Saint Augustine's Philosophy of History

Updated on September 24, 2018
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 25 years.

Introduction

The former President of the American Historical Association and church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette labeled Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) as one of the three most important church fathers of early Christianity (Ambrose and Jerome were the other two). Augustine’s contribution to the Christian church has been substantial, especially in that he was the first to provide a Christian philosophy of both history and politics.

Augustine and his mother Monica. After living a life of sensuality as a young man, Augustine would return to the faith of his mother under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.
Augustine and his mother Monica. After living a life of sensuality as a young man, Augustine would return to the faith of his mother under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. | Source

Biography

Augustine was born in 354 A.D. in the Roman province of Numidia which is in modern-day Algeria. His father was a pagan, but his mother, Monica, was a Christian who encouraged him to stay within the Church. But the very bright Augustine would leave the church to live a sensual lifestyle for a time. In 370, he went to Carthage to study rhetoric. While there, he became a student of Manicheism, a Persian Gnostic religion. He would also familiarize himself with Neoplatonism. Later, he would go to Milan where he would become acquainted with St. Ambrose, the bishop of that city. Augustine’s relationship with Ambrose would be vital in his conversion to Christianity in 386. Like Martin Luther, it appears that Augustine's encounter with the New Testament book of Romans was pivotal in his change of heart. Five years after his conversion, he was ordained a priest, would go to Hippo in North Africa where he would serve as both a church administrator and apologist for the Christian faith until his death in 430.

Augustine and the War Against Paganism

When the Visogoth Alaric sacked Rome in 410, some said that Christianity was no longer an able belief to hold Rome together. In fact, some even blamed Christianity for Rome’s decline. Augustine wrote the work Civitas Dei (The City of God) in response to this attack on Christianity. Augustine said that the problem was not that Rome was "too Christian," but that Rome was not Christian enough. Along with this defense of Christianity against detractors, Augustine also presents his philosophy of history. Civitas Dei is not just a history book; it offers an interpretation of history. This makes Augustine the first important Christian philosopher of history.

Augustine opposed the pagan idea that we should follow the stars as a basis of charting our destiny. Our destiny was not to be found in following the stars, but in following and exercising faith in God.
Augustine opposed the pagan idea that we should follow the stars as a basis of charting our destiny. Our destiny was not to be found in following the stars, but in following and exercising faith in God. | Source

In his book The Meaning of History, the philosopher Ronald Nash says that Augustine was confronting three pagan ideas in his book, The City of God:

Blind Fate--The first pagan idea that Augustine confronts is the idea of blind fate. Augustine confronts teachings such as those offered by astrology and the implication that men are governed by fate with the teaching of the providence of God. All of human history comes under divine foreknowledge and divine will.

Cyclical View of History--The second pagan idea that Augustine challenges is a cyclical view of history. Augustine rejects the idea that the events in time repeat infinitely. Such ideas were articulated by the ancients by focusing on “patterns” that would be repeated in history. Writers such as Thucydides and Plutarch wrote after this fashion.[1] Augustine also attacked the moral implications of the view, saying that in order for history to have value there must be a goal or a direction to which it is moving. Rather, Augustine emphasized a linear view of history, which does not look for cycles in history. So Augustine references the writer of the New Testament book Hebrews in saying that "Christ dieth no more."

In this sculpture by Gottfried Schadow (1790) the Three Fates spin the fate of human destiny. Augustine opposed the pagan idea of fate as that which determined destiny and said rather that man's destiny is governed by the sovereignty of God.
In this sculpture by Gottfried Schadow (1790) the Three Fates spin the fate of human destiny. Augustine opposed the pagan idea of fate as that which determined destiny and said rather that man's destiny is governed by the sovereignty of God. | Source

Religious Dualism--The third pagan idea that Augustine confronts is that of religious dualism, the idea that good and evil are two coequal forces in opposition to each other. Augustine was drawn toward dualism early in life through the teachings of Manicheism, which taught that the body is evil but the soul is good and composed of light. The battleground for good and evil is the person. The implication is that Christ could not have been deity because he had a body. A second implication is that there is no omnipotent good. Augustine taught that evil was a perversion of the good and while evil does oppose good; it is not on the same footing as the good. For Augustine, evil is not a positive force in the world, but an absence of righteousness. Evil is not a “thing,” but rather a deprivation of what is good. Evil is neither a mystery for Augustine nor does it require an explanation. Evil is what we should expect among fallen men.

