Saint Augustine: 7 Surprising Insights From the Doctor of Catholicism

Saint Augustine is perhaps the most consequential figure in Christian history other than Jesus Christ himself. A prolific writer, his theology helped shape Catholic doctrine.

Jan 18, 2021By Michael Arnold
saint augustine doctor catholicism
Details from Saints Augustine and Monica by Ary Scheffer, 1854; and The Triumph of Saint Augustine by Claudio Coello, 1664

 

The year is 374 AD in Roman North Africa. Augustine, a self-indulgent youth born into a wealthy family, is about to embark on a wild journey

 

It will take him to Carthage, and then Milan where he will not only convert to Christianity but begin the process of ordainment and, finally, return to Africa to become a bishop.

 

Along the way he’ll commit adultery, father an illegitimate child, care for his dying mother, face off with a heretical Roman empress, and, ultimately, reject all worldly temptations and embrace total devotion to God. His life’s spiritual progression is striking: from ambivalence toward religion, to an ascetic Gnostic faith called Manichaeism, and eventually to Roman Catholicism. He would eventually become the famed Saint Augustine whose writings would heavily influence Catholic doctrine.

 

Saint Augustine: Background And Shaping Of Catholic Doctrine 

Mural painting of the Bearded Christ from the Catacombs of Commodilla, Rome; one of the first known images of Jesus, late 4th Century AD, via getyourguide.com

 

Three centuries prior to Augustine’s lifetime, a man called Jesus Christ, who proclaimed himself to be the Son of God, was crucified, died, and then resurrected.

 

This miraculous event and the story of His life’s ministry inspired the rise of churches and cults dedicated to Him all over the Roman World.


Word spread outward from Judea, and ten years after the death of Christ the first Coptic Church had taken root in Egypt. In Numidia, Gnostic sects, like the one Augustine had become involved with in his youth, bubbled up everywhere. These often arrived from the East and infused elements of ancient paganism with the story of Jesus into their teachings.

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But Augustine would go on to vehemently decry Gnosticism.

 

The Red Monastery Coptic Church in Sohag, Upper Egypt; one of the few extant ancient Christian churches, 5th century AD AD, via The American Research Center in Egypt, Cairo

 

His ministry came to serve as the bridge between the Paleochristian West and its modern Catholic form. And in being such a vehicle, he drew on past thinkers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, to chart the course for Christianity’s future.

 

Augustine’s life is fascinating for many reasons. But high among them was his ability to stand as an indefatigable voice in the shaping of Catholic doctrine at a time when the “faith was still unformed and hesitant about the norm of doctrine.”

 

Below are seven interesting insights from the life and philosophy of Saint Augustine.

 

1. Unholy Beginnings

 

“The blindness of humanity is so great that people are actually proud of their blindness.” Confessions, Book III

 

Roman ruins in Timgad, Algeria, nearby Augustine’s home city of Thagaste, via EsaAcademic.com

 

Augustine was raised by his Christian mother and pagan father in the Roman province of Numidia.

 

In his autobiographical work, Confessions, he recounts all the ways in which he’d wrought himself in sin early on in life.

 

His tale starts with the rejection of his mother’s pleas for him to convert to Christianity. Monica, who later went on to be canonized, is described as an early adopter who had dedicated her life entirely to God.

 

During his youth, Augustine disregarded her and, rather, imitated his father who did not constrain himself to any strict belief systems. He also, according to Augustine, “was drunk with the invisible wine of his perverse will directed downwards to inferior things.”

 

At 17, he moved to Carthage to sell his services as a rhetorician a career path he later reflected on as sinful because of its promotion of tact over truth.

 

While living in Carthage he struggled particularly with sexual indiscretions and the burden of an unquenchable lust.

 

“I in my misery seethed and followed the driving force of my impulses, abandoning you, I exceeded all the bounds set by your law.”

 

Roman Marble Group of Two Lovers, ca. 1st-2nd century AD, via Sotheby’s

 

The inherent sin in his lusting was its force to distract him from God, and to make him what he called a “slave of worldly affairs.” He writes that it created discord in him that robbed his soul of all concentration.

