The Magazine

Augustine’s Mission

The right man, at the right time, for Christendom.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Even more than this, it was the first system that was as passionate as he was, as angry as he was, about the radically incomplete, radically broken nature of humans. The abandonment of man, his dislocation from true reality, ought to have been apparent to even the weakest of pagan religions. The spiritual glimpses of the noumenal order that even half-baked religions like Manicheism sometimes manage ought not to have made people happy, with a little brightening of the usually dark, often painful, ordinary life. They ought to have made people furious—as furious as the young Augustine—at the darkness and pain of ordinary existence. 

How else are we to understand the power with which he turned, while bishop of Hippo and the leading Christian writer in the Latin West, against Pelagius and his disciples? When the Pelagians attempted to weaken the apprehension many felt toward the effects of the Fall, they were not merely getting a theological point wrong; they were undermining the very reason that Christianity was necessary, the very reason Augustine had become a Christian. And so with the Donatists, too, against whom Augustine would also turn his anger. As rigorists who insisted that the church was a congregation of saints and not sinners, the Donatists were not just making small mistakes about ecclesiology; in Augustine’s view, they were also denying the deep reality of sin in the world—sin that needed Christian redemption. Against the Pelagians, Augustine took a sterner, possibly less accommodating position; against the Donatists, he took a sweeter, obviously more accommodating position. But in both cases, the origin was a sure grasp of what he knew to be the central fact of the human condition: We are fallen, broken creatures, and the world is not a kindly place for us.

Along the way, Hollingworth traces Augustine’s effect on the Western intellectual tradition. He previously explored some of this in his The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought (2010)—which claimed Augustine had escaped the normal Western political-theory extremes of starry-eyed utopianism and gimlet-eyed realism with a view of life as discipleship. The effect of Saint Augustine of Hippo is to remind us of the significance of the saint for nearly everything that would follow in Western thought.

All of which makes this volume a serious, well-written, provocatively argued book that anyone with even a pretense of interest in intellectual history will want to read. Its only problem is that we don’t need to be reminded of Augustine’s importance. More interesting might have been something that assumed his greatness, his centrality, and tried to explain how he achieved it. What made Augustine one of those rare instances of clarity, one of those silver rings through which, whether we like it or not, all the surviving threads of thought would pass?

To read The City of God is to realize Augustine was a great philosopher, of course. Maybe not quite in the absolute “A” class of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, or Hegel, but not down at the next level, either—with the “B” class (but still great) likes of Marcus Aurelius, Francisco Suárez, and Friedrich Schiller. Call it the “A-minus” set of world-historical thinkers: Plotinus, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Hume, Wittgenstein, Augustine. But to read De Doctrina Christiana would convince anyone that Augustine belongs in the first gathering of theologians, the greatest of the many fine theological minds among the church fathers in Latin Christendom. There’s a reason, after all, that Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther alike engage Augustine in a way they do no other theological thinker. Then, too, as the Confessions show, Augustine was among the last great classical stylists, trained in a rhetorical tradition that would cease to exist all too soon. 

What’s more, he stood at the moment of the failure of Rome—dying as the Vandals besieged Hippo, his Roman city in North Africa—and he had the most significant historical event of 1,000 years to explain and translate into a lasting understanding of the human condition. But it’s somehow the combination of all this that makes Saint Augustine so central: What he wrote, joined with how he wrote, joined with when he wrote. 

There is no Western civilization without him. He shapes our intellectual tradition in the way others who are so good they force themselves into our minds do. And he shapes us even more so in the sense that all the threads that have come down to us were gathered up, made straight, and passed through the bright silver ring of his mind.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard