Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Augustine of Hippo

Today is the feast day of Augustine of Hippo (354-28 August 430). He was born into a noble family in Thagaste, in what is now Algeria. We know a great deal about Augustine from St. Possidius, who was his disciple, friend and biographer, and from Augustine's own writing. His life was a journey through an early history of pagan and Christian philosophy—philosophy whose later form he shaped significantly.
A stamp commemorating his origin.

According to Augustine's biographical Confessions, while his mother (later, St. Monica) tried to raise him in the Christian faith, his father was an idolater who recognized his son's intelligence and spared no expense to make him a scholar. He praises the providence that helped him to be educated, despite his father's materialistic aims for him.

Before he was baptized a Christian, he dabbled in many other beliefs, such as the neo-Platonism of Plotinus. Before that he was influenced by Manichaeism, a major rival to Christianity for centuries and very popular among soldiers. Discussing the beliefs of Manichees is too complex to do here, but one thing that Augustine objected to when he switched to Christianity: the Manichaeistic view that knowledge was the key to salvation. He realized that knowledge alone did not lead him to fulfillment as a Christian.

His writings ranged over a wide area: he was anti-abortion, but agreed that the loss of an "unformed" fetus mentioned in Exodus 21:22-23 did not qualify as an abortion, since there was no evidence that a soul had entered the fetus yet.* He rejected astrology. He felt that the seven-week Creation in Genesis was not to be taken literally; God created all things at once. He believed in "just wars" instead of total Christian pacifism. He explained Original Sin not as carnal knowledge (which was a Manichaeistic view) but as either sheer foolishness followed by pride and disobedience to God, or as pride first because of their failure to accept God's hierarchy of things in the world. Although some Christian scholars rejected Jewish texts, Augustine pointed out that they were chosen by God as a special people, and should be allowed to co-exist with Christians; the Jews would ultimately be converted.

His numerous letters and sermons formed the basis for the growing religion. Much of his thought has remained the foundation of Christian theology through the present day.

*Note that these verses have been scrutinized carefully in recent times, and in some cases altered in translation to read differently.

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