 

But, above all, he claims the greatest sin of his youth was his seeking out of worldly things instead of their Creator.

 

“My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings,” Augustine writes in Book I of Confessions.

 

He’s a profoundly relatable saint in that he is so frank about the tensions caused in him by his overwhelming worldly desires.

 

“[Saint Augustine’s] writing is full of tensions,” says Karmen MacKendrick, co-author of the book Seducing Augustine. “There’s always a pull in different directions. And one of the most important pulls is celebrating the beauty of the world that God has created and, on the other hand, not being so seduced by it that you forget about its Creator.”

 

2. Saint Augustine Promulgates The ‘Original Sin’ Concept

 

“Who put this power in me and implanted in me this seed of bitterness, when all of me was created by my very kind God?” Confessions, Book VII 

 

A panel from the Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500, via Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

Everyone has heard the Garden of Eden story. At the tempting of a serpent, and against God’s command, Eve picks a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In doing so she damns herself, Adam, and all of their posterity with the curse of original sin. Simply put, this means humans are born with the intrinsic capacity to commit evil acts.


Though he didn’t invent the story, Augustine is credited as the mastermind behind the concept that it illustrates. He expounds on the origin of evil, which is at the root of original sin.

 

In his Confessions, he writes that God is the “orderer and creator of all things in nature, but of sinners only the orderer.” And because sinning is the product of evil, we can infer that Saint Augustine means God is not responsible for evil in the world.

 

It’s an interesting consideration even now but was particularly topical during Augustine’s lifetime. The Gnostic religion that he’d adhered to before converting to Christianity, Manichaeism, was a dualistic faith with a god of light and a god of darkness. The two were in a constant good versus evil struggle: the god of light was associated with the sacred spiritual dimension and the god of darkness with the profane temporal one.

 

Detail of a Manichee scene: Manichaeism was born in China and spread west, taking root in the Near East and eventually North Africa, via ancient-origins.net

 

In Manichaeism, evil was obviously attributed to the god of darkness.

 

But since there’s only one God in Christianity a God who is the creator of absolutely everything, both real and imaginable the source of all the evil and suffering in the world is baffling.

 

One could say that it emanates from Satan. But God created him at some point, too: “How does the evil will by which he became devil originate in him, when an angel is wholly made by a Creator who is pure goodness?” Augustine reflects. 

 

Evil is contrary to God’s will. So how could anything contrary to God’s will exist in a universe created solely by Him?

 

Despite being termed “The Great Adversary,” Satan isn’t a true adversary of the Christian God because that would imply he could, in theory, defeat Him. But God is “incorruptible,” undefeatable.

 

And in Christianity, the entire universe is the almighty God as much as it is His creation. This brings Augustine to question the nature and being of evil through a Christian lens.

 

In reflecting on his own sinful misdeeds, he writes “there was nothing beautiful about you, my thieving. Indeed do you exist at all for me to be addressing you?”

 

So Augustine goes as far as to question the very existence of evil because it isn’t a creation of God. Sin is rather the illusion of man’s misdirected will. Evil, he writes, is, in truth, non-existent because “if it were a substance, it would be good.”

 

3. Saint Augustine: A Great Philosopher

 

“By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.” Confessions, Book VII

 

Bust of Plotinus with a reconstructed nose, 3rd century AD, original bust via the Ostia Antica Museum, Rome, Italy

 

Saint Augustine is a world-class philosopher among the ranks of all the greats in ancient history.

 

He had the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants: Augustine studied Plato and Aristotle during his formative years; he was heavily influenced by Plotinus and the Neoplatonists in adulthood.

 

His descriptions of God echo Plato’s treatise on essential forms. Augustine cannot seem to accept the notion of the divine as consigned to the figure of a humanoid. He writes that he “did not conceive of [Him] in the shape of the human body.” Like an essential form, he asserts God is “incorruptible, immune from injury, and unchangeable.”

