This book review was published in The Montreal Anglican, January 2014.
A Biography Worthy of Augustine Himself. Review of Miles Hollingworth, Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford University Press, 2013. 312 pages
The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought. T & T. Clark International, 2010. 230 pages
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. University of California Press, 1967, 2000. Forty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2012. 548 pages
Miles Hollingworth is Visiting Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at St. John’s College, Durham University. This is his second book on Augustine. The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought was published in 2010.
Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography is a stimulating and engaging tour de force. Rowan Williams has praised it highly: “This is a book whose style and feel are really worthy of Augustine himself.” Hollingworth’s approach is both novel and innovative. Here, as in The Pilgrim City, he interprets Augustine’s mature writings in terms of his early life experiences. It is also revisionist since he prescinds from the conventional view that there are two Augustines, an early and a late Augustine, conveniently demarcated by his conversion. Hollingworth follows Peter Brown in his insistence that Augustine remained Augustine to the end. Continuity rather than discontinuity is the key to understanding his works.
Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography, therefore, is not a conventional biography. Readers who prefer a standard biography of Augustine should read Peter Brown’s classic, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which Hollingworth references throughout.
In The Pilgrim City there is a short chapter on Augustine’s early life and education, up to his nineteenth year. This is evidently the germ for Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Eight of the eleven chapters deal with Augustine prior to his conversion in his thirty-third year.
Hollingworth situates Augustine firmly in his native North Africa, in what is today Algeria. His first chapter, “Out of Africa,” shows how the country where he was born and where he spent most of his life, apart from for his brief stay in Italy (383-387), is essential for understanding his character and outlook. Augustine was an African with Berber ancestry, a provincial who never lost his African accent!
Augustine was born on November 13, 354, at Tagaste, Numidia (today Souk Ahras, Algeria) in what was then Proconsular Africa. His father Patricius Aurelius was a pagan; his mother, Monica, a Christian.
He received his early education in Tagaste and Madauros. Thanks to Romanianus, his benefactor and subsequent patron, he was able to pursue his studies in Carthage where he met the woman with whom he cohabited for fifteen years and who was the mother of his son Adeodatus. We don’t know her name. Augustine never mentions it!
In Carthage Augustine encountered the Manicheans, a dualistic syncretic sect that originated in Persia. Its founder Mani taught that there were two contending principles, the Good and the Evil. Augustine was a Hearer in the sect for nine years before becoming disillusioned and leaving. However, Manichaeism left an indelible mark on him, especially its dualism, the binary opposites of the two cities, the two loves, the predestined and the reprobate, what Peter Brown called “the subtle attraction of opposites.”
Augustine’s negative views of women and human sexuality owe more to Neoplatonism than they do to Manichaeism. Its founder, Plotinus, was described by his disciple and editor Porphyry as a philosopher who seemed ashamed of being in a body. For Augustine humankind was a “condemned lump” (massa damnata). Salvation depended solely upon divine grace, hence his sobriquet, “the Doctor of Grace.” Bertrand Russell aptly summed up Augustine’s view: “Damnation proves God’s justice; salvation, His mercy. Both equally display His goodness.” Augustine’s singular doctrine of original sin and its transmission through sexual generation was based on his literal reading of Genesis, chapter 3, and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 5. This doctrine and the doctrine of the predestination of the elect have cast a long shadow over Western Christianity.
To advance his professional career, Augustine moved to Rome in 383. Thanks to the intervention of Symmachus, the pagan Prefect of Rome, he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric in Milan, then the imperial capital. The appointment gave him the status of a public intellectual.
In Milan Augustine was drawn to the sermons of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Ambrose could read Greek and introduced Neoplatonic themes into his sermons. Ambrose’s influence over Augustine grew steadily until his conversion in 386. After a brief retreat at Cassiciacum, he was baptized by Ambrose during the Easter vigil, April 24-25, 387. Augustine was now determined to renounce all worldly ambitions. He resigned his professorship.
Augustine returned to North Africa and established a small monastic community on the family property. On a visit to Hippo Regius (today Annaba, Algeria) in 391, he was (to use Peter Brown’s expression) “press-ganged” into being ordained a priest. This was not unusual at the time. Ambrose had been acclaimed Bishop of Milan before he was even baptized! Augustine was subsequently ordained coadjutor bishop. He succeeded Valerius as Bishop of Hippo in 395. There he lived until his death on August 28, 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. To this period belong his major works: On the Trinity (De Trinitate), On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) and his monumental work, The City of God (De Civitate Dei).
Augustine’s education was confined principally to Latin authors, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust and Terence. Of these, Cicero exercised the greatest influence. CIcero’s Hortensius (no longer extant) first turned his attention to philosophy. He studied Greek but he never mastered it. In the Confessions, he tells us: “Even now I cannot fully understand why the Greek language, which I learned as a child, was so distasteful to me. I loved Latin.” Since Greek was then the international language of commerce and culture, much as English is today, he was at a serious disadvantage.. Peter Brown considered it a disaster: “Augustine’s failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the Late Roman educational system: he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek.”
