Short Biography of Saint Augustine (354-430)

This article provides a short bio of St. Augustine:

1. Life and Time of St. Augustine

2. The Story of Two Cities of St. Augustine

3. Political Ideas.

Life and Time of St. Augustine:
When St. Augustine was born in 354 A. D. at Tagaste, a town in North Africa, the Roman Empire was at the zenith of its power and glory but showed signs of disintegration. Augustine was pagan in his youth, but was not satisfied with paganism.

His ardent desire to search for truth led him finally to adopt Christianity and this he did at the age of thirty-three. In 391 he was ordained a priest and in 395 he became of Bishop.

In 429 the Vandals invaded Africa, in the following year he died. St. Augustine was pupil of St. Ambrose. It was the credit of Ambrose to convert him to Christianity. The most famous work of St. Augustine is City of God (De Civitate Dei) which he started to write in 413 and finished in 426 A. D. It is a voluminous work of twenty-two books.

In order to understand the political thought of St. Augustine it is necessary to know the background with which he was faced. Christianity achieved the status of state religion in 313 A. D. and after eighty years of this the Roman Empire collapsed. When Christianity was declared state religion, paganism was proscribed and prohibited.

However, many orthodox Christians and other persons have tried to find out the relation of the fall of the Roman Empire and attainment of Christianity’s new status. Christian qualities of other-worldliness, pacific attitude to every affair and contempt for revered national deities were not favourable for a powerful Roman Empire.

Moreover, Christianity did not recognize the loyalty to Rome as the first and foremost loyalty. But the declaration of Christianity as a state religion created resentment in the minds of many, particularly the strong adherents of paganism.

The purpose of Christianity was to establish one religion and one faith. On the contrary, paganism was for many faiths and many attitudes to religion.

It wanted pluralism in the field of religion. Seeing the disintegration of the Roman Empire the pagans pointed the needle of suspicion to the betrayal to the old Roman deities under which Rome had risen to the position of world power.

The Christian fathers failed to understand the disintegration of the empire even after its conversion. The Christians were still more perturbed to realize that the imperial power on which they laid their hope for temporal security and worldwide domination was unable to save even itself from destruction.

The destruction of Roman Empire and the attack of paganism upon Christianity perplexed and perturbed St. Augustine whose father was a pagan and mother was a Christian. He heard both the cry of the pagans and the plaint of the Christians.

Augustine started a thorough investigation about the destruction of the Roman Empire and his celebrated work the City of God was a reply of pagan challenge to the Christianity. Pagan challenge was that Christianity was solely responsible for its own downfall. His City of God combines Plato and Cicero.

In Plato’s ideal state dogma or idealism was the dominant element. To Cicero love for God was vital and it was a mighty social bond. Augustine treated Christianity as a dogma and he thought that it would be the controlling force of the state. Law, politics, adminis­tration and relations among all men are determined by the wish of God.

The Story of Two Cities of St. Augustine:
In the City of God, St. Augustine has imagined of two cities—heavenly city or Civitas Dei and earthly city or Civitas terrene. Two cities have been formed by two loves. The earthly city is the creation of self-love and to the contempt of God and the heavenly city is the creation of love to God, even to the contempt of self. The earthly city glorifies the self and the heavenly city glorifies God.

The people of the earthly city run after their personal interests and they are making all sorts of efforts immoral and unethical for the perpetuation of benefits which they have cropped. Feuds and animosity are very common among the princes, administrators and common people. Augustine has lamented that goodliness honesty virtue and other universal values are not to be found in the people of earthly city.

The heavenly city is diametrically opposite to the earthly city. It is inhabited by angels or holy persons. They do not look after their personal benefits or interests. The goodliness and sacrifice dominate the behaviour and attitude of the inhabitants of heavenly city.

This city is not raged by feuds and conflicts. Peace, good relation and holiness are the permanent features. People do not lust for power. Since personal interests and lust for power are not motive forces, quarrels and animosity are not found.

