From the blogger’s perspective, putting forward something modestly useful takes a fair hunk of time each day (I could never do this were I still in practice) and there is the attendant research that for me generally begins late in the afternoon before supper for the next day. There is great relief when the day’s post is finished and edited, and I can move the cursor to the big “publish” icon in the right hand corner. And most days I am satisfied to “publish.” But I forget that The Café is a site, with other resources advertised, and these get lost in the shuffle. Most importantly, there is a front page, and invoking that truism about books and their covers, I would say that my front page needs work. I am still using the original one I chose when I was just getting my feet wet with Weebly, the site platform.
So as I was bemoaning the condition of my front page this week, I noticed that under “current reads” I have listed Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography of St. Augustine (354-431). It has been there for some time; I have completed about a third of the work, presently working my way through the chapter on Augustine’s classic Confessions, one of the most widely read and discussed autobiographies in Western Civilization. I am reading Brown’s work at a slow pace, in part because of the excellence of the text, and partly because the author does a magnificent job un-packaging the philosophy of the times that led Augustine to his most memorable insights.
Augustine, when referred to in many Catholic circles, is depicted as the poster child for the Church’s alleged negativity toward sex. There is some truth to this but not in the ways we imagine. In fact, Augustine in one of his many letters criticizes the prevalent theology of the North African Christian Church, which held that a boy was innocent until he reached the age of puberty. Augustine snorted his opinion on this belief, saying that it conveyed the impression “the only sins you could commit involved the genitals.” Despite being born to what Father Robert Barron (appointed new auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles this week) once called “the ultimate helicopter mom,” the fanatically Catholic Monica, Augustine was not baptized as an infant. Like other young and ambitious men of his age, he left North Africa (with his Berber mistress) and set roots at Rome under a generous patron.
Augustine seemed to have been a man of leisure, for he consorted with fellow philosophers and debaters on the pagan classics and the writings of the time in pursuit of the perfect life of an intellectual. Paganism, despite the era of Constantine in the fourth century, was not dead. In fact pagan philosophers continued to rule the reading and methodology for men of letters for years to come. The primary trend of the time was a renewed interest in Greek philosophy: Plato was revered, but given the seven centuries since his death, Augustine would have absorbed somewhat different brands of this philosophy under the umbrella of Neoplatonism and an attendant religious cult known as Manicheism. Although both the philosophical and the religious impact upon the sons of Plato would be diverse, as the concepts themselves are diverse, there were several constants: the spiritual world was emphasized over the material, and the quest for philosophical certainly by the thinker was a journey to perfection in the One. Augustine remained a Manichee for nine years.
Augustine’s eventual conversion to Christianity was complex, not dramatic. Among the factors involved were probably a disenchantment with the Manichean quest for perfection, the impact of his mother, and the introduction to Christian thought through the remarkable bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Gary Wills describes Augustine’s catechumenate in Milan in a splendid work, Font of Life. There is no doubt that Augustine took his conversion seriously. He discharged his partner of many years, the mother of his son, who returned to the rural life of North Africa penniless and broken-hearted.
Many years later, as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine would compose his Confessions. Brown observes that while the practice of autobiography by men of stature was common for the age, Augustine turned the art form upside down by his remarkable quest for psychological self-understanding. We can see why he may have been disillusioned with Manicheism, which believed that men could achieve perfection by discipline and thought. Augustine saw the human being as something of a product of his history: present day inclinations to sin and virtue are the inescapable end product of earlier sins, even in the formative years.
Thus we get some understanding of one of the most famous episodes in the Confessions: Augustine recalls an act of low-grade vandalism perpetrated by himself and his cronies in their youth. The crime was raiding a pear orchard; some of the fruit was eaten and some just destroyed. Augustine could not get past this random sinful act of a young man (himself) and came to believe that humans could neither explain nor overcome sinful tendencies on their own. Rather, Augustine embraced probably the first form of Christian predestination; we depend totally upon the fashion that God has made us and the mercy he extends for salvation.
Like all theological advances, this vision of Christian anthropology raised as many questions as answers. We will unpack these as I proceed through Brown’s work. I promise to read faster.