Consequently Augustine had to rely on Latin translations of Greek texts. Although he held Plato and the Platonists in the highest regard, he was unable to read them in the original. In the City of God he wrote: “There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists.” But if Plato was “the master of all those philosophers,” it was the two great Neoplatonists of the age, Plotinus and Porphyry, “the most renowned of the pagan philosophers,” who eased Augustine’s transition into Catholic Christianity.
For biblical exegesis, Augustine depended on the Old Latin Version(s) of the Bible, based on the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, dating from the 3rd century BCE. In 393 he wrote to Jerome to inquire about Latin translations of Greek commentators on the Bible. Unlike Jerome, he did not know Hebrew but consulted Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Vulgate, when he was writing the City of God.
Augustine was a prolific author. A list of his works exceeds one hundred separate titles. He employed many different genres—apologetics, treatises, polemics, commentaries and exegesis, sermons and letters. He created two new literary forms, the Soliloquia and the Confessions. The Soliloquia, one of his first philosophical works, broke new literary and philosophical ground by exploring the problem of how to be creative and self-conscious at the same time. The Confessions is not an autobiography in the modern sense but an extended prayer to God. What is novel is the autobiographical elements. It became the archetype for later autobiographies.
The corpus of Augustine’s works is vast. Since Augustine was not a systematic thinker, it is difficult to reconcile some of his theological positions, for example, infant baptism and predestination. This is the case with his political ideas as well, as Hollingworth showed in The Pilgrim City. Since Augustine engaged in theological controversies, many of his writings were polemical and topical. Augustine was trained as a professional rhetorician and dialectician as well as a philosopher. His skillful use of rhetorical devices enabled him to achieve maximum effect and easily score points against his opponents.
The first scholarly edition of Augustine’s works, printed in Basel in 1490, started a controversy over his views on grace and the church that culminated in the Protestant Reformation. Diarmaid MacCulloch quotes the Princeton historian B.B. Warfield’s remark: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”
Augustine spans the Classical Era, Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. By combining the God of the Bible and the God of Neoplatonism, he premised Scholasticism. He anticipated Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Descartes’s Cogito. Professor Charles Taylor in his chapter on Augustine in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) observed: “On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine. Augustine’s whole outlook was influenced by Plato’s doctrines as they were transmitted to him through Plotinus. His encounter with these doctrines played a crucial role in his spiritual development.”
Augustine was a precursor of a number of important developments in 20th century philosophy: existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics and semiotics. The “religious turn” in Continental philosophy has focused on the Confessions. Postmodernists have also shown special interest in his writings.
Augustine’s continuing relevance is well established. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy rated Augustine highly as a thinker. He considered his analysis of time in Book XI of the Confessions superior to Kant’s in the Critique of Pure Reason. Edmund Husserl adduced Augustine in Cartesian Meditations; Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time; and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the Preface to Phenomenology of Perception. At the outset of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein quoted the passage from Book I of Confessions where Augustine explains how as a child he acquired language. Hannah Arendt, a student of Husserl and Heidegger, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s concept of love. In her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,she reprised Augustine’s notion of evil as the privation of good.
Augustine engaged two major North-African French thinkers, both born in Algeria. Albert Camus wrote his dissertation on Plotinus and Augustine. In his novel The Plague (La Peste), the Jesuit, Fr. Paneloux, renowned for his researches into St. Augustine and the North African Church, delivers two sermons on the plague that are decidedly Augustinian in tone. Jack Derrida, the founder of deconstructionism, was a confirmed admirer of Augustine from the time he first read him as an adolescent. His highly original text Circumfession is replete with Latin quotations from the Confessions. Another French postmodernist thinker and a former Marxist, Jean-François Lyotard, wrote La confession d’Augustin, the beginning of what was intended to be a definitive version of the text of the Confessions. It was incomplete when Lyotard died in 1998 but was published posthumously.
We are probably better placed now than at any time since the Enlightenment to appreciate Augustine. His pessimism about the human condition resonates today. There are parallels between his age and our own. The Roman Empire was disintegrating. The amphitheatres were crumbling. There were repeated economic crises. Ancient Roman religion had lost its hold. It was an age of syncretism. The shock of the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 was comparable to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Augustine wrote the City of God in response to pagan claims that Christians were to blame for “the public calamity.”
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is very readable but it needs to be read slowly. As he did in The Pilgrim City, Hollingworth provides a chronology. He lists Augustine’s writings, with Latin titles, abbreviations and translations. There are over forty pages of endnotes and a good index. The dust jacket shows Antonello da Messina’s painting of Augustine (c. 1472), Museo Nazionale, Palermo, Italy.
Miles Hollingworth is currently working on two projects: Inventing Socrates: The Religion of the Good Life, and a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, due to be published in 2014 and 2015 respectively. In the meantime, I strongly recommend Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography.
© William Converse, 2013
William Converse is a member of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, and a regular contributor to The Montreal Anglican.