People of the earthly city are primarily engaged in quarrels, wars and litigation. In this city, peace is a far-cry. Use of arms against each other is a very common affair. People are victims of vice and all sorts of misdeeds.

Pride and glory dominate the entire society. Love for victory sometimes becomes life-destroying. The cost of achievement of victory far exceeds the benefit. People are fools and devoid of good sense. They make arms to make wars and they make war to get peace. But their foolishness knows no bounds. Peace is never achieved.

St. Augustine has made a clear distinction between the two cities. The foundation of one is appetite and possessive impulses which are found in the lower categories of animal. Heavenly peace and salvation of mankind, according to Augustine, are the foundation of the Civitas Dei or heavenly city.

The Satans with wicked thought and activities and seeking self-interest, have made the earthly city a den. They have no respect for good qualities which Jesus Christ possessed. The predominance of the pagans is the sole cause of the fall of Rome.

There is no possibility of the disintegration of the kingdom of Christ because pagans have no existence there.

There is possibility of survival of the city of Satans. Because profligacy and debauchery cannot lay the foundation of a stable and enduring city. It is evident from the fall of the Roman Empire.

The alienation of the people from Christianity is the primary cause of the fall. Augustine has assumed that there is a continuous conflict between these two kingdoms and, finally, the kingdom where only the angels live will survive.

The source of Augustine’s City of God, it is said, is the Stoic conception of cosmologies, the true universal home of the righteous and wise human beings. Borrowing the central idea of heavenly city from the Stoic philosophy he has mixed it with biblical and apostolic conceptions and here lies the ingenuity of Augustine’s thought.

Significance of City of God:

Augustine’s City of God contains an analysis and comparison of two cities—one earthly and the other heavenly. But to view the City of God simply as a comparison of two imaginary cities is not proper. It has greater and deeper significance and we want to explore it.

Let us quote the pertinent observation of Gettel:

“The work of Augustine gave to the church at a critical period of its history a crystallized body of thought and put into definite statement the ideal which gave its distinctive existence and self-conscious purpose.”

When St. Augustine wrote City of God (413-426 A. D.) the whole Roman Empire was completely plunged into fierce controversy and although the united church was able to establish its authority or predominance in certain fields, it was faced with crisis.

Strong emperors could easily ignore the authority of the church. Paganism also posed a challenge to Christianity. In such a critical period, Augustine gave the church a definite direction and a clear meaning to Christianity.

In unambiguous terms he has suggested that all the ecclesiastical powers shall be vested in the church and, through the allegiance to it, can the salvation of individual be made a matter of reality.

The conception of two cities does not mean the existence of two independent geographical areas completely separate from each other and having no relation between them. Rather, they are closely connected with each other.

Maxey says:

“These two may exist side by side and frequently intermingle and overlap. Because it deals with spiritual things, the church serves as a concrete embodiment of heavenly commonwealth and the state, because it deals with material things, bodies forth the earthly commonwealth. Ideally the two should be so completely fused that the distinction between the secular and spiritual would disappear.”

The people of the earthly city must break the shackles of bondage to impulses and impiety to achieve God-like character. Unconditional allegiance to God is the only way to penance. This is the central idea of the celebrated work City of God.

The City of God has significance. This book emphasizes that the state is not an end in itself but a means to an end—and the end is good life. People will atone for their sins through the state.

Following Plato and Aristotle, Augustine has proceeded to stress that the state is a reformatory organisation. In the City of God he has exhorted the Christians to show obedience to God. Corruption and unfaithful­ness were so much prevalent in his time that he was impelled to write this book.

Commenting on the importance of City of God, Ebenstein makes the following observation:

“The rebuttal of the paganism is only the more negative part of the City of God. Having demonstrated the hollowness and inconsistency of paganism, materialism and worldly success, Augustine proceeds to his more constructive task, the vision of the heavenly city. Augustine’s use of the word civitas should not be interpreted in a political sense. He was interested in God, Faith and Salvation and not so much in the organisation of the state”

The City of God is an allegory. It has a special message and this has relevance even today. Rampant corruption, degradation and lack of loyalty are the primary causes of instability of political system.

