Absurd Being

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St. Augustine 354-430

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St. Augustine

Recommended Reading

The City of God   Confessions  


->  Confessions

The Man

Augustine was born in Thagaste, North Africa (modern-day Algeria), on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, according to Augustine’s own report, was a hot-tempered pagan whom he says was unfaithful to his mother. In the Confessions, he appears as a distant figure with little influence on his son. His mother, Monica, was a Christian and although Augustine speaks exceptionally highly of her in his Confessions, she may not have been quite as saintly as he portrays. Augustine had at least one brother and one sister but little is known about them.

Augustine did very well at school as a child in Thagaste and both his parents urged him to pursue this. Augustine tells us that at this time he was something of a juvenile delinquent and as a teenager, recalls with much remorse a particular instance where he and some friends stole some pears, not to eat, just for the thrill involved in the act of sinning. Despite this, it is almost certain that Augustine was nowhere near as bad as he imagines himself to have been.

In 371, his father sent him to Carthage, two days’ journey away, to continue his studies. He met a woman sometime after arriving and would have a child with her, Adeodatus, one or two years later. They would never get married but Augustine would be faithful to her until he was around thirty or thirty one, at which time they had to break up. While studying in Carthage, Augustine’s love of philosophy was ignited by reading Cicero, whose writing he found to be inspiring.

Shortly after arriving in Carthage, Augustine’s father died. At this time, he also joined the Manichean religion, attracted by its clear dividing line between good and evil, its intellectual mythology, and its strict moral standards. With his Manichean friends, Augustine freely criticised Christianity and had frequent disputes with clergymen.

After finishing his studies, Augustine returned to Thagaste where he taught for a time and was by all accounts successful as both a tutor and a public speaker. His mother was deeply disturbed by his heretic beliefs and apparently refused to let him stay with her until she had a dream which she interpreted as meaning that her son would eventually be saved.

When Augustine was twenty nine he went to Rome to teach. He was becoming disillusioned with the Manichean beliefs, and a much-anticipated meeting with a renowned Manichean bishop, Faustus, proved disappointing. He wasn’t in Rome long before being recommended for a position in Milan, where his break from Manicheanism was completed. At this time, he listened to the preaching of the Christian bishop, Ambrose, and was introduced for the first time to an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures.

It was while here that Augustine’s mother (who was now living in Milan with her son) arranged an advantageous engagement to a girl still two years too young for marriage and he was forced to end his relationship with the mother of his child. Despite his considerable grief at this, he took another concubine for the two intervening years.

When he was thirty one, he was introduced to Neoplatonism and was awe-struck by this philosophical system and in particular, how much it resembled Christianity. Augustine received a visit one day from one Ponticianus who tells him about two of his comrades who converted to Christianity on the spot after reading about the life of a famous Egyptian monk. Once Ponticianus leaves, Augustine, in considerable distress, flees to the garden outside his house, where, through his tears, he thinks he hears a child chanting, “Take it and read”. Treating this as a sign, he opens his copy of St. Paul’s Epistles to a random page and reads the first passage his eyes fall on; “Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.” Taking this as a sign, he converts to Christianity on the spot.

In 387, the next year, he was baptised by Ambrose. His mother would also die this year. Around 389, Augustine returned to Africa where he lived a quiet, semi-monastic life in Thagaste for about two years. In 391, he moved to Hippo where he started a monastery and entered the Christian priesthood. In 395, he became the bishop of Hippo and while there wrote the Confessions in the four years between 397 and 401.

During this period, a rival faction arose in the Catholic Church, the Donatists. In the early 300s, some Christians had publicly renounced Christianity to avoid Imperial persecutions. The Donatists insisted that any of these people who wanted to re-join the Church would have to be re-baptised, but worse than this, they refused to recognise Catholic bishops, whom they believed had been ordained by traitors. As bishop, Augustine tried to reason with them but they refused his overtures and the conflict turned violent, at which time he supported the use of force against them. The Roman government banned Donatism in 405 and it was eventually suppressed.

In 410, Rome was sacked. In response to this and the accompanying sense of many that civilisation was coming to an end, Augustine began his masterpiece, The City of God Against the Pagans in 413. He would work on this book for most of the rest of his life.

Around this time, Augustine weighed in on another renegade movement in the Church, Pelagianism. A British monk called Pelagius disagreed with Augustine’s understanding of Christianity, which seemed to support the notion that salvation can only be bestowed on us by the grace of God and therefore there is nothing anyone can do to earn salvation. This seemed to Pelagius to void freewill. Pelagius was officially condemned in 416 and sent into exile but Augustine would spend several more years engaged in debates with members of this heretical group.

Augustine completed his The City of God in 427.

