The True Saint Augustine

St. Augustine’s legacy has fared so well not just because of his personal holiness and scholarly genius, but also because of the great ease with which he expressed profound thoughts. His aphoristic style of writing compares favorably with Newman or Chesterton. Here are some examples:

God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

 “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

“There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither love nor hope without faith.”

“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.

Early Life

Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was born in the North African city of Tagaste, today’s city of Souk Ahras in Algeria. He had the misfortune by the time of his death to witness the collapse of the Roman Empire and the imminent coming of the Dark Ages. In his youth he fell into a dissolute life of the senses and read much pagan philosophy. His intellectual faculties were challenged by the works of Cicero and he very soon succumbed to the charms of ‘science’ over those of religion. In other words, he was very much like many modern young men.

In Augustine’s youth Manicheanism had recently been imported from Persia. He was persuaded to adopt its doctrine that the soul was not free, and that evil could not be attributed to humans, but rather to a divine source. Augustine’s mother Monica, a Christian much pained by the negative arc of her son’s life, might have disowned him but for a wise friend’s counsel that “the son of so many tears could not perish.” After nine years of his mother’s prayers, Augustine came to realize that the Manicheans not only had no knowledge of true science, but their philosophy resulted only in the depravity of the soul. “They destroy everything and build up nothing,” he complained. The disciples of Mani did not compare well with the disciples of Christ, and so he left them behind. Perhaps it was the overcoming of this heresy that prompted Augustine to later say, “We make ourselves a ladder [to heaven] out of our vices if we trample the vices themselves underfoot.”

 Next Augustine went to Italy and became a teacher. There he met Ambrose, the great preacher and holy man. For three more years he fended off his full return to the faith by dabbling in the writings of Plato and Plotinus. Apparently the philosophers had whetted his thirst for wisdom but had not quenched his thirst, for he turned at last to regular reading of the scriptures and by the age of 33 had decided to give himself over finally and irrevocably to the stirrings in his heart for Jesus. Philosophy he would never abandon, but from now on he would dedicate himself to making philosophy serve Christ.

 Whenever Augustine looked at Plato, he tried to see something of Christ in him. Whenever he looked at Christ, he tried to find something of Plato. Wherever Christ and Plato disagreed, Plato was wrong. Of special concern to him was that nowhere in Plato could he find the doctrine of divine grace, God’s gift by which we are enabled to climb the spiritual ladder. Moreover, Plato did not seem to like matter, whereas Christ liked it so much that, as the Son of God, he was made flesh and dwelled among us. Let Augustine speak for himself: “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”  Convinced that in Christ he had found one greatly superior to Plato, Augustine in 387 A.D. was baptized by Ambrose.

Upon the death of his mother, Augustine returned home, sold his possessions, and gave the proceeds to the poor. Together with some friends, he turned his home into a sort of monastic place for poverty, prayer and contemplation. His reputation for holiness and intellect grew so fast among his Christian neighbours that when he was invited to Hippo, the people of the city demanded of Bishop Valerius that he ordain Augustine to the priesthood. Not only was he ordained, but Valerius gave him money to start a monastery, where Augustine spent the next five years preaching and successfully combating the heresy of Manichaeism. The story of this spiritual journey is to be found in his great book Confessions, while his intellectual triumphs are assembled in The City of God.

 Inevitably, upon the death of Valerius, Augustine was elevated to be Bishop of Hippo for the rest of his life. His episcopacy was distinguished by the fact that he started up many other monasteries and elevated no less than ten other priests to become bishops, thus acquiring for himself the status of patriarch of Africa. He continued to combat the Manichaean heresy, asserting God’s gift of free will to man, which makes man, not God, the source of all moral evil.

 Augustine then encountered and defeated the Donatists, a substantial number of Christians who had separated themselves from the Catholic Church over the question of whether sinners could be regarded as Christians. Augustine preached that they could. His gentle manner with the Donatists was answered with anger and reported attempts upon his life. But the Roman government saw merit in Augustine’s position and sided with him against the Donatists, establishing a precedent for the emergence of the Church as a formidable partner with government in keeping the peace among citizens. From then on, many Donatists converted to the Catholic Church and the heretical movement would eventually perish along with the old Roman Empire.

