Who is Saint Augustine of Hippo?

St. Augustine is perhaps the most famous Doctor of the Catholic Church. He and Thomas Aquinas are the two great lights of Christianity illuminating the ‘Dark Ages’ by reintroducing the writings of classical antiquity in a modern, or Christian, context. Augustine was born in Thagaste in North Africa around AD 354 (present-day northeastern Algeria called Suq Ahras). His father was a pagan and his mother was a Christian. He was nominally raised as a Christian. By the age of sixteen, Augustine went to Carthage to study the law. His reorientation toward a philosophic life came when he read Cicero’s Hortensius (a now lost dialogue). Around this time, he took a lover who gave birth to an illegitimate child (the boy died in young adulthood).

St. Augustine in his study by Sandro Botticelli (1494)

He converted to Manicheanism, a 3rd century Persian spiritual doctrine that was founded by a prophet named Mani during the Sassanid Empire. Augustine then founded his own school of rhetoric and grammar in Rome around AD 384 where he was a contemporary of Jerome, the great Latin translator of the Vulgate. Augustine became a professor in Milan where he came under the influence of Neoplatonism and St. Ambrose. After a dramatic inner conflict, Augustine was baptized as a Christian in AD 387. He then returned to Africa to form his own religious community. He was ordained a priest in AD 391 against his own wishes. Five years later he was appointed as Bishop of Hippo (present-day northeastern Algeria). He lived with his cathedral clergy for thirty-four years where he wrote a vast volume of work, of which 113 books survive today (the two most famous being Confessions and the City of God). Also more than 200 of Augustine’s letters and 500 sermons survive to the present-day. His writings were instrumental in allowing Christianity to endure through the dark ages, with emergingg ideas like the doctrine of “original sin,” the freedom of the will, and the concept of the “trinity” -the idea that God is one eternal substance embodied in three separate persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He spent considerable time disputing “heretical” doctrines. For example, Augustine was a defender of the Church as a body of “sinners” rather a Church of “saints” according to the elitist sect known as Donatism.

Augustine died in AD 430 on the cusp of the dying Roman Empire, just as the Vandals (an eastern Germanic tribe) were invading Hippo.

Earliest known portrait of St. Augustine (6th century Rome)

The Augustinian Order (Ordo sancti Augustini) was founded in 1244 in Italy. The Order follows the “Rule of Saint Augustine” -a document written to guide the monastic life away from extreme asceticism and toward a simple life of chastity, poverty, prayer, and other communal activities.

Outside of his autobiographical Confessions, there have been many other biographies of St. Augustine. The first was written by Possidius (Vita Augustini) who claimed to know Augustine for more than forty years. Will Durant included a chapter on Saint Augustine in his Story of Civilization.

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