Thinking About Augustine: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve always considered Augustine to be a modern man. This is partly owing to his intellectual rigor, but also owing to the sweep of his life. Born about 354, he would live to the age of 76, dying in 430. Everything about him, from his split religious parentage (his mother was a Christian, his father a pagan) to his early life of ambition and sensuality, to his conversion, to his later writings , to his eventual elevation in the hierarchy of the Church, seems to mark him out as a contemporary figure. There is a sense that we can understand this life and this man. Even his work ethic seems modern. Initially a mediocre student, he discovered that he could make a name for himself through scholarship. In Carthage, at the age of 17, he devoured the classics (especially Cicero and Plotinus). He encountered Manichaean philosophy (a dualist corruption of Christianity) and became a teacher of rhetoric. Climbing the academic ladder, he moved first to Rome and then to Milan as the city’s leading professor, although now specializing in Neoplatonism, a system of philosophy embraced by both sophisticated Christians and pagans in the fourth century. He was, without doubt, “a man about town”. The influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, led to his well known conversion. Yet even after his conversion, we can see ourselves in this man as he involves himself in lay communities of scholars and schemes to set up monastic establishments. His energy seems without end and all things appeared possible.
In 391, while in Hippo (where he was well known by reputation) he was ordained a priest. According to some stories, this was almost done against his will. Yet, within five years, he was made Bishop of Hippo. In his episcopate, we once again see a modern man. In addition to his pastoral duties within Hippo, he traveled to church councils in the region of North Africa – forty to fifty times over the course of the 35 years he served as bishop. He made the nine-day journey to Carthage, the metropolitan see, for meetings with other bishops some thirty times. But even these extensive travels, which Augustine always found to be a hardship physically, were modest in comparison with the great output of writings and sermons which he produced: over two hundred books and nearly a thousand sermons, letters and other works. It is no wonder, at least to me, that Calvin, Luther and Cranmer viewed Augustine as a theological contemporary, as did Warfield and Barth. There was, and is, the sense that Augustine can be known and understood in a modern and contemporary manner. Moreover, it does not matter if “modern” means the sixteenth or the twenty-first century. Indeed, in the great biography of Augustine by Peter Brown, there is evidence not merely of the “history” of Augustine’s life (i.e. dates and chronology) but also of his psychology and thought process documented in his extensive writings.
I would contend, however, that Augustine’s appeal to modernity arises not only from the life he lived, but also from the time in which he lived and how he responded to that time. His life and career began in an optimistic era in which a country boy from a small town in North Africa could make his way to Carthage and then to Rome and them to Milan. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, both in the Latin West and in the Church. By the time of Augustine’s episcopate, however, the situation had changed. The Donatist controversy was splitting the Church in North Africa. Pelagianism had emerged and was dividing the faithful. Barbarian incursions took place in northern and central Italy and by 410 Alaric had breached the gates of Rome and sacked the city, resulting in an influx of refugees to Hippo, Carthage and the other cities of North Africa. It is reported that Augustine said that, “it seemed as though the world was on fire”. Yet, it is out of this time, this experience, that Augustine writes The City of God, telling his readers that we should not be astonished that the City of Man is bound to rise and fall. The task of the Church is not bound to that city made by earthly hands, but rather, “The whole of our history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of the City of God”. We do this not by ignoring the City of Man, but by not aligning our destiny, or our hopes, with that earthly city.
Within 20 years the Vandals had made their way to North Africa. Augustine watched as all that he had systematically built over his lifetime was destroyed. As refugees from smaller towns fled to Hippo, they brought reports of churches being burned, monasteries being sacked, and of priests, monks and nuns being killed. As Hippo was a fortified town, the outlying fires could be seen from the walls of the city. As the Vandals arrived to lay siege to the city, Augustine updated and organized the library of his own writings. “So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world’s hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God.” After three months of the siege, Augustine contracted a fever which likely was sweeping the town.
Apparently, he found this not to be surprising and reached back with his memory to the classics. As Peter Brown says, “In the midst of these evils, he was comforted by the saying of a certain wise man: ‘He is no great man who thinks it a great thing that sticks and stones should fall, and that men, who must die, should die. The ‘certain wise man’ of course, is none other than Plotinus. Augustine, the Catholic bishop, will retire to his deathbed with these words of a proud pagan sage.” He remembered what he had taught decades earlier.
Augustine then took to his bed, hearing the sounds of battle outside, and prayed the penitential psalms which he asked to be written on the walls of his room. On 28 August 430, as Hippo was being sacked by the Vandals, Augustine died. Of his life’s work in North Africa, only his library miraculously survived.
Like Augustine, we cannot choose the times in which we live and I see many parallels between Augustine’s time and ours. We cannot heal the divisions in the Church which now seem insurmountable. We cannot quell the violence in our cities, much less the armed confrontations between nations. We have also wondered if the “whole world is on fire”. A pandemic claims 200,000 lives… the lives of our neighbors, and the best we can do it to argue politics, believing that the more we increase the volume, the more we will be heard. There can be little doubt that as a nation and as a society we are facing a seismic shift, for good or for ill. Navigating our way through this time requires wisdom which, unfortunately, seems in short supply. In the end, perhaps we recognize the limits of what we can do and loosen our grip on the earthly city that, “glories in itself”, for in the end, all we can do is act in the moment with love, which alone is the currency of the City of God. And if we want to know what that is about, Augustine provides a succinct definition:
“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
I love this article, so inspiring for the current times — thanks so much for writing it.
Many thanks. The current situation just seems overwhelming… at least it does for me.