 A True Catholic

 Augustine was most definitely a Catholic, and any attempt by Protestants to adopt him as their own, as has been done in the past, must fail. Two matters alone prove this: we have his sermon on the Eucharist in which he says: “What you see on God’s altar … is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood.” Likewise Augustine adhered to the Catholic Sacrament of Penance: “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works. You do the truth and come to the light.” Finally, Protestants who think Augustine one of their own do well to remember Augustine’s remark: “I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.”

 On Proving God’s Existence

 Arguably the first Catholic theologian to do so, Augustine argued that evidence for the existence of God could be found by appeal to the presence of beauty in the order of things. The argument is found In Book X of his Confessions.

 I put my question [But what is my God?] to the earth. It answered, “I am not God,” and all things on earth declared the same. I asked the sea and all the chasms of the deep and the living things which creep in them, bu they answered, “We are not your God. Seek what is above us.” … I spoke to all the things that are about me, and all that can be admitted through the door of my senses, and I said, “Since you are not my God, tell me about Him. Tell me something of my God.” Clear and loud they answered, “God is He who made us.” I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they gave.

How could all this beauty exist without the God who made it?

 On Grace and Free Will

 There are today, as in Augustine’s time, philosophers who teach that the notion of human freedom is but a pleasant illusion. But Augustine’s double doctrines of man’s free will and God’s saving grace, given a fair hearing, are still powerful antidotes to the modern disease of fatalistic determinism that plagues physicists and psychoanalysts alike.

In the year 426 A.D. Augustine wrote a long treatise titled On Grace and Free Will addressed to the monks of Adrumetum. The purpose of this book was to answer the Pelagians who had argued that freedom of the will is denied by the doctrine of God’s grace. It was the heretical view of Pelagius that, in effect, grace was secondary to the will of man; that man could save himself by his own effort, or be damned by his refusal to will his own salvation. The Pelagian heresy thus nullified the significance of grace in our lives and elevated will above grace. Augustine had to refute that notion with the greatest force possible, without at the same time nullifying the doctrine of free will. He put it very succinctly in these words: “Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.” That is, the rider (grace) feeds the will (horse) and prompts it in certain directions. The horse is still free to disobey, as many a horse has thrown its rider. But grace (the rider), when the bit in the horse’s mouth, can prompt the horse in certain directions that the horse is not inclined to resist, even though it is free to resist. This analogy probably has not been improved upon in all the literature on grace and free will. Yet, Augustine says, there is a Rider who is supreme, for as the Rider says in John 15:5, “Without me you can do nothing.” Even the inclination to good works, freely done, is an inclination rooted in God’s will, not our own. This inclination is, in other words, a gift of grace.

Yet this is not to presume that the will is predestined by grace never to resist the direction it is given. Augustine in his On Grace and Free Will condemns as thoroughly unintelligent the notion of someone who declares that one is justified by faith alone “even if he lead a bad life, and has no goods works.” Good works are themselves the consequence of grace bestowed upon us to do them. But of course, we are not forced to do them, and many choose not to. It is, then, by the action of our own will, not by grace, that we might be damned because we have refused the grace of being called to good works. As Augustine puts it: “We are framed, therefore, that is, formed and created, in the good works which we have not ourselves prepared, but God has before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Paul in Philippians (2:12) admonishes us to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling.” What is the reason for fear and trembling? Augustine’s answer: “Because if you fear and tremble, you do not boast of your good works – as if they were your own, since it is God who works within you.” Thus Augustine disposes of the Pelagian heresy which taught that man alone, without God’s grace, had limitless power for good and for evil.

