Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis; 13 November 354 – 28 August 430

St. Augustine was born in Thagaste. He was brought up a Christian but left the Church early and spent a great deal of time seriously seeking the truth, first in the Manichaean heresy, which he abandoned on seeing how nonsensical it was, and then in Neoplatonism, until at length, through the prayers of his mother and the teaching of St Ambrose of Milan, he was converted back to Christianity and baptized in 387, shortly before his mother’s death.

Saint Augustine, was a theologian and philosopher of Berber origin and the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, Roman North Africa.

His writings influenced the development of Western philosophy and Western Christianity, and he is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers of the Latin Church in the Patristic Period. His many important works include The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions

Augustine had a brilliant legal and academic career, but after his conversion he returned home to Africa and led an ascetic life. He was elected Bishop of Hippo and spent 34 years looking after his flock, teaching them, strengthening them in the faith and protecting them

The first major medieval philosopher was Augustine (354–430), who emphasized attaining knowledge through divine illumination and achieving moral goodness by loving God. The details of his life are openly laid out in his autobiography, titled Confessions, which even today is considered a classic of world literature. He was born in the North African region of Tagaste to a devout Christian mother and pagan father. Many scholars believe that Augustine and his family were Romanized indigenous Africans.

For much of his youth, his parents’ greatest concern was affording a university education for him. Once having attained this difficult goal, learning rhetoric at Carthage, Augustine’s zeal for studying theology became his driving force. But first came a period of trying out life’s alternatives.

To his mother’s great displeasure, he became entrenched in a new Persian religion called Manichaeism and then joined a group of Neoplatonists. In both cases he sought to understand how evil could exist in a world that was created by a good God. The Manichaean explanation was that the material world is inherently evil, but through special knowledge from God we can rise above it. Neoplatonists argued that evil results from the physical world being so far removed from God, and thus absent from his goodness.

His most famous writings are his Confessions and The City of God. While only a couple of his shorter works are devoted exclusively to philosophy, most notably Against the Academics and On Free Choice, many of his compositions are interspersed with philosophical content, and from these a complex system emerges.

Faith, Certainty, Divine Illumination
The starting point for Augustine’s philosophy is his stance on the relation between faith and reason. We’ve seen that there are two ways of approaching this: first, Tertullian’s faith-only position, and, second, Clement’s view that reason by itself can go a long way in establishing religious truths independently of faith. 

Augustine struck a middle ground between the two, advocating a position that he called “faith seeking understanding.” His inspiration for this was a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” On this view, reason by itself is not good enough to give us proper religious knowledge; instead, we have to begin with faith to set us in the right direction and, once we believe in God through faith, we can seek to understand the foundations of our belief through reason.
A running theme throughout Augustine’s writings is that knowledge is indeed attainable, and we should reject the efforts of philosophical skeptics.

By the time Augustine came on the scene, different Greek schools of skepticism were well established, and for centuries had been producing arguments to show that we can no nothing at all for certain. Every belief I have can be brought into question; even my belief that the tree in front of me exists is uncertain since I might just be having a hallucination. In opposition to the skeptics, Augustine argues that there are four main areas in which we have genuine knowledge that even the skeptics cannot question. Right off, each of us has indisputable knowledge of our own existence. 

He writes,
On none of these points do I fear the arguments of the skeptics of the Academy who say: what if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who does not exist cannot be deceived. And if I am deceived, by this same token I am. [City of God, 11:26]

His point here is simple: no matter how deceived I am, such as through hallucinations or flawed sensory perception, I still have to exist in order to be deceived. This knowledge is so obvious and self-evident that it enables me to go one step further and say that I know that I know. Knowledge is thus an indisputable fact.

In addition to knowledge of one’s own existence, we also have certainty in three key areas: math, logic and immediate sense experience. Mathematical truths, such as “three times three is nine,” are so compelling that it is impossible to doubt them. So too with logical truths:

I have learned through dialectic [logic] that many other things are true. Count, if you can, how many there are: If there are four elements in the world, there are not five; if there is one sun, there are not two; one and the same soul cannot die and still be immortal; man cannot at the same time be happy and unhappy; if the sun is shining here, it cannot be night; we are now either awake or asleep; either there is a body which I seem to see or there is not a body. [Against the Academics, 3:13]

While Augustine recognizes that sense perceptions themselves are not always trustworthy, he nonetheless maintains that reports of immediate experiences are indisputable, such as “the snow appears white to me.” Even if in reality the snow happens to be a different color, what remains true is that I perceive it as white.

He writes:
I do not know how the [skeptical] Academician can refute him who says “I know that this appears white to me, I know that my hearing is delighted with this, I know that this has an agreeable odor, I know that this tastes sweet to me, I know that this feels cold to me.” 
These areas of knowledge, then, seem to be completely indisputable because of the self-evident nature of their specific truths. There are other areas of knowledge, though, that lack this self-evidence and may indeed be fallible, such as the truths themselves of what our senses report, and also the knowledge that we gain through the testimony of other people. 

