Not often, but every now and then, a truly gifted film director takes up well-known material—a famous short story, a novel, a biography—and turns a subject with which we thought we were thoroughly familiar into something once again strange and challenging. To do this, he must exercise a dictatorial power over the material. It is he who now decides what to cut and what to retain, when the camera should linger in a gripping close-up and when it should slide quickly to another scene, and, above all, exactly when and in what manner characters already well known to the audience should make their first entry. Garry Wills’s Saint Augustine has done this, in a little under 150 pages. Seldom has a long-familiar figure, whose works fill thirteen double-columned volumes in the standard edition, and whose life and thought have been debated for sixteen hundred years, emerged so fresh and challenging, from under so masterful a “director’s” hand. For a scholar such as myself, who has spent much time in the company of the bishop of Hippo, it is a rare pleasure to watch, in this compact account, a deft and ingenious expositor set to work upon a great thinker.
Augustine, as we all know, came from Roman North Africa. He made his career as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage and Milan, where he converted, dramatically, to the life style of a celibate Catholic in 386. He soon returned to Africa, and, from 395 to his death in 430, he was Catholic bishop of Hippo, modern Bône/Annaba, still a busy seaport on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Algeria. We have found it easy to think of him “wearing all the episcopal finery of the late Middle Ages—miter, crozier, gloves, ring.” Yet, Wills reminds us, we thought wrong: “He dressed in the gray clothes of a monk, and celebrated the rites of his church in that everyday garb.” We know that he is regarded as a founder of the Middle Ages, indeed, as a figure whose thought dominated Western Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike, until recent times. Yet a younger contemporary of his, a well-bred Italian bishop, dismissed him as “a guru of the outback,” “what passes for a philosopher with Africans.” Ignorant of Greek, Augustine was “a provincial on the margins of classical culture.” Already, in his first two pages, Wills has let us know that he intends to tell the story his way and that we should sit up and take notice. We do.
We also know that Augustine is most famous for the book in which he described his own life from his birth in 354 to his conversion in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. Written around 397, when he had become a bishop, the book has traditionally been called in English the Confessions. But we have been wrong to do so. “Confessiones, transliterated rather than translated into English Confessions, misses the complexity of [the] word.” Augustine, rather, wished to “confess” in the ancient meaning of the word: he wrote to give testimony to the majesty and beauty of God. Hence Wills calls the book Testimony (abbreviated in the references as T) so as to keep in mind the double theme of assertion of human frailty balanced by warm tribute to God which runs through the work. “Better a shock of the new than indulging old associations that mislead.” This, again, is Wills the director at work, delivering us briskly from tired stereotypes that had linked the Confessions only with the recitation of Augustine’s former sins.
From 371 to 385, as a student and young professor, Augustine lived with a concubine. Again, Wills warns us to rein in an ever-active modern imagination: “His actual sexual activity was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint.” What matters is that this relationship was enduring and entirely monogamous. “I lived with only one woman, unam habebam.” “To avoid clumsy titles” (here the director intervenes) “I shall call this woman Una.” We might call her, simply, “The One and Only.” What matters is that Wills, again, is right. We have come a long way, in a few more pages, from the common stereotype of Augustine the profligate youth of Carthage turned by middle age, to our lasting regret, into the sex-obsessed Catholic bishop. Truth is established and, as is usually the case with Augustine, it is a lot stranger than modern fiction.
A son was soon born to the young couple. The staid among us know him by his Latin name, Adeodatus. But, as Wills points out, a deo datus, given by God, means, in plain English, the little Godsend; and Godsend he remains throughout the book. As for Monnica (spelled with two “n”s, for the name was taken from an old-style Libyan goddess) she is not allowed on the screen until the eve of her own death, overshadowed at Ostia by the presence of God. In most accounts, Monnica hovers over the entire boyhood and youth of Augustine—tragically or balefully, dependent on whether we are of sentimental or of psychoanalytic disposition. Not so for Wills, and rightly so: “Too much is often made of her role in Augustine’s life.”
What we do get is no mama’s boy and certainly no profligate, but a budding intellectual with all the sharp edges we might expect. At Carthage, though engaged in high-minded study of the classics, our hero moved along the fringes of the urbane and risqué Manichees and admired, from a safe distance, the punk rage of the “Subversives” (another chillingly exact translation of a group we have been used to calling the Eversores). These are not the jeunesse dorée of a late Roman Brideshead Revisited. Wills, rather, hints at something closer to A Clockwork Orange. He may well be right. Late Roman Carthage was not necessarily a nice place, and Augustine, I suspect, improved greatly with old age.