Now the business of temptation is where free will comes into play. We wish to be saved, but we must do the work of our salvation, and the work is to pray that grace will overcome our concupiscence (inclination to sin). A great insight by Augustine is this one:

the determination of the human will is insufficient, unless the Lord grant it victory in answer to prayer that it enter not into temptation…. If our Savior had only said, ‘Watch that you enter not into temptation,’ He would appear to have done nothing further than admonish man’s will; but since He added the words ‘and pray,’ He showed that God helps us not to enter into temptation.

Abundantly clear it was to Augustine that we do not receive grace according to our merits, for because of original sin no one has merited the grace that is freely given and without condition. And he cites the assurance of Jesus in the Gospel of John: “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.” (John:6:65) Grace then precedes the act of the will toward righteousness and justification. Augustine insists against the Pelagians, “If, then, your merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as his own gifts.” And when Paul says “I have fought the good fight,” Augustine asks from whence came the goodness of the fight if not from God’s strength (grace) given to Paul that he should fight well.

And how does one fight well? By the action of the free will to submit to the deeds of the Spirit and mortify the deeds of the flesh. Yet this free will submission and mortification is not a product of the law, but of grace. It was the error of the Jews that, under the law of Moses, obedience to the law was their justification; as if they could glory in their own power to obey but not glory in the grace (strength) that was given to them by God to obey. Augustine hammers home the point:

It is by grace that any one is a doer of the law; and without this grace, he who is placed under the law will only be a hearer of the law. To such persons he (Paul) addresses these words: ‘You who are justified by the law [alone] are fallen from grace’ (Galatians 5:4).

But nowhere does Augustine say that free will is deactivated by the gift of faith. We are free to believe or not to believe.

The spirit of grace, therefore, causes us to have faith, in order that through faith we may, on praying for it, obtain the ability to do what we are commanded. On this account the Apostle himself (Paul) constantly puts faith before the law; since we are not able to do what the law commands unless we obtain the strength to do it by the prayer of faith.

Thus, free will opposing grace is the cause of all our sinning and our heart of stone.

Love alone can change our hearts from stone to flesh. This is a point that Augustine labours to make with the Pelagians, who believed love does indeed change our hearts, but that love comes from within us, not from God. For Augustine this view is insane and he cites many passages from Scripture to prove it, including the Gospel of John which says that God is Love itself, and therefore must be the fount of all other love. “We read of the Spirit of Wisdom and understanding. (Isaiah 11:2) Also of the Spirit of power and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7) But love is a greater gift than knowledge; for whenever a man has the gift of knowledge, love is necessary by the side of it, that he be not puffed up. For love envies not, vaunts not itself, is not puffed up.” (1 Corinthians 13:4) Augustine sees a very “puffed up” notion of love in the Pelagian insistence that love comes from within, not from God as a gift of grace.

Even the free will of both good and evil men comes under the designing control of God, for God is omnipotent and his will cannot be thwarted. “For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatsoever He wishes to perform through them ….” In the hearts of bad men as well as good, God works his will; that bad men will be punished for being bad, God moves their hearts to act in such a way as to receive their punishment. Augustine concludes:

it is, I think, sufficiently clear that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills wherever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts; His own judgment being sometimes manifest, sometimes secret, but always righteous.

For Augustine, God moves the hearts of the unrighteous to be hardened because they are already hardened, and only their further hardening by the inspiration of God will bring about the self-delusion and the righteous punishment that is properly theirs. Thus, when Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to stop the Jews in their flight from Egypt, “ … it was that both God hardened him by His just judgment, and Pharaoh by his own free will.” The end-game of Pharaoh’s hardened heart was that his army should be destroyed in the Red Sea, a fitting punishment for the slavery that had been visited upon the Jews for centuries. Evil must be answered by good, Augustine says, and the evil in Pharaoh’s heart was answered by the good of saving the Jews and sending them on to Israel.

Augustine closed his book On Grace and Free Will by inviting the monks of Adrumetum to pray for understanding of what he had to say. If any of the monks lacked wisdom, God would answer their prayers, and that too was the grace of God at work in their minds and hearts. In saying this Augustine was answering the Pelagians as well, who doubtless would have wrongly concluded, had they read Augustine’s thoughts, that Augustine lacked the wisdom to see how wisdom comes not from the grace of God, but entirely from within.

