The numerous writings of Augustin, the composition of which extended through four and forty years, are a mine of Christian knowledge, and experience. They abound in lofty ideas, noble sentiments, devout effusions, clear statements of truth, strong arguments against error, and passages of fervid eloquence and undying beauty, but also in innumerable repetitions, fanciful opinions, and playful conjectures of his uncommonly fertile brain.
His style is full of life and vigour and ingenious plays on words, but deficient in simplicity, purity and elegance, and by no means free from the vices of a degenerate rhetoric, wearisome prolixity, and from that vagabunda loquacitas, with which his adroit opponent, Julian of Eclanum, charged him. He would rather, as he said, be blamed by grammarians, than not understood by the people; and he bestowed little care upon his style, though he many a time rises in lofty poetic flight. He made no point of literary renown, but, impelled by love to God and to the church, he wrote from the fulness of his mind and heart. The writings before his conversion, a treatise on the Beautiful (De Pulchro et Apto), the orations and eulogies which he delivered as rhetorician at Carthage, Rome, and Milan, are lost. The professor of eloquence, the heathen philosopher, the Manichæan heretic, the sceptic and free thinker, are known to us only from his regrets and recantations in the Confessions and other works. His literary career for us commences in his pious retreat at Cassiciacum where he prepared himself for a public profession of his faith. He appears first, in the works composed at Cassiciacum, Rome, and near Tagaste, as a Christian philosopher, after his ordination to the priesthood as a theologian. Yet even in his theological works he everywhere manifests the metaphysical and speculative bent of his mind. He never abandoned or depreciated reason, he only subordinated it to faith and made it subservient to the defence of revealed truth. Faith is the pioneer of reason, and discovers the territory which reason explores.
The following is a classified view of his most important works.
I. Autobiographical works. To these belong the Confessions and the Retractations; the former acknowledging his sins, the latter retracting his theoretical errors. In the one he subjects his life, in the other his writings, to close criticism; and these productions therefore furnish the best standard for judging of his entire labours.
The Confessions are the most profitable, at least the most edifying, product of his pen; indeed, we may say, the most edifying book in all the patristic literature. They were accordingly the most read even during his lifetime, and they have been the most frequently published since. A more sincere and more earnest book was never written. The historical part, to the tenth book, is one of the devotional classics of all creeds, and second in popularity only to the |Imitation of Christ,| by Thomas a Kempis, and Bunyan's |Pilgrim's Progress.| Certainly no autobiography is superior to it in true humility, spiritual depth, and universal interest. Augustin records his own experience, as a heathen sensualist, a Manichæan heretic, an anxious inquirer, a sincere penitent, and a grateful convert. He finds a response in every human soul that struggles through the temptations of nature and the labyrinth of error to the knowledge of truth and the beauty of holiness, and after many sighs and tears finds rest and peace in the arms of a merciful Saviour. The style is not free from the faults of an artificial rhetoric, involved periods and far-fetched paronomasias; but these defects are more than atoned for by passages of unfading beauty, the devout spirit and psalm-like tone of the book. It is the incense of a sacred mysticism of the heart which rises to the throne on high. The wisdom of some parts of the Confessions may be doubted. The world would never have known Augustin's sins, if he had not told them; nor were they of such a nature as to destroy his respectability in the best heathen society of his age; but we must all the more admire his honesty and humility.
Rousseau's |Confessions,| and Goethe's |Truth and Fiction,| may be compared with Augustin's Confessions as works of rare genius and of absorbing psychological interest, but they are written in a radically different spirit, and by attempting to exalt human nature in its unsanctified state, they tend as much to expose its vanity and weakness, as the work of the bishop of Hippo, being written with a single eye to the glory of God, raises man from the dust of repentance to a new and imperishable life of the Spirit.
