Home > Biography / Autobiography, Christianity > Augustine: A New Biography

Augustine: A New Biography

  • Author: James J. O’Donnell
  • Publisher: H~C~ (2007)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 418
  • ISBN-10: 006157712X
  • ISBN-13: 9780061577123
  • Format: PDF

Saint Augustine—the celebrated theologian who served as Bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E.—is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the Western world. His autobiography, Confessions, remains among the most important religious writings in the Christian tradition. In this eye-opening and eminently readable biography, renowned historical scholar James J. O’Donnell picks up where Augustine himself left off to offer a fascinating, in-depth portrait of an unparalleled politician, writer, and churchman in a time of uncertainty and religious turmoil.
Augustine is a triumphant chronicle of an extraordinary life that is certain to surprise and enlighten even those who believed they knew the complex and remarkable man of God.

In this nothing town, the sun of the Maghreb outside the hall is relentless, but the shade between stone columns within is cool. Men stand on one side, women on the other, all hushed in concentration on the deliberate gestures of one man. He sits, dressed simply and plainly enough to attract attention, one step above the crowd at the end of the hall and listens attentively as a younger man reads a short account of two brothers competing for their father’s attention, a contest the younger wins by trickery. Their names are Jacob and Esau.

When the reader finishes, the older man rises and begins to speak. The quiet deepens as his voice fills the space effortlessly. It shapes elegant and well-proportioned sentences and colors them with expression. He is a star performer in a room like this and few of these people have ever seen or heard anything to match him. In a world without mass media, his performance is the kind that gets talked about on other days in other towns. His voice has been the making of him.

The story of the two brothers, he tells his listeners, is part of a larger story. All these events happened long ago and in a very different world to people he calls “Judeans,” and the story of the two brothers is one part of a larger story. The Judeans go into exile in Egypt and then escape through miraculous waters, for their god is powerful and favors them, up to a point.

The story, which most of us probably recognize, is still fresh for his audience and perhaps even unfamiliar to some. It has a contemporary message for the people standing before the speaker—“Christians” he calls them—and as he continues, persuasive and eloquent, he brings it home. They, too, have been through miraculous waters, and so the old story of the Judeans is somehow their story as well:

Brothers, look and see: the Judeans were liberated in the sea, the Egyptians were destroyed in it. So Christians are liberated by the forgiveness of sins, and sins are destroyed in baptism. The Judeans go beyond the Red Sea and walk through the desert. It’s the same way with Christians after baptism: they’re not yet in the land of promise, but they live in hope. This world is a desert, but it becomes a real desert for the Christian after baptism if he understands what he has received. If he doesn’t receive only the outward signs of the sacrament, but if these signs really take spiritual effect in his heart, then he understands how this world is a desert for him. He understands that he’s living like a stranger here and that he sighs for his true homeland. But as long as he’s sighing, he lives in hope. For in our hope we are saved.

For the merchants and lawyers and officers and gentlemen in the audience, the alienation from the ordinary, comfortable social world around them, the saving and healing alienation that the speaker evokes, might not be obvious. He assumes that without him to tell them, they would go on about their business blithely at home in the world, thinking of nothing else. Is he speaking to an alienation he senses in them and shares with them, or is he creating it by his words? He tells them, at any rate, how they can and should read their own lives differently by reading, or hearing, the story of Jacob and Esau and their nation. He goes on:

Temptations happen, so they happen to us even after baptism. The Egyptians who chased the Judeans out of Egypt weren’t their only enemies— but they were their old enemies. In the same way, our past life and our past sins obey their prince, the devil, and continue to haunt us. There are enemies in the desert as well, trying to block our path. The Judeans fought with them and were victorious.

To call the pleasures of the world “temptation” is to put a moral cast on them. The audience this day keeps men and women separate as a symbol of a deeper suspicion of the relations that the sexes make when left to themselves. Thoughts and hands are to be under strict control, and the children of matrimony the only excuse for anything but the most austere avoidance of sexual contact.

But none present is free of stain. That devil, those past sins, and that past life follow every member of the assembly. No one there could think she or he has lived free and easy, at peace with the world. Hope, the inseparable twin brother of fear, is the best they can manage: hope for a better life, but a better life to be found only on the other side—of death. Victory—over temptation, over the devil, over death—turns out to be a key word this day because almost an hour later, as the speaker is finishing, he reminds those assembled that today’s gathering is meant to recall the virtues of a “witness” (he uses the relatively unfamiliar Greek word martyr) named Vincent (“the Winner” is how that name would have translated to a Latin-speaking audience) who had been killed some decades earlier by the Roman authorities. His story, a predictable tale of bright virtue resisting dark power, had probably been read aloud a little earlier and still lingered in the audience’s mind.

