Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was born in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Following a youth and an early career steeped in debauchery and ambition, Augustine experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity when he turned from his pagan beliefs. His classic book Confessions details his conversion story and, to this day, remains a perennial bestseller.
Over his lengthy career Augustine was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. Widely considered the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine’s writings shaped Christian orthodoxy like few others. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains equally important to Protestants and Catholics alike. He also enjoys the pop culture distinction of being the only Christian thinker to be mentioned in songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Sting.1
Yet while he is one of the most famous Christians in church history, there are three things you may not know about St. Augustine the writer. I hope these details enhance your appreciation for Augustine’s role in history.
- Augustine was the most prolific author of the entire ancient world.
Writing and preserving manuscripts presented a significant challenge in the ancient world, but Augustine was an intensely bookish person with a preoccupation for both reading and writing books. Hence, over his lifetime, Augustine’s writings exceeded five million words, making him the most productive author of antiquity.2His Latin corpus of writings extended well beyond all other Latin and Greek ancient authors. In a literary sense, we know more about Augustine than any other writer of antiquity.
2. Augustine created the literary genre of autobiography.
Augustine’s most famous book Confessions gave birth to the autobiography, then a new literary genre in Western culture. Written about 397, the work chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title “Confessions” can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his grateful confession of God’s goodness. Up until then, people generally did not write accounts of their own lives, especially not about their spiritual journeys.
3. Some of Augustine’s books have become both Christian and Western classics.
Four of Augustine’s classics of historic Christianity especially stand out: Confessions, The City of God, On the Trinity, and On Christian Doctrine. The first two have also become literary classics of Western civilization and can be found on every great books list. The City of God is considered by many scholars to be Augustine’s magnum opus (Latin for “greatest work”). His most comprehensive work (written intermittently between 413 and 427), The City of God gave the Western world its first philosophy of history and presented and defended a distinctly Christian view of history.
As a writer, St. Augustine’s insights span the centuries. Anyone, Christian or not, stands to benefit from his thoughtful reflection. How about taking up one of the books mentioned in this article and giving it a read? You’ll be reading a classic.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you read any of St. Augustine’s books? If so, which ones and what did you learn?
- For more about Augustine and his writings, see chapter three of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
- See “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” by Bob Dylan, “Saint of Me” by The Rolling Stones, and “Saint Augustine in Hell” by Sting.
- Guy G. Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 66.