Augustine: Anew Biography
By James J. O’Donnell
(HarperCollins, 396 pp., $26.95)
t is hard to love Augustine. He stands as the source of some of the most baleful traditions of thought in Western culture. All humans, he held, are born indelibly marked, indelibly marred, by original sin. Human desire, especially sexual desire, is a premier sign and effect of Adam’s fall. Unbaptized babies go to hell. Salvation is a question not of human effort, but of divine predestination. The church, to propound spiritual truth and to protect it, should avail itself of the coercive power of the state. These are all Augustinian teachings.
And yet it is hard not to love Augustine. He states his questions and his convictions about the human condition with such ardor that the flames of his ideas leap across the chasm of sixteen centuries from his lifetime into our own. Against the best philosophy of his day, he insisted that the human being was more than a mind sojourning in an inconvenient body. Flesh, he urged, truly is the native home of spirit: body and soul belong together, and together make up the whole person. Memory, he asserted, defines and constitutes self. And love, as he passionately and relentlessly wrote, is the hinge of the soul, the motor of the will. What moves us is not what we know, but what we want.We are what we love.
How can someone born so long ago seem so easily our contemporary? The answer lies in part with the effects of Augustine’s work: we are heirs to the culture that he helped to shape. And in part the answer lies with the enormousness of his written legacy: we feel that we know Augustine because, to a degree unsurpassed by any other ancient figure, we actually can know him. The huge corpus of his formal writings—commentaries, treatises, polemical tracts, speculative theology—comprises some three million words. Not only do we have these words, but thanks to the catalogue of his own writings that he assembled late in life, the Retractationes (“Reconsiderations”), we can securely date them. The effect is the intellectual equivalent of a time-lapse photograph. We can literally (and literarily) trace the growth of his thought, the movements of his mind, along the trajectory of his life from the year 386—when, at the age of thirty-two, he decided to embrace lifelong celibacy and be baptized into the church—to the year 430, when he died. To this we can add another two million words from his bulky dossier of sermons and letters. And of course we have also the brilliant and original theological treatise that combined exegesis, epistemology, and theological polemic with haunting autobiographical meditation: the thirteen books of his Confessions.
This last work, argues James J. O’Donnell, represents the fundamental reason for Augustine’s continuing cultural presence. Its title, its seemingly intimate narration of a personal past, its resolute focus on spirituality and continence and thus on their opposite, concupiscentia carnalis, the appetites of the flesh: all these can make the Confessions seem like, well, a candid confession. But Augustine ends the ostensibly autobiographical part of his story in Book Nine. Fully 40 percent of its eighty thousand words still remain: rich discussions of memory, time, divine revelation. The Confessions may present Augustine’s life story, but he sets that story within the in- finitely larger and intensely philosophical context of eternity. Its incandescent final books retrospectively alter any simple reading of the earlier narrative ones. Augustine did not “write” his Confessions, pouring his thoughts onto the page during some dark night of the soul. He performed them, declaiming his gorgeous prose always in the presence of at least one or two other people, the skilled notarii who took dictation. The product of his performance conforms not to modern canons of candor, but to ancient standards of rhetorical presentation. The Confessions is a work of brilliant artifice and power, a virtuoso act of self-invention and justification. It conceals more than it reveals.
o living scholar knows the Confessions better than O’Donnell does. In 1992, he published a definitive three-volume study of the work, an edition of the Latin text together with a wide-flung commentary. Now he has set his hand to writing a life history of its author. O’Donnell begins his biography with Augustine’s great classic; but, knowing his subject as he does, he skillfully evades the traps that Augustine set in the Confessions for his later readers. And while treating the full sweep of Augustine’s life, he refuses to let Augustine control the story. O’Donnell helps us attend to what Augustine did not confess.
What was the story that Augustine told? In Books
One and Two of the Confessions, we catch glimpses of his childhood in a small town in the
Numidian highlands of
Why? The forty-three-year-old bishop presents his
youthful allegiance as a passing mistake caused by a toxic combination of
intellectual arrogance, philosophical immaturity (he hadn’t yet read the
Platonists), and fundamental error (truth is available, after all, only within
the true church). The beauty and the power of
The Manichees offered a perfect solution. They were Christian. They made the case for their theology by appealing to reason, not to authority. Committed ascetics whose spiritual elite were consecrated to a lifetime of sexual renunciation, vegetarianism, and poverty, they built their principles on the foundation of the Apostle Paul, augmented by esoteric scriptures of their own. And the fact that they were a persecuted minority—since the late third century, emperors both pagan and Christian had prohibited the sect—contributed to their cachet.