 

In Book V of Confessions, he makes another allusion to the world of essential forms stating that in his youth he “did not think anything existed which is not material.” And that “this was the principal and almost sole cause of [his] inevitable error.” But, in fact, the “other reality,” noesis, that he was unaware of the existence of is “that which truly is.”

 

Augustine often addresses God with the endearing Platonic language of “Eternal Truth, True Love, and Beloved Eternity.” In this way he lays bare his affections for the highest ideals of the ancient Greeks, conflating them with his own conception of God.

 

Themes of unity among all things, a concept rooted in Platonism and Neoplatonism, also pervade Augustine’s texts. Inspired by Plotinus, he asserts that the ascent to divine eternity is “a recovery of unity.” Meaning our true, divine state is that of a whole and our current state of humanity is one of disintegration. “You the One,” Augustine writes, “and us the many, who live in a multiplicity of distractions by many things,” find our mediator in Jesus, the “Son of man.”

 

Figure of the Egyptian god Horus dressed in Roman military garb (Horus was the personification of time in ancient Egypt and was depicted often in Roman art), 1st-3rd century AD, Roman Egypt, via the British Museum, London

 

He inquires deeply into the concepts of memory, images, and time. On time, a topic he calls both “deeply obscure” and “commonplace” simultaneously, Augustine draws on Plotinus to define it in its most basic terms.

 

In its commonplace aspect, humans identify time by the “movements of the sun, moon, and stars.” But Augustine explores the rhetorical question of why it should be confined to the movement of heavenly bodies and not all physical objects. “If the heavenly bodies were to cease and a potter’s wheel were revolving, would there be no time by which we could measure its gyrations?”

 

He claims that time’s true nature has nothing to do with celestial rotations, which is simply a tool for its measurement. The movement of a physical body is not time, but time is required for a physical body to move.

 

Augustine never defines its more complex aspect. 

 

Time’s “essence” remains obscure to him: “I confess to you, Lord, that I still do not know what time is, and I further confess that as I say this I know myself to be conditioned by time.” The answer, he believes, comes with salvation. Because salvation is the deliverance from the obscurity of time.

 

Planet Jupiter over the ancient city of Ephesus, modern-day Turkey, via NASA

 

“Lord, eternity is yours,” he proclaims.

 

Augustine concludes that all time collapses into God. All of God’s “years” subsist in simultaneity because for Him they do not change.

 

Despite being heavily influenced by them, the ancient Greek philosophers ultimately don’t quite cut it for Augustine. He appreciates their immense contributions to the foundations of philosophy but asserts that they lack a critical element: Christ. 

 

“But to these philosophers, who were without Christ’s saving name, I altogether refused to entrust the healing of my soul’s sickness.”

 

4. He Became A Prominent Christian in Milan

 

“Starving minds can only lick the images of things that are seen and temporal.” 

Confessions, Book IX

 

Conversion of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico, 1430-35, Italian, via Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg

 

In 384, Augustine moved to Milan to accept a prestigious promotion. 

 

He brought with him Adeodatus, the son he’d fathered by a woman he’d been living with out of wedlock. Later on, his mother, Monica, also joined them in Italy.

 

Augustine had been growing disenchanted with Manichaeism during his final years in Carthage. He quickly befriended Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and shortly thereafter began his conversion to Christianity.

 

He was baptized after his second year in Italy. And during his time there he bore witness to events of historical importance to the faith.

 

The mother of Emperor Valentinian II, the feckless king presiding over a crumbling Western Roman Empire, took up residence in Milan to provoke Ambrose and the burgeoning Catholic Church.

 

Obverse of a Roman Coin depicting Emperor Valentinian II, 375-78 AD, via York Museums Trust

 

Empress Justina subscribed to Arianism, a heresy that declared Jesus was not co-equal with God but rather His subordinate. In doing so, she rejected the orthodoxy established by the late Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit encompass three divine and consubstantial ‘Persons’ in one Trinity.

 

Arianism was born in Egypt and mostly took root in pockets of the Eastern Empire. It stirred up a debate that resulted in multiple ecumenical councils throughout the 4th century. But it was definitively resolved with bloodshed.