Augustin composed the Confessions about the year 397, ten years after his conversion. The first nine books contain, in the form of a continuos prayer and confession before God, a general sketch of his earlier life, of his conversion, and of his return to Africa in the thirty-fourth year of his age. The salient points in these books are the engaging history of his conversion in Milan, and the story of the last days of his noble mother in Ostia, spent as it were at the very gate of heaven and in full assurance of a blessed reunion at the throne of glory. The last three books and a part of the tenth are devoted to speculative philosophy; they treat, partly in tacit opposition to Manichæism, of the metaphysical questions of the possibility of knowing God, and the nature of time and space; and they give an interpretation of the Mosaic cosmogony in the style of the typical allegorical exegesis usual with the fathers, but foreign to our age; they are therefore of little value to the general reader, except as showing that even abstract metaphysical subjects may be devotionally treated.
The Retractations were produced in the evening of his life (427 and 428), when, mindful of the proverb: |In the multitude of words there wanteth not transgression,| and remembering that we must give account for every idle word, he judged himself, that he might not be judged. He revised in chronological order the numerous works he had written before and during his episcopate, and retracted or corrected whatever in them seemed to his riper knowledge false or obscure, or not fully agreed with the orthodox catholic faith. Some of his changes were reactionary and no improvements, especially those on the freedom of the will, and on religious toleration. In all essential points, nevertheless, his theological system remained the same from his conversion to this time. The Retractations give beautiful evidence of his love of truth, his conscientiousness, and his humility.
To this same class should be added the Letters of Augustin, of which the Benedictine editors, in their second volume, give two hundred and seventy (including letters to Augustin) in chronological order from A.D.386 to A.D.429. These letters treat, sometimes very minutely, of all the important questions of his time, and give us an insight of his cares, his official fidelity, his large heart, and his effort to become, like Paul, all things to all men.
When the questions of friends and pupils accumulated, he answered them in special works; and in this way he produced various collections of Quæstiones and Responsiones, dogmatical, exegetical, and miscellaneous (A.D.390, 397, &c.).
II. Philosophical treatises, in dialogue; almost all composed in his earlier life; either during his residence on the country-seat Cassiciacum in the vicinity of Milan, where he spent half a year before his baptism in instructive and stimulating conversation, in a sort of academy or Christian Platonic banquet with Monnica, his son Adeodatus, his brother Navigius, his friend Alypius, and some cousins and pupils; or during his second residence in Rome; or soon after his return to Africa.
To this class belong the works; Contra Academicos libri très (386), in which he combats the skepticism and probabilism of the New Academy, -- the doctrine that man can never reach the truth, but can at best attain only probability; De vita beata (386), in which he makes true blessedness to consist in the perfect knowledge of God; De ordine, -- on the relation of evil to the divine order of the world (386); Soliloquia (387), communings with his own soul concerning God, the highest good, the knowledge of truth, and immortality; De immortalitate animæ (387), a continuation of the Soliloquies; De quantitate animæ (387), discussing sundry questions of the size, the origin, the incorporeity of the soul; De musica libri vi (387-389); De magistro (389), in which, in a dialogue with his son Adeodatus, a pious and promising, but precocious youth, who died soon after his return to Africa (389), he treats on the importance and virtue of the word of God, and on Christ as the infallible Master. To these may be added the later work, De anima et ejus origine (419). Other philosophical works on grammar, dialectics (or ars bene disputandi), rhetoric, geometry, and arithmetic, are lost.
These works exhibit as yet little that is specifically Christian and churchly; but they show a Platonism seized and consecrated by the spirit of Christianity, full of high thoughts, ideal views, and discriminating argument. They were designed to present the different stages of human thought by which he himself had reached the knowledge of the truth, and to serve others as steps to the sanctuary. They form an elementary introduction to his theology. He afterwards, in his Retractations, withdrew many things contained in them, like the Platonic view of the pre-existence of the soul, and the Platonic idea that the acquisition of knowledge is a recollection or excavation of the knowledge hidden in the mind. The philosopher in him afterwards yielded more and more to the theologian, and his views became more positive and empirical, though in some cases narrower also and more exclusive. Yet he could never cease to philosophise, and even his later works, especially De Trinitate, and De Civitate Dei, are full of profound speculations. Before his conversion he followed a particular system of philosophy, first the Manichæan, then the Platonic; after his conversion he embraced the Christian philosophy, which is based on the divine revelation of the Scriptures, and is the handmaid of theology and religion; but at the same time he prepared the way for the catholic ecclesiastical philosophy, which rests on the authority of the church, and became complete in the scholasticism of the middle age.