Unlike their orthodox competition, moreover, the Manichees had the virtue of consistency. If flesh was a source of evil, they held, if extreme austerity was evidence of holiness, then Christian scripture should reflect this. The Manichees accordingly repudiated the Old Testament: worse than “too Jewish,” it was simply, irredeemably incoherent, both morally and theologically. Its god clearly had bodily shape, and hair, and nails. (After all, he had made humans in his own image.) He had framed this flawed material universe and then, against common experience, pronounced it “good.” He enjoined carnal intercourse (“Be fruitful and multiply”). He demanded animal sacrifices when he was not enjoining humans to butcher each other. Such a god could have nothing to do with Christ.
And Paul the Apostle, the Manichees held, had plainly said as much. Who but Paul had so clearly seen and explained the absolute distinction between good and evil, spirit and flesh, law and gospel, inner man and outer man? Paul and the Gospels pointed the way to understanding the problem of evil. No good god could have created such a turbulent, imperfect world. Instead, two independent and opposed realms, Light and Darkness, good and evil, were locked in cosmic conflict. Man was a miniature instance of this intense battle. His moral failings reflected the strength of the forces of darkness waging war within him—“the law of my members,” as Paul had written, “at war with the law of my mind.”
Split the New Testament off from the Old, the Manichees urged; amplify and enrich Christian teachings with Mani’s own revelations. Forget trying to see anything good in marriage when sexuality and procreation were so clearly a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. And embrace the textual consequences of clear thinking: if in the name of the Gospel Christians have dropped circumcision, Sabbath observance, food taboos, and all the myriad fleshly things that the Jewish god demanded, why on earth should they retain the carnal Jewish book?
The Manichees commanded Augustine’s loyalty from
his early years in
righter lights, bigger cities: chasing after professional advancement (and pursued by his
family’s ambitions for him), Augustine moved on, first to Rome to look for a
better job, then to Milan to take up the municipal chair of rhetoric that his
Manichaean connections had helped him to secure. Once in his new position, he
found himself in a city without his familiar support structure:
Books Six and Seven of the Confessions chart the effects of his sudden immersion in this cosmopolitan culture. Through Ambrose, Augustine learned to think about the Old Testament allegorically. Biblical passages of seemingly intractable carnality, such as God’s making man in his image, now yielded shining new truths. “Image” referred not to flesh but to mind, of which the processes, like the divinity they reflected, were utterly immaterial. Scripture’s humble style embraced the uneducated many, while its obscurities enticed the interpretive skills of the learned few. Read in the bright light of Ambrosian allegory, the old Jewish texts revealed Christ and his church. The Manichees had it all wrong: the Old Testament, understood spiritually, really was a Christian book.
Pagan metaphysics, meanwhile, dissolved the seeming reasonableness of dualism as an explanation for the problem of evil. For the Manichees, evil had been a cosmic force, an entity, an active power pitted against good. But late Platonists held that evil did not exist, in the same way that darkness or silence does not exist. Darkness is the absence of light; silence, the absence of sound. Thus evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing—namely, of good. Accordingly, sin occurred not because the individual was overwhelmed by the incursion of a superior evil force, but because of a poor choice of his will. And if aspects of the universe seemed corrupt, this very corruption measured its essential goodness, since only what was good to start with could become less so. At a stroke, for Augustine, the creator god in Scripture was absolved of the problem of evil. Indeed, to think him responsible for evil was not only impious, but also illogical: no one, not even God, can “make” nothing.