The City of God tells us of allegiance to the united church, we speak of allegiance to the political authority. Needless to say that absence of allegiance to an organized authority is the harbinger of anarchism. No sensible person can deny the importance of loyalty. He donned allegiance with the apparel of religion. It was not possible for him to raise himself above religion.

The City of God combines Plato’s concept of justice with Cicero’s law of nature. Law without justice is valueless. The City of God asserts that, for the kingdom of earth, both law and justice are essential.

We want to make it a point here that Augustine had no intention to banish the earthly city, rather, he wanted to reform it and law and justice could attain this objective.

Sabine says that City of God was written to defend Christianity, to refute the pagan charge that it was responsible for the decline of the Roman Empire. But in practice, Augustine developed his philosophy in this book. The City of God contains an interesting point.

The fundamental fact of human life is that the human interests are divided into two parts—earthly and heavenly. This is the central theme of Christian politics, ethics and theology. The City of God says that there is a constant conflict between bad and good, right and wrong and, finally, between body and soul. When soul will dominate over body and wisdom over ignorance, there will be an end of the struggle.

Augustine’s City of God dominated Christian thought for centuries. It “set over against the declining world of ancient Rome the eternal common wealth of God’s elect and sketched in fervid rhetoric the ideals and interests of that church here on earth which striven towards the kingdom of heaven.”

Several latter-day philoso­phers, for example Thomas Aquinas, Grotius etc., were considerably influenced by the thought of City of God.

It is also said that the Holy Roman Empire was built upon the foundation of the City of God. Therefore it is quite correct to opine that, after Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, St. Augustine’s City of God was the most famous and influential book.

It may be called a compendium of Christian ideas and philosophy of the Middle Ages. The City of God acted as radar to the directionless and aberrant Christians. Here lies the significance of the City of God.

A recent author makes the following observation regarding the importance of City of God:

The City of God is timeless, does not correspond with any earthly realm and provides a positive framework for the realization of the supreme end for humanity.

Political Ideas of Augustine:
St. Augustine was not a political philosopher and, to speak the truth, he had not the intention to build up a well-reasoned political theory. In his elaborate investigation of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and all other related matters he has pointed out certain ideas about state, society, human nature etc. which are parts of political thought.

According to Augustine, God created man and endowed him with liberty and free will. In the original state of goodliness and justice men exercised this liberty very cautiously and only for the attainment of holiness and worship of God.

When wickedness dawned in the minds of men, they fell into the hands of Satans and began to commit sin after sin which precipitated their sufferings and misery.

How did they become prey of sin? He says— “what is man’s misery other than his own disobedience to himself: that seeing he would not what he might, how he cannot what he would?, his mind is troubled, his flesh painted, age and death approach, and a thousand other emotions seize on us against our wills which they could not do if our nature were wholly obedient unto our will?”—. Here Augustine wants to emphasize that man’s disobedience to himself causes disobe­dience to God.

When man becomes the slave of his own desires to get more pleasure and satisfaction he forgets the wills and wishes of God and also to worship Him. Man comes to be involved in sinful activities.

St. Augustine here speaks of self-control which is the royal path to get the blessings of God. Berki points out that the significant innovation of Augustine is that according to him “the corruption of human body, its inclination to worldly pleasure, is a consequence and not the cause of sin. While Plato, Aristotle as well as the Stoics looked upon the body as the source of baseness and uncleanness and an encumbrance to soaring human intellect, Augustine affords dignity to the fleshy substance of man.”

Both society and state were created by God. They were partly punitive and partly remedial institutions. Before the reaction of the state and society the original men were innocents and they were shepherds.

Sin instigated men to be disobedient and ultimately brought them under servitude. If God did not come out to save men then entire mankind would have been destroyed.

