Saint – Blessed Augustine – of Hippo

Saint Augustine [sometimes called Aurelius Augustinus, due to confusion with Aurelius of Carthage, his contemporary] is one of the four Fathers of the Western Church, along with Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory the Great. He is one of the most important Christian theologians and philosophers, whose works substantially altered European thought. His work bridges the gap between ancient and medieval philosophy.


“De civitate Dei”? it was written at a time of crisis when the West was bewildered by the terrible invasion and plundering of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths in 410. Originally conceived as a polemical writing against the accusations leveled against Christians by pagans, “De Civitate Dei” became a providential and brilliant response of the Western Christian church to the challenges of the future, and the Augustinian ideal was the starting point for building a new civilization.

St. Augustine places history on a linear temporal axis that begins, according to Christian dogma, from God’s creation of the world (biblical Genesis) and ends at the moment of the Last Judgment. Due to original sin, following banishment from Heaven, the entire divine creation splits into two spiritual entities. This is how the two cities appeared: one is that of evil and evil spirits, the City of Satan, the second city being governed by divine laws. It is the City of God where there is nothing but love and dedication for the other, a holy city whose inhabitants are in a permanent and total struggle with the servants of the Devil, a war that will last until Christ comes to earth, until the Last Judgment – a moment that marks the end of the temporal axis of history. The number of inhabitants of this holy city, of Christ’s warriors, must continually increase until the final defeat of the devil. The City of God becomes for Western Christians, declared by the Church to be soldiers of Chrisos, a future objective, a historical creed, a desideratum to be transmuted from the theological and spiritual sphere to the real, temporal, political world. “De Civitate Dei” is not only the first Christian philosophical interpretation of history, it is also an official document setting a concrete political objective for the Roman Catholic Church.

Thanks to St. Augustine, history, time and space become the battlefield between the two cities and the Western Church assumes the dynamic role of organizing and leading Christian warriors in their struggle against Satan’s servants, enemies of the Church and therefore of the Christian God.

By transforming the Augustinian spiritual ideal into a concrete terrestrial objective, the Roman Church transforms itself into a state of God on earth, with a spiritual and temporal leader at the same time – the Pope, considered “locum tenens Christi”? – Christ’s deputy on earth (cf. Matthew16), an institution with a strict hierarchy, with faithful vassals, with the right to issue laws in the name of God and to apply force anywhere and at any time against his enemies considered his enemies Christ and Satan’s children, and this transformation is legitimized by the objective of conceiving the City of God. Western Christians are declared by the Church to be an army that is convinced that it can use any means to destroy those considered by the Church “servants of Satan”?, must every Catholic gain faith that he is part of the “Militia Christi”?- the army of Christ, that on his every deed depends not only his own salvation but above all depends the fate of the “City of God”?

In every community, in every borough or village, it is the priest who organizes the world around him. The church becomes the tallest building in the settlement, from here the community is governed. The Christian priest protects the city, under his guidance the new Western world is organized. The history of this world is closely intertwined with that of the ecclesiastical institution. The Roman Church manages to unite the masses with her Augustinian ideal, which also becomes theirs. With the spread of Christianity among the Germans, conflicts between them and the Latins gradually fade and a new form of human solidarity emerges, linked to the feeling of common belonging to Christ’s army. Linguistic/cultural identity becomes much less important than being a faithful son of the Roman Church.

The social organization of Western society is subordinated to the same purpose of building the city of God. Westerners are grouped into three orders: oratores-clerics, churchmen, those who pray to God, bellatores-nobles, those who fight enemies of the Church for God’s glory, and laboratores- those who work for the first two estates. The Roman Church and the Western world are the nucleus of the future divine kingdom on earth, and the Holy Father of Rome rules this world as the representative of Christ. This is the first great victory of the Western Christian Church in history. Does the Church have an ideal, a political creed, does she have at her disposal a submissive army capable of anything to conceive the “City of God”? The Roman Church fully assumes the Catholic-universal character.. The Catholic West is gradually beginning to open outwards and will begin from the Eternal City, as the Roman Empire once did, the conquest of the world. But now paramount is the fulfillment of the Augustinian spiritual goal – spreading the Christian message throughout the world to be guided spiritually and temporally by Rome – the capital of Christendom, the capital of the City of God on earth.