Though released from the intellectual knots that
had bound him for so long to Manichaeism, Augustine still tarried, unable to
make himself join Ambrose’s church. Books Six through
Eight of the Confessions lay out
why. Augustine's own perfectionism (aggravated, perhaps, by his social
insecurity) paralyzed him. In the late fourth century, when even most clergy
were married, the church made no requirement of celibacy. But philosophy did. For the social
and intellectual elites among both Christians and pagans, sexual celibacy was forte à la mode. In
ver the alpha, Augustine recoiled from what he could only consider second-class status—that
is, baptism as a married layman. Besides his natural competitiveness, his prior
experience as a married (and thus second-class) Manichee would have stiffened
what resolve he had. Meanwhile he worked all fronts. His common-law wife, an
impediment to his social ascent, was sent back to
And so Augustine foundered. In the elaborately written Book Eight, he presents a sequence of interlocking conversion stories interspersed with panting portraits of his own indecision, his divided will, the paralyzing paradox of wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time. Da mihi castitatem et continentiam sed noli modo: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Finally, abruptly, the climax (at least for the modern reader) comes. Augustine, irresolute and exhausted, is surprised to hear a child’s voice chanting: Tolle, lege, “Pick up and read.” He snatches up a volume of the Pauline Epistles, and takes as divine counsel the first lines his eye falls on. He lands, happily, on Romans 13:14: “Make no provision for the flesh and its appetites.” And then “all the shadows of doubt were dispelled," Augustine continues. His way clear, his resolve firm, he commits to the celibate life.
Ancient readers, and Augustine himself, would
probably see the autobiographical climax of his story in Book Nine, when he is
finally baptized. But thereafter the scope of the Confessions changes.
Book Ten shifts abruptly from Augustine’s past (the autobiography ends in
But what emerges with the soaring speculations of these difficult final books is the question that had driven Augustine’s tale all along: how can the time-bound, imperfect human being know the timeless, perfect God? God has planted in each soul the desire to know him. But man, as a consequence of Adam’s sin and his own, is adrift in time, and knowledge of any and all sorts (of the world, of the self, of God) is always necessarily mediated (by the senses, by images, by signs, by words). In such an infinitely interpretable universe, what certainty can one ever have? Augustine’s answer: only such certainty as God imparts (as he had done for Augustine with the counsel to “pick up and read”).Truth without shadows will come only at history’s end, when time is swallowed up in “the Sabbath of eternal life.” The final paragraph of the Confessions closes by evoking the transformation of creation at the resurrection of the dead, somewhere off in an unknowable Beyond. Augustine thus concludes the story of his past with a hope for his future, that he will stand among the community of the redeemed. “That door opening onto eternity,” O’Donnell notes," is the real goal of . . . [Augustine’s] narrative of the Confessions.”
ll scholars writing biographies of Augustine avail themselves of the material in the Confessions, augmenting its elements and expanding its time frame by appeal to the huge corpus of his other writings. O’Donnell is no exception. Other than by virtue of its recent publication, then, does this biography live up to its subtitle? Is it, in any substantial way, really “new”?
The short answer is an emphatic yes. O’Donnell’s strategies of reading, his choice and presentation of topics, are admirably innovative. His broad knowledge of the culture and the politics of late antiquity, together with his intimate command of Augustine’s own writings, produces a study of enormous range and depth. The multiple tones shading and shaping his discussion—somber and irreverent, sober and playful, effortlessly erudite and effortlessly vernacular—give the book striking freshness and originality. Sometimes Augustine the brilliant performer and ecclesiastical street fighter overwhelms Augustine the thinker, in O’Donnell’s portrait. And O’Donnell’s many contemporary references will have the unfortunate effect of quickly dating his valuable book. (Invoking the Grateful Dead in connection with late antique relic cults will not remain as illuminating as he thinks.) Still, he provides us with fresh ways to look at Augustine’s commitments, his obsessions, and his blind spots, and to appreciate how all these shaped his life and, eventually, his times.
Consider, for example, the virtuoso act of self-interpretation performed in the Confessions. O’Donnell enriches our appreciation for what Augustine did not confess, and enables us to interpret more shrewdly what he did confess, by having us attend to two other contemporary Christian communities: the Manichees and the Donatists. In relating his past, Augustine had suppressed the importance of the first group, and refused even to mention the existence of the second. Together, however, they define the controlling preoccupations of his book.
The Manichees were with Augustine both early and late. He treats them in the Confessions as just one more species of error, a prolonged adolescent phase. And through his baroque descriptions of exaggerated youthful passion (he married and became a father, remember, at age eighteen), he artfully linked Manichaeism to a continuing sexual profligacy that real Manichees would surely have rebuked. Moreover, Augustine had been just as serious about his Manichaeism as he would be about his later catholicism. As an auditor, a second-tier member of this dualist church, he would have participated daily in the ritual of bringing vegetarian meals to the celibate elite, the Elect. His own marital relationship precluded his ascending to that rank. Renouncing sex in his early thirties would be difficult, but possible; at nineteen, clearly, he just could not do it. Thus, while Ambrose might have given him better philosophical reasons for choosing celibacy, the normal seasons of life also played their part. All through his twenties, in sum, from his university days to his first great professional success, Augustine was caught in a situation where he could not succeed, could not be among “the best.” But being among the best is what he always craved, no matter what group he belonged to.