On this well-known material Wills has used his director’s prerogative firmly but in no arbitrary manner. Truths easily obscured by false familiarity are brought into sharp focus once again. And we are under fifty pages into the book. For what is truly remarkable about Wills’s Saint Augustine is that, having brought Augustine up to and beyond the well-known years of his youth and conversion, the book moves on with the same vividness and certainty of touch to follow the development of Augustine’s thought into the very different, long years of his episcopate, up to his death in 430. Once most of the vivid characters long known to us from the pages of the Confessions have receded, swallowed up by death and distance, the sure hand of the director now falls on far more intractable material: the story of Augustine’s ever-fertile mind.
For the further Augustine appeared to drift away from the bright centers of late Roman life, to lose himself in the dreary routines of a provincial bishopric, the more his mind bubbled over. Already at Cassiciacum, in 386, when he appeared to have dropped out of Milanese society, forced into early retirement by a stress-induced illness, his mind was “on a roll”: he “wrote four dialogues in as many months, and planned an ambitious series on the whole circle of learning.” Seemingly caught forever in seedy Hippo, as yet one more African bishop among hundreds, “there was an implosion of his mind, down into himself, back into his past.” As a result, between 397 and 409, the Confessions (forgive me, I mean, of course, the Testimony) was written, and great works on The Trinity, On Christian Culture, and on First Meanings in Genesis (the De Genesi ad Litteram) set under way. After “this magical decade-and-a-little-more,” nothing could be quite the same again in Western thought on the self, the will, the nature of time, and the relation of body and soul.
The next decade, up to 417, was a hard one, dominated by “power relations” with a well-established and authentic local rival, the Donatist church of Africa, whose bishops were protected by formidable strong men, the circum-celliones, “hut people” drawn from the rural slums that clustered on the edge of the great estates of Numidia. Yet throughout this unsavory period, where death was in the air and the raw force of Roman law and order mobilized with little scruple by both sides, Augustine thought through the role of the state in local society and, within three years of the chilling news of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, had begun the mighty labor of The City of God. With this book, he taught an entire Christian society to contemplate post-Roman times: he wrote “to dethrone the idea of Rome from its place in people’s minds.”
Last of all, challenged now by the austere perfectionism of Pelagius, Augustine grappled for the rest of his life with a fellow bishop, Julian of Eclanum—in his opinion, a supercilious young Italian, while to Julian he was a “wheezing old geezer,” the patronus asinorum, “the braying spokesman of all donkeys”—over the heavy themes of sin, sex, and death. When Augustine died, in 430, he had written ninety-three books, over a million and a half words of uniquely expressive Latin, alternately bewitching, questioning, and intransigent. And he left them in perfect order. A few years earlier, he had arranged them all in a chronological list entitled Reconsiderations (Retractationes), adding sharp little notes to each, correcting the occasional mistake and reminding the reader, at times, of how he had changed his mind on certain topics.
All this Wills tells us in under 150 pages. There is no need for a reviewer to linger on so dense and vigorous an exposition of the principal themes of Augustine’s thought. It is enough to urge the reader to do so. It is, rather, the tone of voice of Wills the expositor that needs to be stressed. He does not hold Augustine at a safe distance. He does not sit in judgment on him, asking what elements of his thought support or clash with modern agendas. Least of all does he talk down to the reader. He holds Augustine in gripping close-up, and demands only that we take this distant man, whose thoughts have a disquieting tendency still to pulse in our veins, seriously and, for a moment, on his own terms. His translations are characteristic of that enterprise. They are sizzling. They are meant to bring Augustine straight into our own minds; and they succeed. Well-known passages, over which my own eyes have often glazed, spring to life again from Wills’s pages, as poetry in prose. Altogether, Wills has done for Augustine what Augustine the bishop, writing to a hesitant young preacher, said could be done: “The more, by the bond of love, we enter into each other’s mind, the more even old things become new for us again.”
