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.
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.