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At last for Augustine: sympathy

19 July 2013

Augustine of Hippo's deep sensitivity calls to us across the centuries, suggests Miles Hollingworth

Doctor of the Church: St Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli (1490-94). St Augustine was born in 354, in what is now Algeria. He taught rhetoric in Carthage and Rome, before becoming Professor of Rhetoric at the imperial court in Milan. There he fell under the influence of St Ambrose, and converted to Christianity in 386. He was ordained in 391, and returned to Hippo, in Algeria, where he was soon made Bishop. He served there until his death in 430

Doctor of the Church: St Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli (1490-94). St Augustine was born in 354, in what is now Algeria. He taught rhe...

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.

WITTGENSTEIN, according 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 men".

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 of Heaven".

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 himself.

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 Confessions:

I was 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:

I do 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:

Poets 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 regret.

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 my eyes."

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 holiness.

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:

All 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. . .

See 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.

Miles Hollingworth's new book Saint Augustine of Hippo: An intellectual biography is published by Bloomsbury/Continuum at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18 - Use code CT469 ).

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