It does, on the face of it, seem improbable that a man born in 354 A.D. in a provincial town in what is now Algeria would have much to say to us today. But Augustine is no ordinary thinker, no ordinary person.
From the time of his conversion to Catholic Christianity in 386 until his death in 430, Augustine wrote some 117 books, as well as his sermons and his vast correspondence.
In his works, he touches on all the central themes of Christian theology and Christian life: the nature of God and of human persons; the problem of evil; the self's understanding of itself; war and human aggression; the bases of social life and political order; Christian vocations; church doctrine - the list is very lengthy.
Because he touched upon so many Christian themes and because de facto (along with Saints Ambrose and Jerome) he largely set the agenda for Christian controversy in his era and for the following centuries, it is not surprising that his foundational writings remained in the forefront of subsequent Christian - and even secular - writing. Subsequent authors could not develop these themes without including references to Augustine's thought.
But it was more than his "early position" in the history of expression of Christian thought that accorded Augustinian his eminence. As well, it was the high-powered quality and range of his thought that saw him tower over his successors. He became an authority, whose thinking on subjects that he covered could not henceforth be ignored.
For centuries after his death, authors were able to do little more than to come to grips with the quantity and quality of his thought, and to re-present it in a more systematic matter than Augustine - as a busy bishop and frenetic correspondent - had had the time to do. The Church needed a period for the digestion of the nutrition that he had provided.
In his biography of Augustine, Peter Brown claims that Augustine has "come as near to us . . . as the vast gulf that separates a modern man from the culture and religion of the later empire can allow." (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, page 181. See new edition below.)
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Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. A New Edition with an Epilogue. By Peter Brown. University of California Press, November 2002. ISBN 0-520-22757-3 (paper) 576 pages, US$19.95.