This said, what more needs to be said? With Augustine, of course, there is always more to be said. Wills’s compact survey has brought Augustine back to modern minds. What needs to be stressed is that the return of the bishop of Hippo has coincided with exciting times for those of us who study him. In 1975, the discovery of a series of twenty-seven hitherto unknown long letters of Augustine and, again, in 1990, of twenty-six extensive and unusually vivid sermons (and their eventual complete publication in 1981 and 1996) have suddenly opened a window on Augustine that we thought had closed in 430. We never dreamed that we might see him again, so clearly and so much himself. The newly discovered sermons (of which an English translation by Edmund Hill has only just appeared) coincide with the time of “the great implosion.” Most of them were preached in 397 and 403-404, the years when the Confessions/Testimony was first forming in Augustine’s mind and had then recently been published. The English translation of the newly discovered letters, by Robert Eno, is cited by Wills, though not exploited in his text. They have allowed us to glimpse the old bishop, in the last years of his life (mainly from 419 to 428), as he painstakingly staked out the limits of his new-won intellectual empire while, on his very doorstep, incidents of violence and corruption, many of which were unknown to us until now, eroded his hold, as a bishop, on African society.*
As a supplement to Wills’s account of the traditional landmarks of Augustine’s thought, it might be of interest to step outside Augustine’s mind for a moment, to view him as a figure in the wider landscape opened up for us by these discoveries.
Let us begin with the new sermons, now called the Dolbeau Sermons after their discoverer, François Dolbeau. Copied in a crabbed late Gothic hand in 1470-1475 for use by the Carthusian monks of Mainz—at a time, that is, when Erasmus was already a schoolboy—the nondescript manuscript was not discovered until 1990. This particular collection of sermons had evidently been a rare item even in medieval times. For what makes the Dolbeau Sermons so exciting to the modern historian would have caused the mind of a medieval monk to sag. They are so long and so relentlessly circumstantial. They brought into the monastic scriptoria of medieval northern Europe the sounds of a late Roman North Africa that had long become as silent as a drowned city. The longest of them was preached on the occasion of the pagan New Year’s Feast of the Kalends: it is over 1,500 lines long and would have taken Augustine three hours to preach. It spoke of a Christianity that was far from triumphant, but still engulfed in the murmurous, multifaceted paganism of a great city of the Roman Mediterranean. Shrines of Neptune still guarded the headlands. Classical statues still stood in public places, objects of occult fascination to pagans and Christians alike. Members of the local intelligentsia were far from convinced. They might have asked themselves, Augustine said:
What, shall I become what my ostiaria, my concierge, [my cleaning lady] has become, and not become a Plato, a Pythagoras?
Modern scholars never dreamed that we would come so close again to Augustine’s dialogue with living paganism. For medieval readers, such a sermon spoke, rather, of a world that they had, thank God, put behind them. We know (from extracts taken from this sermon in his works) that the eye of none other than the Venerable Bede had passed over these lines. But they soon glazed over. To Bede, a man of the early eighth century, living in the unimaginably distant North, close to the empty ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, there was little in this sermon for his own times. He copied out a few paragraphs. Another clergyman copied a little more—the passages directed against overdrinking and the giving of expensive presents on New Year’s Day. This was what their northern charges needed. The rest was left uncopied. It was too rich, too alien. Bede passed on to the more compact, strictly doctrinal sermons and to the great, sure works which Wills has explicated so well. Those extracts were all we had to go on until Dolbeau made his felicitous first journey from Paris to Mainz in 1990.
The sermons were exact stenographic records. They catch Augustine’s living voice. In Dolbeau’s own words, to read them is to experience “the emotion that one feels when a tape-recording brings back the voice of a long-dead friend.” And, with that voice, there come surprises. For instance, we had never guessed that, in January 404, Augustine was jeered at by an angry crowd in the middle of the main Catholic basilica of Carthage. Milling around the great open hall in an attempt to get closer to the speaker, one group lost patience. Augustine was inaudible. “Cut it out!” they chanted: “Missa sint: Let’s get on with the Mass!” Augustine also lost patience. He stopped abruptly, turned around, walked back to the bishop’s bench, and sat down. We never expected to catch Augustine in such a sudden, brittle gesture.
Nor, when he preached the next day on the need for order in the Church, did we expect to hear what we now hear. Praising the recent reforms of Catholic worship (about which Wills writes on pages 79-81), he added his own memories of the good old, bad old days of unreformed, popular worship of the 370s. Back in the 370s, unsegregated crowds, singing songs and passing the bottle, would surge around the shrine, in long, torchlit vigils on the Feast of Saint Cyprian.
