Augustine of Hippo, St.

Augustine of Hippo, St.
   The greatest of the Latin church fathers. Augustine's influence extended from late antiquity into the early Middle Ages and beyond. His voluminous writings, of more than 5 million words, shaped much of the intellectual culture of barbarian Europe. His autobiography, polemical and theological works, sermons, and other treatises shaped how early medieval ecclesiastics from Caesarius of Arles to Alcuin understood the faith. Early medieval writers also looked to Augustine for instruction on how to interpret and teach Scripture. It was not only learned ecclesiastics, but also the barbarian kings of the early Middle Ages who were influenced by Augustine's ideas. If Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, is to be believed, one of the great king's favorite books was the City of God, which, for the king and his advisors, may have offered a model of the just earthly society.
   Augustine was born in Thagaste in North Africa (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in 354 to parents, Patricius and Monnica, who belonged to the lower aristocracy, and was probably their only child. He was educated in the traditional Roman fashion, and was sent to the best schools his father could afford, including those in the great city of the province, Carthage. There was little remarkable about his youth, except, as Augustine notes in his autobiographical work Confessions, for his theft of some pears with his friends. As a young adult he acquired a mistress who bore him a son, Adeodatus, and, much to his Christian mother's dismay, he converted to Manichaeanism, a religion that taught the belief in a good god and a bad god and held that the material world was evil because it was created by the bad god. He remained a Manichaean until his conversion to Christianity in Milan in 386.
   Augustine of Hippo (Perry-Castaneda Library)
   Having developed a reputation as a teacher in Thagaste and Carthage, Augustine had moved to Milan in 384 to find a position at the imperial court. While there he met the archbishop, Ambrose, and converted to Christianity. After his conversion, he returned to Africa, without his mistress or the woman to whom he had become engaged while in Milan, and hoped to live the quiet life of a Christian scholar. He was ordained a priest in 391 and in 395 made bishop of Hippo, a promotion that forced him to consider the meaning of his new faith and write On Christian Doctrine and Confessions. As bishop he was involved with fighting a number of religious heresies, administering the diocese, and preaching. Over his long career, he wrote numerous sermons, which provided an important outlet to develop his theology.
   In 413, he began his greatest work, The City of God, a Christian apology inspired by the Visigoths' sack of Rome in 410. This massive work contains philosophies of history and politics, a defense of Christian belief, and profound Christian theology. It tells, among other things, the history of the tragedies that befell the Roman Empire before the sack of Rome, which the pagans blamed on Christianity, to prove that the pagans were wrong and to comfort Christians who questioned their belief in the face of disaster. Augustine spent his last years administering his diocese, struggling against one final heresy, and reexamining his many written works. He died on August 28, 430, as the Vandals began to threaten Augustine's city of Hippo, which they sacked in 431.
   Shortly after his death, Augustine's writings, together with his relics, were moved from his native Africa to Italy and from there continued to shape intellectual life for centuries after. His influence on the cultural life of Europe can be measured by the many ecclesiastics who borrowed from his writings and the libraries where his works were found. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), the late Roman bishop and encyclopedist, who was influential in the Visigothic courts of Spain, borrowed heavily from the principles Augustine laid out in his work On Christian Doctrine, which advocated the use of classical learning in the service of the Christian faith. In the seventh century, the works of Augustine were deposited in numerous monasteries in the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks. And in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon missionary, Boniface, recognized the authority of Augustine as a biblical commentator, and the bishop of Hippo's influence can be detected in the work of the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede. But the extent of Augustine's influence is perhaps best revealed in the Carolingian Renaissance.
   Manuscript copies of his works were found in most Carolingian libraries, and of particular importance was the library at Lyons, which was a virtual Augustine research center. Augustine's treatise on Christian doctrine was the foundation for Carolingian educational ideas, and his influence can be seen on the works of the greatest Carolingian teacher, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin. Finally, the great debate over predestination begun by Gottschalk of Orbais in the mid-ninth century involved competing interpretations of Augustine's works.
   Augustine's influence was felt beyond the intellectual realm, however, since his ideas also affected the political realm, especially during the Carolingian age. Einhard, in his biography of Charlemagne, noted that the great king of the Franks enjoyed hearing excerpts from the City of God read during his banquets. Indeed, it has been suggested that Charlemagne's, or at least his advisors', ideas of government were inspired by a reading of Augustine's works. Although the question of whether Augustine intended to provide a blueprint for the just Christian society in his great work remains open, many of his readers saw such a blueprint and worked to establish it. Political Augustinianism was an important influence in early medieval society and involved a number of key concepts touched on by the great bishop in the City of God. The City of God describes the existence of two "cities" on earth - the city of God, whose members are virtuous, and the earthly city, whose members are corrupt. Augustine explains that the two societies coexist but that the only true and just city is the heavenly one. Implicit, however, in his discussion is the notion that a society could be just if it were ruled by a Christian monarch, and it is this implication that may have inspired Charlemagne and his advisors, such as Alcuin.
   See also
 ♦ Augustine. Confessions: Books I-XIII. Trans. FrancisJ. Sheed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.
 ♦ --- . Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Trans. Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ --- . On Christian Doctrine. Trans. Donald W. Robertson, Jr. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
 ♦ Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
 ♦ Deane, Herbert. The Political and Social Ideas of Saint Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ O'Donnell, James J. Augustine. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
 ♦ Wills, Gary. Saint Augustine. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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