Augustine of Hippo
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.”