ost importantly, the question at the center of Manichaean theology— Unde malum? Whence, and why, evil?—remained at the center of all of Augustine’s own work. Other Christians of different temperament, free of the force of this question, wondered about him. O’Donnell catches this beautifully. “Manicheism,” he writes,
was the one truly impassioned religious experience of his life. He was the sort of person who has a great love affair when young, sees that it just won’t work, breaks it off, then settles down in a far more sober and sensible marriage. What he says and does for the rest of his life will be marked by firm allegiance and commitment to the late-blooming relationship, but the mark of the first never goes away, and some who knew him early will be unable to credit the marriage because they remember the passion.
The Donatists were among those Christians who
questioned how much Augustine had really left the Manichees behind. That we
have to identify such Christians as Donatists already distorts the historical
picture. “Donatism” was, quite simply, the form of Christianity native to
The confessors called the treasonous clergy
“Caecilianists,” after the name of one of their number. The Caecilianists
returned the favor, and called the confessors “Donatists,” after Donatus, one
of their bishops. Both sides took advantage of
Augustine entered the church through Ambrose in
his period from 391 until 396, when Augustine became Hippo’s bishop, is the years of Augustine’s real conversion. His cosmopolitan catholicism did not impress the locals, though his rhetorical presence did. Striving to acculturate himself, he plunged into a study of biblical texts, especially Genesis and Paul, long familiar from his Manichee days. The trail of half-finished and unsuccessful treatises that litter this period gives the measure of his struggle to fit himself into what had become his life. He does not pull himself together until he works yet again on the issues of free will and grace as he sees them configured in and by Paul.
By 396, he has his answer: people are saved not by their own efforts, nor even by calling on God for help with those efforts, but simply and solely by the inscrutable will of the Divine. God chooses whomever he will, for his own unknowable reasons. He turned the persecutor Saul into the Apostle Paul because he, not Saul, had wanted it; and he has the sovereign power and authority to do whatever he wants with his creatures. Humanity universally requires redemption, because of the sin of Adam; but it universally deserves only damnation, again because of the sin of Adam. Thanks to Adam, all human flesh is rebellious and mortal; but so too is the soul, especially its erotic life. Human love, unaided by grace, is compulsive, uncontrollable, disordered, intrinsically depleting: only the love of God—which can be given only by God—heals and fulfills. If God calls the sinner to redemption, he works by re-orienting the person’s love. Only through God’s grace does the person come to love what is good, rather than simply what he wants.
The “autobiographical” part of the Confessions narratively presents this new
theological insight of Augustine’s. The idea had implications for society as
well as for individuals. For one, it meant that, in this period before the
final judgment, no one can know who is elected to grace or left to perdition:
no one can know the heart of another, and what looks
like right action could actually be motivated by self-love, that is, pride.
Meanwhile—and here this theology was a blow to the Donatists’ self-image—the
church itself was, and would remain until the end, a mixed population of
sinners and saints. In this life there can never be a church of the pure.
Uncertainty and opacity characterize both individual and social life before the
final redemption. In the meantime, however, Augustine did know one thing for
certain. Outside the church—the true church, that is: Augustine’s church, the
hy, then, when Augustine writes the Confessions, does he tell his story as he does? Why does he minimize his
childhood exposure to the Caecilianist church of his mother? Why does he
underplay his faithful attachment to the Manichees? Why does he ignore his own
ordination, stopping his narrative in 387? Why does he not mention the
Donatists at all? O’Donnell argues that this is because Augustine wished to
center his story in
O’Donnell’s description of Augustine’s lifelong campaign against the Donatists is chilling, and gripping. With consummate party discipline and political skill, Augustine and the talented cadre of Caecilianist bishops who were his friends brought the full force of imperial authority and power to bear on this extremely local fight. The result of his success was a Christian population so utterly demoralized that within a few centuries it disappeared, embracing the new religious message of Islam.
As he traces the stages of Augustine’s Caecilianist putsch—the imprisonments, the simmering threat of legal violence, the ingenious acts of co-option— O’Donnell also presents the unlovely portrait of “triumphant” Christianity. Fourth- and fifth-century emperors— successful generals first of all—remade Christianity in their own image. Bishops came to assume the role and the trappings of civic authority, with the support staff needed for administration. (Without the secretarial assistance entailed by his office, Augustine would have been very hard-pressed to finance his prodigious, and expensive, literary output.) Imperial agents clarified theological disputes by force.