The first to adopt the Augustinian ideal would be the Irish monks. From their monasteries, these first soldiers of Christ, missionaries and civilizers alike, would embark in the fifth century on the first spiritual crusade of the Roman Church: the Christianization and organization of the new peoples of Western Europe. They found new monasteries, true fortresses of spirit, where they would build the foundations of Western culture. Moreover, their influence is not only spiritual but also political. Thanks to them and their descendants, will Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire not only be a surrogate attempt to reconstitute the Roman Empire but the first great temporal action of the Catholic spirit, the first attempt to raise up the “City of God” on earth. The Carolingian Empire is the political symbol of the new world in which Roman and Germanic values blend harmoniously with Christian ones. We cannot ignore St. Augustine’s major role in medieval Western history. If we ignored him, we would not be able to understand the Western attempts to reconstitute the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the creative spirit of the Catholic for whom action, deeds are of particular importance, his spirit as a conquistador with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other, warrior and missionary at the same time. We could not understand the history of the Catholic Western Middle Ages

Augustine and Skepticism

For a time Augustine was drawn to the skepticism of the late Platonic Academy, and gradually changed his attitude so that one of his first post-conversion writings was Against the Academics, an attack on academic skepticism.

Skeptics argued that what our senses give us is uncertain and misleading: a stick inserted into the water seems broken, a square tower looks round viewed from a certain distance, etc. There is no other source of knowledge, so knowledge is doubtful. Does Augustine not share this “empiricism”? of skeptics, being of the opinion that knowledge does not come entirely from the senses. The senses, although really limited and untrustworthy, have a practical utility and we must take them as a starting point in this relative sense.

In Confessions, X, Augustine will distinguish between things that are directly in the mind (in themselves) and things that are present in the mind indirectly, through representation or image. Of course, a cultural acquisition from the time of his skeptical upbringing, for when he criticizes skepticism (that is, the doctrine he had just left), he poses the same problem: in sensation things are present indirectly, through representations, sensory data, or impressions. Therefore, we have no access to external objects themselves, except to the images and impressions that our senses give us of them. What is in our mind is not a thing, but an image or representation of it. Are we therefore not entitled to judge as if we had access to the things themselves, but as if we had access to their images, saying: “Do I see the image (representation, sign, intermediary) of a stick broken in water”?, instead of “I see a broken stick”? For if things are not accessible to us in themselves, but only through images, the images themselves are indisputable because they are directly in our minds. We can be wrong about an object (not knowing it, but an image of it, which may be erroneous), but we cannot be wrong about the image we have (because we have it directly in our minds). The mind is wrong about material objects, but it cannot deceive itself about the images it has. These images are in the mind, and even if they are not the objects themselves, they are messages about objects. This is the moment of skeptical doubt. Skeptics doubt the truth of these messages, the images, to the extent that – we do not have access to objects – they can never be verified by our minds. Skeptical doubt is, up to this point, reasonable, being the expression of a dilemma that will trouble Kant centuries from now: the object I want to know, as a thing in itself, is inaccessible to me, all I can perceive is a phenomenon; But how can I know if this phenomenon is not purely subjective and arbitrary?

Augustine avoids this dilemma by saying that the images themselves, being present in the mind directly, can constitute a certain principled given for our mind. We cannot say anything about things without making mistakes, but we can say something, about images and representations, without the risk of making mistakes: “is it certain that I have the image of a broken stick in water”? This is the first part of the criticism of skeptics. Skeptics doubted the possibility of knowledge starting from the deceptive character of the senses, which seemed to them that, by distorting the image of perceived things, nullified the possibility of any certainty. Augustine replies that it is precisely the awareness of this barrier that is the first certainty we have.

The second step of the critical approach starts from canceling the skeptical premise that the senses are the only source of knowledge. We must accept, according to Augustine, that the mind has access to something other than what the senses provide. First, she can become aware of the fact that she has direct access to images, which, although they are not faithful copies of physical things, can be, as such (as images), objects of knowledge. Secondly, the mind itself, in the form of its acts, is a direct presence, therefore a certain principled given. We can know directly that we have a mind or an intellect (what could this mediate?), that our mind or intellect has life, so we ourselves have life (again, nothing comes between the mind and its own act of being alive) and, as a consequence, we know that, having life, we exist.

The main premise of this type of argument is the identity (“immediacy”?) between subject and intellect: I means my intellect. It is the premise that will justify, in modern times, the rationalist current, but it is also a premise that subsists in the very core of empiricism (as well as skepticism combated by Augustine): accepting that the only source of knowledge is sensation, we assume that we are talking about access to an object of knowledge (the external world of material objects) of a knowing intellect, different from the external world, intellect with which I, the subject, know what my senses give me. Empiricism can disregard this presupposition only at the risk of postulating the principled impossibility of knowledge: even if the senses, the sole source of knowledge, provided certain information about the external world, in the absence of the intellect’s identity with the subject this information would have no one to turn to, because the processes of memorization, analysis, synthesis, abstraction, etc. would at least be doubtful for a subject who would not assume their paternity.