In 430, he became ill while a barbarian tribe from Europe, the Vandals, were laying siege to Hippo. It is said that he retired to his room where he spent his time weeping over his sins and praying. He died on August 28.

The Timeline

354: Born on November 13 in Thagaste, North Africa

371: Moved to Carthage to continue his studies

        Took a concubine

373: Had his son, Adeodatus

        Became a Manichean

375: Returned to Thagaste to teach rhetoric

376: Moved back to Carthage to teach

383: Went to Rome

354: Moved to Milan where he met and was influenced by Bishop Ambrose

386: Converted to Christianity

        Spent about a year in retreat with friends contemplating Christianity

387: Baptised by Ambrose in Milan

        His mother died

389: Returned to Thagaste

391: Moved to Hippo

395: Became Bishop of Hippo

401: Completed the Confessions

427: Completed The City of God Against the Pagans

430: Died at Hippo during the Vandal siege

The Philosophy

St. Augustine was a passionate fourth century Roman Christian who had a profound influence on the way Christianity developed, not only while he was alive, but also all through the Middle Ages.

He was a very intelligent individual and a deep thinker who made a number of penetrating insights that prefigure philosophers who appear centuries after his time. The thing with Augustine is that his penetrating philosophical insights always come in the context of an explicitly religious discussion with the sole goal of understanding God better. In one sense, this if fine; he was a Christian after all. But in my opinion, his allegiance to doctrine and superstitious mumbo-jumbo (angels, the devil, damnation, sin, creation, Adam and Eve, etc…) hamstrung him in such a way that he never got the chance to really flex his philosophical muscle. For example, Augustine anticipates Descartes’ famous insight, “I think therefore I am”, but never makes anything of it because it was nothing more than a side-effect of his discussion on the problem of evil. He also gives a very thoughtful account of time which ultimately goes nowhere because it was expounded merely to understand God’s eternal nature.

The truth is Augustine considered knowledge for knowledge’s sake a sin, so he more or less precluded himself from doing anything truly memorable as a philosopher. Although it’s true that any even partially comprehensive listing of great philosophers in history must include Augustine, he could have been a far more central figure than he ended up being (in philosophy, that is, he obviously had a huge impact on the Church and therefore Western history).

Augustine was quite prolific, composing a number of essays and books but this short review will be mostly based on the Confessions… primarily because I haven’t yet been able to muster up the courage to wade through the more than a thousand pages of his The City of God.


Augustine has a very standard, Christian view of God. In his Manichean days, he used to believe that God was some kind of extended substance simply because it seemed to him that anything that had no dimensions in space must itself be nothing. He seems to have overcome this through three steps. First, he notes a problem; if God is an extended substance in space then it means that the bigger a thing is, the more of God it contains. By this reasoning, an elephant contains more of God than a human. Something about this seems false to Augustine. Second, he realises that truth and thought are both real things although neither occupies a position in space. Third, he comes to understand that everything is in God, not like things in a physical container, but because all things get their being from God.

He also gives an argument for God’s incorruptibility that is almost identical in structure to the ontological argument for God’s existence (which wouldn’t be formulated for another 600 or so years). Nobody can conceive of anything better than God, and since being incorruptible is better than being corruptible, God must be incorruptible or else one could imagine something better than God.

God is eternal. Augustine contrasts this with being in time and accepts that this means God can’t change in any way. When God speaks, for example, this act can’t be understood as we would a human act of speech which takes place in time, with a beginning, an end, and so on. Rather, God’s Word exists for all of time because it is eternal. It would be more correct to say that God’s Word has no relation to time because it is completely outside of it.

While identifying this in the Confessions, Augustine doesn’t address how we can possibly have a relationship with such a timeless being though. His insistence on this also leads him into some controversial doctrines, such as predestination.

The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is a perennial problem for Christians and asks how evil can exist if an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God also exists? First, Augustine rejects the response that says evil exists because we have freewill. He can’t understand how anybody could have the will to do wrong if he or she was created by an all-good God.

Augustine’s answer is that evil doesn’t, in fact, exist as a thing. All that exists is good. Augustine comes to this conclusion through an argument that doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny but goes something like this. To be incorruptible is better than being corruptible. To corrupt a thing means to remove good from it. All things corruptible must therefore contain some good to be removed. Now imagine a thing that has had all of the good removed from it so it is now nothing but evil. It can now lose no more good. But this means that it is now incorruptible. Since we already declared that incorruptibility is better than being corruptible, we now have a situation in which removing all of the good from a thing has made it better. This is clearly ridiculous and so Augustine’s solution is to propose that all that is, is good, i.e. if all of the good is removed from a thing, it then ceases to exist. Evil is not then a ‘real’ thing, rather it is a deprivation, a lack, of good.