Duane, you saved my daughters life, well kinda. The teachers in our county did a call in sick protest late last night shutting down the schools for the entire week (that had in person school). First assignment for a 7th grader, if you could pick one person to have dinner with who would it be, etc. I quickly gave her your article and that quickly narrowed down to Dr. Arnold or Augustine. She was delighted that she could image having a sit down based on your article. Well done…your writings are always a treasure. (Along w/ Michael’s)
What a wonderful story! It brought some real sunshine to my day. Many thanks!
Yes, i see such a different dynamic today – such a contrast to post WW2.
One of my daughters sent me an Email asking for prayer for one of her son’s family. It seems a Seattle policeman has moved in next door (at least 30 miles from Seattle) as the Seattle police have been informed that antifa is following them home from their precincts with the intent of harming their families. Since this man is staying in a 5th wheel parked very close to their home, her son worries that antifa will mistake his home for the policeman’s.
Up here there are some people who will no longer speak to my daughter because she’s known to be both conservative and Christian.
In the second half of the 20th century the looting and arson we are seeing would have gotten the perps shot on the spot.
Dr. Duane’s post here echoes what i was reading last night. The kingdom we Christians serve is NOT, at present, an earthly kingdom. Our lives should bless this evil age, but notonform or reform it.
2 times in less than 12 hours, same message? Dear God, it isn’t easy. Praying for focus and strength.
I found this in my reading. It seems to suit the times…
“We can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’
“Doing justice…” There is a whole lot to think on packed in those two words… .
I am under the impression, but would like your appraisal of the following two historical assertions that I understand to be true during the later years of Augustine:
First, would it be fair to say that due to the pressure on Rome from the invading barbarians, Western Christianity was more or less preserved in North Africa?
Second, had the Greek language so died out in the West that the Greek speaking church in the East and the Western Latin church were developing independent streams of Christianity even as far back as Augustine. For example, I understand that due to language barriers, Augustine and John Chrysostom did not have a professional relationship, even though I assume each was well known to the other. But I understand that Augustine did not read Greek.
Can you shed any light on these topics?
Yes, North Africa was a Christian stronghold, but in the fifth and sixth century you also had large Christian communities in Gaul, Britain and Ireland.
The northern reaches of Italy, around Ravenna, was actually more attached to Constantinople than to Rome… and remained such for some centuries.
Augustine was never fluent in Greek (he said that he started too late!) but he could read Greek with the assistance of a dictionary. I’m not sure that Augustine ever mentioned Chrysostom by name, but I could be wrong. They certainly would have disagreed on Free Will and Original Sin! It’s really the beginning of the theological divide…
so good! so rich! love the thought that we must understand our limitations
I’m not sure I understand Augustine’s rejection of astronomy, even though society placed importance on it. He retained the cultural focus on public oratory. It seemed as though all references to astronomy where conflated with divination.
You’re pretty close to it. A large part of the Manichees system of belief was involved with astronomy. When he rejected the Manichees for Neoplatonism and then for Christianity, he seems to have abandoned interest in astronomy…
You just have to send me down rabbit holes!😁 I found this as a result:
Im excited to check that out. Manichean concepts are something like Persian fire worshipping. It’s something forgotten and does not pertain to my life. Maybe I was very wrong if Augustine was in the midst of a personal rejection of a religion that previously influenced him.
On this I am confident: An initial glance at Manichean cosmology shows a very different understanding of the Mazzoroth handed down to the Greeks, Romans or Temple era Jews..
I think you’ll find it of interest. I did! Thanks for pointing me in that direction…
Duane. More than interesting. I need to rethink Augustine because my memory of his primary book is clearly faulty. Specifically, I want to understand how his view on celestial Signs evolved.
I believe the Signs are real and the passing of Solstice/Equainox is a matter of personal reflection. I’ve never encountered another Christian to whom both applied. An exception is the somewhat recent online fringe element, that attempts to predict the Tribulation using the Mazzoroth.
Glad you liked it, I enjoyed it as well.
Augustine dropping astronomy would line up with specialist scholarship that pointed out that Augustine abandoned finishing De Musica after his conversion. I finished the incomplete treatise, which was confined to rhythm, earlier this year.
For a dedicated monograph on divination as political speech in ancient near eastern empires … which I admit is completely a tangent
astronomy clearly was a practice that was connected to divination in a variety of contexts.
there’s also a free PDF version at the sbl-site.org, btw.
Good stuff, many thanks!
Saw the “WTH” Dr. Duane… Gave me a start until i saw who you were answering….
This has been a strange couple of days – too quiet around the PHXP – praying all are okay
No need to worry… it’s all good.
Thanks, Dr. Duane… Michael probably needs some down time… But all the posters have gone sikent, too
Maybe we all need down time. 😏
“Booksellers” on Prime… you will not be disappointed…
Duane..wasn’t Augustine the primary proponent of “Just War Theory?” Interesting looking at the conditions of his time you described. You can see how perhaps his present circumstances informed his thoughts on this.
Augustine used the phrase, “just war”, but did not really delineate the theory. Thomas Aquinas began to outline what constituted a just war and the school of Salamanca systematized the theory. Nevertheless, I think Augustine was informed by what he saw happening around him in the secular realm. At one point, he was willing to engage the secular arm in his conflict with the Donatists (a schismatic group), but he later regretted doing this…
I revisited this article over the weekend. It was really well done and under appreciated. It beckoned a comment but our recent repartee prevented me. That was wrong. This is real fine work. You are an able teacher and writer. This provoked further reading in my study.
I wish you every blessing.
Many thanks and much appreciated….