Augustine of Hippo, Saint

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Augustine of Hippo, Saint

also known as Aurelius Augustinus (b. Tagaste, North Africa, 13 November 354; d. Hippo, North Africa, 28 August 430)

theology, philosophy.

Augustine was the son of Patricius, a minor official in the Roman province of Numidia, and his Christian wife, Monica. A thorough education in the classics of Roman rhetoric and philosophy led to his becoming at the age of twenty-one a teacher of rhetoric in nearby Carthage. For a time he was greatly attracted by the Manichaean religious doctrines, then at the height of their popularity in Africa, but their promise of a true “science of all things” proved illusory, and he turned to Stoic, Pythagorean, and Aristotelian sources for a surer light. His enormous success as a teacher led him to think of a wider field for his talents, and in 383 he embarked for Rome. After a year there, he was appointed to a professorship of rhetoric in Milan. The influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, led him to realize that the Manichaean objections to the Christian Scriptures were based on a simplistic, literalist mode of interpretation of the Bible. This realization and the reading of Plotinus and Porphyry led him to reject Manichaeism and begin the formulation of a highly personal Neoplatonism. His final step to Christianity was brought about by a dramatic conversion experience, centered around the letters of St. Paul. At this point, he gave up his teaching career, and with a group of friends retired to a monastic life of seclusion and study.

After his baptism in 387, he decided to return to Africa. There he began a prodigious writing career which led to almost one hundred books and countless treatises in sermon or letter form. In 395, he was consecrated bishop of Hippo, one of the major centers of Christian influence in North Africa, and was forced to forsake his monastic retirement for a life of constant travel and demanding pastoral duties. Despite this, he somehow found time for a stream of powerful polemics against those who seemed to him to threaten the doctrinal structure of Christianity; he opposed Donatists, Pelagians, and Arians in turn. In addition, he wrote such great creative works as The City of God, On the Trinity, and his incomparable Confessions. But the Empire was crumbling around him, and as he lay dying in 430, the Vandal armies had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and Roman Africa (once the most prosperous and fertile province of the Empire) lay in ruins. The Church of Africa, which Augustine had done so much to shape, was wiped out within a few years of his death.

But Augustine’s influence had not been confined to the administration of the affairs of the church in North Africa. His was unquestionably the most powerful mind the Christian church had known until then, perhaps the most creative it has ever known. The success of his efforts to isolate and define the heretical elements in the work of Pelagius, Arius, and a legion of others gave to Roman Christianity a self-understanding, a methodology, a philosophical power and scope it had never before possessed. The categories in which the medieval church thought of man, of the world, of God, were largely those developed by Augustine. His metaphysics resembled those of Neoplatonism, but with creation replacing emanation as the focal concept. But what shaped his thought was not primarily the categorial systems of the Greek and Roman philosophers; rather, it was the overwhelming experience of sin and of conversion he had known in his own life. To an extent not to be seen again until the rise of existentialism in our own day, he built his philosophy around the certainties and realities of a profound inner experience. The experience was first and foremost one of weakness: naturally weak both in understanding and in will, man needs the help of God if he is to accomplish anything of value. Augustine’s theory of knowledge is built around the notion of a Divine illumination which is integral to any genuine human act of understanding, and his theory of will centers on the idea of grace, that is, the aid God freely gives man to strengthen his will in pursuit of the good. The universe (and man with it) is thus dependent on God in two significantly different ways: first in its being, because God, the Creator, is responsible for all that it is; second, in its activity, because it does not have within it a sufficiency of power to bring it to the goals that God designated for it and so He has to intervene to help it to completion.

Few men have influenced human thought as Augustine did Western religion and philosophy. But does he have any claim to notice in the history of natural science? At first sight it might not seem so. In the sixteen enormous volumes of his collected works, there is not a single treatise on what would be called today a “scientific” topic. Yet, in point of fact, Augustine’s work can be seen as marking the second crucial stage in the development of the peculiar matrix of thought and value within which natural science, as we know it, emerged in the West. Greek philosophers had already made the bold and hitherto unthinkable claim that the universe can be grasped in a “true knowledge,” a “science,” of purely human making, and Greek geometers had produced an impressive ideal of what such a science might aspire to. But after an unparalleled burst of creative activity, Greek science had just as rapidly declined, until by the period of Roman dominance in the first century a.d. it had become little more than a memory. At that point, Christianity made its first appearance and rapidly swept through the Empire. Its message was primarily a religious one, but gradually this message was seen to have far-reaching philosophical consequences.

