Fundamental St. Augustine: A Practical Guide to The Confessions and The City of God by M. James Ziccardi - Read Online
Fundamental St. Augustine
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The following is one in a series of reviews that has been extracted in its entirety from M. James Ziccardi’s "The Essence of Medieval Philosophy".
It is intended to serve as a primer for students of medieval philosophy with an emphasis on some of the more important works of St. Augustine.

Published: M. James Ziccardi on
ISBN: 9781301040865
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Fundamental St. Augustine - M. James Ziccardi

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Section 1 - Preface

The following is one in a series of reviews that has been extracted in its entirety from M. James Ziccardi’s "The Essence of Medieval Philosophy".

It is intended to serve as a primer for students of medieval philosophy with an emphasis on some of the more important works of St. Augustine.

Section 2 - Notes on the Text

Square brackets [] found within quotes are mine; Parentheses () found within quotes are the Augustine’s.

Sections in bold type or that are underlined are intended by me to highlight critical points.

Section 3 - Biography

(354 A.D. – 430 A.D.)

Augustine (St. Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo), is often considered to be the first prominent philosopher of the Medieval Period. Born in the North African town of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in the year 354 A.D., Augustine came of age during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. His early years were heavily influenced by the contrasting religious beliefs of his parents: his mother (later canonized as St. Monica), who was a devout Christian, and his father, an unbeliever. This contrast led Augustine, often with great emotional anguish, to seek for himself the answers to his questions concerning God and existence. As a young man he studied and taught rhetoric, during which time he read and became familiar with many of the works by the great Greek and Roman philosophers, especially those of Plato and Cicero. The road he travelled during his quest for enlightenment, however, eventually led him to Christianity, and as a Christian he would come to play one of, if not the most influential roles in the spread of the Christian Doctrine throughout the Western World. Indeed, it is held by many that were it not for the writings and influence of Augustine, Christianity would not have become one of the world’s most practiced religions for more than two-thousand years. In fact, it may not have lasted at all.

Augustine was ordained a priest in 391, and in 395 he was made a coadjutor (Latin for co-assister) to the Bishop of Hippo Regius (now the city of Annaba, Algeria). Shortly after the death of the then Bishop, Augustine was elevated to full Bishop of Hippo. It was during this time that he came to write his most significant works, the two most important of which are Confessions and City of God. (We will be examining both of these shortly.)

Augustine died in Hippo Regius in the year 430 at the age of seventy-five; he was canonized shortly thereafter. (At the time, the Vatican had little, if anything, to do with the beatification of saints, and the matter was left to the local Catholic populations along with their Bishops.) In 1256, the monastic Order of St. Augustine was established at the behest of Pope Alexander IV. In the Catholic Church, the Feast of St. Augustine is celebrated on August 28, the date of his death; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is celebrated on June 15.

Not only have Augustine’s works been a major influence to many of the great historical religious leaders throughout history, such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Cornelius Jansen, but they have also had a significant impact on some of the greatest philosophers of the Modern era, including the likes of Rene Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Edmond Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The following is a book-by-book review of the Confessions, the autobiographical account of Augustine’s early life and his subsequent conversion to Christianity. It was written between the years 397 and 398, and, by modern standards, is considered by many to be the first true autobiography.

Section 4 - -Confessions

Book 1 (Confessions)

Book 1 opens with a prayer in which Augustine asks God to reveal to him His true nature. He wants to know if God exists in everything, including heaven, earth, and even hell. If so, is God entirely contained within these things, or is only a portion of Him contained in them? And if this is true, does it then follow that there is both a greater and a lesser part to God? Finally, Augustine asks, is God in him, or is he in God?

Augustine claims that God is the First Cause, which is to say, the ultimate cause of all things. He states, Thou art, and art God and Lord of all which Thou hast created: in Thee abiding, and of all things changeable, the springs abide in Thee unchangeable: and in Thee live the eternal reasons of all things unreasoning and temporal.

He asks God to explain the condition of his soul prior to his birth. For instance, was his soul attached to a different body in a prior life? To this, Augustine later found the answer through the Christian faith. He expounds upon this at the end of the City of God, which will be discussed in its entirety following our review of the Confessions.

Regarding sin, Augustine says the following: God made man, but not man’s sin, for in Thy sight none is pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth. He claims the reason for this is that the sin of infants is derived from their conception. Thus he claims, In sin did my mother conceive me.

Finally, Augustine claims that learning is most successful when it is done freely, for no doubt, then, that a free curiosity has more force in our learning these things, than a frightful enforcement.

