There are the classic
English biographies by Gerald Bonner and Peter Brown. These have
placed him firmly in the historical period that we now call Late
Antiquity. Then there is his position as an emblem of patristic
Christianity and its pre- occupations - many of which we now like
to think we have moved beyond.
He was also the creator
of such classic works of Western literature as the
Soliloquies (the word is his coinage), and his spiritual
autobiography, the Confessions. On this is based his
reputation as a towering genius, a pioneer of form and feeling.
When, finally, you add
the pres-ent attitude of academics, among whom scholars from a
variety of disciplines continue to pour out material on him, you
start to see that he is fast becoming a muse for the Western
tradition, much in the mould of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
This final development
has signalled the ending of many of the old hostilities towards his
ideas on doctrines such as original sin, and grace. By the same
token, it has cleared the way to a more generous appreciation of
his contributions to esoteric subjects such as aesthetics,
language, and memory.
Yet none of this touches
something that is of real significance about the relationship
between Augustine and today - so significant, in fact, that it
could become a reason on its own for reading him with a renewed
purpose, and a clearer understanding.
This is the idea that
Augustine was a writer-genius not because of the way he managed to
solve problems of his day so ingeniously, but because he could see
down the long lines of those problems to the future age that they
would make -and, most essentially of all, to the heartbreak and
empathy of that future age.
to his friend Norman Malcolm, said once that he felt sometimes as
though "he were writing for people who would think in a different
way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day
You could never accuse
Augustine of that. Nevertheless, throughout his writings, you do
sense this same scintillating possibility. It makes you want to
believe that, in his wordcraft and thinking, he had somehow managed
to displace himself forward in time, and felt the doom of it, like
Virgil's Dido in the Aeneid, "weary of gazing on the arch
This weariness seems to
have come to him early, and never left him. For the ancient world
was always putting boys such as Augustine on the stage, and
applauding them if they could trick the tears of emotion from the
classics of the canon - the poems, the epics, and the tragedies.
Yet, in his case, the applause seems only to have hollowed out the
carcass of what he felt he should have been feeling for
But what if there was a
sense in which he was always looking over the heads of his audience
to us, and the response that we can now be poised to give, as
creatures of a different "air of life"?
The suggestion of it is
there to see, written into his description of his plight in his
required to learn by heart I know not how many of Aeneas's
wanderings, although forgetful of my own, and to weep over Dido's
death, because she killed herself for love, when all the while amid
such things, dying to You, O my God my life, I most wretchedly bore
myself about with dry eyes.
AT THE other end of his
life are the Retractions, one of his last works. By the
time of their writing, in 426 or 427, he had accepted that he had -
for good or ill - worked his way into Christian history. What is
more, he understood that his homeland of Roman North Africa was on
the verge of being overrun by the Vandals.
He sensed his own old
age, and Rome's; and he planned for his Retractions to
supply some of the Christian orthodoxy of the brave new world to
come. He went over the hundreds of works of his hand, and tried to
categorise their relation to each other in a reader's guide of
summaries, caveats, and contexts.
For too long now, the
Retractions have been used in defence against the
revelation that Augustine is someone who can be enjoyed by any of
us, face to face, without any intervening need of special
understanding or scholarship.
This has been done by
saying that the Retractions are important, because the
specialists have gone through them line by line, and noticed
fascinating little changes of mind, and that this shows that
Augustine's was a fertile mind, inventing and reinventing itself
right to the end.
The truth is that all
minds invent and reinvent themselves in this way - it is called
self-consciousness, and it is one of the basic requirements of the
human race. So it is never going to be the measure of Augustine's
legacy. For that, we need to consider how the Retractions
may have been one of the loneliest books ever written.
OF COURSE, they shouldn't
have been. Together with the Confessions, they are meant
to have neatly, and triumphantly, bookended his mature life. But
what they bookend, when you look closely, is a piece of Christian
history; and, as for Augustine, they are strangely uninhabited by
him, for all their Dewey Decimal completeness.
