Saint Augustine of Hippo, by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1650.
Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430, largely in North Africa where he served as a bishop for nearly thirty-five years. Augustine was a prolific author of theological treatises, sermons, and correspondence with significant figures across the Roman and Christian world. We will begin our reading with two of Augustine’s most famous works, the Confessions and the City of God.
Introductions to Augustine’s life and influence are abundant online. The standard academic biography is Peter Brown’s. A short and highly accessible introduction to Augustine, with an interesting argument on his cultural setting, is Justo Gonzalez’s The Mestizo Augustine.
Augustine’s most famous work is The Confessions. The Confessions are an autobiographical account of Augustine’s life, beginning with his earliest memories and taking the reader up to his baptism and a mystical experience of God with his mother. In its final books, The Confessions also include theological reflections on Creation and the Book of Genesis. The work is the first autobiography in western history, and it has been enormously influential in shaping the western sense of self. (On this point, see Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.) But it is not an autobiography in exactly the form one might expect. It takes its title, The Confessions, from its structure, since the book is a long prayer of confession to God, in both the sense that it acknowledges Augustine’s sins but also in the sense that it confesses faith that God was directing his path. The work contains some of Augustine’s most well-known phrases, such as “our hearts are restless till they find rest in you” (book1), “return to your heart” (book 4), and “Descend that you may ascend, and ascend to God” (book 4). Where much of the work that we have read feels as ancient as it is, many readers find Augustine to be fresh and modern.
That easy familiarity with the text that many readers discover does much to explain the continued appeal of this book, but it also can lead readers astray. One assumption that readers make about the book is that it is a conversion narrative of the sort that they have encountered in the Book of Acts describing Paul’s conversion and then (leaping over a couple millennia) in their own religious experiences. Certainly many readers point to Augustine’s encounter in the garden where he reads the epistles as Paul as a kind of conversion experience. (As an aside, note that that scene happens in a garden, as does the first couple chapters of Genesis.) The Confessions, however, describe many conversions that Augustine experiences. While reading, it may be worthwhile to note the moments where Augustine turns in his confessions, and what is at stake in each of those turnings. These include Augustine’s conversions to philosophy (book 3), to Manichaeism (book 3), to Catholic Christianity, to neoplatonism (book 7), to asceticism (book 8), to a mystical experience of God (book 9).
There are no shortage of translations of the Confessions. We heartily recommend Maria Boulding’s translation for the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works. Another good modern translation is Garry Wills’s translation for Penguin Classics. Readers looking for a scholarly text in Latin should try James J. O’Donnell’s edition published by Oxford, which also includes two volumes of commentary. Or you may prefer the two volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2) of the Confessions in Latin and English in the Loeb Classical Library.
After reading Augustine’s autobiography, we’ll gain another perspective on his life through reading his letters—around 270 total. The Confessions largely end with the death of Augustine’s mother Monica, before Augustine assumed the roles for which he became well known as a preacher, pastor, and polemicist. The letters shed light on how Augustine interacted with friends, resolved disputes between congregants, and admonished those he saw going astray.
In 1969, Johannes Divjak rediscovered an additional thirty letters dictated by Augustine. Those letters are not included on our current reading schedule, as there are no public domain versions available. But readers interested in these further glimpses at Augustine’s ministry may wish to consult the editions listed below.
The Loeb Classical Library has an edition of selected letters from Augustine. The full series, including the Divjak letters, are available in hardcover from New City Press’s twenty-first century translation of the works of Augustine: Letters 1-99, Letters 100-155, Letters 156-210, Letters 211-270 and Divjak.
City of God
Next to the Confessions, the City of God is Augustine’s most well-known work. Augustine wrote his masterpiece of political theology in response to the sack of Rome in 410. The work represents an extended meditation on the causes of the rise and fall of Rome, the ways in which political and spiritual societies interact, and the mysterious progress of the heavenly kingdom in the midst of political crisis.
Even today, entire branches of theology, political ethics, and constitutional theory—sometimes gathered under the term “political theology”—vigorously debate the application of Augustine’s City of God to modern politics. For a useful and clear overview of the various positions on Augustine’s thought, see Michael Bruno’s Political Augustinianism. A landmark work in this area is R. A. Markus’s 1989 book Saeculum, which argued that City of God helped to create a secular, de-sacralized arena of politics. Since Markus’s work, scholars have disputed whether Augustine’s thought is really compatible with secularization, and if so, whether that’s a virtue of his thought. Some approaches view Augustine as offering helpful advice to citizens no matter their religious orientation, for instance Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love. Others find Augustine presenting a distinctively Christian way to engage in political life, for instance Charles Mathewes’s A Theology of Public Life. For a complex treatment of both these views, see Oliver O’Donovan’s loosely related trilogy, Resurrection and Moral Order, The Desire of the Nations, and The Ways of Judgment.
There are several modern translations of the City of God. The daily readings link to the public domain text by Marcus Dods. New Century Press’s twenty-first century translation of Augustine has a two-volume paperback edition of City of God. R. W. Dyson produced a lucid, readable translation for the Cambridge History of Political Thought. And Penguin Press offers a very affordable modern translation by Henry Bettenson.