alike deserve damnation, and therefore the reprobate have no ground of complaint. From the above passage of St Paul, it appears that they are wicked because they are reprobate, not reprobate because they are wicked.

After the resurrection of the body, the bodies of the damned will burn eternally without being consumed. In this there is nothing strange; it happens to the salamander and Mount Etna. Devils, though incorporeal, can be burnt by corporeal fire. Hell's torments are not purifying, and will not be lessened by the intercessions of saints. Origen erred in thinking hell not eternal. Heretics, and sinful Catholics, will be damned.

The book ends with a description of the Saints' vision of God in heaven, and of the eternal felicity of the City of God.

From the above summary, the importance of the work may not be clear. What was influential was the separation of Church and State, with the clear implication that the State could only be part of the City of God by being submissive towards the Church in all religious matters. This has been the doctrine of the Church ever since. All through the Middle Ages, during the gradual rise of the papal power, and throughout the conflict between Pope and Emperor, St Augustine supplied the Western Church with the theoretical justification of its policy. The Jewish State, in the legendary time of the judges, and in the historical period after the return from the Babylonian captivity, had been a theocracy; the Christian State should imitate it in this respect. The weakness of the emperors, and of most Western medieval monarchs, enabled the Church, to a great extent, to realize the ideal of the City of God. In the East, where the emperor was strong, this development never took place, and the Church remained much more subject to the State than it became in the West.

The Reformation, which revived St Augustine's doctrine of salvation, threw over his theocratic teaching, and became Erastian,13 largely owing to the practical exigencies of the fight with Catholicism. But Protestant Erastianism was half-hearted, and the most religious among Protestants were still influenced by St Augustine. Anabaptists, Fifth Monarchy Men, and Quakers took over a part of his doctrine, but laid less stress on the Church. He held to predestination, and also to the need of baptism for salvation; these two doctrines do not harmonize well, and the extreme Protestants threw over the latter. But their eschatology remained Augustinian.

The City of God contains little that is fundamentally original. The eschatology is Jewish in origin, and came into Christianity mainly through the Book of Revelation. The doctrine of predestination and election is Pauline, though St Augustine gave it a much fuller and more logical development than is to be found in the Epistles. The distinction between sacred and profane history is quite clearly set forth in the Old Testament. What St Augustine did was to bring these elements together, and to relate them to the history of his own time, in such a way that the fall of the Western Empire, and the subsequent period of confusion, could be assimilated by Christians without any unduly severe trial of their faith.

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and unfortunate at all times. St Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or

a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx's eschatology credible. A similar dictionary could be made for the Nazis, but their conceptions are more purely Old Testament and less Christian than those of Marx, and their Messiah is more analogous to the Maccabees than to Christ.


Much of the most influential part of St Augustine's theology was concerned in combating the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius was a Welshman, whose real name was Morgan, which means 'man of the sea', as 'Pelagius' does in Greek. He was a cultivated and agreeable ecclesiastic, less fanatical than many of his contemporaries. He believed in free will, questioned the doctrine of original sin, and thought that, when men act virtuously, it is by reason of their own moral effort. If they act rightly, and are orthodox, they go to heaven as a reward of their virtues.

These views, though they may now seem commonplace, caused, at the time, a great commotion, and were, largely through St Augustine's efforts, declared heretical. They had, however, a considerable temporary success. Augustine had to write to the patriarch of Jerusalem to warn him against the wily heresiarch, who had persuaded many Eastern theologians to adopt his views. Even after his condemnation, other people, called semi-Pelagians, advocated weakened forms of his doctrines. It was a long time before the purer teaching of the Saint was completely victorious, especially in France, where the final condemnation of the semi-Pelagian heresy took place at the Council of Orange in 529.

St Augustine taught that Adam, before the Fall, had had free will, and could have abstained from sin. But as he and Eve ate the apple, corruption entered into them, and descended to all their posterity, none of whom can, of their own power, abstain from sin. Only God's grace enables men to be virtuous. Since we all inherit Adam's sin, we all deserve eternal damnation. All who die unbaptized, even infants, will go to hell and suffer unending torment. We have no reason to complain of this, since we are all wicked. (In the Confessions, the Saint enumerates the crimes of which he was guilty in the cradle.) But by God's free grace certain people, among those who have been baptized, are chosen to go to heaven; these are the elect. They do not go to heaven because they are good; we are all totally depraved, except in so far as God's grace, which is only bestowed on the elect, enables us to be otherwise. No reason can be given why some are saved and the rest damned; this is due to God's unmotived choice. Damnation proves God's justice; salvation, His mercy. Both equally display His goodness.

The arguments in favour of this ferocious doctrine—which was revived by Calvin, and has since then not been held by the Catholic Church—are to be found in the writings of St Paul, particularly the Epistle to the Romans. These are treated by Augustine as a lawyer treats the law: the interpretation is able, and the texts are made to yield their utmost meaning. One is persuaded, at the end, not that St Paul believed what Augustine deduces, but that, taking certain texts in isolation, they do imply just what he says they do. It may seem odd that the damnation of unbaptized infants should not have been thought shocking, but should have been attributed to a good God. The conviction of sin, however, so dominated him that he really believed new-born children to be limbs of Satan. A great deal of what is most ferocious in the medieval Church is traceable to his gloomy sense of universal guilt.

There is only one intellectual difficulty that really troubles St Augustine. This is not that it seems a pity to have created Man, since the immense majority of the human race are predestined to eternal torment. What troubles him is that, if original sin is inherited from Adam, as St Paul teaches, the soul, as well as the body, must be propagated by the parents, for sin is of the soul, not the body. He sees difficulties in this doctrine, but says that, since Scripture is silent, it cannot be necessary to salvation to arrive at a just view on the matter. He therefore leaves it undecided.

It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!