The major one—and Augustine was the first to draw it clearly—was that if all that is depends totally on God for its being, then it must be good through and through: “Everything which You made was good, and through” “Each thing by itself is good, and the sum of them all is very good.”1 There is nothing independent of God, therefore, no positive principle of evil on which all the defects of the world can be blamed. At one stroke, the dualism of Manichaeism and of Oriental religions was rejected. The universe is henceforth to be regarded in the Christian West as the work of an intelligent Creator, itself therefore both intelligible and good. Christian faith thus began to point the way, dimly at first, to the possibility of a science of nature of the sort that the Greeks had dreamed of, but a science whose pursuit could now be construed in religious terms, something the Greeks had never succeeded in doing. A second consequence of Christian belief, one that equally permeated Augustine’s thinking, would take even longer for Christian thinkers to explore, namely that human history has a meaning, a direction, a beginning, and an end. The way was thus opened to developmental thinking, to an understanding of things in terms of their origins and of the steps that have led to their present state. A shift away from the cyclic concept of time that dominated Greek and Oriental ways of thinking about the world had begun.

Augustine stands, therefore, at a fateful parting of the ways between West and East, one whose importance was often overlooked by early historians of science because it lay at a deeper level of thought than they were wont to regard as relevant. Yet it was at this deeper level that really crucial changes were occurring over the next millennium, so that by the seventeenth century the West was prepared in both attitude and motivation for a giant new effort of understanding.

Augustine’s influence on the growth of the approach to nature and the knowledge of nature that science would one day demand cannot be represented as in all respects a positive one, however. There was a tension in his attitude toward the project of a “science of Nature,” a tension deriving from many sources. He thought of the universe as a “sign” of God, and elaborated one of the most detailed treatments of the notion of “sign” before Peirce’s work on signs in our own day. As a sign, the world should somehow be transparent; we should see God through it. It ought not become an object of interest entirely in its own right; if our gaze terminates at the sign instead of what the sign points to, it has failed to function as a sign for us. We have not really understood it, and our reputed knowledge is vain curiosity instead of true science. The knowledge of nature can never be a proper end in itself, then, unless “I proceed by occasion thereof to praise Thee.”2 Even though the universe is eminently worthy of study as the handiwork of God and the domain in which we can best come to grasp His power and wisdom, such study is always to be subordinate, a means to a knowledge of something other than the universe itself.

Some of Augustine’s suspicion of science derived, however, from a much more specific cause. One of the features of Manichaeism that had most attracted him as a young man was its claim to a special knowledge of past and future, the former through an elaborate mythology of the origins of the cosmos and the latter through astrology. He rapidly came to see through both of these claims; in an incisive critique of astrology,3 he points to instances of people born at the same hour of the same day whose subsequent fate is altogether different. What particularly irked him about the “rash promises of a scientific knowledge” made by the Manichaean astrologers was the denial of human freedom implicit in such claims, and their use of “creatures of God” (the stars) to turn men away from God. His comments on astronomy, by far the most developed science of his day, are always tinged by the current misuse of astronomy on the part of astrologers: “I do not care to know the courses of the stars, nor does my soul ever demand an answer from a departed spirit, for I detest all such sacrilegious superstitions.”4 The sciences with which he was most familiar, instead of fulfilling their function of revealing the Creator in His creation, tended instead, it seemed, to satisfy men’s lower instincts. He felt constrained to warn his readers of the dangers inherent in their pursuit: “Some men dive toward the discovery of secrets in Nature, whereof the knowledge, though not beyond our ken, doth profit nothing, yet men desire to know it for the sake of knowing. From this perverse desire of knowledge also it groweth that men enquire into things by magical arts.”5 Faith brought men to God and thus to the fullest satisfaction of their natures as free intelligent creatures. If a question of priorities arose, faith had therefore to rank before knowledge, although in principle the two ought to work together. “A faithful man... although he knows not the circles of the Great Bear is much better than another who can weigh out the elements and number the stars and measure the skies, if withal he neglects Thee, O Lord, who disposest of all things in number, weight and measure.”6

Augustine’s theory of knowledge dominated all discussions of scientific method for almost a millennium, until challenged by Aristotelian doctrines in the schools of Paris and Oxford in the mid-thirteenth century. Since all human knowledge (he asserted) needed the help of an intellectual illumination from God, the knowledge in which this illumination showed itself most clearly would obviously have to be the supreme type of knowledge. This pointed immediately to the revealed word of God in the Bible, and to its systematic explication in theology. When Augustine asserted that theology is the “queen of the sciences,” this was no arbitrary claim on his part; it was a logical and quite inevitable consequence of his theory of knowledge. The Greek philosophers had seen something suprahuman in man’s power of insight, the power by which men recognize eternal truths. These truths so far transcend the realm of sense and of the mutable in which man himself lives and moves that they can be grasped only with the aid of a power that equally transcends the normal material and human order. The notion of the Bible as the “revealed word of God” gave the Christian a warrant and model for such a theory of knowledge, a warrant that carried even more conviction than did the geometrical analogies of the Platonists.