In the history of philosophy he deserves a place in the highest rank, and has done greater service to the science of sciences than any other father, Clement of Alexandria and Origen not excepted. He attacked and refuted the pagan philosophy as pantheistic or dualistic at heart; he shook the superstitions of astrology and magic; he expelled from philosophy the doctrine of emanation, and the idea that God is the soul of the world; he substantially advanced psychology; he solved the question of the origin and the nature of evil more nearly than any of his predecessors, and as nearly as most of his successors; he was the first to investigate thoroughly the relation of divine omnipotence and omniscience to human freedom, and to construct a theodicy; in short, he is properly the founder of a Christian philosophy, and not only divided with Aristotle the empire of the mediæval scholasticism, but furnished also living germs for new systems of philosophy, and will always be consulted in the speculative discussions of Christian doctrines.
The philosophical opinions of Augustin are ably and clearly summed up by Ueberweg as follows:
|Against the skepticism of the Academics Augustin urges that man needs the knowledge of truth for his happiness, that it is not enough merely to inquire and to doubt, and he finds a foundation for all our knowledge, a foundation invulnerable against every doubt, in the consciousness we have of our sensations, feelings, our willing, and thinking, in short, of all our psychical processes. From the undeniable existence and possession by man of some truth, he concludes to the existence of God as the truth per se; but our conviction of the existence of the material world he regards as only an irresistible belief. Combating heathen religion and philosophy, Augustin defends the doctrines and institutions peculiar to Christianity, and maintains, in particular, against the Neo-Platoniste, whom he rates most highly among all the ancient philosophers, the Christian theses that salvation is to be found in Christ alone, that divine worship is due to no other being beside the triune God, since he created all things himself, and did not commission inferior beings, gods, demons, or angels to create the material world; that the soul with its body will rise again to eternal salvation or damnation, but will not return periodically to renewed life upon the earth; that the soul begins to exist at the same time with the body; that the world both had a beginning and is perishable, and that only God and the souls of angels and men are eternal. -- Against the dualism of the Manichæans, who regarded good and evil as equally primitive, and represented a portion of the divine substance as having entered into the region of evil, in order to war against and conquer it, Augustin defends the monism of the good principle, or of the purely spiritual God, explaining evil as a mere negation or privation, and seeking to show from the finiteness of the things in the world, and from the differing degrees of perfection, that the evils in the world are necessary, and not in contradiction with the idea of creation; he also defends in opposition to Manichæism, and Gnosticism in general, the Catholic doctrine of the essential harmony between the Old and New Testaments. Against the Donatists, Augustin maintains the unity of the church. In opposition to Pelagius and the Pelagians, he asserts that divine grace is not conditioned on human worthiness, and maintains the doctrine of absolute predestination, or, that from the mass of men who, through the disobedience of Adam (in whom all mankind were present potentially), have sunk into corruption and sin, some are chosen by the free election of God to be monuments of his grace, and are brought to believe and be saved, while the greater number, as monuments of his justice, are left to eternal damnation.|
III. Apologetic works against Pagans and Jews. Among these the twenty-two books, De Civitate Dei, are still well worth reading. They form the deepest and richest apologetic work of antiquity; begun in 413, after the occupation of Rome by the Gothic king Alaric, finished in 426, and often separately published. They condense his entire theory of the world and of man, and are the first attempt at a comprehensive philosophy of universal history under the dualistic view of two antagonistic currents or organized forces, a kingdom of this world which is doomed to final destruction, and a kingdom of God which will last forever.