When I went to vigils as a student in this city, I spent the night rubbing up beside women, along with boys anxious to make an impression on the girls, and where, who knows, the opportunity might present itself to make it with them.
With these words, the veil of reticence with which Augustine had covered the incident in the Confessions is lifted. With the chaste imagination of a young Oxford don of the 1960s, I had suggested that Augustine had done no more than what Christopher Columbus had done, when he paid solemn court to his fiancée in Seville Cathedral. Wills has his own, alert opinion on the incident. Now we know: the Feast of Saint Cyprian had been, for our young hero, his Woodstock and, who knows, his singles’ bar.
But, these vivid details apart (of which there are many), what comes across with overwhelming force is the tone of voice of a man who believes intensely that, in matters of religion, nothing but the best is good enough for his hearers. Nothing need be above their heads. The great themes of “this magical decade-and-a-little-more” (though worked out in Augustine’s study) were themes that affected every person, in every place and in all ages. The sheer capacity of the post-pagan populations of Africa to remain, basically, unconvinced by Christianity ensured that the soaring themes of the Confessions, of The Trinity, of The City of God were spelled out, again and again, in the springing Latin of the streets of Carthage and in the sleepy cities of the Medjerda valley. An agro- town halfway up the Medjerda, Boseth could hardly be called the center of the cultural world of late antiquity. Yet it is there, in front of an audience which we know to have contained groups of pagans, just as much as in the great sermons preached at Carthage, that we find ourselves at ground zero, able to witness the first, awesome detonation of what would come to be known as the Augustinian system of religion.
Christianity was for everyone, because the joy of the vision of God was open to all—even, that is, for the inhabitants of Boseth.
Look at the harmony of the material world, at the beauty of so much land brought under cultivation, at woods cut down, at orchards planted, all that we see and love in the fields. Look at the city in its due order [one wonders if the little group of small-town elders did not nod approvingly], the harmonious mass of its buildings, the variety of useful arts, the rich variety of human languages, the ample depth of memory, the sheer exuberance of human eloquence.
God was behind all this, and He wished to be seen: “Yearn to contemplate Him and say to Him always: I yearn to see Your face.” Pagan sages had done so. Augustine had no doubt about that.
They grasped the Spirit, God the Creator, but it was as if their eyes shrunk from the sheer blaze of unaccustomed light.
Seeking the way back to a God whom they had, indeed, glimpsed, they were misled by occult rites, proposed to them by the lying gods. But not all had erred:
On those who worshipped no idols nor bound themselves to the demons by occult and magic rites, we should not offer a premature opinion, lest, perhaps, Christ, the Savior, without Whom no one is saved, showed Himself to them in some way or another. Of such a company, perhaps, was Pythagoras.
But now that Christianity had spread to all classes and to all regions, his hearers must not allow themselves to be browbeaten by the claims to occult knowledge of the pagan elite.
You, brothers and sisters, you who do not have the strength of intellect to see what they, the sages of old, once saw, who are not able by the power of thought to rise above all created things… to see the changeless God…. Do not be anxious, do not give up hope, for He Who reaches from the heights to the furthest depths has made for you a way. For what did it profit them to see that homeland of the soul, held at a distance by their pride? They saw that homeland. But they did so as from a mountain crest of pride, as if standing opposite to it…. But no one can get up to that far crest unless he first goes down [in baptism] to the valley below…. Those who give themselves over to other [occult, pagan] rites and do not descend down on to that road, wander, as it were, through mountain forests, from which a few of them lift up their eyes and see the homeland. But they cannot get there as they do not hold to Christ, the Way.
These sermons were preached in 404. A little earlier, in Dolbeau Sermons which may be dated to 397, we catch a unique glimpse of Augustine making his debut as a bishop, when preaching at Carthage. Despite the relative isolation of Hippo, once in Carthage Augustine knew that he stood at a node-point in the communication system of the Christian Mediterranean. We must never forget the extent to which, at this time, leading figures in the Catholic Church differed from each other on central issues, such as the interpretation of the Scriptures and the role of sex in marriage.
