Just a few things are widely known about Augustine of Hippo (354–430 a.d.), whose designations are as lofty and sweeping as saint, doctor (= “teacher”) of the Church, and the greatest of the Church Fathers. He refined the doctrine of original sin, the logic that connects mankind’s eternal fate to offenses in the Garden of Eden. He saw sex as a mammoth obstacle to a fully Christian life. (Who hasn’t heard of his youthful prayer, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet”?) And the crucial resolve came to him in a garden, when he heard a child’s voice from nearby chanting, “Pick it up, read it!” — and picked up and read a command in Paul of Tarsus’s letters to leave the dissolute life behind.
But Robin Lane Fox, perhaps the most helpful living popularizer of ancient history and culture, points out that Augustine may here have made a mistake in interpretation (one of many, as it appears). The Latin words he heard can also mean, “Take away, gather,” or “Pick up, gather.” (I’m stimulated to note another possibility, “choose” instead of “gather”; several kinds of children’s games shared between many cultures would in fact fit a non-“read” translation.)
Be that as it may, Augustine’s achievements over the next four decades, as a moral, intellectual, and institutional authority, were foundational, and they show up much more strikingly because they are almost pitifully unlikely amid the upheavals of late antiquity. They seem the unlikely outcomes of huge blanks (he approached quite near to his “conversion” without, for example, knowing anything about monastic communities or the Nicene Creed, which was a ritual secret), brilliant confusion, and pragmatic readjustments — as well as of a hyper-concentrated intelligence and a passionate love of God.
The haloed theologian on the one hand and the ruthless ascetic fully explicated by Freud on the other — those prevailing images — are far less interesting than the man who emerges in Fox’s account. If God could do all this with a hormone-fogged, smart-aleck, self-pitying, lower-middle-class boy from North Africa, during one of civilization’s seemingly least propitious eras for doing anything with anyone, what couldn’t He do?
Fox has produced a fanatically well-researched new account of Augustine up to the time the Confessions were dictated (which, he argues, was 397). There is, for instance, a painstaking but accessible survey of Manichaean literature and practice. Augustine spent an early long span of years as a subordinate “hearer” in this nominally Christian sect. To explain globally his remarks about it in the Confessions (such as that its leaders claimed to “belch out angels”) is a scholarly task equivalent to mastering multiple versions of Scientology’s Dianetics in Old Persian and several contemporary but far-flung languages and then laying out for non-specialist readers the entire mythology and ritual, along with their background and reception.
But Fox nails it — the religion Mani founded, and every other major influence on the young to early-middle-aged Augustine. He even, hilariously, gives pretty solid evidence for an episode that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for readers with up-front details. One scandal obliquely addressed in the Confessions appears to have been that Augustine, near the time he became sole bishop of Hippo — a succession made controversial by (entirely false) rumors that he was still a crypto-Manichaean — had played an obscene cultic prank on two important correspondents in Italy, a couple in a pious mariage blanc who were founding a religious community with their vast wealth.
To cover so much ground, Fox adopts a device that wouldn’t work in less deft hands. At intervals he pursues biographies of two men of the same era whose similarities to and differences from his main subject are particularly telling.
Libanius (c. 314–c. 392) was of aristocratic heritage, a lifelong pagan, and a Greek literary scholar. On all these counts, he would have despised the obscurely striving, Latin-speaking (and rather hopelessly Greek-swotting) Augustine, born to a Christian mother and marked instantly for the catechumenate (the period in advance of baptism). But both were rhetoricians, and thus members of a profession very important to ancient culture and education, especially under the Roman Empire.
City chairs of rhetoric were public offices; Libanius held the one at Antioch, and Augustine the one at Milan before renouncing this possible path to imperial administrative heaven (once a posh marriage would secure the cash and connections to start the climb). Moreover, Libanius, like Augustine, wrote an astonishing amount, including a summary of his life with arguments about its meaning. Independent of ideology, a sufficient sense of the private — or publicly private — self had made such an undertaking conceivable by this time.
Synesius (c. 373–c. 414) was a fellow Christian bishop in North Africa and a striking example of the divided world Augustine occupied. He was a wealthy and prominent diplomat, a tireless hunter, and a brave military leader. Allowing himself to be drafted as a Christian cleric, he stipulated that his lifestyle would hardly change; he would even continue to have sex with his wife. In technically the same church, Augustine felt guilty even gazing with interest at a dog chasing a hare in a field, and lobbied a former protégé as urgently against marriage and a secular career as a parent today would lobby against enlistment in a drug cartel.
But Synesius and Augustine shared a calling to pagan philosophy: Synesius had studied with the great Hypatia (who was later murdered by a Christian mob). In late adolescence, Augustine was enflamed with idealism not by the Bible (whose crude style in Latin he despised when he finally confronted it, as he’d had the still-standard pagan high-literary schooling) but by Cicero’s Hortensius, a dialogue about the glories of philosophy.
Augustine delayed his “catholic” (from the Greek word for “universal”) baptism partly because of excruciating doubts about the “substance” of God and related philosophical preoccupations. His struggle for celibacy was informed less by Christian rules (as urged by his pious mother, Monica, from whom he literally fled, sneaking away from her across the sea to Italy) than by the dualism of pagan Greek thinkers: Pure contemplation was on one side, and on the other was the animalistic life of physical sensation and practical activity.
The words he read in the garden, with which the Jewish Paul had echoed basic, long-established rules (and only against illicit sex, where sex was concerned), had little or nothing to do with this worldview — but Augustine made the link; somewhat as, over the decades to come, he would make poetic, emotionally appealing, but theoretically weak links between the Bible (usually in bad Latin translations) and his inner needs and the Church’s outer ones. His greatest achievement subsisted in the overall movement from airless abstraction to populist religion. This movement was no doubt instigated by his role as an active cleric. As any cleric will profess, nothing works with a congregation except the evidence that you love them; for Augustine, the great gift of love was his words.
The Confessions is a masterpiece of preaching that enacts the ideas of love and grace more than it pushes them explicitly. And it is an unprecedentedly intimate yet open prayer, witty and colorful as well. Look, it said to King Alfred and Martin Luther and countless others, I am God’s but I am still myself; what a miracle this life is, and how unlikely yet obvious is its connection to eternity.
– Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.