However, if there is a simplest way to put it, a way that perhaps anyone can grasp, Augustine’s one-liner best ends the great debate. “Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.” The rider without grace will ride for a fall.

On the Death Penalty and Just Wars

As with Plato before him and Aquinas after him, Augustine did not condemn the death penalty; yet he certainly did not favor it except in the most extreme cases. In search of a just balance between justice and mercy, Augustine said that lawful authorities ought not to be faulted if they “show mercy to those over those whom they have the lawful power of life and death.”

Augustine is credited with originating the just war theory that Aquinas would pick up and elaborate upon. As Augustine puts it in The City of God,

They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘You shall not kill.’”

Yet Augustine offers a caveat: that war cannot be justified by “love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power.”

On Confessing Sins

No doubt there were some Catholics in Augustine’s day, as there are today, who find confession to be a more humbling sacrament than they can stomach. But there is no doubt that Augustine believed in the confession of sins. As he says: “Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive sins.” This remark was certainly consistent with that of the great St. Athanasius, who said long before Augustine:

As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ.”

On Hell

Augustine disagreed with those who, filled with a merciful spirit, cannot abide the idea that hell’s suffering is eternal. Why, they ask, should temporal sins be suffered through eternity.

Augustine replies that one might as well ask why temporal virtue should be eternally rewarded in heaven. He then follows the plead for mercy to its logical end:

Let then this fountain of mercy be extended, and flow forth even to the lost angels, and let them also be set free, at least after as many and long ages as seems fit! Why does this stream of mercy flow to all the human race and dry up as soon as it reaches the angelic? And yet they [those who challenge the eternity of hell] dare not extend their pity further, and propose the deliverance of the devil himself.

On Mary

Augustine is sometimes wrongly perceived to have favored the Church’s later teaching of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was conceived without inheriting the stain of original sin from Adam and Eve). However, as to her freedom from actual sin he was adamant, as were the other Early Fathers. Augustine own words: “Every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God.” Yet there can be no doubt that Augustine’s view on Mary’ personal sanctity must have helped to fuel the growth of the Immaculate Conception debate in the centuries to come.

On the Eucharist

Augustine did not treat the Eucharist (the bread and wine) as a mere metaphor for Christ’s body, as some prefer to believe. Rather, he believed in the Real Presence embodied in the bread and wine at the last supper. He makes his truest remark on the subject in his Explanation of the Psalms, where he said, speaking of Jesus carrying the bread in his hands and calling it His own Body:

Who is it that is carried in his own hands? A man can be carried in the hands of another; but no one can be carried in his own hands…. For Christ was carried in His own hands, when, referring to His own Body, He said concerning the bread: ‘This is My Body.’ For He carried that Body in His hands.

Augustine declared it was clear enough; with the words “This is My Body” that Christ was announcing he had entered the bread, and the Bread had become Him. This power he transferred to the apostles when he said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”


Augustine wrote many prayers that have been anthologized in our time.

This is his prayer of adoration:

O good and omnipotent God, you care for every one of us,
as if you cared for each alone, and you care for all as if all were one!
Blessed is the one who loves you, and who loves his friend in you,
and who loves his enemy for you. For with you, we lose none dear to us,
to whom all are dear. You, our God, who made heaven and earth and fill them,
and by filling them you create them. Your law is truth, and truth is yourself.
I see the things of this earth pass away, and I see other things take their place,
but you remain forever. Therefore, my God and Father,
to you I entrust all I have received from you, for then, I can lose nothing.
You, O Lord, have made me for yourself, and my heart can find no rest until it rests in you.


Augustine died at the age of seventy-six, leaving so great an intellectual and spiritual legacy that the Church would not see anyone near his equal again until it had passed through the Dark Ages to find Thomas Aquinas on the other side.



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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics