Unreliable Lives of the Saints

Two new lives of St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas fail to straightforwardly present the legacies of these two hugely influential figures

John Marenbon

Apart from Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas were the two thinkers who, more than any others, shaped the intellectual life of Western Europe in the long period from the early fifth to the end of the 17th century. Augustine gave Latin Christianity its characteristic emphases on Original Sin and grace, and a God at once Platonically immutable and outside time, but exercising his will contingently. Aquinas was, in his own day —the later 13th century, when Christian thinkers first began to use the whole range of Aristotle’s works — a respected but controversial figure, one among a number of outstanding and influential theologians. In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, he became for Catholics a doctrinal authority matched only by Augustine. Although the intellectual history of these two centuries is often portrayed, in retrospect, as a conflict between scholasticism and modern science, it would be truer to see the time as one of struggle between these two giants of its past, Augustine and Aquinas.

Writing a general study on such figures, for a broad audience, is not easy. Both authors have steered away from giving the sort of standard account which reads like an expanded encyclopaedia article. They want to avoid dullness at all costs and make their subjects lively and appealing to readers today, while also putting forward their own distinctive interpretations and ideas.

Hollingworth’s book claims to be an “intellectual biography”. It fails both intellectually and biographically. Augustine was a highly original and powerful, if unsystematic, philosopher and theologian. Hollingworth recounts many of Augustine’s individual comments and particular thoughts, but he does not explain any of his positions or arguments clearly and in detail. Rather, his procedure is to quote a chunk of Augustine and then digress, in a way closer to free-association than philosophical analysis, citing from a seemingly endless list of contemporary writers and thinkers (Freud, C.S. Lewis, Housman, MacNeice, Durkheim, Wittgenstein). The reader is given no chance to grasp Augustine’s thought or any important part of it. 

Nor does the biographical element provide much compensation. Although the narrative, in so far as there is one, is chronological, Hollingworth omits most of Augustine’s life. After 60 pages of context-setting and general waffle, the next 175 pages take the reader from Augustine’s birth to his conversion and the first of his surviving works. Just 15 pages later, he is on his deathbed. Hollingworth does indeed use the full range of Augustine’s writings, but he does not trace out how his life and thought developed, and this omission is particularly damaging because Augustine was a thinker whose ideas changed dramatically, to the extent that, behind the real opponents of his later years, such as Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum, it can be tempting to make out the spectre of his own younger self. In this book, however, the only spectre behind, and often in front of, Augustine is that of Hollingworth; except for direct quotations, it is hard to tell which are ideas are supposed to be Augustine’s, and which the author’s own.

Denys Turner does a rather better job of covering his subject while bringing out his own particular perspective. Even though his book is not long, and is written in the relaxed manner of a rather self-satisfied lecturer (half the verbiage could easily be pruned), it tells the reader something about Aquinas’s metaphysics, his theory of the soul and understanding, his views about freedom of the will, his arguments for the existence of God and his negative theology, his ideas about friendship and his theory of Christ and the Eucharist. Turner describes the book as a “portrait” and, while it is short on factual, biographical detail, it dwells more on Aquinas the man than most doctrinal or philosophical studies —and on Aquinas the saint. Turner finds this sanctity in his self-effacingness: Aquinas presents, with supreme clarity, a structure of thought from which he himself, as a personality, is entirely absent. Turner, however, wants to make a more sensational point, and he goes on to claim that Aquinas’s supreme act of self-denial lay in his deciding to leave his Summa Theologica unfinished. The Summa is indeed unfinished, and it might possibly be that, in the last months of his life, Aquinas deliberately chose not to go on with it. The more probable and prosaic explanation is that he was simply unable to continue. Turner, again, seeks to shock by calling Aquinas a “materialist”. He adds that he does not mean this label in its modern sense, but it would have been more accurate, but commonplace, to call him a   hylomorphist: someone who followed Aristotle in seeing the world as made from matter and form. Turner does indeed explain something of this theory, but he fails to make clear the common ground which Aquinas shared with most of his contemporaries, misleadingly suggesting that they were all Platonists of one sort or another. Moreover, Turner’s philosophical defences of arguments and positions of Aquinas’s that he claims have been unfairly attacked by recent scholars (for instance, the “Third Way” — the argument that God must exist because there could not be a universe consisting only of contingent things) are loose and easily rejected.

Both of these books would be more useful if they were straightforward, dull and reliable. It is a pity, too, that in trying to make these two long-dead figures live again for readers today, Hollingworth and Turner pay so little attention to the historical dimension of both their thinking and its influence. To understand their greatness properly, we need to recognise that they no longer loom over our culture as they did for so many      centuries.

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