Augustine’s Philosophical Importance

Augustine_of_HippoAugustine is a hugely important figure in church history. He’s a big deal outside the church, too—in fact, he’s one of the most important figures in pure philosophy.

Here’s why.

Augustine beat Kant to his theory of subjective time

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was one of the fathers of modern philosophy. He argued, among many other things, that time doesn’t exist outside consciousness—that it’s “nothing other than the form of inner sense.” That subjective view of time has proved hugely important. Thing is, Kant wasn’t the first to think of it—Augustine, in the third century AD, came to more or less the same conclusion in book XI of the Confessions.

The problem that started it all: given the Genesis 1 account of creation, shouldn’t creation have occurred sooner—that is, as soon as possible? Augustine argues that time itself was created when the world was created; God, eternal, is exempt from linear time and all notions of before and after. It’s here that Augustine beats Kant to the punch. “What, then, is time?” he wonders. “If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” He concludes that the present is all that really exists; the past exists only as memory; the future, as expectation. Time is in and of the human mind, and that’s Kant in a nutshell.

Augustine beat Descartes to his cogito

modern-philosophy-bundleCogito, ergo sum,” wrote René Descartes (1596–1650)—“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes resolved to doubt all that could be doubted, and concluded that pretty much all sensory input is subject to skepticism. That position admits as trustworthy only the bare fact of mental existence. (By the way, Descartes later concluded that his own extreme doubt, though possible, was unreasonable—since God is good, he wouldn’t lead us astray; therefore, the senses can be trusted.) Descartes’ cogito has been enormously influential.

But Augustine, in his Soliloquia, comes to the very same conclusion:

“You, who wish to know, do you know who you are? I know it. Whence are you? I know not. Do you feel yourself single or multiple? I know not. Do you feel yourself moved? I know not. Do you know that you think? I do.” (emphasis added)

Sorry, Descartes.

Augustine incorporated and modified Platonism

ancient-philosophy-bundleFor Augustine, the writings of Plato were “the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error”—in fact, Platonism helped bring Augustine to Christianity. Through Plotinus, Augustine adopted many of Plato’s teachings:

  • Augustine’s City of God is to his City of Man what Plato’s higher plane—the plane of forms—is to our lower world.
  • Plato believed in absolute, unchanging reality; for Augustine, this made Christianity’s radical claims, which he came to later in life, easier to accept.
  • Both thinkers treated logic and faith as complementary, not opposed.

What’s really interesting is that Augustine, unlike his Platonist predecessors, adapted Platonism into new philosophy that better conforms to Scripture. Let’s return to Genesis 1, for example. For Plato, and later Aristotle, creating something from nothing was unthinkable: in the Timaeus, Plato argued that a demiurge, or creator god, sculpted the universe’s forms from some preceding primitive matter. But Genesis is explicit—God created something from nothing—and so Augustine sees no room for confusion. Before him, Christian Platonists (like Origen) tended to incorporate Plato’s thought in whole; after him, Platonism answered to Scripture.

* * *

Augustine took the philosophy of the past and modified it for emerging Christianity. He developed original philosophy that prefigured the work of many of modernity’s most important thinkers. He’s important—and so is the larger conversation he’s such a big part of.

You can get the Logos editions (in both English and Latin) of Augustine’s Confessions and Select Letters for just $34.94—for such influential thought in such a research-friendly format, that’s a steal. Likewise, Noet’s Ancient and Modern Philosophy bundles give you the essential works of Kant, Descartes, Plato, and others.

Join the conversation: pick up Augustine’s Confessions and Select Letters, the Ancient Philosophy Bundle, and the Modern Philosophy Bundle right now.

Or start studying the ultimate classical library: Noet’s immense Classical Foundations Bundle, which gives you 124 volumes spanning philosophy, history, literature, and the classics.

Then keep reading—what do philosophy and theology have to do with math?


  1. For those of you who like philosophy, this is a great summary from a Christian perspective.

  2. David Davidson as done well in pointing out the impact Augustine has had on Christianity and his strong ties to philosophy. He was the father of Catholic theology and that was the crib from which we get Reformed theology today. The Apostle Paul was very acquainted with philosophy. In Col. 2:8 and other passages, he tells us to shun it.

    • Randall True says

      It appears Mr. Mosher has taken Paul out of the context of the New Testament. After all, Paul went to Athens and used philosophy combined with revelation to argue the claims of Christ. Paul did not use “empty” words, but sound philosophy with sound revelation. We could not asses the claims and meaning of Christ without sound philosophy.

      • I am very aware of all you are saying and more. Paul knew full well what philosophy was and taught. If you are of the Reformed school, you will disagree with me. I am not Reformed (often called “Calvinism”). Go to my website, under publications go to the chapter on Calvinism. You will se I know what I’m taking about. I am not going out of context.

    • Terry Bowland says

      So why study philosophy? And specifically, “Why study philosophy as a Christian?” After all, doesn’t the Bible warn us about the study of philosophy?

      See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col 2:8)

      This is the only time Paul employed the term “philosophy,” although it was a common enough term in the Greek world. The terms used to define this movement are the terms “hollow and deceptive philosophy” or more literally “the philosophy and empty deceit.” Paul is probably referring to a specific philosophy, rather than philosophy in general. Although Paul probably had little to say about the positive aspects of philosophy, no evidence in this verse indicates that he opposed the discipline.
      Paul described the philosophy in terms of three characteristics, which provide a standard of measurement. The parallel statements indicate that the philosophy was human, elementary, and non-Christian.
      First, the philosophy was human. The actual wording is that it “depends on human tradition.” That was the destructive element.
      Second, it was elementary. Here Paul used the term “basic principles” (στοιχεῖα), which has a long history of interpretation. Originally, the term referred to the four basic elements of the world: earth, fire, wind, and water. The word later came to mean the “ABC’s” of something, i.e., the basics. In Jewish circles, the term “elements” often applied to supernatural beings who ruled over people. Some considered them demons. Paul used the term in Gal 4:9, where he confronted false teachers who urged Christians to worship the elementary things.
      How did Paul use the term here? Most probably he employed a variation of Jewish terminology since most other elements of the heresy make sense when approached from that perspective (see the introduction to this commentary). He may have referred to angel powers, which were incorrectly perceived as being in authority over the world. Whatever the specific interpretation, the elements were inferior. Christianity brought a higher and better system of worship to its believers.
      Third, the philosophy was non-Christian. Perhaps more than the other evaluations, this one points to the heart of the danger. The philosophy was not “according to Christ.” It was incompatible with Christ and contrary to the work he did on the cross. This reason alone would be enough to invalidate the teaching, but collectively the three descriptions decisively expose the nature of the philosophy.

      Therefore, it is not “philosophy” per se that Paul is opposed to, but rather any philosophy that does not begin and end with the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

      See: Melick, R. R. (2001). Vol. 32: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (252–253). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

      • I appreciate your comments. Though only used once, wisdom is used several times and refers often to the philosophical world of thought.

        Philosophy is a reasoning process that is seeking truth and what is good, just and right. Paul is against that approach. God’s Word does the job.

        As I wrote to Randal, I am very aware of all you are saying and more. Paul knew full well what philosophy was and taught. If you are of the Reformed school, you will disagree with me. I am not Reformed (often called “Calvinism”). Go to my website, under publications go to the chapter on Calvinism. I’m an old fashioned, hard nosed Baptist, not Reformed.