St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the most prolific geniuses that humanity has ever known, and is admired not only for the number of his works, but also for the variety of subjects, which traverse the whole realm of thought. The form in which he casts his work exercises a very powerful attraction on the reader. Bardenhewer praises his extraordinary suppleness of expression and his marvellous gift of describing interior things, of painting the various states of the soul and the facts of the spiritual world. His latinity bears the stamp of his age. In general, his style is noble and chaste ; but, says the same author, "in his sermons and other popular writings he purposely drops to the language of the people." A detailed analysis is impossible here. We shall merely indicate his principal writings and the date (often approximate) of their composition.
The Confessions are the history of his heart; the Retractations , of his mind; while the Letters show his activity in the Church.
The Confessions (towards A.D. 400) are, in the Biblical sense of the word confiteri , not an avowal or an account, but the praise of a soul that admires the action of God within itself. Of all the works of the holy Doctor none has been more universally read and admired, none has caused more salutary tears to flow. Neither in respect of penetrating analysis of the most complex impressions of the soul, nor communicative feeling, nor elevation of sentiment, nor depth of philosophic views, is there any book like it in all literature.
The Retractations (towards the end of his life, 426-428) are a revision of the works of the saint in chronological order, explaining the occasion and dominant idea of each. They are a guide of inestimable price for seizing the progress of Augustine's thought.
The Letters , amounting in the Benedictine collection to 270 (53 of them from Augustine's correspondents), are a treasure of the greatest value, for the knowledge of his life, influence and even his doctrine.
These writings, for the most part composed in the villa of Cassisiacum, from his conversion to his baptism (388-387), continue the autobiography of the saint by initiating us into the researches and Platonic hesitations of his mind. There is less freedom in them than in the Confessions. They are literary essays, writings whose simplicity is the acme of art and elegance. Nowhere is the style of Augustine so chastened, nowhere is his language so pure. Their dialogue form shows that they were inspired by Plate and Cicero. The chief ones are:
In The City of God (begun in 413, but Books 20-22 were written in 426) Augustine answers the pagans, who attributed the fall of Rome (410) to the abolition of pagan worship. Considering this problem of Divine Providence with regard to the Roman Empire, he widens the horizon still more and in a burst of genius he creates the philosophy of history, embracing as he does with a glance the destinies of the world grouped around the Christian religion, the only one which goes back to the beginning and leads humanity to its final term. The City of God is considered as the most important work of the great bishop. The other works chiefly interest theologians ; but it, like the Confessions , belongs to general literature and appeals to every soul. The Confessions are theology which has been lived in the soul, and the history of God's action on individuals, while The City of God is theology framed in the history of humanity, and explaining the action of God in the world.
Other apologetic writings, like the "De Verâ Religione" (a little masterpiece composed at Tagaste, 389-391), "De Utilitate Credendi" (391), "Liber de fide rerum quæ non videntur" (400), and the "Letter 120 to Consentius," constitute Augustine the great theorist of the Faith, and of its relations to reason. "He is the first of the Fathers," says Harnack (Dogmengeschichte, III, 97) "who felt the need of forcing his faith to reason." And indeed he, who so repeatedly affirms that faith precedes the intelligent apprehension of the truths of revelation -- he it is who marks out with greater clearness of definition and more precisely than anyone else the function of the reason in preceding and verifying the witness's claim to credence, and in accompanying the mind's act of adhesion. (Letter to Consentius, n. 3, 8, etc.) What would not have been the stupefaction of Augustine if anyone had told him that faith must close its eyes to the proofs of the divine testimony, under the penalty of its becoming science ! Or if one had spoken to him of faith in authority giving its assent, without examining any motive which might prove the value of the testimony! It surely cannot be possible for the human mind to accept testimony without known motives for such acceptance, or, again, for any testimony, even when learnedly sifted out, to give the science -- the inward view -- of the object.
Against the Manichæans :
Against the Donatists :
Against the Pelagians, in chronological order, we have:
Against the Semipelagians :
Against Arianism :
Augustine in the "De Doctrinâ Christianâ" (begun in 397 and ended in 426) gives us a genuine treatise of exegesis, historically the first (for St. Jerome wrote rather as a controversialist). Several times he attempted a commentary on Genesis. The great work "De Genesi ad litteram" was composed from 401 to 415. The "Enarrationes in Psalmos" are a masterpiece of popular eloquence, with a swing and a warmth to them which are inimitable. On the New Testament : the "De Sermone Dei in Monte" (during his priestly ministry) is especially noteworthy; "De Consensu Evangelistarum" (Harmony of the Gospels -- 400); Homilies on St. John (416), generally classed among the chief works of Augustine; the Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians " (324), etc. The most remarkable of his Biblical works illustrate either a theory of exegesis (one generally approved) which delights in finding mystical or allegorical interpretations, or the style of preaching which is founded on that view. His strictly exegetical work is far from equalling in scientific value that of St. Jerome. His knowledge of the Biblical languages was insufficient: he read Greek with difficulty; as for Hebrew, all that we can gather from the studies of Schanz and Rottmanner is that he was familiar with Punic, a language allied to Hebrew. Moreover, the two grand qualities of his genius -- ardent feeling and prodigious subtlety -- carried him sway into interpretations that were violent or more ingenious than solid.