Because the primary instance of Divine illumination is the Bible, and because all human sciences have to depend ultimately on a Divine illumination (rather than upon automatic modes of deduction or of empirical generalization), it follows that the word of the Bible carries immensely more weight than any claim of human science ever could. “That which is supported by Divine authority ought to be preferred over that which is conjectured by human infirmity.”7 Augustine favored the literal interpretation of Scripture, except where there was internal evidence that it was intended to be taken metaphorically or where the passage, literally taken, conflicted with a strictly demonstrated conclusion of a human science. In this literal emphasis, he differed from other Scriptural scholars of his day, especially those of the Eastern church who favored a more allegorical approach. His influence swung the Latin church heavily toward a “literalist” theory of inspiration, the view most in keeping with Augustine’s overall theory of knowledge.

Augustine himself did not hesitate to depart from the literal interpretation of Scripture when he felt that scientific orthodoxy excluded the possibility of such an interpretation. The problem that preoccupied him by far the most in this regard was that of cosmic origins, about which the Neoplatonists had had much to say. The idea of a series of discrete creations spread over six days was absolutely unacceptable from the Neoplatonic point of view. It is interesting to note that Augustine assumed without further question that this conflict legitimized a partly metaphorical interpretation of the disputed Hexaemeron, the account of creation given in the first three chapters of Genesis. His commentary on this narrative, the De Genesi ad litteram, clearly gave him much trouble in the writing. It appeared in different versions, and the final one was written and rewritten over fourteen years. His purpose in writing it was to resolve what he clearly took to be the major dispute between Scripture and the science of his day.

He argued that the days mentioned in the Creation story have to be understood as lengthy periods of time, not as days in the strict sense. This was plausible enough, but he went much further than this. Instead of innumerable successive acts of creation, God implanted in the primal nebulous (nebulosa) matter the seminal potentialities (or rationes seminales, as the Neoplatonists called them) from which all the species of the world we know would successively develop in the order described in Genesis. There was very little internal evidence in support of this ingenious mode of interpretation and the detailed theory of origins based on it; despite appearances, therefore, the warrant of the theory was really nothing more than its original philosophicoscientific one. But then methodological distinctions of this sort were not part of the Augustinian theory of knowledge to begin with.

Despite the liberties Augustine took in this particular instance, he much more often showed himself unexpectedly literalist, even when a metaphorical reading of Scripture would have seemed the obvious one to adopt. In one passage he discusses the Biblical phrase, “the waters above the firmament,” the implications of which appeared to run counter to the contemporary belief that the “natural” place of water is below that of air. After an ingenious speculation about “waters” here perhaps meaning water vapor, he concludes: “In whatever manner the waters may be (above the firmament of air), and of whatsoever kind they may be, that they are there we cannot doubt. The authority of Scripture is far greater than the strength of man’s reasoning.”8

The influence of Augustine was thus a dangerously ambiguous one in this regard. Although in his view the knowledge of nature is worth attaining, it can apparently be discovered in the phrases of Scripture, as well as in the elaborations of science. And if a conflict should arise between a literal reading of the Bible and some finding of science, the former must take precedence unless and until the latter has been demonstrated beyond all possibility of error, in which case the theologian will have grounds for assuming that a metaphorical interpretation is the proper one. The potential for conflict in such a theory of interpretation is sufficiently obvious today, but it was more than a millennium before scientific claims would depart sufficiently from the commonsense Hebrew world view for the problem to become a disruptive one. It was no accident that both Galileo and his opponents called upon Augustine when the question arose whether the Copernican doctrine was invalidated by the frequent Scriptural mentions of the sun’s motion.

