For any traveller of Christian history or theology there is certain terrain that, in a manner similar to the children’s classic We’re going on a bear hunt cannot be circumvented but must be tackled and grappled with. Much of this terrain can be considered as movements or events rather than individuals: the early church apologists, the Constantinian settlement, the Reformation, to name three. There is however one man whose domination of Western Christian thought and philosophy is so overwhelming that he simply cannot be bypassed. Saint Augustine of Hippo, hero to some, villain to others bears, fairly or unfairly, much of the subsequent course of Christian theology on his shoulders. Depending on your outlook he anticipated Descartes by a thousand years, his theology is the bridge that connects St Paul to Martin Luther, he is the man responsible for the church’s obsession with sex and he is the first writer to truly anatomise the human psyche. His books demand to be read – if only they weren’t so long.
Where then do we begin as we seek to explore Augustine’s world and mind? The go–to book for almost fifty years has been Peter Brown’s magisterial biography of the saint, now available in a revised edition. Many other writers, realising the pitfalls of trying to encompass a life and thought as complex as Augustine’s have chosen to focus on smaller morsels and tighter angles. Miles Hollingsworth has published two volumes on Augustine’s political and philosophical thought over the past six years, and his work has now been joined by two other heavyweights in the field: Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions and Confessions and Rowan Williams’ On Augustine.
Robin Lane Fox is a renowned classicist who has previously written on the interaction between the early Christians and the Roman world. He writes, if not out of faith, then certainly out of fascination with Augustine and his “restless intelligence”. Weighing in at roughly the same length as Brown’s biography, Lane Fox takes the history of his subject only up to the writing of the Confessions – effectively half of his adult life, thereby excluding his years as presbyter and bishop.
There is a great deal of sense behind writing such a considerably curtailed biography. Augustine himself in his celebrated Confessions gives a very good outline of his first thirty years and they are certainly the more interesting half of his life – the later disputes with the Donatists and Pelagius notwithstanding. They also, famously, give us the most complete psychological self–portrait of any ancient figure, to the extent that Augustine is at times almost projected into our world.
Lane Fox writes with great verve as he tackles Augustine and guides us through his years in Carthage and Milan and his intellectual peregrinations from Manichaeism through neo–Platonism until eventually he accepts Christian baptism. In doing so he brings in other characters charting similar courses to Augustine – the pagan Libanius and the Christian Synesius – allowing us to see Augustine as part of a wider move of intellectual restlessness and dissatisfaction. Throughout Lane Fox writes with such fluency and obvious enthusiasm that even through the very detailed chapters on Manichaeism, the reader’s attention rarely wavers. Indeed, I can guarantee that it will be the information on Manichaean worship (the only religion ever to make breaking wind a liturgical event) and in particular the Eucharist that will stay with readers for a long time to come. His description of Augustine’s vision of heaven with his mother shortly before her death is deeply moving (as it is in Augustine’s own account) and helped me to see that the Confessions is also a literary monument to Monica whose presence infuses the first half of the book.
Rowan Williams’ briefer book On Augustine is a very different proposition altogether. A series of eleven essays and lectures, finishing with a sermon, this collection does not pretend to offer a comprehensive, or even balanced, overview of Augustine’s life and thought. Instead it does offer a broad sweep of Rowan Williams’ reflections on Augustine over a period of twenty–five years.
Readers of Williams’ work will not be surprised to discover that this collection does not make for an easy read. Augustine himself is not a straightforward thinker, and Williams writing on Augustine tends to magnify rather than clarify the difficulties. Williams in his introduction helpfully singles out the essays that would better suit the less specialised reader (I take less specialised in this context to refer to someone who has read most of Augustine’s major works, just not in the original Latin). It therefore probably makes sense for such a reader to begin with the essays on time, the psalms, evil and Christology before then tackling the more challenging remainder.
Of these, the opening two chapters on time and the psalms are excellent and bear re–reading. Williams is an accomplished accompanist to the later chapters of Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine meditates on the nature of time and memory. Williams is particularly helpful in drawing out Augustine’s observations on grief and the perils of loving “inhumanely”. There is a great deal of pastoral wisdom in here with the two bishops almost in conversation with one another. The same is also true of the chapter on the psalms where Williams explores Augustine’s idea that in the Psalms Jesus speaks for, to, and through, his church bringing his praises – and indeed his pain – through the whole body of Christ back to the Father. There are great riches to be mined here.
As to the remainder of the book, I suspect that your opinion will be guided by whether you are a less, or more, specialised reader. No editorial concessions are made to those who are coming to these essays away from the lecture hall or academic journal. Lengthy Latin phrases are left untranslated with writers and schools of thought (Kleinian theory, anyone?) thrown out without further elucidation. If this sounds unfair, or even Philistine, it should be pointed out that this book has been published by a mainstream publisher with a reasonably hefty price–tag. I’m sure that I’m not the only one to have bought and read the book only to discover that I seem to fall well short even of the less–specialist reader tag. That being said, the concluding sermon reminds us of the best of Rowan Williams and is well worth reading even if the preceding chapters have proved a struggle.
There will be many more books published on Augustine: a figure who continues to fascinate, aggravate, enchant and inspire those who encounter him. Both of these books go a considerable way in assisting the reader to enter the remarkable world of Augustine’s thought. It is to be hoped that they will also both encourage many to go back to Augustine’s writings and see for themselves the intellectual restlessness that continues to stir our restless hearts.
Robin Lane Fox: Saint Augustine: Conversions and Confessions is published by Allen LAne
Rowan Williams: On Augustine is published by Bloomsbury