This work has controlled catholic historiography ever since, and received the official approval of Pope Leo XIII., who, in his famous Encyclical Immortale Dei (Nov.1, 1885), incidentally alludes to it in these worlds: |Augustin, in his work, De Civitate Dei, set forth so clearly the efficacy of Christian wisdom and the way in which it is bound up with the well-being of civil society, that he seems not only to have pleaded the cause of the Christians at his own time, but to have triumphantly refuted the calumnies against Christianity for all time.|
From the Protestant point of view Augustin erred in identifying the kingdom of God with the visible Catholic Church, which is only a part of it.
IV. Religious-Theological works of a general nature (in part anti-Manichæan): De utilitate credendi, against the Gnostic exaltation of knowledge (392); De fide et symbolo, a discourse which, though only presbyter, he delivered on the Apostles' Creed before the council at Hippo at the request of the bishops in 393; De doctrina Christiana iv libri (397; the fourth book added in 426), a compend of exegetical theology for instruction in the interpretation of the Scriptures according to the analogy of the faith; De catchizandis rudibus likewise for catechetical purposes (400); Enchiridon, or De fide, spe et caritate, a brief compend of the doctrine of faith and morals, which he wrote in 421, or later, at the request of Laurentius; hence also called Manuale ad Laurentium.
V. Polemic-Theological works. These are the most copious sources of the history of Christian doctrine in the patristic age. The heresies collectively are reviewed in the book De hæresibus ad Quodvultdeum, written between 428 and 430 to a friend and deacon in Carthage, and give a survey of eighty-eight heresies, from the Simonians to the Pelagians. In the work De vera religione (390), Augustin proposed to show that the true religion is to be found not with the heretics and schismatics, but only in the catholic church of that time.
The other controversial works are directed against the particular heresies of Manichæism, Donatism, Arianism, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Augustin, with all the firmness of his convictions, was free from personal antipathy, and used the pen of controversy in the genuine Christian spirit, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo. He understood Paul's aletheuein en agape, and forms in this respect a pleasing contrast to Jerome, who had by nature no more fiery temperament than he, but was less able to control it. |Let those,| he very beautifully says to the Manichæans, |burn with hatred against you, who do not know how much pains it costs to find the truth, how hard it is to guard against error; -- but I, who after so great and long wavering came to know the truth, must bear myself towards you with the same patience which my fellow-believers showed towards me while I was wandering in blind madness in your opinions.|
1. The anti-Manichæan works date mostly from his earlier life, and in time and matter follow immediately upon his philosophical writings. In them he afterwards found most to retract, because he advocated the freedom of the will against the Manichæan fatalism. The most important are: De moribus ecclesiæ catholicæ, et de moribus Manichæorum, two books (written during his second residence in Rome, 388); De vera religione (390); Unde malum, et de libero arbitrio, usually simply De libero arbitrio, in three books, against the Manichæan doctrine of evil as a substance, and as having its seat in matter instead of free will (begun in 388, finished in 395); De Genesi contra Manichæos, a defence of the biblical doctrine of creation (389); De duabus animabus, against the psychological dualism of the Manichæans (392); Disputatio contra Fortunatum (a triumphant refutation of this Manichæan priest of Hippo in August, 392); Contra Epistolam Manichæi quam vocant fundamenti (397); Contra Faustum Manichæum, in thirty-three books (400-404); De natura boni (404), &c.
These works treat of the origin of evil; of free will; of the harmony of the Old and New Testaments, and of revelation and nature; of creation out of nothing, in opposition to dualism and hylozoism; of the supremacy of faith over knowledge; of the authority of the Scriptures and the Church; of the true and the false asceticism, and other disputed points; and they are the chief source of our knowledge of the Manichæan Gnosticism and of the arguments against it.