Augustine starts from this premise (as Descartes would later do) and, postulating the intellectual nature of the knowing subject (the identity of the I-intellect), formulates, before Descartes, an ontological argument.

In addition to the acts of the mind, Augustine also admits the possibility of direct truths that we have not acquired through the senses: the truths of mathematics and ethical a priori propositions (e.g., “Good is preferable to evil”?). These direct truths are present in themselves in our minds and not otherwise; They must be so since we know them with certainty. Because of these arguments, skepticism is untenable: definite knowledge is possible, but not through the senses, but through introspection. The coup de grace to skepticism, however, is found in the little treatise On Happiness. If we concede to skeptics that attaining truth is impossible, then they, skeptics, who nevertheless seek truth, find themselves in a situation of not being happy. But “he who has not what he wants is not happy (…); No one is wise if he is not happy: therefore an academic is not wise”? . Subsequently, Christianity would prove very receptive to this Augustinian thesis of the search for truth in the soul, which would acquire—even in Augustine’s formulation—mystical dimensions.

Enlightenment and the theory of divine ideas

Augustine’s problem of knowledge also involves the doctrine of enlightenment. Knowledge presupposes the direct presence of the known object before the knowing agent (the mind), which is why Augustine cannot fully take over the Platonic idea of reminiscence, nor will he actually develop a doctrine of innate ideas. For Augustine it is important the thesis that, in all cases of knowledge, divine enlightenment is necessary, and especially that the objects of authentic knowledge are of an ideal nature, divine ideas. In the previous discussion we showed that sensory knowledge is not authentic knowledge, but rather is the way in which the soul “governs”? He is attentive to the body he commands. Knowledge in the proper sense is only knowledge of ideas of a divine nature.

On the other hand, we know that the human intellect is a creature, being situated on a lower level of the universal hierarchy, therefore below divine ideas, which is why it cannot have any power over them. How, however, can the human intellect know divine ideas, since, having no power over them, it can in no way “grasp” them? or to come into contact with them, for the simple reason that he cannot exert any action on them? On the other hand, the idea that the objects of knowledge must be in direct contact with the knowing intellect cannot be renounced. Augustine’s solution is that we do not have the power to produce in our minds a knowledge of divine ideas, but it nevertheless occurs because it is produced in us by something higher than our own intellect. In this way, knowledge is not a product of our intellect, but the result of enlightenment. The agent who produces knowledge of divine ideas in the human intellect, however, cannot be anything less than the ideas themselves, for it would again mean that something lower than ideas would exert power over them, putting them into our intellect. Therefore, the agent of enlightenment can be none other than God.

In this way, Augustine respects only part of the Platonic theory of knowledge. Knowledge can only come about through direct contact with known ideas (as Plato said), and known ideas are divine in nature. But if in Plato the problem of direct contact is solved by the doctrine of recall (possible there because the soul is divine in nature), Augustine appeals to Enlightenment because the soul is a creature and cannot “keep”? or brings into the cognitive act something over which he has no power. By nature, contact with ideas (knowledge, that is) is something divine, something that man cannot appropriate. If man is capable of knowledge, it is because God creates this knowledge in the human intellect, offering it as a divine gift.

Augustine discusses some certain, necessary, and immutable concepts and judgments that certainly cannot come from the senses and therefore we must have them from God, such as the concept of unity or the judgment “Good must be preferable to evil”?

The theory of divine grace

Augustine was the first to develop a synthetic theory of divine grace in the context of his efforts to combat Pelagianism (Quaestiones diversae). The Pelagianism of Augustine’s day denied original sin but also Adam’s immortality and integrity, in other words, the entire supernatural world. The idea of Pelagius, of Stoic origin, affirmed man’s complete emancipation from God and his unlimited powers over good and evil. Man is able, according to this theory, to obtain, without any intervention from God, complete control over his passions (apatheia). Because of this ability, man’s absolute duty is to avoid, by his own strength, all sin. There is no hierarchy of sins, and there is no sin outside the control of the human agent. Augustine opposes this system by asserting that God is, by grace, the absolute master of the will and that, under the action of grace, man is free. Reconciling God’s omnipotence with human freedom depends on divine government.

