Lessons from St Augustine

On this day in 430, St Augustine died in his adopted hometown of Hippo Regius. He had led a fascinating life, experiencing as a child the brief reign of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Roman emperor, and lived to a time when Christianity was firmly established – the Vandals besieging his home when he died for instance were Christians, even if they were Arian heretics.

To this day he is still a controversial figure, as I found out when several people responded with the benign bishop of Hippo’s name when asked who the worst saint in history was. This was surprising, since I can think of a few saints who allegedly ordered massacres, betrayed their friends or were just plain unlikeable (looking you St Wilfrid you grumpy git!), whilst Augustine was by any definition a moral man even before he was a Christian.

Still, I can see why some people would reach that conclusion. Looking back, I realised that I first encountered Augustine many years ago in the Cartoon History of the Universe (it’s just as awesome as the name suggests!), and the impression I got was not a positive one:

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All of these episodes can be found in the Confessions, a religious autobiography Augustine wrote decades afterwards,  but the story is disjointed – Augustine had already committed to Christianity before his mother’s death, and his son was never abandoned, as he joined Augustine’s initial forays into the ascetic life. Indeed, Augustine was proud of his son’s intellectual achievements and was grief-stricken when the teenager died. His concubine was indeed put aside, but it occurred when Augustine was teaching rhetoric in Milan, before Augustine’s conversion and the death of St Monica, his mother. The reason for his actions though was perhaps even worse than depicted here, as Augustine left his concubine in preparation for a more ‘appropriate’ marriage to a woman of a better background (though it has to be said that this was quite acceptable at the time, even for Christians).

Still, I think the general narrative works well for the popular audience, and I certainly hope others enjoyed the book as much as I did when I was younger. I am quite fond of  attempts at popularising history, such as this short comic on early Byzantine history, as they engage with the audience far better than weighty tomes filled with footnotes. Even academics have to ignore certain aspects of history in order to push their arguments forward, and it is no bad thing for popular writers to push for a particular angle on history. Controversy after all breeds interest.

Moreover, after mulling this over for a while, this negative image of Augustine is not entirely wrong in spirit. Although I have since developed a healthy admiration for the theologian, it is true that Augustine lived a colourful life and was all things to all people. He was for example treated as a provincial bumpkin by more learned easterners (who after all knew Greek, whilst Augustine did not), even as he was reviled as a heretic by Donatist Christians, who even tried to assassinate the bishop on one occasion. He was not infallible by any means. In Augustine’s own words, during his time as a student he was surrounded by ‘a cauldron of illicit loves’ and admired the hooligans of Carthage. His religious sentiments were likewise patchy, as Augustine’s embrace of Manichaeism in his youth, a dualist faith that adopted aspects of Christianity, was also seemingly sincere and noted by his contemporaries, to the extent that Augustine’s last great theological opponent, Julian of Eclanum, would accuse the old man of having pseudo-Manichee beliefs even in the late 420s.

Perhaps the easiest way to look at Augustine is to see him as just a man, a man with his flaws and his virtues. One particular letter from Augustine to a Roman matron illustrates his human qualities very well. In his Letter 20* Augustine explained how one of his chosen protégés turned out to be unsuitable for the Church, becoming a comically evil tyrant ruling over a village after his appointment as the local bishop. Augustine then detailed how various bishops tried to remove him, but his words were tinged with regret, as he was fully aware how this problem was almost entirely his fault. A cynical reading of the text might conclude that Augustine was simply an attempt to cover up his role in the affair, to explain that his protégé’s turn for the evil was entirely unforeseeable, but given Augustine’s deep empathy that is plainly visible when we read any of his often embarrassingly emotional works, I think it is easier to see him as a man struggling to do good, yet failing to do so thanks to the world he lived in.

Augustine was certainly aware of his failings and attributed his occasional brilliance to the Grace of God. From his City of God, we learn that the world is deeply flawed and that even the devout were at best on a distant pilgrimage away from the heavenly city they sought. Though institutions such as the Roman Empire can be useful and indeed morally good in some contexts, it was nonetheless a small check against the chaos within the broken earthly world. As historians, we can often find more tangible reasons for Augustine’s prolific output or his learning, thus overlooking Augustine’s own pessimistic view of the world and of himself, but his attitudes are surely still an an integral part to understanding both Augustine’s life and times. Flaws make us human and for me, the element that makes history exciting, for who would want to read about unrelatable, almost alien, supermen of a bygone age? For me, Augustine is great not just for his books and sermons, but for his recognition that he is a deeply flawed human being.

People are complicated, and on a day celebrating one of the most influential theologians of late antiquity, we ought to remember this fact. He was both a saint and a sinner, something that Augustine never lost sight of, yet it is such an easy mistake to make in the modern world; I know I certainly have.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Lessons from St Augustine

  1. Plus one here for the virtues of the Cartoon History of the Universe! I loaned my copy out to a friend twenty years ago and still have occasional hopes of getting it back… Also, good start to a blog, I look forward to reading more!

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