That is why out of mercy God created two kingdoms—one for men seeking self-interest and the other for angels sacrificing self-interest and worshipping God only. The purpose of the heavenly city is to save mankind from sin and sufferings. We thus see that St. Augustine believes in the divine origin of the state and he has opposed the Donatists, who claimed freedom from civil obligations and considered the state as a diabolical institution.

It is surprising to note that although St. Augustine held a very key position in the realm of the church he did not deal with the most vexed question of his time— the relationship between the church and the state.

He discussed at length the distinction between the two cities. His City of God was neither a state nor a church— but in the words of a critic a christianised church-state—from which unbelievers are excluded and claimed the supreme power in that state for the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy Critics are of opinion that St. Augustine had no sympathy for the earthly city and that is why in his conception this city could not be a competitor of the kingdom of Jesus. Only a christianised church-state could be a saviour of degraded mankind.

The concept of justice holds a very important place in the thought-system of St. Augustine. Cicero conceived of the state as an association of people assembled together for the purpose of fulfilling certain common objectives. The natural law was the basis of the state and every individual must obey the law.

But St. Augustine has not accepted this view. To him justice is the most important thing or aspect of any state and if it is removed from the state, then it will be an association of robbers.

In a word, a state devoid of justice is not state at all. He, moreover, says that without justice laws are arbitrary decrees.

How does he define it? “Justice is a virtue distributing unto everyone his due. What justice is that, then, that takes man from the true God, and given him unto the condemned fiends?”

In a godless state individuals are deprived of their due shares and this is quite unjust. Here Augustine is not so much concerned with God. In the state of God, man will get his proper share and that is enough. Whether God is getting his worship that is immaterial.

Justice again conforms to order. Every society or organisation has certain orders and it is the duty of the members of that organisation to show obedience to those orders. Family is the smallest organisation and its members display obedience to it.

Similarly, the citizens of the state show obligation to it. But Augustine observes that the state is not the widest society and naturally its order cannot be universal.

The widest society is the society of all man under the kingship of God. God is the only authority in the universe that can issue and prescribe order. The individuals are bound to obey only the universal order of God.

The state may have its own justice, but that cannot be regarded as absolute. The order of the state must be in conformity with the universal order. The obligation to state order which violates the universal order of God may be just, but, in truth, it is not just at all. Therefore, justice implies conformity with the order of God.

There is a difference between justice of Plato and that of Augustine. The former was confined only within the boundary of the ideal state. Universal morality and order were not problems for Plato. He did not make any scheme for the conciliation between the state order and the universal order.

On the contrary, St. Augustine differs from Plato in his approach to justice. An individual is not only a member of the state; he is also a part of the universal order created by God. Augustine has admitted that true justice must conform to law.

In his opinion this law is the same for all times and for all men. So justice in Augustinian sense is always absolute.

Augustinian theory of slavery runs as follows. The prime cause of slavery is sin which brings man under the domination of his fellow. This is why the word slave is not found in the Scriptures. Slavery is a name introduced by sin and not by nature.

The origin of the Latin word slave is supposed to be found in the circumstances that those who by law of war were liable to be killed were sometimes preserved by their victors and were hence called servants. And these circumstances could never have arisen save through sin.

Every man who commits sin is the servant of sin. The servitude is penal and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance.

There is a difference between Aristotle and Augustine so far as the concept of slavery is concerned. According to the former, nature has made some men physically strong and mentally weak and some men the opposite.

So the physically strong persons will be slaves of mentally strong persons. Thus slavery is ordained by nature and not manmade. But to Augustine it is the punishment for sin and ordained by God.

“His theory is that the institution of slavery as a whole is a collective retribution upon the human race for the fall of harmony in Adam. Such a theory might be employed to explain the reduction of the whole human race to slavery, but it seems powerless to account for a condition of things in which some particular individuals are condemned to serve, while others are elevated to mastery at their expense.”

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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