Faced by disagreements within this vast whispering gallery of conflicting views, Augustine was unusually discreet. When dealing with colleagues, he never mentioned names. Yet, in a new sermon of 397, we can now hear nothing less than a press conference on his disagreement with Jerome on the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. Wills has dealt elegantly with the issues raised between Augustine and Jerome, whom Wills describes, with characteristic pungency, as “the testy grump of Bethlehem.” Now we can hear Augustine at his most intense. Whatever he and Jerome might say, the Scriptures, as the word of God, still stood above them, as all-embracing and inviolate as a night sky. His hearers should know that:
We, who preach and write books, write in a manner altogether different from the manner in which the canon of the Scriptures has been written. We write while we are still making progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate books at the same time as we are searching for answers. We speak in sermons while we still knock at God’s door for understanding. I urge you all, on my behalf and in my own case, that you should not take any previous book or preaching of mine as Holy Scripture…. If anyone criticizes me when I have said what is right, he does not do right. But I would be more angry with the one who praises me and takes what I have written as Gospel truth (ut canonicum) than the one who criticizes me unfairly.
As for the issue of sex and marriage, if a Dolbeau Sermon entitled “On the Good of Marriage” can be dated to 397, we see Augustine, the new bishop, as very much his own man. The radical chic of his age looked down on married persons. Shrill denunciations of sex in any and every situation dropped all too easily from the pens of clergymen. Marriage was spoken of as a form of sexual bondage. The Christian imagination was fed on stories of high-born women who resisted heroically, on their wedding night, the sexual harassment of importunate spouses. True to character, and thoroughly in touch with up-to-date radical opinion, our “testy grump” Jerome had recently sent to Rome a pamphlet so extreme in its defense of the superiority of virgins to married persons that even his friends had to intervene, to have it withdrawn from circulation.
A year later, in 397, Augustine (himself the one-time companion of Una and the father of little Godsend) took to the pulpit. Though now committed to celibacy, he made plain that this gave him no right to look down upon the married. One-sided vows of continence struck him as egotistical and dangerous. He knew that the married members in his congregation needed to be told something more than that sex within marriage was a sort of crash lane, whose only purpose was to save them from adultery. He pointed out that Saint Paul had written very explicitly about married persons and on when they should and when they should not have sex (in I Corinthians 7). Paul wished to lay down rules for intercourse for married couples “out of a sense of mercy,” because he knew that it was important for them. This, Augustine pointed out, was not the all-too-holy Apostle imagined by radical upholders of virginity:
It may seem indecent to go on and on about such a topic…. But what are we compared with the sanctity of Paul? Yet, with pious humility, with healing words, with God’s own medicine, Paul has entered human bedrooms. Such holiness as his leans over the beds of married persons, and looks at them lying there.
You and I may not relish the idea of an Apostle, much less a late Roman bishop from a very distant past, peering into our marriage beds. Yet the tone and the historical context of the sermon indicates that the average Christian couple may well have preferred a little regulation from the clergy (in the clunky manner that they would expect from clergymen: hard on infidelity, scathing on the “double standard,” easy on the rest) to being ignored, as second-class citizens, by the radicals.
For one aspect of Augustine that is usually overlooked in treatments of his thought and influence emerges with surprising force from the new Dolbeau Sermons. Augustine’s doctrine of grace, of divine election, of the tragic weakness of the unaided free will has been held responsible, by some, for leeching from the Catholic Church that sense of human autonomy and initiative which we like to identify with the message of early Christianity. Yet, in Augustine’s case, it plainly did no such thing. From the time of the first Dolbeau Sermons to the end of his life, Augustine presented his vision of grace and divine power as part of a message of hope, linked to a fierce sense of spiritual agency. The Dolbeau Sermons have provided material with which, perhaps, to unpack a little of this apparent paradox.
In 397, Augustine preached at great feasts of the martyrs. For the Christian congregations, these were times of “glory.” As martyrs, men and women had become “athletes of Christ.” They had shown uncanny endurance as crimson blood gushed from them. They were the recipients of truly “thermonuclear” grace. Nobody who listened to Augustine doubted for a moment that, in such persons, grace had worked abundantly, to show the “glory” of those called by God to heroism. What they doubted, rather, was whether this “glory” was for themselves. What Augustine did, from 397 onward, was to tap into that reservoir of raw charisma, so as to draw upon the sense of grace and calling usually associated with the cult of the martyrs, to fill the lives of humble, workaday Christians. He insisted that the same grace as had blazed out in the martyrs was still at work in the unspectacular—but no less extraordinary—triumphs of grace in the lives of ordinary people.
