Most of the time, intellectual history is a tangle, the threads so snarled that the result looks like a skein of yarn after a dozen kittens have been set loose on it. That lump over there? The muddle that the Venerable Bede made of things. That twisted set of knots? The playful chaos that Thomas Carlyle constructed for us. That indecipherable web? It’s what was left of Western philosophy after Martin Heidegger got his paws on it.
But every once in a while, somebody comes along to straighten things out. Whatever the mess before, whatever the mess after, for a moment, intellectual history seems gathered and given direction. Picture it as a silver ring on the frame of a loom, with all the threads of a culture’s thought passing neatly and precisely through its intelligible circumference. Virgil was one of those rings, perhaps; Descartes was another. And so too, maybe most obvious of all, was Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Which makes quite peculiar the way that Oxford University Press is hyping Miles Hollingworth’s new intellectual biography of the saint. The received opinion of Augustine, we’re told, is that “insofar as we should be aware of him in the 21st century, he is a figure described—if not circumscribed—by his times.” Hollingworth, the young South African scholar who teaches at Durham University in England, is a rebel for challenging this dismissive view. Well, maybe in their cozy publishing confines, the kittens at OUP really do think that Augustine is tangled up in time just like most thinkers. But almost everywhere else, people don’t think it rebellious to say that the saint actually matters. Most people agree that, for a moment, the threads of Western thought ran clear through the silver ring that was the mind of Saint Augustine.
What Hollingworth is really arguing against is a way of understanding Augustine that has come and gone throughout the long history of reading the saint since his death in 430. This approach may have begun in a kind of Christian piety, aided by a surface reading of the Confessions, tending toward the idea that of course Augustine fundamentally changed his thinking after he became a Christian. Early experiences may have echoes in his later thought, because they influenced him to turn to Christianity: he and his childhood friends stealing fruit that they didn’t even want from a garden; mourning the death of a close friend; proving himself the Roman Empire’s fastest rising young intellectual by stumping the Manicheans’ chief thinker (Faustus of Mileve, an affable lightweight) with his philosophical anxieties. But those were only the occasions for Augustine’s conversion, the idea goes, and his post-conversion writing, the stuff that would change the world, all came from his new Christian mind.
As I said, this reading of Augustine has gone in and out of fashion. Peter Brown, with his powerful Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967), forced us to remember that Augustine lived and wrote for more than 40 years after his conversion, which occurred in 387. But in the almost 50 years since Brown’s work was published, the general scholarly sense of Augustine has been that of an utterly changed man: the subject of an interesting psychological study, via the Confessions, before his conversion, and a powerful theologian whose biography and work occur entirely within Christianity after his conversion. With the title Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography, a deliberate echo of Peter Brown, Miles Hollingworth wants us to know that he has entered the lists. The mantle has fallen to him, he claims, and he’s gotten the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to say as much: “This is a book whose style and feel are really worthy of Augustine himself—humane and probing, full of telling metaphor and seriousness about the strangeness of human experience. It is capable of doing for a new generation a great deal of what Peter Brown’s epochal biography did half a century ago.”
At times, however, the mantle seems to drag a little on the floor. Hollingworth wants us to see how the intellectual, spiritual, and even biographical elements of Augustine’s early life recur in the theological and ecclesial work he later undertook. Over and over again, Hollingworth wants us to see it—until we gag a little, like fledglings, at the force-feeding. In particular, he seeks the answers that the Christian Augustine drew from the puzzles the pagan Augustine faced. Augustine, he argues, did not turn to Christianity so much because it solved his intellectual and psychological dilemmas, although often it did; he turned to Christianity because it was the first system of thought he had ever encountered that took the puzzles seriously.