Early Christianity

   Augustine (354-430) is so important in the remolding of Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries that it's hard not to think of him as a founder of Christianity on a par with the original founders of the religion. He was a brilliant and creative man who lived at a time when the European world was changing in shattering ways; not only had no-one quite melded Christianity with the political authority it had as a state religion, but also that authority was crumbling down around everyone's ears as the Roman empire began to fragment into a million separate states. In the face of these profound changes, Augustine, using early Christianity as a base, fundamentally remade the religion by emphasizing and explaining some aspects and by introducing others. It is from Augustine, for instance, that medieval and later Christianity will inherit much of the Christian ideology of sexuality; it is from Augustine that the fundamental basis of medieval political theory will be derived; and it is from Augustine that Europeans will derive their sense of the meaning and trajectory of individual lives.

   Augustine was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the North African city of Tagaste; he was probably of the ethnic stock that modern-day Berbers are derived from. In his early adulthood, Augustine struggled with his ambitions, his sexuality, and with competing philosophies and mystical religions, not even accepting baptism until he was thirty-three. He began his career as a profoundly successful orator, but soon fell into Manicheism, a mystical relgion that combined Christianity and Mithraism, a Zoroastrian religion older and very similar to Christianity in its basic outlines. He soon tired of the contradictions within the religion and began to explore Platonic philosophy; it was in the midst of that project that he was converted to Christianity. He was brilliant man and never really left off the ambitiousness of his youth; within a short period of time he soon became Bishop of Hippo, a position he occupied for the rest of his life

   Augustine soon took on the role of fighting erroneous ideas; it's clear that his long flirtation with philosophy and Manicheism had bred an individual intolerant of competing viewpoints. He took on Greek and Roman philosophy, Manicheism, and Christian heretical viewpoints as his primary project and generated thousands of pages of writings trying to establish the correct views on every issue from the nature of God right down to some of the most trivial ethical issues. In all of this, he was concerned with the proliferation of thinking and viewpoints on the matter; in the process of correcting error, however, he filled out much that was undefined in early Christianity and created a new and consistent structure—sociological, ethical, political, and theological—that would usher in a new form of Christianity and Christian society in the Middle Ages.

   So what are the main components of Augustine's thoughts? It doesn't really help us to understand Augustine by talking about the various heresies, philosophies, and doctrines that he reacted against; what was the substance of his thought? Perhaps we should explore Augustine through many of the concepts he introduced and expanded on.

Bullet The Two Cities

   One of the central controversies that Augustine faced was the relationship of government and authority to Christianity; this problem had been worked on less successfully for over a century before Augustine. When Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410, a number of non-Christians blamed the event on the abandonment of the pagan Gods for the Christian God. In an attempt to refute that argument, Augustine wrote a long treatise on human history and human authority, The City of God.

   In this work, Augustine argued that the world of history can be divided along two trajectories. The first trajectory is the human history of wars, government, authority, taxes, conquests, and laws; the second trajectory of human history is the sacred history of human salvation. These two histories are absolutely independent of one another; as one might expect, it is sacred history that is the most important of the two terms. All human life can be understood in these terms; one's actions in the world ally you with either the one trajectory of history or the other. Some human beings primarily participate in the worldly history of humankind and some human beings primarily participate in sacred history; humanity, then, can be divided into the Two Cities. Those who participate in secular history belong to the City of Man; those who participate in sacred history belong to the City of God. While these two cities are more or less separate from one another, the City of Man exists solely for the advancement of the City of God.

   Whatever happens in secular history advances sacred history; any setback or any crisis in secular history is, from the point of view of sacred history, always an advance in the course of human salvation history. The sack of Rome, then, is not a tragedy from the standpoint of the City of God.

   Since the City of Man exists to advance the sacred history of the City of God, this means that the temporal authority of the City of Man also exists to advance sacred history. Rulers are put into place in a grander scheme advancing human salvation—even if those rulers are immoral or non-Christian, they have the larger-scale purpose of advancing the City of God. For instance, even though the emperors of Rome were pagan during the life of Christ, their actions in uniting the Mediterranean world under a single state allowed for Christianity to spread all throughout the empire.

