20 August 2009, Review by R.A. Markus
A good man in Africa
Augustine of Hippo: a life
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £12.99
Tablet bookshop price £11.70 Tel 01420 592974
Since Cornelius Jansen, the seventeenth-century Bishop of Ypres from whom Jansenism drew its name and inspiration, who had read all Augustine's works 10 times, many up to 30 times, no scholar can have had as deep and extensive a knowledge of Augustine's writings as did the late Henry Chadwick. Chadwick also had unrivalled knowledge of the Roman world that Augustine inhabited, of the classical literature he had been brought up on, and far more of the Greek and Latin fathers than Augustine had been able to read. This posthumously published book is essentially a draft written in 1981 for the "Past Masters" series and discarded for a shorter version, published in 1986, more narrowly focused on Augustine's thought than on his life.
There is much that Chadwick shared with Augustine, and not only the overriding desire to understand, as Augustine put it, what he believed. Peter Brown, in his graceful and generous foreword to the book, remarks on their shared love of music. Like Augustine, Chadwick was also a churchman: for both, the hard intellectual grind mattered, supremely, for the community they served. The past was of profound importance, to nourish a living Christian tradition and, for both, but especially for Chadwick, to help in discovering the crucial common ground shared by Christian communities divided by their troubled histories. What Chadwick says of Augustine's style when preaching to his flock, remarking on the natural cheerfulness indispensable to an effective teacher, a directness "which knows just what effect monosyllables may achieve", is in its way as characteristic of his own writing as of Augustine's preaching.
Unlike Jansen, and unlike so many modern interpreters (not excluding the present reviewer), Chadwick has no theological agenda to hang on to his subject. He wishes to return to the living and endlessly enquiring, restless mind behind the figure of towering authority that Augustine was to become in Western Christianity. The book abounds with insights, often unconventional, and provides a rich guide to Augustine's thought as it developed.
The narrative of Augustine's youth, education and career as a provincial professor of rhetoric, to rise, eventually, to teaching in the imperial city of Milan, is interwoven with his youthful quest for wisdom, encouraged by a now lost work of Cicero's and ending in adherence to the dualist teachings of Mani. Chadwick is especially good on telling the story of Augustine's disenchantment with this sect, largely under the influence of the platonically tinged Christianity he discovered in Milan, in educated circles around the bishop, Ambrose. The months spent at a country retreat in the company of his mother and like-minded friends were a time of both high-spirited philosophical discussion and preparation for Augustine's baptism in 387.
After his mother's death and his return to Africa, he lived in his home town of Thagaste as a Christian intellectual with like-minded friends associated in a mildly ascetic community, not very different from the months spent in his retreat near Milan. Chadwick sees Augustine's ordination as bishop in nearby Hippo as the great divide in his life and thought. Accepting what he would always call the "bishop's burden", imposed on him in his early forties, brought "far deeper and more obvious changes in Augustine's character than even his conversion at Milan 10 years before", and "turned him into a great man such as he would never have become had he remained a professor of rhetoric". All his great works, starting with his Confessions, were written after this turning point.
Chadwick alludes to Augustine's more profound engagement with St Paul at much the same time, without, however, dwelling on the new preoccupations and the fissures across the smooth surface of his optimistic estimate of human capacities that many of his commentators have associated with it. It is characteristic of his account that while sometimes noting disagreements, it keeps as clear of controversial interpretations as possible. There is an excellent account of North African Christianity and of the division between the Catholic and the Donatist communities; but no reader who is not already familiar with the subject would guess from these chapters that the schismatic community of the Donatists had a better claim to represent what had long been the orthodoxy of the North African Church than did the Catholics, whom they saw, not unreasonably, as an import from "overseas", imposed in North Africa by the imperial authorities. Similarly, Chadwick treats his account of the great work of Augustine's old age, The City of God, as indeed did Augustine himself, in the perspective of the conflict between Christianity and paganism. But despite passing hints, we would hardly realise that the work was aimed as much at his fellow Christians, summoning them to a heart-searching over how they should understand the Roman world and, by implication, the whole secular world, its culture and institutions, in relation to the Christian Church and God's providence.
The account Chadwick offers is far from uncritical. "There are obvious points", he writes, "where [Augustine's] arguments and standpoints invite attack, most notably his treatment of suffering, punishment and sex." A long and searching final chapter on freedom and grace is the most striking example of an area of thought in which Augustine allowed himself to be pushed in the course of controversy into adopting positions from which the Church came gradually to dissociate itself. Here and there modern overtones make themselves heard, as for instance in Chadwick's remarks on Augustine's lack of fear of the natural sciences: "Rather his fear is of theologians, orthodox in intention, who try to treat the book of Genesis as a source-book for science without realising the very different purpose of the sacred book. Like Mani, they merely end in writing bad science and bring discredit on their faith."
Chadwick naturally disclaims any intention of writing a critical account of the man and of his doctrines, something too complex and lengthy for the scope of this book. It is designed "simply to introduce him and his ideas in the intellectual and political context of his age". In this, however, Chadwick succeeds in spectacular manner, by dint of his uncanny skill in catching, time and again, the odd revealing detail, moving about in Augustine's vast textual output with magisterial ease, hitting on just the right phrase or allusion. His Augustine emerges from his pages as an altogether more human and more humane figure than we meet in many of his interpreters.
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