 

Justina manipulated her son, the boy king, to issue an edict of toleration for Arianism. And when she arrived in Milan at Easter time in 386 she instructed Ambrose to relinquish his basilicas for Arian worship. But the zealous orthodox congregants, led by Ambrose and Augustine, ruthlessly defended the churches of Milan against the queen’s forces.

 

It was during these times of strife that “the decision was taken to introduce hymns and psalms sung after the custom of the Eastern Churches, to prevent the people from succumbing to depression and exhaustion,” writes Augustine.

 

And to this day, the tradition of music and song continues on in the Roman Catholic Church.

 

5. He Practiced Non-Attachment, Meditation, Presence, And Asceticism

 

“Live so as to be indifferent to praise.” Confessions, Book X

 

Saints Augustine and Monica by Ary Scheffer, 1854, via The National Gallery, London

 

Augustine incorporated practices into his faith that might be more associated with the new age spirituality or mystical Christianity of today. But these habits, such as non-attachment, meditation, practicing presence, and asceticism, have deep roots in Catholic doctrine.

 

He aspired to be “truly rational,” in the words of Plotinus, about this world of forms. And in being so, he challenged himself to accept the very temporary nature of it.

 

When his mother died, Augustine admonished himself for weeping. For in weeping at her loss, even despite his intense love and admiration for her, he was in conflict with the nature of the world God had created. He proposes in Confessions that we should navigate life with a healthy degree of non-attachment. That we should be less rooted in the transient creations of God and instead fix ourselves more firmly in Him.

 

“[When things] are absent, I do not look for them. When they are present, I do not reject them,” he writes. Because accepting what is, by Augustine’s estimation, is accepting God. And accepting what is means not judging the present moment: “I asked myself…what justification I had for giving an unqualified judgment on mutable things, saying ‘This ought to be thus, and that ought not to be thus.’”

 

The Triumph of Saint Augustine by Claudio Coello, 1664, via Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

He recounts the special moments he’d shared with his mother later in life. After his conversion, he and Monica made a habit of prayerful meditation together. “We entered into our own minds,” Augustine writes, “We moved up beyond them so as to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance” where “life is the wisdom by which all creatures come into being.”

 

This practice, the most direct link to God according to Augustine, is described by him in such spectacular detail: 

 

“If the tumult of the flesh has fallen silent, if the images of earth, water, and air are quiescent, if the heavens themselves are shut out and the very soul itself is making no sound and is surpassing itself by no longer thinking about itself, if all dreams and visions in the imagination are excluded, if all language and every sign and everything transitory is silent, [and] if they were to keep silence, having directed our ears to him that made them, he alone would speak not through them but through himself. Him who in these things we love we would hear in person without mediation.”

 

The tomb of Saint Augustine, Basilica di San Pietro in Cielo, Pavia, courtesy of VisitPavia.com

 

His writings on devotion to the present moment are similar to the type of content you’d hear at an Eckhart Tolle talk. Augustine professed that there is no past or future, but only the eternal now. And that it is our task to surrender ourselves to it in beingness.

 

Making an astute observation about our immediate relationship with time and being, “the present,” Augustine says, “occupies no space. It flies so quickly from future into past that it is an interval with no duration.”

 

He viewed his own life as a “distension” between past and future. But he acknowledged that in reality there is only memory (past), immediate awareness (present), and expectation (future) nothing else.

 

And, finally, on how to conduct oneself in life, Augustine was a proponent of asceticism. He advised his congregants to reject greed and embrace moderation in all things. That included appetite Augustine said to “only eat what is enough for health” — possessions — he defined a principle for the right usage of beautiful things — and even acquiring unnecessary knowledge, or what he called “vain inquisitiveness.”

 

Saint Augustine advised rejecting anything going above the “limits of necessity.” This ascetic inclination was perhaps shaped by his long engagement with Manichaeism, which regarded the physical body as profane.

 

It’s clear that all these practices were in service of combating the sin of pride and rejection of the self, or what modern people might call dissolving the ego.