Why then do we continue to perceive evil all around us? Augustine’s answer is that the evil we imagine we see is nothing more than disharmony among the individual parts of the whole; a whole which is harmonious in its totality. What is evil in one relation ceases to be so in another relation and the totality of all things is perfectly harmonious. One example Augustine gives is of clouds which we might consider bad, but when considered in relation to the earth, are actually beneficial.

In addition, Augustine offers the related idea that although some parts of creation are lower than others, i.e. less good, “the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.”


Augustine holds to the orthodox Christian belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, that is, from nothing. First, he created “formless matter” which he then bestowed form upon.

God created earth, the heavens, and the Heaven of Heavens. The first is self-explanatory; the second was the realm of the planets, moon, and stars; and the third was God’s “dwelling place”. Augustine has an interesting view of the Heaven of Heavens calling it an “intellectual creature”, clearly implying that it is somehow alive.

Having been created, Augustine holds that none of these realms are eternal (anything that changes cannot be eternal for Augustine and anything that was created is fundamentally changeable), but the Heaven of Heavens, while being susceptible to change, in fact doesn’t, because it clings to God unfailingly. It somehow keeps its gaze unflinchingly on God and therefore doesn’t change, essentially allowing it to partake in God’s eternal nature without itself being eternal.

Sin and Temptation

Augustine was obsessed with sin, even feeling the need to confess the ‘sins’ he committed as an infant against his parents and caregivers. He saw the material world as a never-ending trial, full of temptations ready to draw him into sin at every turn.

At one place in the Confessions he identifies three kinds of temptations (although this list wouldn’t be exhaustive). The first are sensory pleasures in which Augustine obviously includes lust (this was something Augustine had particular difficulties with) and alcohol, but he also includes things like enjoying pleasant smells and listening to pleasing music. The second is curiosity, which essentially amounts to science and learning. The third is the desire to be loved or feared by others.

Augustine’s problem with each of these is that they turn our attention from the only thing worthy of it, namely, God. He talks about listening to hymns and considers this to be sinful if one becomes seduced into enjoying the music solely for the auditory pleasure one obtains. The primary source of enjoyment should be the content. The extent to which one is enjoying listening, smelling, touching, tasting, or seeing anything just for the beauty of the things themselves, is the extent to which one is sinning.

His problem with science was the same. If it wasn’t related to understanding God better, it was a sin for Augustine. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake leads one away from God. He talks about the scientists who investigate the things we see around us and make amazing discoveries but who forget that the things they investigate should always lead back to the one who created them.

It is no exaggeration to say that the ideal life for Augustine is one spent in uninterrupted contemplation of God. It is no wonder he saw life as a trial, full of distractions.


Augustine goes into a quite detailed analysis of time in relation to God’s eternal nature. God is eternal and unchanging, the material world is not; that much is certain. But what is time? In a way that prefigures Kant, Augustine concludes that time is completely subjective, that is, it is a mental construction. The past and the future cannot exist because the one is yet to come and the other has already been. A search for the present is just as futile, as we can whittle away any duration it might have; today, this hour, this minute, this second, this half-second, and so on. Eventually, we must get to a moment so short as to have no duration at all, i.e. no existence.

So, Augustine denies that there are three times, past, present, and future. But if they’re not real, how can we talk about them and how is it that we experience them? Augustine’s answer is that the future exists in our minds as expectation, the past as memory, and the present as awareness. In Augustine’s words, time is an extension of our minds.


Augustine was uncompromising in his stance towards God’s eternal unchanging nature. Since God doesn’t exist in time he can’t change his mind or suddenly will something he didn’t before. What’s more, humans are fundamentally sinful in nature thanks to Adam’s gastronomical faux pax. As such, we are completely and thoroughly undeserving of salvation and there is nothing we can do to influence God’s mind about this. God, in his infinite Wisdom, which can’t change because it is eternal, must already know who is going to be saved and who is doomed to hellfire and all the good deeds in the world won’t change that. From the moment of your birth (actually, for all of eternity) you have already been destined to be one of the elect or one of the damned.

Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible

Augustine was an avid supporter of allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament and he used this technique to drill deep into the words and extract profound and sublime truths. This in turn, supported his belief that Scripture was itself profound and ought not to be taken at face value.

It is important to note though that, unlike modern interpreters of Scripture, Augustine did not use allegory to cleanse it of unpalatable and unlikely superstitions. Augustine would never have dreamed of ‘allegorising away’ things like the snake tempting Adam and Eve, original sin, God talking to Moses, Jesus’ death for our sins, and so on. As far as he was concerned, these events and all the other myths of Christianity were real events that really happened.