Pictured here is the Trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for war crimes. Eichmann was captured by the Israelis in 1960, taken to Israel, tried as a war criminal and hanged in 1962.
Pictured here is the Trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for war crimes. Eichmann was captured by the Israelis in 1960, taken to Israel, tried as a war criminal and hanged in 1962. | Source

This idea of evil signifying, not a force, but a loss is reflected in Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the “Architect of the Holocaust” Adolph Eichmann.[1] In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt makes the point that when he was tried by the Jews in 1962, Eichmann surprisingly did not look like a monster; rather, he looked like an ordinary man. He was a Nazi murderer but he didn’t look like it. Furthermore, Arendt made the observation that, for Eichmann it was not from a great hatred of the Jews that he participated in the holocaust, but rather from an absence of good judgment. For Arendt, Eichmann’s evil was neither a force nor ferocious; rather, it was "banal."

CS Lewis’s view on evil takes a similar tack in Mere Christianity. Lewis notes that Lucifer, who was the greatest of all God’s celestial princes, falls, and as a result becomes the personification of evil. Lucifer was great, but his fall signified great loss. So then, the great effect of evil is not in its power, but in its loss. It's not potency, but deprivation that primarily defines evil.

So, Augustine provides a contrary idea of the human condition from that of the ancients: man is fallen from an idyllic condition. Man is not in “possession” of evil; rather, he is “fallen” from righteousness. Good and evil are not two forces in contention; rather, there is the Good and the not-Good. In the final apocalyptic shakeout, good will clearly triumph; evil never had a chance.

[1] Eichmann has been called the “Architect of the Holocaust” He was captured in 1960 by the Israelis in Argentina. He was taken back to Israel, tried as a war criminal and hanged on June 1, 1962.

Augustine and His Assumptions About History

History is the story of the struggle between the city of God and the city of man. It would be a mistake to think of these dual cities as a metaphor for the separation of church and state. Rather, they are realms or governing systems. In Augustine’s mind, the believer lives in both realms simultaneously. Each has its own authority and its own goals. In the city of God, love of the Lord God is magnified; in the city of man, self-love is magnified. In the City of God, man is governed by the Word of God; in the City of Man, people are governed by the will of the sovereign. Augustine opposed the classical tradition which said that man's fulfillment comes from citizenship and participation in the rational and just state. Man’s ultimate fulfillment is found in God, not in the pursuits of this life.

The struggle between these two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, is the defining quality of man’s history. As for what Augustine presupposes, Professor Nash says that there are at least four presuppositions in Augustine’s philosophy of history. They are creation, God’s nature, redemption, and sin.

What Do You Know About Augustine?

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As for creation, Augustine believed that creation was ex nihilo and that the universe was created by God at a fixed point in the finite past. This view ran contrary to the classical view that the universe is eternal in the past. God’s nature is revealed throughout history. Redemption is the central point of history in that God sends his Son to be the Savior of the world.

As for sin, it is the most prominent feature of man’s history. In the Confessions, Augustine provides his first serious contemplation of sin. He recounts his younger years when he and some other boys stole some apples from an apple tree. He says that he did not steal the apples because he was hungry, but because it was forbidden to steal. His conclusion that men loved to do wrong, not merely for utility, but because they loved evil rather than good. It is this view of man’s fixation on evil that plays prominent in man’s history and is important in informing Augustine’s philosophy of history.

In the end, Augustine does not provide a pattern or a “rational history” like that being sought by Hegel or Marx, but it is a history in which we can discern a general direction with history moving toward a conclusion which is the redemption of the saints and the damnation of the lost.


Notes

[1] Michael Mendelson, "Saint Augustine", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/augustine/ (accessed 8/16/2015).

© 2018 William R Bowen Jr

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