But the hermeneutics of Augustine merit great praise, especially for their insistence upon the stern law of extreme prudence in determining the meaning of Scripture : We must be on our guard against giving interpretations which are hazardous or opposed to science, and so exposing the word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers (De Genesi ad litteram, I, 19, 21, especially n. 39). An admirable application of this well-ordered liberty appears in his thesis on the simultaneous creation of the universe, and the gradual development of the world under the action of the natural forces which were placed in it. Certainly the instantaneous act of the Creator did not produce an organized universe as we see it now. But, in the beginning, God created all the elements of the world in a confused and nebulous mass (the word is Augustine's Nebulosa species apparet ; "De Genesi ad litt.," I, n. 27), and in this mass were the mysterious germs ( rationes seminales ) of the future beings which were to develop themselves, when favourable circumstances should permit. Is Augustine, therefore, an Evolutionist?
If we mean that he had a deeper and wider mental grasp than other thinkers had of the forces of nature and the plasticity of beings, it is an incontestable fact; and from this point of view Father Zahm (Bible, Science, and Faith, pp. 58-66, French tr.) properly felicitates him on having been the precursor of modern thought. But if we mean that he admitted in matter a power of differentiation and of gradual transformation, passing from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, the most formal texts force us to recognize that Augustine proclaimed the fixity of species, and did not admit that "from one identical primitive principle or from one germ, different realities can issue." This judgment of the Abbé Martin in his very searching study on this subject (S. Augustin, p. 314) must correct the conclusion of Father Zahm. "The elements of this corporeal world have also their well defined force, and their proper quality, from which depends what each one of them can or cannot do, and what reality ought or ought not to issue from each one of them. Hence it is that from a grain of wheat a bean cannot issue, nor wheat from a bean, nor a, man from a beast, nor a beast from a man" (De Genesi ad litt., IX, n. 32).
The fifteen books De Trinitate , on which he worked for fifteen years, from 400 to 416, are the most elaborate and profound work of St. Augustine. The last books on the analogies which the mystery of the Trinity have with our soul are much discussed. The saintly author himself declares that they are only analogous and are far-fetched and very obscure.
The Enchiridion , or handbook, on Faith, Hope, and Love, composed, in 421, at the request of a pious Roman, Laurentius, is an admirable synthesis of Augustine's theology, reduced to the three theological virtues. Father Faure has given us a learned commentary of it, and Harnack a detailed analysis (Hist. of dogmas, III, 205, 221).
Several volumes of miscellaneous questions, among which "Ad Simplicianum" (397) has been especially noted.
Numberless writings of his have a practical aim: two on "Lying" (374 and 420), five on "Continence," "Marriage," and "Holy Widowhood," one on "Patience," another on "Prayer for the Dead" (421).
The theory of preaching and religious instruction of the people is given in the "De Catechizandis Rudibus" (400) and in the fourth book "De Doctrinâ. Christianâ." The oratorical work alone is of vast extent. Besides the Scriptural homilies, the Benedictines have collected 363 sermons which are certainly authentic ; the brevity of these suggests that they are stenographic, often revised by Augustine himself. If the Doctor in him predominates over the orator, if he possesses less of colour, of opulence, of actuality, and of Oriental charm than St. John Chrysostom , we find, on the other hand, a more nervous logic, bolder comparisons, greater elevation and greater profundity of thought, and sometimes, in his bursts of emotion and his daring lapses into dialogue-form, he attains the irresistible power of the Greek orator.
The best edition of his complete works is that of the Benedictines, eleven tomes in eight folio volumes (Paris, 1679-1700). It has been often reprinted, e.g. by Gaume (Paris, 1836-39), in eleven octavo volumes, and by Migne, PL 32-47. The last volume of the Migne reprint contains a number of important earlier studies on St. Augustine -- Vivés, Noris, Merlin, particularly the literary history of the editions of Augustine from Schönemann's "Bibl. hist. lit. patrum Lat." (Leipzig, 1794).
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