 

6. Augustine Helped Shape Christian Notions Of God

 

“Deus Creator omnium.” Confessions, Book XI

 

Gold glass from the Roman catacombs depicting the Virgin Mary, 4th century AD, in the Landesmuseum Wurttemberg

 

In its sections addressed directly to God, Confessions is written almost like a love letter. Saint Augustine’s adoration flows forth sensuously.

 

He reinforces the Christian notion of a forgiving God time and again: “You never abandon what you have begun,” he writes. 

 

Augustine reasons that God should be the only object of our full desires, as every other object will eventually lead to lacking. But also that we should seek Him through the beauty of creation. He makes it clear that he was familiar with the ancient Delphic maxim of knowing oneself as the path to God.

 

View of the archaeological remains of the oracle center at Delphi where it is believed the maxim “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, via National Geographic

 

“God is present everywhere a whole,” he writes. He is not limited to one form but exists in all forms. And He delights when His children, humanity, return to Him from sin: “You, merciful Father, rejoice more over one penitent than over ninety-nine just persons who need no penitence.”

 

God’s wrath is to be feared, and Augustine addresses that aspect of Him as well. But his emphasis on depicting a loving, forgiving, and omnipresent God can’t go unnoticed.

 

7. Saint Augustine’s Philosophy On Life, Death, And The “Totality Of Things”

 

“The pleasure of the bodily senses, however delightful in the radiant light of this physical world, is seen by comparison with the life of eternity to be not even worth considering.” Confessions, Book IX

 

Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo by Master of Saint Augustine, 1490, Netherlandish, via The Met Museum, New York 

 

Augustine buried his mother in Italy, and shortly after his son Adeodatus suffered an untimely death at only 15. 

 

Confronted with so much loss, he tries to make sense of it in light of the eternal world of God, or what he calls “the totality of things.”

 

He writes that death is “evil to the individual, but not to the race.” In fact, it’s an essential step in the totality of this experience of life and consciousness, and, for this reason, it should be embraced and not feared. Augustine simplifies this abstraction in his writings on “Parts and the Whole.”

 

He likens a human life to a letter in a word. In order for the word to be understood, each of its letters must be uttered by the speaker in successive order. For the word to be intelligible each letter must be born and then die, so to speak. And together, all the letters “form the whole of which they are parts.”

 

“Not everything grows old, but everything dies. So when things rise and emerge into existence, the faster they grow to be, the quicker they rush towards non-being. That is the law limiting their being.”

 

He then goes on to say that to be fixed to a person and wallow in that person’s death can be likened to attaching oneself to a singular letter in a word. But the passing of that letter is essential for the whole of the word to exist. And the totality of the word makes something far greater than the singular letter standing alone.

 

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 1080 AD, via The Fairfield Mirror

 

Extending that logic, the totality of a sentence is far more beautiful than just a word; and the totality of a paragraph, more beautiful and meaningful than a mere sentence. There are endless dimensions that we cannot understand because all we know is the proverbial “letter” of a life. But the totality that those lives go on to create, requiring both their birth and death, creates something immeasurably more beautiful and intelligible. 

 

In this way, we cannot understand the mystery of death but, according to Saint Augustine’s reasoning, we should trust that it is a component of a larger, more beautiful whole.

 

And, therefore, Augustine again emphasizes that we should rest in God and the laws of the world He has created instead of impermanent creations.

 

It was this type of faith that carried Augustine through times of immense personal struggle.

 

In 391, he finally returned to Africa as a much older and wiser man. He’d completed his ordainment in Italy and went on to become the bishop of a town called Hippo.

 

Augustine, whose impact on Catholic doctrine can hardly be measured, spent the remainder of his life here. He died amid the collapse of Rome when the Vandals ravaged North Africa and sacked his town.

 

By Michael ArnoldMichael is a contributing writer and former world traveler whose hometown is New York City. He spent the majority of 2019 exploring Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And currently, he’s studying for a masters degree in Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pavia in Italy. In his spare time, Michael enjoys researching and writing about art, history, and archaeology with a focus on the ancient world.