Nevertheless, he argues, in view of how much important information they provide us, we can have reasonable confidence in them as reliable sources of knowledge. Regarding our senses, he argues, “Far be it from us to doubt the truth of what we have learned by the bodily senses, since by them we have learned to know the heaven and the earth, and those things in them which are known to us.” So too with the knowledge that we gain through the testimony of other people. While the reports of some people cannot be trusted, testimony is nonetheless an indispensable source of knowledge. 

He writes, “Far be it from us too to deny that we know what we have learned by the testimony of others: otherwise we would not know that there is an ocean, or that the lands and cities exist which numerous report mention to us” (On the Trinity, 15).
Granted, then, according to Augustine we can know many things indisputably and other things with at least a high degree of certainty. But there is still a problem: with our minds being finite, how can we grasp eternal truths which are far beyond our limited natural capacity? His answer is that grasping such truths requires special help from God: God illuminates our minds to enable us to see these truths. 

Augustine describes this theory of divine illumination here: “The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth. You will light my lamp, Lord” (Confessions, 4:15:25). Truths regarding virtuous living and religious faithfulness are cases in point: “Among the objects of the intellect, there are some that are seen in the soul itself, for example, virtues which will endure, such as piety, or virtues that are useful for this life and not destined to remain in the next, as faith” (Commentary on Genesis, 31:59). For us to grasp these truths, God illuminates our souls, which triggers a special intellectual vision by which we can see them.

Augustine is one of the first philosophers to have speculated about the nature of time. Time, he says, is something that everyone experiences and is intimately familiar with. We feel the passage of time throughout the day, we note the lengths of time that it takes for things to happen, we can distinguish between short and long amounts of time. However, once we try to explain exactly what time is, we are at a loss. “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. 

If I wish to explain it to someone that asks, I do not know” (Confessions 11:14). There are two main ways that we can view the nature of time. First, we might think that it is objective, and part of the external nature of the world itself. Past, present and future are realities. Second, we might think of time as merely subjective, existing only as a product of our minds. While it is tempting to go with the first interpretation, Augustine goes with the second: time has no meaning apart from our minds. The reason is that the past no longer exists, and the future is not yet here. 

He writes,
These two times then, past and future, how can they exist since the past is gone and the future is not yet here? But if the present stayed present, and never passed into time past, then, truly, it would not be time, but eternity. Suppose that time present (if it is to be time) only comes into existence because it passes into time-past. How, then, can we say that it exists, since its existence is caused by the fact that it will not exist? We can’t truly say that time is, then, except because it tends towards non-being.

It is as though everything that occurs will instantly evaporate with the passing of the present moment.

The extent to which the past and future are real at all, they must be embedded in the present moment, since the present is all that really exists:

It is now plain and evident that neither future nor past things exist. Nor can we properly say, “there are three times: past, present, and future”. Instead, it we might properly say “there are three times: a present-of-things-past, a present-of-things-present, and a present-of-things-future.”

When we speak about the past, present and future, we need to connect them all to the present moment. The past involves only memories that we have in the present, and, thus, we should call this the present-of-things-past. The future involves only mental anticipations of what might come, and we should call this the present-of-things-future.
Evil, Free Will, Foreknowledge
Medieval philosophers developed precise notions of God and the attributes that he has, many of which are even now well-known among believers. For example, God is all-powerful (i.e., omnipotent), all-knowing (i.e., omniscient), and all-good (i.e., omni-benevolent). Other commonly discussed attributes of God are that he is eternal, that he is present everywhere (i.e., omnipresent) and that he has foreknowledge of future events. 

In view of the encompassing network of the universe and the whole creation (a network that is perfectly ordered in time and place, where not even one leaf of a tree is superfluous) it is not possible to create a superfluous person. . . . Moreover, who knows what faith is practiced or what pity is tested when these children’s sufferings break down the hardness of parents? We do not know what reward God reserves in the secret places of his judgment for these children . . . . [On Free Choice, 3.27]

When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it is good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved with proper order; evilly, when disordered. [City of God, 15:22]
Not only is properly ordered desire central to morality and virtuous conduct, but it is also the cornerstone to a good and just society.

Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “You are my glory, and you lift up my head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love you, Lord, my strength.” [City of God, 14:28]

The Roman Empire itself, he argues, is a perfect example of an earthly city that overindulged in disordered desires. This led to immorality, vice, crime, and its ultimate downfall. Citizens of the heavenly city, who have properly ordered desires, realize that the only eternal good is found in God. They live by faith and “look for those eternal blessings which are promised” (City of God, 19:17)

People of the heavenly city are obviously forced to live here on earth among rival members of the earthly city. However, these believers consider themselves as resident aliens and follow the laws and customs of the society in which they dwell, but do not settle down to enjoy them. He writes, “So long as the heavenly city lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city . . . it does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are governed”.