Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), Saint Augustine, was originally from the Roman province of North Africa called Numidia, now part of Algeria. About forty years before his birth, in 313, Constantine legalized Christianity; about forty years after his death, in 476, the Western Roman Empire came to an end.
Augustine was perhaps the most important “Father of the Church” in the Patristic period, giving a Platonic shade to Christianity until the resurgence of Aristotle’s influence in the twelfth century with Scholasticism. He was an exponent of the doctrine of original sin, of the trinity, and of predestination, among others. His two most influential works were the “Confessions” and “The City of God” (De Civitate Dei). With the first, he inaugurated a new literary style — lyricism, based on the author’s subjectivity; with the second, he materialized the Christian conception of history.
In the “Confessions”, Augustine makes an autobiographical record showing not the past of a holy man, but that of a sinner, and his path to divine illumination. The title of his book refers both to the confessions of his various sins and to the praise of God for having granted him conversion. His sins do not come close to those of any normal person of the 21st century, but even so, among them is his connection to Manichaeism and astrology, his attraction to the pleasures of the flesh, and even the theft of pears. In the latter case, Augustine recounts the pleasure of doing wrong simply for being wrong, at the age of 16:
“We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs. Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.”
Regardless of whether one believes in God or not, whether one is a Christian or not, the “Confessions” is a beautiful and powerful text, which should be read by anyone who cares about one’s own character or the difference between right and wrong. I certainly want my daughter to read it early in her life.
The “City of God”, in turn, was written to refute the thesis that Christianity had been the cause of Rome’s ruin. Rome officially falls in 476, but it had already been decaying for several decades. Augustine dedicated the first ten books of his work to this refutation, only then to begin describing the “two cities” and to advance his doctrine. He basically creates a religious version of Plato’s “Republic”, where instead of being ruled by the philosophers, it is the saints that holds the power. This aspect of his work would have a peak of negative influence in Boniface VIII, in the fourteenth century, whose thirst for power, believing that it was the Pope’s duty to rule over everything and everyone, ended up contributing to the Great Occidental Schism (it was not for nothing that Dante put him in the Eighth Circle of Hell).
According to Augustine, the history of the world is the story of a universal war between God and the Devil, between the City of God and the Earthly City. With his detailed interpretations of the Bible and his descriptions of the progress of the two cities, from Abraham to their destinies in eternal happiness or damnation, Augustine inadvertently inaugurates the notion of history — historical facts can no longer be treated as mere accounts, but their hidden meanings should be interpreted. Everything follows a path to an end given by Divine Providence.
This notion of history, which we now take for granted, was a great innovation in relation to the Greeks or the East, who judged the universe to be eternal, without beginning or end. Now the biblical account of the creation of the world had been formalized in a detailed exegesis. History, as science, will officially exist only in the eighteenth century with Vico’s “Scienza Nuova“, but in the minds of men it begins with the “City of God”.