Augustine of Hippo

A Life

by Henry Chadwick

Oxford, 208 pp., $19.95

No writer excelled at that exacting form, the short biography, better than Henry Chadwick (1920-2008), the former master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and historian of the early Church. In Augustine of Hippo, posthumously prepared for print by his devoted widow, he returned to the greatest of the early Church Fathers to write a biography that is a delight from start to finish, and a marvel of scholarly distillation.

Augustine is a figure about whom we know a good deal. Born at Thagaste in 354 in what is now eastern Algeria of a pagan father and Christian mother, he studied rhetoric at Carthage with an eye to becoming a lawyer but instead became a teacher, what he called a “salesman of words in the market of rhetoric.” He followed ancient custom and parted from the Carthaginian concubine with whom he had a son once he had found a suitable fiancée, though the parting distressed him keenly and he converted before he could marry the fiancée. A restless student of philosophy, Augustine embraced, in turn, Manichaeism, skepticism, and the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus before he found in Christianity the “rule of faith” he craved. Meeting and befriending Ambrose, bishop of Milan, changed his life forever. Although initially drawn to the style of Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine soon found its content riveting—especially its elucidation of the Bible.

His mother Monnica, who prayed for his conversion for years, rejoiced in his change of heart, though Augustine converted only after a fierce interior struggle. Indeed, in the Confessions, he describes his “agony of hesitation” with great vividness. Longing to enter into what he called his “pact and covenant with God,” and yet unready to forswear the guiles of concupiscence, he sat down in a Milan garden “deeply disturbed in spirit.” To convert, he came to see, “one does not use ships or chariots or feet,” but the will. Fittingly for this most literary of saints, it was a passage from St. Paul that finally decided him: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” He finally converted in 386.

After returning to Africa, and setting up a quasi-monastic community, Augustine was ordained priest in 391. Four years later he became bishop of Hippo and, for the next 35 years, while ministering to his often unruly parishioners, he wrote a series of books that still deeply affect the life of the Christian church, addressing as they do hermeneutics, the sacraments, dogma, history, grace, education, free will, original sin, and sex. Augustine died in 430, when the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo.

The hagiographer David Hugh Farmer estimated that his many writings, including the Confessions and the City of God, “have probably proved more influential in the history of thought than any Christian writer since St. Paul.” Chadwick shows how Augustine’s thought, like that of John Henry Newman, grew directly out of his relations with friends, family, colleagues, and parishioners. In this regard, although an ascetic—he left behind no will because he owned no possessions—he never entirely shunned the world. Indeed, one major theme of Chadwick’s book is how this subtle, highly educated, discriminating man came to recognize how ordinary people often apprehend truths that the educated disdain or even deny.

Monnica was the great exemplar of unschooled discernment. Of the first community Augustine set up in 386 in a villa 20 miles north of Milan, Chadwick writes: “It would be idle to pretend that the intellectual equipment of the miscellaneous company .  .  . [was] the sharpest steel.” Yet since Monnica was in tow, Augustine urged the community to learn from her wisdom.

Similarly, Chadwick shows how his episcopal duties forced Augustine to rethink the life of the mind: “How could his monastic vocation be reconciled with countless administrative cares sure to distract him both from and in his prayers?” For Chadwick, Augustine “was still in the process of discovering that ordinary churches are not places where half-educated fools imagine they worship God while the wise men are in a country villa studying oriental mysticism and Plotinus.”

Mixing with men from all stations, “from dukes to dustmen,” as Chadwick memorably puts it, familiarized Augustine with the realities of human nature which, in turn, informed his theology. If one of Augustine’s most contested contributions to Christian orthodoxy was the doctrine of original sin, it was his encounters with unregenerate human nature, including his own, that convinced him of man’s abiding need for sacramental grace to overcome that nature. For Augustine, our propensity to sin bespeaks a deep-seated iniquity in human nature, to deny which flouts experience. “In Africa you may have to go far to find even one church where no one has been discovered in crime and where no clergy have been degraded.” Augustine attacked the British monk Pelagius because, in denying original sin, he underestimated this ineradicable defect in our nature.

Nevertheless, Augustine appreciated that often it is our sinful nature that leads us to faith and, therefore, “one should not be put off by hypocrites, who are to be found in every profession.” And in any case, the hypocrite may truly wish to put hypocrisy behind him, a truth to which Augustine gives perceptive expression: “A convert will find many good Christians in the Church if he sets out to become one himself.”

Then again, in his African parish, Augustine often witnessed those who came to scoff and stayed to pray. He himself, he says, initially accounted the Bible “unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” It would take time for the fastidious rhetorician in him to discern the riches of Scripture, especially since (as Chadwick notes) “the old Latin version of the Bible had none of the noble classical prose of, say, the [King James] Version or Luther’s German Bible.”

Eventually, Augustine recognized that, while Ciceronian eloquence might be persuasive, the parish priest should stick to the Bible for the form of his preaching. At the same time, Augustine was adamant that while “oratory is morally neither good nor bad, it is damnable when used to persuade people to accept error.” Chadwick also nicely encapsulates Augustine’s view of the state, which he set out in the City of God:

Persecutions had discouraged the early Christians from looking to the state for any moral benefit other than the suppression of wickedness. .  .  . Man’s longing is for an ordered society of fellowship and love. This is something the state cannot create or maintain. Man accepts the authority of positive law because order is preferable to anarchy and chaos; but in laws man seeks some vestiges of a higher justice.

Moreover, Augustine was not overly sanguine about the prospects of the Christian empire because, as he said: “The Emperor has become a Christian—the devil has not.”

In his foreword, Peter Brown, the author of the definitive life of Augustine, praises Chadwick for his readiness to take issue with aspects of Augustine’s thinking of which he disapproves, particularly his linking of sexuality with original sin. As Brown points out, after Chadwick’s book was composed, an unpublished letter came to light in which Augustine stresses that “I would be more angry by far with the one who praises me and takes what I have written as Gospel truth than the one who criticizes me unfairly.”

Whether Augustine would agree with Chadwick’s criticism, however, is questionable. According to Chadwick, “It would be asking a lot to expect the man whose conversion to Christianity focused on a renunciation of sex to see it .  .  . as a natural gift of the good Creator to be used wholly innocently in accord with his commands.” Yet Augustine always denied that his own personal experience informed his estimate of sexuality. For Augustine “the transmission of Adam’s sin and guilt to his posterity is a proposition .  .  . without which the great mass of human suffering becomes an indictment of the Creator.” This may be unsparing but it is not incoherent, which is more than can be said for Chadwick’s reading. “Twentieth-century man,” he says, “more aware of his intimate affinity with the animal kingdom, regards sex as good and natural, but can easily make his exalted estimate of sex the concomitant of a low estimate of the institution of marriage.”

Is it really possible that “twentieth-century man” had an “exalted estimate of sex” because of his “intimate affinity with the animal kingdom?” This puzzling thesis notwithstanding, Chadwick’s biography is a rewarding read. It certainly confirms Augustine’s own sense of the wonder of conversion. In one passage from his writings, Augustine noted how “the daily miracles of creation are as great as those of the incarnate Lord,” and to illustrate his point, as Chadwick says, he pointed to those “miracles of inward moral conversion,” which “are greater than the material miracles once done by Christ himself,” since “now the Lord opens not blind eyes but blind hearts.”

Only someone convinced equally of original sin and God’s love could see the miraculous in quite those terms.

Edward Short, a writer in New York, is the author of the forthcoming John Henry Newman and his Contemporaries.

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