God’s absolute sovereignty

Augustine’s first principle is to affirm God’s complete sovereignty over the will. All virtuous acts, without exception, require divine intervention in the form of an effective providence that prepares in advance every good act of the will (Retractationes, I, IX, 6). It is not that the will cannot perform a virtuous act, but that without providential intervention it would not incline to good. There are two levels of grace: a) the grace of natural virtues, the universal gift of providence, which prepares the effective motivations of the will; This is the grace bestowed upon all men, even unbelievers (gratia filii concubinarum); b) the grace of supernatural virtues, given with faith. The latter is the grace of sons (gratia filiorum), that is, of God’s people.

People’s freedom

Second, Augustine asserts that people’s freedom remains intact. Augustine never renounces the principle of freedom of will, so his system tries to achieve a synthesis between the affirmation of freedom and divine grace. For this reason, he does not postulate the existence of a complete human power of choice: what man does does not depend entirely on free choice; acceptance or rejection of faith is anticipated in advance by God.

Undoubtedly, man has the power to choose between good and evil, otherwise responsibility, merit or fault would not be possible; Augustine, however, reproaching the Pelagians for exaggerating the role of individual choice, says that there is no perfect balance between choice and grace: this balance was found only in Adam, but was destroyed with original sin. In the fallen state, man is in a position to fight against the inclination to evil; he lost that perfect and serene freedom, the freedom without struggle, which Adam had. The freedom of fallen man is tense, conflictual, problematic. This freedom only helps us at most to direct our choice toward accepting grace.

Reconciling grace and freedom. The problem of predestination

How can this antinomy between human freedom and divine grace be resolved? On the one hand, God’s power to direct human choice (free will) to convert sinners is affirmed, and on the other hand we are told that rejection or acceptance of either grace or sin depends on free will. Many exegetes have considered these two principles to be irreconcilable. For this reason, for example, was it possible to hold that the Augustinian doctrine of grace was a “great dogmatic mistake”? . This is because, as Eugène Portalié pointed out, Augustinian grace was understood as a kind of impulse superimposed by God, without which the will cannot manifest.

The key to the problem lies in Augustine’s explanation of the divine government of wills. Thus, the will never decides without a reason, that is, without being attracted by a good that it perceives in the object. But this perception of the object does not lie in the absolute power of man. It is God’s privilege to determine either the external causes acting on perception or the inner Enlightenment acting on the soul. In this way, the decision of the will is exercised over a conjuncture of situations that God creates. Man is the master of his primary thoughts, unable to determine the objects, images, and therefore motives that present themselves to his mind. According to his theory of knowledge, the soul is aware of the images it sees, either through perception or enlightenment, but it is not their cause: on the one hand, the external causes of perceived images are governed by God, and on the other hand, divine illuminations also come from God.

Moreover, God knows in advance the answer that the soul, having all possible freedom, will give to these external factors. Thus, in divine knowledge, there exists for every created will an indefinite series of reasons that, de facto, gain man’s adhesion to what is good. God has, in his omniscience, sufficient reasons to save Judas, for example, or to lose Peter. No will could resist the divine plan. In this way, God, because of His perfect autonomy, can cause reasons for any kind of choice of individual souls, anticipating their response as well. In this sense, grace is infallible, albeit free.

For this reason, Augustine says that the person who acted according to the good should thank God for sending him an effective inspiration (that is, a system of external factors in which he could perceive the good due to a direct enlightenment on the soul), while to others he denied or postponed this favor. The one who received it is a chosen one.

Trying to explain this apparent contradiction, Augustine wrote an epistle called De Diversis quaestionibus ad Simplicianum, in which he formulated a direct answer to monks who had asked him about the problem. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the good will exists because of grace, so that no man can take any merit any more than any form of freedom will oppose him, although he has this power. In this sense, grace acts in an effective and not causal way, in a way analogous to that in which rhetorical arguments act: each person has the power and freedom to oppose persuasive arguments. He can insist on his personal opinion and oppose without even trying to listen to the arguments against him. But he can listen to them and, understanding them, he will be convinced by them. Human souls have very diverse dispositions, and it is almost a matter of chance whether each of them will encounter at some point the argument appropriate to his disposition, that is, that argument that allows him to perceive the good as a reason for choice. God, however, according to this analogy, is the perfect rhetorician, that is, He knows very well what situation is appropriate for each soul so that it can have access to the reason for choosing good. This is grace: God offers us those perceptions which, according to his foreknowledge, constitute precisely the happy situation for our enlightenment to take place. For this reason, grace does not act causally: although the optimal situation is provided to us by God, the choice is ours. Thus, the effectiveness of grace does not mean that without grace we would not have the ability to choose good, but that without grace we would not want good. Grace is the invitation without which we would not have an object of desire.

