St Augustine (354-430) was a Christian philosopher, the first to succeed in applying the thought of Plato to the Christian faith. Many attempted it before, such as Origen, Tertulian and the Gnostics, but they all came up with something that was not the true faith. Muslim philosophers later ran into the very same trouble.
Instead of treating Christian and Platonic ideas on equal terms, Augustine interpreted the Christian faith through Plato.
He is famous for two books especially:
- “Confessions” (398) tells about his search for the truth, which finally brought him to Christ.
- “City of God” (422) lays out his ideas about history as the Roman Empire was falling apart in the west. He saw history as the story of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man.
We have 4 million of his words (meaning he wrote at least 330 words a day), much of it written against the heretics of his day.
When Augustine was nineteen he read Cicero and burned for the truth (he loved both Cicero and Virgil). He kept searching for the truth till he found it.
His mother was a Christian, so he knew all the Christian answers to his questions. They did not persuade:
- Question: How could evil exist in a world created by a good and perfect God?
- Question: If Holy Scripture came from God, why was it not as beautifully written as Cicero?
- He could neither marry nor leave his live-in girlfriend. “Give me chastity, but not just yet”.
- He was afraid to trust in God.
His mother was a pious, holy Berber woman who prayed every day for twenty years for his soul. But she was no intellectual like her son. He would have to go out and find the answers for himself.
First he came to the Manichaeans. According to Mani, a prophet from Babylon, the world was created by a good god and an evil god and we are in the battle between them. This made sense to Augustine. But the more he learned, the more questions he had.
In time when he finally got a chance to ask one of the top Manichaeans his questions, he found that there were no answers — just a lot of fine words.
So he left the Manichaeans. Next he read philosophy, especially Porphyry, a follower of Plotinus, the founder of what we call Neoplatonism. It helped him to understand God. The reason Augustine was able to bring Plato and Christ together was because he came to Christ through Plato. It was not something he thought up one afternoon — it was his life.
When he moved to Milan he met the bishop, St Ambrose. His mother made sure of it. He admired Ambrose and Ambrose, as busy as he was, helped Augustine work through his difficulties and brought him to Christ. His mother’s prayers were answered at last! We know her as St Monica, the namesake of Santa Monica, California.
Augustine has a gift for words and a passion for the truth. Even when he writes about something hard like the Trinity, this shines through and makes him a joy to read.