   This argument—that temporal authority in any form essentially advances human sacred history—would become the basic political theory of the Middle Ages and beyond.

Bullet Conversion

   One of the most important of Augustine's writings was the Confessions, in which Augustine narrated his early youth leading up to his conversion to Christianity. Now, conversion in Latin means "turning around"; a conversion is a point where one quite literally and dramatically reorients one's life and thoughts. In the Confessions , Augustine based his narrative form on Paul of Tarsus's theoretical framework in which conversion is structured as the death of the old self and a birth of a new self, a framework important in modern European Protestantism in the form of "rebirth." However, Paul's formulation involves not simply rebirth, but the death of the old self. This is what Augustine seized on in the Confessions ; conversion, like death, is a process—one's entire life takes one to the point of conversion. That also means that the conversion point gives meaning and value to all that had come before—one can understand the real meaning and trajectory of one's life only after conversion.

   This becomes in Augustinian thought a way of understanding the whole of human history. The conversion point in history was the Christ event; not only can AD time be explained in terms of the Christ event, but that event also gives meaning and value to all of BC time. Reading history in the light of the Christ event was called typology, but typology applied almost entirely to the human history recorded in the Jewish scriptures and history. In The City of God Augustine applies typology to the whole of secular history; one can define the meaning and value of even pagan history by referring to the life and teachings of Christ. One can also apply the Christ event typologically to one's own life. Each individual life plays out the Christ event in history. Conversion reconfigures each individual life as playing out the whole of sacred history in a microcosm.

Bullet Voluntas

   Augustine, as an individual who lived in sin much of his life, was obsessed with the nature of sin. He wanted to define not only what it was, but what caused it. At some level, he believed that the myriad of sins committed by people could be isolated into a single motivational factor. That factor was voluntas, or "will." Voluntas was an old concept in Rome and referred to the psychological mechanism that impelled one to move and act in the world. Roman Christians had applied the term to human action, both good and bad, and argued that human beings have free will—that is, every human being is individually responsible for decisions that they make rather than being impelled to those decisions by forces outside themselves, such as God. Augustine himself wrote extensively on the nature of the free will in a variety of works directed against the Pelasgian heresy, which asserted that all human actions are predestined by God and so outside the control of human will.

   Augustine, though, was more concerned with what made the will go wrong. He was particularly fascinated by the fact that one could will contradictory things. I don't want to commit adultery but I do it anyway, or, in his most famous words, "Give me chastity . . . but not yet."

   So he formulated the human will as being in reality two wills. There is a carnal self that wills sinful actions and a spiritual self that wills belief, self-denial, and ethical actions—in much the same way that human communities in history are divided into a City of Man and a City of God. The carnal will he called cupiditas, or cupidity, and the spiritual will he called caritas, which is the Latin translation of the Christian term, agapé, which means "selfless love." But caritas is more than selfless love; it is the will to be like God and to be united with God. It is, in simple terms, the will to God, while cupidity is the will to flesh.

   These two wills are in constant battle with one another; they are absolutely antithetical and desire completely different objects. When Augustine trains his eye on individual psychology, what he formulates a self divided against itself; this sense of self-division would become the most lasting legacy of Augustianism to the medieval and modern worlds. We still, in fact, carry around the sense that we are deeply divided against ourselves.

   The formulation of the carnal self, that is, the will that is impelled towards sinful objects, lies behind Augustine's radical reformulation of sexuality. From its foundation, Christianity was antithetical to sexuality in a strongly gendered way—foundational and early Christianity focussed very heavily on female sexuality and homosexuality as typifying sexuality in general. Augustine discussed sexuality in less gendered terms (although his treatise on virginity largely concerns women) and in more interiorized terms. Rather than talking about sexuality as an act, he talked about it as an interior state, a triumph of the carnal will over the spiritual will. All sexuality, all sensual pleasure involved the triumph of the carnal will; since sin was located in the carnal will and not the act, Augustine developed a rigorous puritanical attitude towards sexuality that European culture would obsess about for the next fifteen hundred years. It's not unfair to point to the origins of European sexuality, both in its puritanism and its most libertine character, to the formulation of human sexuality by Augustine as located in the will.