There are many ways God can invite us to faith, and of these, only some suit each soul. God knows what form of invitation will be accepted by each soul according to his disposition and which will be rejected. The elect are those people to whom God addresses that appropriate, that is, effective, invitation.

The question that remains is how we are to understand this selection operated by God when to some he extends the appropriate invitation and to others he postpones it or simply does not send it. Is grace a “tool”? of predestination? The Semi-Pelagians thought of the problem in terms of equality of opportunity: God predestines all men to salvation, giving all men equal grace. It is human freedom that decides whether one or the other of the individuals accepts the invitation or not, so the number of elected officials is unknown. An opposite system is predestinationism, which the Semi-Pelagians mistakenly attributed to Augustine, and which said that God predetermined the number of the elect and damned; In this sense, Hell and Heaven will fill with people who have been chosen in advance and who can do nothing to alter this destiny. This will actually be Calvin’s system.

Between these two extreme opinions, Augustine formulated an ingenious position stating both truths at the same time: a) God’s determination of elect is real, gratuitous, and constitutes the grace of graces, selectively granted, but b) this does not nullify God’s desire to save mankind entirely, which depends on human freedom. Elected officials have the ability to deny themselves elected status, just as other people have the freedom and power to rise to elected status through their own choices. Thus, although God grants absolute grace only to certain people (this being, for Augustine, the highest mystery), on the other hand it is equally true that:

(a) No man shall be deprived of his liberty;

b) no man is powerless to oppose evil;

These two statements make predestinationism incompatible with Augustine’s doctrine. He repeatedly and explicitly states that all people could be saved if this were their wish. It is therefore inaccurate to assert that divine grace diminishes or nullifies the responsibility of the individual, just as it is an error to characterize the Augustinian doctrine of predestination as “determinism”?

The fact that God knows ante rem what each person’s choice will be and offers, according to this foreknowledge, the appropriate invitation to each (although He knows that some will refuse it), is not a causal factor. On the contrary, the theme of God’s love perhaps finds an optimal context here more than elsewhere: although God knows that a certain person will refuse to choose his faith, He does not deny anyone the possibility of saving himself. The fact that the elect and the damned constitute (from the point of view of divine foreknowledge) two “completed lists”? It is not due to man’s impossibility to choose his destiny, but, on the contrary, to man’s unwillingness to do anything.

From the point of view of our temporal knowledge, this seems to be a predestination, a causal determination. From the perspective of timeless knowledge (such as divine knowledge) this is a fact: those called “vessels of wrath”? (the damned) are not so called according to an arbitrary divine choice, but according to the fact that God already knows what we cannot find out until after the close of history.

In this sense, the human being cannot renounce the exercise of his free choice and will because, even if God knows in advance what their end will be, there is no connection between divine foreknowledge and human freedom of decision. If a man were at some point to give up exercising his free will, judging that God knows his destiny anyway, and if he is a chosen one, he will receive grace anyway at some point, he would be making an error: the timing of this judgment would actually coincide with the moment of consciously renouncing the will for salvation. That man would condemn himself. Did God know he would make this decision? Yes. This only means that the decision freely confirmed what God knew beforehand. On the other hand, the person could not have given up but continued to want to be a chosen one, acting accordingly (choosing the good). Does this mean that he altered divine foreknowledge? No, because in this case, divine foreknowledge would have consisted precisely in the second variant.

The doctrine of grace is still a difficult point not only from a theological point of view. Philosophically speaking, the problem lies in Augustine’s attempt to bring two different systems of principles closer together: a temporal logic, specific to man, and a timeless logic, suited to God’s omniscience.

[ Augustine’s influence

His conception was taken up and dogmatically used to refute the Aristotelian conception of Thomas Aquinas. During the Reformation, the conception of predestination and history as healing was especially taken up.

He was the first philosopher to consider history as necessary in educating people and liquidating evil.


* Roman Catholic calendar: August 28 (“Saint Augustine”)
* in the Orthodox calendar: June 15 (under the name “Blessed Augustine”)
* in the Greek Catholic calendar: August 28 (“Saint Augustine”)
* in the Lutheran calendar: August 28 (“Augustine”)
* in the Anglican calendar: 28 August

Scroll to Top