God is not pleased only with the spurting out of blood. He has many martyrs in secret…. Some times you shiver with a fever; you are fighting. You are in bed: it is you who are the “athlete.”
We should remember that intense pain accompanied much late Roman medicine and that everyone (Augustine included) believed in the efficacy of magic amulets. These were believed to protect the sufferer. But they did so by calling on the aid of supernatural powers other than the power of Christ. Though considered effective, Christians were expected to do without them. For persons in pain and those close to them, it was a hard renunciation. Thus to liken a sickbed to a scene of martyrdom was not a strained image. It was an image deliberately used by Augustine at the festivals of martyrs, so as to bring a sense of the glory of God, celebrated in the long, hot nights in martyrs’ shrines on the outskirts of Carthage, into every Christian home.
Altogether, Augustine’s doctrine of grace was resolutely, austerely democratic. For no one could do without that grace. Clergy needed it every bit as much as did the laity, celibate as much as married persons. In their absolute need for grace, men were not superior to women. Nor were grown-ups to children, or the educated to illiterates. God could place (in Saint Paul’s phrase: II Corinthians 4:17) a “weight of glory” in any heart. And by “weight” Augustine (who knew nothing of the modern law of gravity) meant the fierce straining of each object toward its natural home, as indomitable and as mysterious as the homing instinct of a pigeon—for the stone to sink into the mute embrace of the earth, the flame to shoot back up to the blazing stars, and the human soul to make its way, at last, to rest in God.
If we look for a moment at the newly discovered letters, named the Divjak Letters from their discoverer, Johannes Divjak of Vienna (and conveniently indicated in available editions by an asterisk attached to each number), we can appreciate all the more the fact that, thirty years after these newly discovered sermons were delivered, that sense of agency set free by God had not diminished in Augustine. The letters show that the last decade of Augustine’s life, from 419 onward, was more terrible than we had ever thought. Yet he never gave up. If one definition of genius is an endless capacity for taking pains, then the Divjak Letters bring us as close to the genius of Augustine as does any of his brilliant early works.
Ever since the outbreak of the Pelagian controversy, Augustine had found himself, for the first time in his life, a truly international figure. Letters and pamphlets poured into Hippo from as far away as Palestine and the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Every time, each received careful treatment. Every time, a cherished intellectual project, such as the completion of The City of God, had to be set aside.
But I am annoyed because of the demands which are thrust on me to write, arriving unannounced from here, there and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things we have so neatly lined up in order. They never seem to stop and can’t be put aside.
Nor should we think of Augustine as wielding an unchallenged intellectual domination. He was well aware that he could barely touch distant parts of the Christian Mediterranean with the tips of his fingers. In 421, the patriarch of Constantinople had apparently forgotten that the bishop of Hippo was still alive. Not so, Augustine wrote back, letting his colleague off the hook for such discourtesy, with a characteristic touch of dry wit: “For what is more easy to believe, after all, than that a man born to die should, in fact, have died?” The patriarch of Alexandria had been told (by the Pelagians) that Augustine was soft on Hellfire. Exactly so, Augustine wrote back: only perfectionists would condemn the average Christian to Hell for any little sin.
That error must by all means be avoided by which all sinners, if here below they have not lived a life which is entirely without sin, are thought to be condemned to the punishment of the eternal fire.
Not everyone took Augustine seriously. Consentius, a learned maverick, wrote to him from the Balearic Islands. He was studiously underimpressed by the writings of the bishop of Hippo. Twelve years before, he had bought his copy of the Confessions/Testimony. He had only read into the first book. Then he put it away. He greatly preferred, he told Augustine, the “clear and elegantly ordered style” of Lactantius, the “Christian Cicero.” As for Augustine’s insistence on the use of reason in theology, he was not so sure:
Even if we said that Augustine’s writings were beyond reproach, still we do not know what the judgement of posterity will be on his works. Neither did anyone rebuke Origen when he was alive—Origen who, there is no doubt, was condemned after two hundred years or so.