Bullet Negligentia

   We have, then, two possibilities open for human potential. One can participate in the secular City of Man and be governed largely by one's carnal will, or one can participate in the sacred history of the City of God and be largely governed by one's spiritual will. Since the basic duty of human life is individual salvation, one is bound by existential responsibility to participate in the City of God and to be governed by the spiritual will.

   Shirking that responsibility is called negligentia, or "negligence." Anything that you do on earth that is governed by your carnal will and that does not contribute to your salvation or to larger salvation history is negligence. In the Confessions , Augustine gave the following example. While sitting at his writing table, his eyes strayed to a spider weaving a web. Rather than doing the work he was supposed to do, he now idly watches the spider. That's negligence: rather than participating in the work one should do, one is distracted by the desires of the carnal self.

Bullet Regio dissimilitudinis

   All of the above ideas relate to human action and human will, but what about human reason and human knowledge? What about epistemology?

   In his earliest works, Augustine takes pains to argue against the Greek and Roman skeptical tradition which asserts that humans can know nothing for certain. This certainty is what guarantees faith at some level. But that doesn't mean that certainty is gained through reason and philosophy, but that some process higher than reason is necessary.

   In fact, Augustine will reject the entire philosophical project of antiquity that relies on human reason alone. While he would argue that Platonic philosophy can come to most truths of religion, the Christ event in history and its significance lay beyond the powers of human reason alone: "I found in Platonic philosophy all the truths of Christianity save one: 'The Word was made flesh.'"

   In the Confessions , the term that Augustine applies to his own philosophical speculation is regio dissimilitudinis, the "region of unlikeness," in which his mind was wandering. What does that mean? Why is human reason and the phenomenal world a "region of unlikeness"?

   Augustine and other early Christian writers imagined human beings and the phenomenal world as somehow reflecting God or being like God. This isn't a similarity in identity, but more like a metaphorical similarity. How does metaphor work? When you use a metaphor, say, "Joe is like a lion," there are two parts to the comparison. The most relevant part are those aspects of a lion that a person can imitate: bravery, irascibility, and so on. There are also parts of the metaphor that don't apply: Joe does not walk on four legs or have a mane or live in a pride. The same applies to human similarity to God: we are similar in some respects and dissimilar in others. The realm of the material world and the whole area of human speculative reason is the area of dissimilarity, what makes us different from God—hence, the "region of unlikeness" where most of us spend our lives.

   This leads to a new insight on sin. Rather than simply disobeying God or following one's cupidity, the essential aspect of sin is that it makes you different from God. Any activity that is different from God, including reason, takes you away from your essential nature, which is your similarity to God.

Bullet The Classical World

   The most pressing cultural problem of Christian late antiquity was what to do with the cultural heritage of the Roman and Greek pagan past. Many Christian thinkers believed that the pagan past should be abandoned completely; this was a tough project in that all of them had been brought up in that tradition. This included classical education which involved the study of rhetoric and the liberal arts.

   Augustine argued that Christians should take whatever is useful from the classical world in the same way that the Jews took the gold out of Egypt when they were freed by Moses. We have seen how Augustine recovered pagan history—by folding into the typological scheme of salvation history—in much the same way, he argued to maintain classical education. Much of the material in that education would change, but the salient change would be the ends to which the education was put. No longer would grammar, rhetoric, and the liberal arts be used for worldly success, rather they would be used to interpret and understand the Bible and salvation history. In part through Augustine's educational program, the classical world was more or less continuous with the medieval world.

   Like all good Romans, Augustine believed that education was suited only to the elite in society. While classical education could advance one in one's understanding of the Bible and salvation, Augustine believed that the masses of Christians should only be catechized—that is, made to memorize—the doctrines of the church without learning to understand them.

Richard Hooker


World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999