Three Augustinian doctrines are worth noting because of the part they played in the early history of the natural sciences. The first of these is the doctrine of rationes seminales, which has already been mentioned and which has often been said to prefigure the theory of an evolutionary origin of species. The De Genesi ad litteram became the definitive work in the Middle Ages on origins and greatly encouraged developmental ways of understanding cosmic history, despite the counter influence of Aristotle in the later medieval period. But the Augustinian theory of rationes seminales was a developmental and not in any genuine sense an evolutionary view. Augustine believed in the fixity of species as strongly as did any of his Neoplatonist precursors. He did not suppose that one species could give rise to another; his theory was in no sense intended to suggest that every present species developed from a chain of earlier different species, back to the primal chaos of first matter. Rather, he held that God had implanted within this matter the germ of each separate species that would later develop; at some later appropriate moment, each germ would be activated, and the adult species would appear. The germs were not, therefore, earlier species, themselves destined to be replaced by the new species descending from them (as evolutionary theories hold); they were invisibly small seeds, each one carrying within it the potentiality for only one species. Furthermore, the activation of the seeds, each one carrying within it the potentiality for only one species. Furthermore, the activation of the seeds in some cases (as in the case of man’s origin) required a further Divine intervention; the potentialities were not sufficient of themselves to bring about the new species unaided. Thus it was not a true theory of evolution. Yet it cannot be denied that it was a lot closer to evolutionary modes of thought than were the major cosmologies of Greek origin.

A second characteristically Augustinian emphasis had a more direct effect on the direction taken by earlier medieval science. Augustine made much of a passing Biblical phrase about God’s having formed the universe “in number, weight and measure” in order to reinforce the mathematicism of Plato with an additional Biblical sanction. “These three things, measure, form, and order... are as it were generic good things to be found in all that God has created... Where the three are present in a high degree, there are great goods. Where they are absent, there is no goodness.”9 Being, goodness, and mathematical intelligibility are one in the world God created. The Forms of Plato become for Augustine Ideas in the mind of God, and he is more sanguine than is Plato about the success of the Demiurge-Creator in incarnating them in matter. Since mathematical truths come closest to the immutability characteristic of God, mathematical ideas provide the most appropriate patterns for the Creator. Augustine emphasized, even more than Plato did, the preeminence of mathematics in the constructing of a science of nature. This assurance about the type of concept appropriate to physics came to be taken for granted during the long period of dominance of Augustinian theology, so that even when Aristotelian natural science was rediscovered in the mid-thirteenth century, the old reluctance about the use of mathematics in physics had almost vanished, and the new mechanics of Merton and Paris was a nascent mathematical physics.

A final feature of Augustine’s thought that laid its impress upon medieval science was his basic metaphor of illumination, the principal causal mode relating God and man.10 It was clearly all-important to understand the nature of illumination, since this would lead to a grasp of causal action generally. Such was quite explicitly the motivation that led to the extraordinary developments in mathematical and experimental optics in the thirteenth century, for instance to the work of Grosseteste and Theodoric of Fribourg on reflection and refraction.

When the third, and decisive, stage in the development of natural science occurred in the seventeenth century, Augustine was not one of those (like Archimedes and Aristotle) with whose views the pioneers of the new science would have to reckon directly. He is not quoted by them, nor would they have been likely to be aware of what they owed him. His contributions lay far beneath the surface; they were of the sort that once made are later taken for granted, so obvious do they seem. But when one tries to grasp what it was that came about in western Europe in the centuries between Grosseteste and Newton, the specific new theories of the workings of nature are less relevant than are the underlying slow changes in attitude toward nature, man, and God that made the search for such theories seem worth making and suggested the general lines along which the search would take place. In this more fundamental development, Augustine played a not inconsiderable role.


1.Confessions, Bk. VII, ch. 12.

2.Ibid., Bk. X, ch. 35. See also Bk. V, ch. 3.

3.Ibid., Bk. VII.

4.Ibid., Bk. X, ch. 35.

5.Ibid., Bk. X, ch. 35.

6.Ibid., Bk. V, ch. 4.

7.De Genesi ad litteram, Bk. II, ch. 9.

8.Ibid., Bk. II, ch. 5.

9.De natura boni, Bk. I, ch. 3.

10. A. C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo (London, 1952), pp. 71–80.


Augustine’s works fill sixteen vols. of Migne’s standard Patrologia Latina collection (Vols. 32–47). There is an enormous amount of secondary literature, but Augustine’s role in the history of science is scarcely mentioned in it. See, however, H. Pope, ’St. Augustine and the World of Nature,” ch. 6 of his Saint Augustine of Hippo (London, 1937); and F. van der Meer, Augustine, the Bishop (London, 1961), ch. 4. For a good general treatment of Augustine’s work and a useful bibliography, see E. Portalié A. Guide to the Thought of St. Augustine (New York, 1960).

Ernan McMullin

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Augustine of Hippo, Saint

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