In his native Africa, things were not much better. The official victory of the Catholic Church had placed Augustine and his fellow bishops in a position of fragile eminence in a society that had by no means become Christian. If told by Garry Wills that his activities as an arbitrator in the bishop’s small claims court “show how little we can speak of church and state as separate things in the fifth century,” Augustine would, I suspect, have thanked him kindly for his good wishes, but pointed out that, seen from Hippo, on a day-to-day basis, the prospect was more bleak. The Roman state remained formidable and resolutely profane. Taxes came first. Sanctuary in the churches offered little protection to victims of injustice. Catholic bishops who stood up for the oppressed found themselves sued by government agencies, “for obstructing the necessary business of tax-collection.” The cities and the poor continued to be ground down, “while we groan in vain and are unable to help.”
At the end of his life, slave traders raided with impunity into the mountains behind Hippo, driving their convoys, in full public view of the authorities, down to the wharves of the harbor. When the bishop’s staff attempted to release the victims, the traders threatened to sue them for interference with their property. Now an old man of almost seventy, Augustine patiently interviewed a terrified young girl, who told him of the attack on her lonely farm and of the murder of its defenders. Yet once again, the great rhetor spoke out, drafting a letter to touch the heart of a very distant emperor:
Barbarians are resisted when the Roman army is in good condition for fear that Romans will be held in barbarian captivity. But who resists these traders who are found everywhere, who traffick, not in animals, but in human beings, not in captured barbarians, but in loyal Romans?… Who will resist, in the name of Roman freedom—I do not say in the name of the free Roman state, but of their very own, personal liberty?
Last of all, in the Divjak Letters, there comes an exchange with a highly cultivated notable, called Firmus, who had read as far as book ten of The City of God. It had had no effect. Firmus still remained unbaptized.
So you are throwing away the fruits of all those books which you say you admire. What fruits? Not that some [who read The City of God] may have some interesting reading nor that they may learn a number of things that they had not known before. But that readers may be convinced of the real existence of the “City of God,” they may enter into that “City” without delay…. If those by whom those books are read and praised actually take action and do these things, of what are the books?
But Firmus had a son. “Our Little Greek” is what Augustine called him. The old bishop had gone out of his way to ask Firmus to send him copies of the boy’s school exercises. He liked the declamations. “Our Little Greek” was a credit to his classical education: “and you of all people know that these are good things, and of great advantage.” But he should remember his Cicero. He must grow up to be a vir bonus—“a good man, skilled at speaking.” For as Cicero had said,
Eloquence combined with wisdom has proved to be of the greatest benefit to states; but eloquence without wisdom, harmful and of no good to anyone.
Meanwhile, Firmus was to be sure to tell Augustine how old the boy was now, and what Greek and Latin authors he had been reading. This is the last glimpse that the Divjak Letters give us of the old bishop of Hippo.
Garry Wills has plainly enjoyed being in the company of such a person. There will, of course, always be scholars—some shrill in their denunciations, but most of them writing, rather, in that tone more of sadness than of anger, which comes so easily from the pens of those of us who are of the professorial persuasion—who will tell us that we must have nothing to do with this strange man. Maybe they have a point. All that the humble historian can do is to present newly discovered evidence, part of which might serve to correct current stereotypes and misrepresentations, and all of which must lead us, in the coming years, to open up, once again, the case of this most distant, complex, yet ever-fascinating figure. And as we reopen the case for and against Augustine, it is good to bear in mind the words of Montalembert in 1863:
To judge the past, and really know what one is talking about, it is necessary to have lived the past. To condemn the past, one need only feel that one owes nothing to it.
Meanwhile, for those who wish both to judge the past and to live the past, Garry Wills’s pungent Saint Augus-tine is as good a way to begin as any other.
June 24, 1999
The newly discovered Dolbeau Sermons (first published from 1992 onward in articles, principally in the Revue des études augustiniennes, in Recherches augustiniennes, and in the Revue bénédictine) are now edited by François Dolbeau, Augustin d’Hippone, Vingt-six Sermons au Peuple d’Afrique (Paris: Institut d’Etudes Augustiniennes, 1996), and are translated by Edmund Hill, Sermons III/11: Newly Discovered Sermons, in The Works of Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century. The Divjak Letters are best edited, with French translations and extensive commentaries, in Oeuvres de Saint Augustin 46B: Lettres 1*-29* (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1987), and are translated by Robert B. Eno, Saint Augustine: Letters VI (1*-29*), Fathers of the Church, Vol. 81. The forthcoming reprint of my book, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (University of California Press, 1967) will include a two-chapter epilogue, devoted to the new documents and to changes in scholarship on Augustine in the last thirty years. ↩