Saint Augustine. (354–430). The Confessions of St. Augustine.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
AURELIUS AUGUSTINUS, better known as Saint Augustine, was born of poor parents in the small town of Thagaste in Numidia, North Africa, A. D. 354. His father, Patricius, a pagan of somewhat loose life, was converted to Christianity before his death; his mother Monnica, on account of her personal piety and her influence on her son, is one of the most revered women in the history of the Christian Church. Augustine was educated at the University of Carthage, and according to his own account belonged to a fast set and joined in their dissipations. While there he entered into a relation which lasted for fourteen years with a young woman who became the mother of his son Adeodatus; and he joined the heretical sect of the Manichæans, who professed to have received from their founder, Manes, a higher form of truth than that taught by Christ. At the close of his university career, which had been brilliant in spite of distractions, he returned to his native town, and first there, and later in Carthage and Rome, he practised as a teacher of rhetoric, training young lawyers in the art of pleading. By the time he was about twenty-seven he had begun to have doubts as to the validity of Manichæism, but it was not till 387, while he was Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Milan, that he was converted to Catholic Christianity, and received baptism. He now gave up his profession and became an ascetic, studying the foundations of the faith, writing, chiefly against his former sect, and conversing with a group of disciples, first at Rome and then in his native town. When he was on a visit to Hippo, not far from Thagaste, he was forced into the priesthood, and in 395 he became Bishop of Hippo, an office which he filled for the remaining thirty-five years of his life. Though he took a leading part in the activities of the African Church through all this time, and gradually became one of the most distinguished ecclesiastical figures in the Empire, the care of his diocese and the writing of his books formed his chief occupations. He continued to lead a life of extreme simplicity and self-denial, and in his episcopal establishment he trained a large number of disciples who became leaders in the Church. The strength of his hold on these younger men was due not merely to his intellectual ascendancy, but also to the charm and sweetness of his disposition.
A large part of his literary activity was devoted to controversy with the heretics of his time, first the Manichæans, then the Donatists, and finally the Pelagians. It was in his writings against these last and most important opponents that he elaborated his statement of the doctrines of Predestination, Irresistible Grace and Final Perseverance, through which he has left his chief mark upon the creeds of later times. The theology of the Schoolmen, such as Thomas Aquinas, and of the Calvinists of the Reformation, is built upon an Augustinian basis.
His two most important books are “The City of God” and the “Confessions.” The former of these was provoked by the attacks upon Christianity, roused by the disasters that began to fall upon the Western Empire in the beginning of the fifth century; and Augustine replies by pointing out the failure of the heathen gods in former times to protect the peoples who trusted in them, and goes on to expose the evil influence of the belief in the old mythology, in a minute examination of its traditions and mysteries. The second part of the book deals with the history of the “City of Man,” founded upon love of self, and of the “City of God,” founded upon love of God and contempt of self. This work is a vast storehouse of the knowledge of the time, and is a monument not only to Augustine’s great learning, but also to the keenest metaphysical mind of the age.
The “Confessions,” here printed, speaks for itself. The earliest of autobiographies, it remains unsurpassed as a sincere and intimate record of a great and pious soul laid bare before God.