Ever solicitous of imperial favor, late Roman
aristocrats hastened to join the emperor’s fashionable new cult, and so brought
their wealth and prestige into the church. From their ranks
came a new generation of educated and socially well-connected clergy (like
Ambrose, among others). The old civic cults, formerly bankrolled by this
class, wobbled as their funding dwindled; and finally they were banned, the
temples shut, the rites outlawed. Contemporary Jews remained Roman citizens,
though the idea of “the Jew” served as a favorite target of episcopal
invective. The main victims of this ecclesiastical revolution, however, were
the Christians themselves. As the ideology of a universal orthodoxy took hold,
emperors used it and enforced it. More Christians suffered at the hands of the
Roman state after the conversion of
O’Donnell brings all these different factors to bear—Augustine’s personal past, his theological convictions, his political effectiveness (and ruthlessness), his gnawing social ambitions—in his brilliant review of the Pelagian controversy. With aggressive single-mindedness, Augustine insisted on making Pelagius into his great opponent, though Pelagius resisted the role. As O’Donnell points out, Pelagius resembles no one so much as the younger Augustine, the philosophically attuned catholic optimistically embracing the salvation of the church. That is the Augustine invisible, indeed disowned, in the Confessions; but it is an Augustine well attested in those gentlemanly treatises written before the theological revolution of 396. Pelagius had cited these early works in making a case for free will that the older Augustine found offensive. In attacking Pelagius, then, Augustine attacked his own younger self, the one who preceded his re-invention in the Confessions.
More poignantly, Pelagius embodied the future that
Augustine had lost when he returned to
Augustine had not sought out these reminders of the
road not taken. His past found him in 410, when a wave of Roman aristocrats and
their chaplains, fleeing the Vandal incursion into the old capital, washed up
Why? O’Donnell speculates about insecurity and
social climbing. If the tensions in Augustine’s makeup contributed to his fight
with Pelagius, they were exacerbated that much more by Pelagius’s younger
champion, Julian of Eclanum. Julian was everything that Augustine had never
been: well born, well educated, bilingual, effortlessly
chaste. A bishop who was the son of a bishop, Julian as a young man contracted
a mariage blanc with the daughter of yet another bishop in a ceremony celebrated
by no less a personage than Paulinus of Nola, a fellow aristocratic churchman
and family friend. (Augustine knew Paulinus only through correspondence.)
Augustine used Julian to stage his last great public battle. It was a battle
entirely of his own making, played out on an
international stage thanks to the letters and treatises that he lobbed all over
Augustine “won,” ensuring a papal condemnation of Pelagius and driving Julian from his see. He unscrupulously exercised the political connections in the imperial court that he had cultivated so carefully in campaigning against the Donatists. Still, as O’Donnell points out, Augustine also lost. His grim ideas on predestination were impossible as a pastoral theology. Invoking his authority, later churchmen carefully re-interpreted and reshaped his message, softening its doctrinal impact. The extremist strain that he left behind remained in western Christianity, exploding centuries later with Calvin and with Jansen. But extremes are, by definition, marginal.
O’Donnell ends his book with a chiaroscuro appreciation of the multiple Augustines conjured in his volume— Augustine the politician, Augustine the poet of the divided self, Augustine the theoretician of infant baptism, Augustine the anxious sinner, alone on his deathbed, going to his God. But the one he closes on is the one who made all the others possible: Augustine the writer, whose textual afterlife ensures his continuing cultural presence.
As O’Donnell observes, Augustine wrote as if his life depended on it. Perhaps it did. The five million words that he dictated from the time of his conversion until his death amounts to the equivalent of publishing a modern three-hundred-page print book every year for forty years. (And he “wrote” only at night, after meeting his daytime obligations.) However unelevating some of his motivations, however unfortunate his positions and however damaging his successes, Augustine’s astonishing literary legacy remains, a monument to his burning intelligence and to his unquiet heart. O’Donnell’s vibrant new study brings this imperfect saint to life, both in his wrenching smallness and in his exhilarating grandeur. Tolle, lege.
Paula Fredriksen’s new book, Augustine and the Jews, will be published next year by Doubleday.