Having himself belonged for nine years to this sect, Augustin was the better fitted for the task of refuting it, as Paul was peculiarly prepared for the confutation of the Pharisaic Judaism. His doctrine of the nature of evil is particularly valuable. He has triumphantly demonstrated for all time, that evil is not a corporeal thing, nor in any way substantial, but a product of the free will of the creature, a perversion of substance in itself good, a corruption of the nature created by God.
2. Against the Priscillianists, a sect in Spain built on Manichæan principles, are directed the book Ad Paulum Orosium contra Priscillianistas et Origenistas (411); the book Contra mendacium, addressed to Consentius (420); and in part the 190th Epistle (alias Ep.157), to the Bishop Optatus, on the origin of the soul (418), and two other letters, in which he refutes erroneous views on the nature of the soul, the limitation of future punishment, and the lawfulness of fraud for supposed good purposes.
3. The anti-Donatistic works, composed between the years 393 and 420, argue against separatism, and contain Augustin's doctrine of the church and church-discipline, and of the sacraments. To these belong: Psalmus contra partem Donati (A.D.393), a polemic popular song without regular metre, intended to offset the songs of the Donatists; Contra epistolam Parmeniani, written in 400 against the Carthaginian bishop of the Donatists, the successor of Donatus; De baptismo contra Donastistas, in favor of the validity of heretical baptism (400); Contra literas Petiliani (about 400), against the view of Cyprian and the Donatists, that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the personal worthiness and the ecclesiastical status of the officiating priest; Ad Catholicos Epistola contra Donatistas, or De unitate ecclesiæ (402); Contra Cresconium grammaticum Donastistam (406); Breviculus Collationis cum Donatistis, a short account of the three days' religious conference with the Donatists (411); De correctione Donatistarum (417); Contra Gaudentium, Donat. Episcopum, the last anti-Donatistic work (420).
These works are the chief patristic authority of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the church and against the sects. They are thoroughly Romanizing in spirit and aim, and least satisfactory to Protestant readers. Augustin defended in his later years even the principle of forcible coërcion and persecution against heretics and schismatics by a false exegesis of the words in the parable |Compel them to come in| (Luke xiv.23). The result of persecution was that both Catholics and Donatists in North Africa were overwhelmed in ruin first by the barbarous Vandals, who were Arian heretics, and afterwards by the Mohammedan conquerors.
4. The anti-Arian works have to do with the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, and with the Holy Trinity. By far the most important of these are the fifteen books De Trinitate (400-416); -- the most profound and discriminating production of the ancient church on the Trinity, in no respect inferior to the kindred works of Athanasius and the two Gregories, and for centuries final to the dogma. This may also be counted among the positive didactic works, for it is not directly controversial. The Collatio cum Maximino Ariano, an obscure babbler, belongs to the year 428.
5. The numerous anti-Pelagian works of Augustin are his most influential and most valuable, at least for Protestants. They were written between the years 412 and 429. In them Augustin, in his intellectual and spiritual prime, develops his system of anthropology and soteriology, and most nearly approaches the position of Evangelical Protestantism: On the Guilt and the Remission of Sins, and Infant Baptism (412); On the Spirit and the Letter (413); On Nature and Grace (415); On the Acts of Pelagius (417); On the Grace of Christ, and Original Sin (418); On Marriage and Concupiscence (419); On Grace and Free Will (426); On Discipline and Grace (427); Against Julian of Eclanum (two large works, written between 421 and 429, the second unfinished, and hence called Opus imperfectum); On the Predestination of the Saints (428); On the Gift of Perseverance (429); &c.
These anti-Pelagian writings contain what is technically called the Augustinian system of theology, which was substantially adopted by the Lutheran Church, yet without the decree of reprobation, and in a more rigorous logical form by the Calvinistic Confessions. The system gives all glory to God, does full justice to the sovereignty of divine grace, effectually humbles and yet elevates and fortifies man, and furnishes the strongest stimulus to gratitude and the firmest foundation of comfort. It makes all bright and lovely in the circle of the elect. But it is gloomy and repulsive in its negative aspect towards the non-elect. It teaches a universal damnation and only a partial redemption, and confines the offer of salvation to the minority of the elect; it ignores the general benevolence of God to all his creatures; it weakens or perverts the passages which clearly teach that |God would have all men to be saved|; it suspends their eternal fate upon one single act of disobedience; it assumes an unconscious, and yet responsible pre-existence of Adam's posterity and their participation in his sin and guilt; it reflects upon the wisdom of God in creating countless millions of beings with the eternal foreknowledge of their everlasting misery; and it does violence to the sense of individual responsibility for accepting or rejecting the gospel-offer of salvation. And yet this Augustinian system, especially in its severest Calvinistic form, has promoted civil and religious liberty, and trained the most virtuous, independent, and heroic types of Christians, as the Huguenots, the Puritans, the Covenanters, and the Pilgrim Fathers. It is still a mighty moral power, and will not lose its hold upon earnest characters until some great theological genius produces from the inexhaustible mine of the Scriptures a more satisfactory solution of the awful problem which the universal reign of sin and death presents to the thinking mind.
In Augustin the anti-Pelagian system was checked and moderated by his churchly and sacramental views, and we cannot understand him without keeping both in view. The same apparent contradiction we find in Luther, but he broke entirely with the sacerdotal system of Rome, and made the doctrine of justification by faith the chief article of his creed, which Augustin never could have done. Calvin was more logical than either, and went back beyond justification and Adam's fall, yea, beyond time itself, to the eternal counsel of God which pre-ordains, directs and controls the whole history of mankind to a certain end, the triumph of his mercy and justice.
VI. Exegetical works. The best of these are: De Genesi ad literam (The Genesis word for word), in twelve books, an extended exposition of the first three chapters of Genesis, particularly the history of the creation literally interpreted, though with many mystical and allegorical interpretations also (written between 401 and 415); Enarrationes in Psalmos (mostly sermons); hundred and twenty-four Homilies on the Gospel of John (416 and 417); ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John (417); the Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (393); the Harmony of the Gospels (De consensu evangelistarum, 400); the Epistle to the Galatians (394); and an unfinished commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.
Augustin deals more in lively, profound, and edifying thoughts on the Scriptures than in proper grammatical and historical exposition, for which neither he nor his readers had the necessary linguistic knowledge, disposition, or taste. He grounded his theology less upon exegesis than upon his Christian and churchly mind saturated with Scriptural truths. He excels in spiritual insight, and is suggestive even when he misses the natural meaning.
VII. Ethical and Ascetic works. Among these belong three hundred and ninety-six Sermones (mostly very short) de Scripturis (on texts of Scripture), de tempore (festival sermons), de sanctis (in memory of apostles, martyrs, and saints), and de diversis (on various occasions), some of them dictated by Augustin, some taken down by hearers. Also various moral treatises: De continentia (395); De mendaico (395), against deception (not to be confounded with the similar work already mentioned Contra mendacium, against the fraud-theory of the Priscillianists, written in 420); De agone Christiano (396); De opere monachorum, against monastic idleness (400); De bono conjugali adv. Jovinianum (400); De virginitate (401); De fide et operibus (413); De adulterinis conjugiis, on 1 Cor. vii.10 sqq. (419); De bono viduitatis (418); De patientia (418); De cura pro mortuis gerenda, to Paulinus of Nola (421); De utilitate jejunii; De diligendo Deo; Meditationes; &c.
As we survey this enormous literary labor, augmented by many other treatises and letters now lost, and as we consider his episcopal labors, his many journeys, and his adjudications of controversies among the faithful, which often robbed him of whole days, we must be really astounded at the fidelity, exuberance, energy, and perseverance of this father of the church. Surely, such a life was worth the living.