There is a lament that he
has written into their Prologue, like an aching clue. And it may
yet prove that a portion of him had never recovered from the
traumas of his boyhood experiences of brilliance and ambition:
not claim this perfection for myself even now when I am old; and
even less did I claim it when, in early manhood, I had begun to
write or to speak to the people. For back then so much authority
was already attributed to me that whenever it was necessary for
someone to speak to the people and I was present, I was hardly ever
allowed to be silent and just listen to others and to be "swift to
hear but slow to speak". I want to judge myself, not on a stage,
but before the sole Teacher.
You find sympathy for
this in surprising places. But then, when you begin to put your own
hands on the contours of Augustine's loneliness, you start to see
why. Take the 20th-century revolutionary writer Victor Serge. He
had a good idea that sensitive souls such as Augustine are not
obliged to find their constituency, or their comfort, in the
pedestrian pace of their own time.
Instead, they may find
themselves voyaging down the timeless truths of their own creating,
until they hit, at last, upon more welcoming and receptive shores.
In his memoir, Serge wrote:
and novelists are not political beings because they are not
essentially rational. Political intelligence, based though it is in
the revolutionary's case upon a deep idealism, demands a scientific
and pragmatic armour, and subordinates itself to the pursuit of
strictly defined social ends. The artist, on the contrary, is
always delving for his material in the subconscious, in the
pre-conscious, in intuition, in a lyrical inner life which is
rather hard to define; he does not know with any certainty either
where he is going or what he is creating.
MOST interesting of all,
it is because such writers hardly know what they are doing at the
time that they need our help to rest in peace. More, in fact, than
we need theirs to do the same. The fact that Augustine was a famous
Christian thinker, and even a bishop and a Church Father, can
confuse this, making it seem like blasphemy to believe that such
help would ever flow from us to him.
Yet it is so, and - in
the way in which one truth becomes the corridor into another - his
theology makes it so.
What Christianity meant
most to Augustine was the Passion, and the tears of Christ. When he
first encountered them in scripture, they struck him as something
new and dangerous. They differed so much from the fixed
constellations of classical feeling, and how the gods and goddesses
reach down and cause human nature to cannon between destiny and
He wept - but not as he
had wept as a boy over Virgil, to win a prize. Nor, for that
matter, as he had wept later on before philosophy's unblinking
stare: the perfection of form and number that had shattered him
against a rock of adamant.
Christ touches our
hearts, and then we cry. And if you are a wounded spirit like
Augustine, but very talented, so that people pushed you this way
and that (and, worst of all, your parents), then you cry as the
novelist Isaac Babel cried in a similar moment: "The world of tears
was so huge, so beautiful, that everything save tears vanished from
It is precisely because
we are here and now - as far ahead of Augustine's time as he seems
to have been himself - that we can put an arm round his shoulders,
and learn to understand him, on this huge point of mysticism and
And it is precisely
because works such as the Soliloquies and the
Confessions are not Patristics, loosing bolts, that we can
form this into a new beginning with his theology - and let his
fragility break at last like the dawn in our minds.
As he would put all of
this himself, from his Confessions VII and X:
this those writings of the Platonists do not have, their pages do
not have this face of piety, the tears of confession, your
sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a contrite and humbled heart. . .
how I stand! Weep with me, and weep for me, you who can also bring
about within yourselves this place. But for you who cannot, be
glad: these problems do not affect you. But You, O Lord my God,
please, please hear me, and return Your gaze to me, and see me, and
have mercy on me, and heal me. For in Your sight of this place I
become a riddle to myself, and that is my infirmity.
We are no longer the
martial age that alienated him once upon a time. We are more
existentially aware - more emotionally confident. We talk to each
other, and tweet, and share our feelings. In fact, we stand at the
right end of a Western literature that he was only beginning to
probe. And his Christ of tears has survived the voyage to us.
new book Saint Augustine of Hippo: An intellectual biography
is published by Bloomsbury/Continuum at £20 (Church Times
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