The last true intellectual of antiquity
(Illustration by Michael Daley)
In so far as St Augustine of Hippo gets a press at all today, it is a bad one. In the popular imagination, he is remembered above all for his notorious prayer: “Give me chastity and continence, only not yet.” Lacking context, his plea is taken by most people as evidence of hypocrisy, but is in fact the opposite. It occurs in his Confessions, Augustine’s literary and spiritual masterpiece, which is addressed throughout to God. The fact that he confesses his self-deceit to God and man is testimony to the sincerity of his remorse. But the presumption that the pious are all hypocrites makes the opportunity to subpoena a saint against his own faith too good to miss.
Even worse, Augustine is credited with saddling Christendom with its most unfashionable doctrine: original sin. The learned sneer at him for misunderstanding the Fall, though the more charitable among them blame a faulty translation. But original sin is more generally reviled because it is supposed to have unleashed the emotion that modern psychology most abominates: guilt. What kind of monster could have believed that even innocent babies “are born sinners”? Or teach that God knows in advance who will be saved and who will not — the idea of predestination that later loomed so large in the Reformation — thereby undermining free will? No wonder Catholics have long been notorious for their exaggerated sense of guilt. It is all Augustine’s fault.
Yet here, too, the modern view does not do justice to Augustine. In more than a hundred works, he set out what has remained the orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church for 1,600 years. Free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge, because our thoughts and actions are governed by causality. Original sin is not the fault of the newborn infant, but it is the occasion for God’s grace — proof that humanity cannot do without God and his forgiveness. For Augustine, man’s first disobedience was above all a sin of pride, when Adam and Eve sought to blame others for their actions. The Fall brought death into the world and with it the corruption of sexual desire — a subject on which Augustine wrote without prudishness. For him, the inability of men to control their lust was a consequence of Adam’s disobedience. Original sin is about human psychology, the ways in which we justify ourselves, as much as it is about theodicy, the ways in which we justify God. When Augustine converted from the teachings of Mani to those of Jesus, he also rejected fatalism, astrology and the notion of evil as an independent power. If we are evil, it is because we freely choose to do wrong.
Not only was Augustine among the first to write about the darker aspects of human nature with devastating insight, but in the Confessions he created a new genre: the first self-portrait of a mind — indeed, one of the greatest minds of all time. It is also the first depiction in words of what was then a comparatively new phenomenon — the born-again Christian — and although there have been countless autobiographies since, the Confessions has never been surpassed. We probably know more about Augustine than anybody else in the classical world. Lost works are still being rediscovered; what we know about his contemporaries — pagans, heretics or Catholics — often survives only in his tractates, sermons and polemics. No wonder Augustine has attracted many fine scholars, among whom the Princeton-based Irishman Peter Brown stands out.
Robin Lane Fox is the latest to grapple with his intractable genius: his Augustine: Conversions and Confessions (Allen Lane, £30) deals not so much with the Doctor of the Church as the drama played out in Augustine’s court of conscience, as the aspiring Catholic struggles with the despairing Manichean. What tipped the balance was his mother, Monica — a woman of sanctity and nobility. Lane Fox also illuminates the sophisticated cultural milieux of Carthage, Rome and Milan which formed Augustine’s character. As a classicist whose perspective is emphatically not a Christian one, Lane Fox shows Augustine as the last true intellectual of antiquity: as at home with philosophy and rhetoric as with theology.
But he was much more than that. After his conversion, he returned to Africa to become Bishop of Hippo. As the Roman Empire tottered, he began his “great work”, De Civitate Dei (City of God), soon after the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 and finished it around 427. Three years later, the Vandals besieged Hippo as Augustine lay dying; his cathedral and library alone miraculously survived the razing of the city.
City of God is not only the most prodigious book ever written up to that time, a vindication of Christianity against those who blamed it for the triumph of the barbarians, but also a Noah’s Ark of the mind, preserving what was needed to build a new, heavenly city on the ruins of the old. Among his legacies were the Rule that bears his name — monasticism was the bridge between ancient and medieval civilisation — and the idea of the just war. Indeed, when we justify the defence of Western civilisation against modern barbarism, we are all Augustinians.