Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) - his full name in Latin was Aurelius Augustinus - was one of the leading intellectuals and churchmen of his day and a prolific Latin author. He is best known for his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography describing the early years of his life and his conversion to Christianity. The name Augustine is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, aw-GUS-tin, IPA: /ɔː'gʌstɪn/; and the adjective from Augustine is Augustinian - pronounced with the stress on the third syllable aw-gers-TIN-iern, IPA: /,ɔːg'əstɪnɪən/. The name Austin is an abbreviation of Augustine, and has been in coimmon us as a Christian forename, though according to Withycombe, (1950), English Austins are usually named for Augustine of Canterbury.

Augustine was born at Tagaste (modern Souch Ahras in Algeria), the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother. He was educated in North Africa, and in his twenties established himself as a teacher of rhetoric (i.e., public speaking) at Carthage. In 383 he left Carthage for Italy, staying first in Rome and then in Mediolanum (modern Milan), where he obtained the post of professor of rhetoric. In Milan Augustine came under the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of the city, and in 386 he was converted to Christianity. He returned to North Africa the following year, was ordained a priest in 391, and in 395 became bishop of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba), where he remained for the rest of his life.

After his death Augustine was recognised as a Saint. He is also sometimes referred to as one of the Fathers of the Church (or Church Fathers), i.e., one of those scholars who in the first centuries of the Christian Church wrote treatises on, and so helped to define, Christian doctrine. He is a Doctor of the Church.

Augustine was a prolific author, and much of what he wrote has survived. His extant works include about 500 sermons, 300 letters, a number of commentaries on different books of the Bible, and works which defend particular points of Christian doctrine. His two most celebrated works, however, are:

  • Confessiones (Confessions) (in 13 books). The first ten books give an account of Augustine's life from his earliest years to his conversion in Milan and his journey back to North Africa. This autobiographical narrative is punctuated by numerous digressions: in some of these Augustine meditates with intense regret on the sins he has committed, while in others he explores philosophical and theological issues. The final three books comprise for the most part reflections on certain chapters in Genesis (the first book of the Bible). The Confessions is the first genuinely autobiographical work in the Western tradition, and provided a model which was followed by many Christian authors in the Middle Ages.

  • De civitate Dei (usual English title The City of God) (in 22 books). This vast work is primarily concerned with the relationship between Christianity and the Roman imperial government, but there are many passages concerned with other theological and philosophical matters. De civitate Dei was written in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 - an event which was widely thought at the time to have been permitted by the old Roman gods to punish the Romans for their abandonment of the tradional religion in favour of Christianity.

A number of religious orders (i.e., groups of persons who have bound themselves by vows to pursue certain religious aims) have been founded on the teachings of Augustine, e.g., the Augustinian Canons and the Austin Friars.

Augustine's mother, Monica, who along with Ambrose was influential in his conversion, has also been canonised (i.e., recognised as a saint).