Because he has shared this and other stories and tried to make them throw light on the contemporary life of this tedious North African town, the audience can go away thinking of themselves in ways that would puzzle many of their neighbors. The stories this man tells let the congregants rewrite themselves into other roles, with improbable hopes and unexpected responsibilities and pitfalls. If they can believe his interpretations of the stories, they would indeed be citizens of a great invisible city that differed in many ways from their ordinary condition.

When the speaker finishes, there is more stirring and speaking in front of the hall. A few minutes later, some in the audience are asked to leave, for they have not been fully admitted to membership in this fellowship. When they are gone, still more talking and doing and some singing follow, in which the speaker plays a central part. Eventually bread and wine are distributed, and after one last song the group finally disbands, having spent perhaps two hours together.

Within the walls of this place, the speaker is in command, uncontested. But as soon as his audience disbands, they enter a world where his authority is more problematic. Some of them have their doubts about what they have just heard, seen, and done. But for today, they made the choice to be there. As they scatter, some pass a similar hall not far down the street, where a larger audience has been doing similar things at the same hour. A few biting remarks are probably exchanged as the groups brush past one another, and the tension in the air marks a contest for authority between the two camps.

There are others in the town who are indifferent to both groups and who prefer their own ways of gathering and enacting community: another ceremonial meal, perhaps, different stories, different gods even. But twenty years earlier the authorities had made it clear that where Roman law held sway Christians and Christians alone would be allowed to celebrate such rituals. The man whose voice we have tried to hear is a master of using the public law and the emperor’s authority to advance the cause of his community. For him, it is not enough that most of his rivals have been silenced. He insists that his way and his way alone shall prevail. In the end, he succeeds in this. And fails.

This book is about him. He was Aurelius Augustinus by birth, Augustinus Hipponensis (Augustine of Hippo) by profession.2 If all we knew about him was that he was a powerful and eloquent leader and shaper of affairs in his own time, he would hold our attention easily enough. But he is also someone else—“Saint Augustine”—and we know him not from what he did but from what he wrote. He died almost sixteen hundred years ago and there has been no decade in all that time in which he has not been read, admired, controverted, and read again. A few of his books have won their way into that body of literature that is continuously published in many languages and on all continents. More even than his books, his ideas (or stereotypes of a few of them) have become caricatures of themselves and leitmotifs for belief and controversy. “Just war,” “original sin,” “concupiscence”—we are right to attach these notions to him, yet we misrepresent him when we do.

The vignette with which I started already captures common themes of doctrine and conflict worth keeping in mind. On the one hand, Augustine makes it clear that, for him, divine power is absolute and above humankind, determining all that falls below. In later years he would speak of this as “predestination” and would engage in long wars with others of his own religious community who seemed to him to err by relying too much on human will and effort, and he would call them “Pelagians.” At the same time, his tendency to divide the world into two great warring camps would be seen by many as a relic of his earlier religious enthusiasm for a new-age sect called Manicheism that spoke of cosmic warfare between the dual powers of good and evil, with outcome uncertain. And even as he spoke, there were still other Christians in the church down the street who reviled him and his flock as traitors and false Christians. He called them “Donatists” and fought a deadly war with them for two decades to wrest primacy among the Christians of Africa away from them. And then there were still many beyond the walls of any church, the ones he would call “pagans,” who mistrusted him and all his like and hated them for the way they had gotten Roman armies to destroy old temples and force men into new religious ways. A quiet Sunday morning in church can conceal strong passions in surprising places.

Although there are many Augustines, some of whom were in church that Sunday, some of whom we will meet here, this book is about two in particular, the one who lived and died a long time ago and the one who lives to be remade by us and is known from his works. It’s impossible to tell the story of the one without the other.

We will concentrate first on the Augustine who lived long ago. He is less well known than his undying alter ego but there is much to be known about him, and in telling his stories we will come in the end to a better sense of who he really was. Just as we’ve already seen him telling an old story with urgent present meaning, it will be impossible for us not to think of our now when we read about his then, and that’s as it should be. But we should not jump to conclusions about him, or accept simple answers. I suspect most readers will find that he has more to offer our world, even as he becomes less simple to imagine or invoke in his own.

And throughout we will struggle to hear his voice. We know it filled theaters and churches for over half a century and dictated the five million words that survive today in his published works. Once it even stopped a riot. Yet we know almost nothing of how he looked—tall or short, dark or light, though he was probably thin, by ascetic choice. Even the very oldest image, from sixth-century Rome, only approximates his dress, but it cannot be an image of the man himself. Far more familiar are the medieval, Renaissance, and modern paintings that turn him into a great bishop of those later ages. In their time, they were at best edifying; today we should be amused by them and persist in imagining a man who held people’s attention precisely by the way he seemed to eschew attention. So while we do know this of him, nothing that aspires to be a picture of the man has a prayer of being anything like him.

Of the books he dictated in his study, and that survived through arduous hand-copying for a thousand years and repeated printing for another five hundred, the one that is most often read today he called Confessions, a work of extraordinary artifice and power. If we use that book and his other books to imagine his life, we might then fall into the same trap his contemporaries did: of being overpowered by him, of being seduced by his art, of being driven to accept his words as he intended them, of taking his world his way. By writing these famous confessions, he wanted us to learn his story, wanted to make us think he was coming entirely clean. But no one ever comes entirely clean. No one tells the whole story. We cannot tell the whole of our own story, much less that of someone who lived and died sixteen hundred years ago. But we can tell more of the story than Augustine told us, more than he sometimes knew. If we read his words and those of his contemporaries with resistance and imagination, they will reveal him to us in many ways.

So we must struggle to hear his voice, and struggle at the same time not to be hypnotized by it. The balancing act is exhilarating and terrifying.

Let’s start with these famous words:

Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.

Our heart is restless, until it rests in you.

They come from the first page of his Confessions. Another eighty thousand Latin words follow. Where do they come from? How did he speak them? He spoke them aloud to his secretaries when he was forty-two years old. We mark the date as the year 397 of the common era (C.E.), but that familiar reckoning was constructed more than a century after his time by a monk named Dionysius from what is now Moldova and only became a standard of reckoning several hundred years after that. Augustine and his contemporaries knew the year 397 as the 1,150th since the founding of the city of Rome and the third year of the reign of the emperor Honorius in Milan and his brother Arcadius in Constantinople. Some people at the time noticed that 365 years, more or less, had elapsed since the crucifixion of Jesus and had various expectations of how that year might be marked. Would it bring the second coming? Augustine never seems to have thought so, but he knew the arguments and lived in a time when they found serious takers.

He spoke those words in the African city of Hippo Regius, now called Annaba in Algeria. A year or so before, Augustine had become the leader of a Christian congregation there, and he lived now at the center of a troubled community. His Christians were a small group, very much aware of the bigger, more prosperous Christian community that hated them and was headquartered just down the block, and his followers were in constant danger of being swallowed up by the larger group. Augustine’s voice, and his connections in high places, ultimately would rescue his community and make it prevail over its rival, not only in Hippo but in all of Roman Africa. But no one, in 397, would have bet on such an outcome.

Augustine made the Confessions because he was afraid. Not just of defeat in local church politics, but of defeat in the eyes of an overpowering master to whom he owed absolute obedience and service, the “you” who will bring rest. That “master”—Augustine addressed him as dominus, a word we are used to hearing translated as “lord”—was as demanding as any Roman slave-owner, even if at the end of the day he might be more forgiving of his slaves’ failures to live up to his expectations. To apply the word “god” to that master is to run a great risk, the commonest risk run by historians of this period, of assuming that we know just what Augustine meant. Augustine’s world still knew lots of different kinds of gods, and ardent devotees of any one of them knew perfectly well what the competition was like and perhaps even sampled other religious products from time to time. Only the highest-minded had any idea of the identity of a single divine principle crossing all religions. Augustine was not so high-minded, at least not in the years when we know him best. (By leaving the word “god” in lowercase, I hope to remind readers of this danger throughout this book.)

The Augustine of the Confessions is a man who stands amid the political perils of his world—perils that almost took his life more than once— and the expectations of his slave driver. His god is too big to grasp, but he spent fifty years trying to do just that, the better to be an obedient slave. The story he tells is the one that made sense of his own experience, made sense in a way that others might understand and accept if they were of his own faction. At the same time, the act of telling his story sustained him and helped him shape the way he could lead his people and achieve his goals. From the first page of the Confessions to the last, we eavesdrop on a self-conscious and stylized performance. In that book, written a little more than halfway through his lifetime, but still more or less at the beginning of his public career as community leader, Augustine performed an interpretation of his own life. The man with the voice unlike any other was never more onstage than when he set out to reveal himself to us. Let’s begin by looking for some of the things he chose not to mention.

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