Augustine of Hippo

Portrait: Augustinus
Saint Augustine, Cambridge altarpiece by Simone Martini, 1320-1325
Directmedia Publishing GmbH, Berlin / Wikimedia Commons

Augustine of Hippo

Theologian, bishop and autobiographer during the final years of the Roman Empire

If the truth is taken as an offence, it is more useful to allow the offence to be taken than to do without the truth.

Augustine of Hippo, De libero arbitrio, 387-395

Augustine was born in the year 354 to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the North African city of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras), and lived in a time of transition between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Only three decades prior, the Roman Emperor Constantine had publicly declared himself a Christian; around 150 years later the greatest empire of Classical times was in ruins. Augustine’s writings in Latin were composed at the dawn of Christian theology; his influential Confessiones (Confessions) were the first autobiography to put the author’s life in historical context. The work survived him and was preserved far and wide by his successors. He was one of the four major theologians – alongside Hieronymus, Saint Ambrose and Saint Gregory the Great – who had a decisive influence in the development of Christian doctrine.

After studying rhetoric in Carthage, Augustine arrived in Milan in 384 as a teacher, underwent a religious conversion experience two years later, and as a consequence committed himself to a life of renunciations and asceticism. Having founded the first monastery on African soil in the coastal city of Hippo, in 391 he was named the city’s bishop, an office he held until his death. Drawing on Plato’s Classical philosophy, Augustine’s writings subdivided reality by its ability to be experienced – into the eternal, unchanging world of ideas and the mutable world of appearances. In the Rule of St. Augustine, he compiled a catalogue of guidelines for religious life lived in community, the basic principles of which are still followed today.