Book 2 (Confessions)

Here, Augustine confesses that in his youth, at the age of sixteen, he along with some friends stole some pears. He claims he did this not for any sort of personal gain through revenge, which might provide a degree of justification, but rather for the pleasure of committing the theft itself. He now asks God what caused him to derive such happiness in sin.

Book 3 (Confessions)

(Augustine arrives at Carthage.)

While he was in Carthage, Augustine attended many of the plays that were commonly staged at the time, and he wondered why man desires to be made sad by them. For no one would want to suffer the sadness they depict, yet somehow man derives a certain pleasure in viewing them. In real life, men feel a sense of compassion in the suffering of others, but as spectators they only experience a temporary grief.

At the age of nineteen, two years after his father’s death, Augustine read and became deeply affected by Cicero’s book, Hortensius, which for him contained an exhortation to philosophy. This led him to thoughts on philosophy and God. With regard to any sort of religious upbringing, it is at this point that Augustine reveals some important facts about his parents: his mother, who was a devout Christian, wanted nothing more than for her son to accept the word of Christ; his father, on the other hand, was at best a pagan, although for the most part, Augustine refers to him simply as a non-believer.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Subsequent to his conversion, however, he felt that it was something to be wary of. Nevertheless, philosophy caused Augustine to bend my mind to the Holy Scriptures, that I might see what they were. At the outset, Augustine felt that the Holy Scriptures were not worthy when compared to the great works of the early philosophers, and especially those of Tully (Cicero).

For Augustine, God cannot be corporeal, or in other words, God cannot have a physical existence. This is because if He were, then He could not be wholly everywhere as Spirit, as God. As such, if God had a physical existence, then He could not be infinite, for then He would be limited by His finite form.

According to Augustine, justice, as defined by the Law of God, is not various or mutable, but it may be applied differently according to place and time. (At first, Augustine found fault with this notion.)

Book 4 (Confessions)

(Augustine’s life from age nineteen to twenty-eight.)

At Carthage, Augustine taught rhetoric. During this time he came to believe that all of creation was the mere product of chance. Also during this time, a close friend of his had died. While this caused Augustine profound grief, it was not lost on him that his friend had been baptized in the Christian faith prior to his death.

After the death of his friend, Augustine claims that his life became even more wretched than it already was, and that for the first time he began to fear death. He further claims that he could not find relief from his misery by any means: not in games, music, banquets, the pleasures of the bed and the couch, nor in books and [poetry]. As such, he came to regard the pleasures of the senses as fleeting, but the pleasures of the soul, through God, to be everlasting.

Augustine claims to have been influenced by Aristotle’s Predicaments, though for the worse. (Aristotle’s Predicaments are the ten categories of existence that he presents in his work, Categories.)

Book 5 (Confessions)

During Augustine’s twenty-ninth year, Faustus, a certain Bishop of the Manichees, came to Carthage. But despite being revered for his knowledge, Augustine found him to be not as compelling as the earlier philosophers, although he did admire him with respect to his ideas on art and science. However, for Augustine, even the philosophers were lacking in their understanding of God. Nonetheless, they were knowledgeable and accurate in their calculations of the celestial bodies, especially when it came to eclipses. (The Manichees were members of a pagan religion which had its origins in Ancient Persia. They were often seen as a threat to other religions.)

Augustine claimed that because the ignorant are impressed by the knowledge of the philosophers, they often turn from God. They fail to recognize, he says, that it is God who made all things, as well as the senses by which man perceives them. And furthermore, that their understanding is only made possible through the grace of God. As such, men are often led to praise the creation rather than the Creator. For according to Augustine, it is better to know the Creator than the creation.

Thus for Augustine, Faustus turned out to be nothing more than a charlatan who simply fooled the people with his good looks and eloquent speech. He was ignorant of science, but used God to justify his beliefs and teachings. Moreover, he was only able to fool the people because they were no good judges of things, and thus to them he appeared understanding and wise. Therefore, something is not true simply because it is spoken eloquently or false because it is spoken inharmoniously or rudely delivered.

Augustine then discusses his travelling to Rome to study, and how he felt guilty that he had broken his promise to his mother that he would not leave home. Upon arriving he became seriously ill, yet he still did not seek God, nor did he believe in Him. Instead, he chose to believe the philosophers, who claimed the no truth can be comprehended by man.

During his time in Rome, Augustine continued practicing and teaching rhetoric, all the while erroneously believing God, as well as good and evil, to be corporeal bodies.