Textual Healing

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

JULY 11, 2005

Textual Healing

Augustine: A New Biography

By James J. O'Donnell

(Ecco, 396 pp., $26.95)

Click here to purchase this book.It is hard to love Augustine. He stands as the source of some of the
most baleful traditions of thought in Western culture. All humans,
he held, are born indelibly marked, indelibly marred, by original
sin. Human desire, especially sexual desire, is a premier sign and
effect of Adam's fall. Unbaptized babies go to hell. Salvation is a
question not of human effort, but of divine predestination. The
church, to propound spiritual truth and to protect it, should avail
itself of the coercive power of the state. These are all
Augustinian teachings.

And yet it is hard not to love Augustine. He states his questions
and his convictions about the human condition with such ardor that
the flames of his ideas leap across the chasm of sixteen centuries
from his lifetime into our own. Against the best philosophy of his
day, he insisted that the human being was more than a mind
sojourning in an inconvenient body. Flesh, he urged, truly is the
native home of spirit: body and soul belong together, and together
make up the whole person. Memory, he asserted, defines and
constitutes self. And love, as he passionately and relentlessly
wrote, is the hinge of the soul, the motor of the will. What moves
us is not what we know, but what we want. We are what we love.

How can someone born so long ago seem so easily our contemporary?
The answer lies in part with the effects of Augustine's work: we
are heirs to the culture that he helped to shape. And in part the
answer lies with the enormousness of his written legacy: we feel
that we know Augustine because, to a degree unsurpassed by any
other ancient figure, we actually can know him. The huge corpus of
his formal writings--commentaries, treatises, polemical tracts,
speculative theology--comprises some three million words. Not only
do we have these words, but thanks to the catalogue of his own
writings that he assembled late in life, the Retractationes
("Reconsiderations"), we can securely date them. The effect is the
intellectual equivalent of a time-lapse photograph. We can
literally (and literarily) trace the growth of his thought, the
movements of his mind, along the trajectory of his life from the
year 386--when, at the age of thirty-two, he decided to embrace
lifelong celibacy and be baptized into the church--to the year 430,
when he died. To this we can add another two million words from his
bulky dossier of sermons and letters. And of course we have also
the brilliant and original theological treatise that combined
exegesis, epistemology, and theological polemic with haunting
autobiographical meditation: the thirteen books of his

This last work, argues James J. O'Donnell, represents the
fundamental reason for Augustine's continuing cultural presence.
Its title, its seemingly intimate narration of a personal past, its
resolute focus on spirituality and continence and thus on their
opposite, concupiscentia carnalis, the appetites of the flesh: all
these can make the Confessions seem like, well, a candid
confession. But Augustine ends the ostensibly autobiographical part
of his story in Book Nine. Fully 40 percent of its eighty thousand
words still remain: rich discussions of memory, time, divine
revelation. The Confessions may present Augustine's life story, but
he sets that story within the infinitely larger and intensely
philosophical context of eternity. Its incandescent final books
retrospectively alter any simple reading of the earlier narrative

Augustine did not "write" his Confessions, pouring his thoughts onto
the page during some dark night of the soul. He performed them,
declaiming his gorgeous prose always in the presence of at least
one or two other people, the skilled notarii who took dictation.
The product of his performance conforms not to modern canons of
candor, but to ancient standards of rhetorical presentation. The
Confessions is a work of brilliant artifice and power, a virtuoso
act of self-invention and justification. It conceals more than it

No living scholar knows the Confessions better than O'Donnell does.
In 1992, he published a definitive three-volume study of the work,
an edition of the Latin text together with a wide-flung commentary.
Now he has set his hand to writing a life history of its author.
O'Donnell begins his biography with Augustine's great classic; but,
knowing his subject as he does, he skillfully evades the traps that
Augustine set in the Confessions for his later readers. And while
treating the full sweep of Augustine's life, he refuses to let
Augustine control the story. O'Donnell helps us attend to what
Augustine did not confess.

What was the story that Augustine told? In Books One and Two of the
Confessions, we catch glimpses of his childhood in a small town in
the Numidian highlands of North Africa, a place (in O'Donnell's
deft description) that "felt a little like Western Canada before
World War II." Book Three is all bright lights, big city: the
gifted kid on a scholarship from a moneyed hometown patron goes to
university--to Carthage, "where a cauldron of illicit loves boiled
about me." Augustine tore through his first year of student life,
frequenting theatrical performances and church services looking for
opportunities "to love and to be loved." He shifted his studies from
law to philosophy. He took a common-law wife, who bore his son. And
shortly before he turned nineteen, he joined an outlawed Christian
group, a New Age sect par excellence: the Manichees.

Why? The forty-three-year-old bishop presents his youthful
allegiance as a passing mistake caused by a toxic combination of
intellectual arrogance, philosophical immaturity (he hadn't yet
read the Platonists), and fundamental error (truth is available,
after all, only within the true church). The beauty and the power
of Cicero's prose, he claims, turned him away from the familiar
Christian scriptures, which he could read only in clumsy Latin
translation. (Roman gentlemen in Augustine's culture were in
principle bilingual, at home also in Greek. His intelligence could
never fully compensate for the second- rate quality of his early
education and of his up-country origins.) Raised in a Christian
household, Augustine knew that he wanted to remain Christian; newly
awakened intellectually, he also knew that he could find few
satisfactions in the superstitio of his mother's church.

The Manichees offered a perfect solution. They were Christian. They
made the case for their theology by appealing to reason, not to
authority. Committed ascetics whose spiritual elite were
consecrated to a lifetime of sexual renunciation, vegetarianism,
and poverty, they built their principles on the foundation of the
Apostle Paul, augmented by esoteric scriptures of their own. And
the fact that they were a persecuted minority--since the late third
century, emperors both pagan and Christian had prohibited the
sect--contributed to their cachet.

Unlike their orthodox competition, moreover, the Manichees had the
virtue of consistency. If flesh was a source of evil, they held, if
extreme austerity was evidence of holiness, then Christian
scripture should reflect this. The Manichees accordingly repudiated
the Old Testament: worse than "too Jewish," it was simply,
irredeemably incoherent, both morally and theologically. Its god
clearly had bodily shape, and hair, and nails. (After all, he had
made humans in his own image.) He had framed this flawed material
universe and then, against common experience, pronounced it "good."
He enjoined carnal intercourse ("Be fruitful and multiply"). He
demanded animal sacrifices when he was not enjoining humans to
butcher each other. Such a god could have nothing to do with

And Paul the Apostle, the Manichees held, had plainly said as much.
Who but Paul had so clearly seen and explained the absolute
distinction between good and evil, spirit and flesh, law and
gospel, inner man and outer man? Paul and the Gospels pointed the
way to understanding the problem of evil. No good god could have
created such a turbulent, imperfect world. Instead, two independent
and opposed realms, Light and Darkness, good and evil, were locked
in cosmic conflict. Man was a miniature instance of this intense
battle. His moral failings reflected the strength of the forces of
darkness waging war within him- -"the law of my members," as Paul
had written, "at war with the law of my mind."

Split the New Testament off from the Old, the Manichees urged;
amplify and enrich Christian teachings with Mani's own revelations.
Forget trying to see anything good in marriage when sexuality and
procreation were so clearly a part of the problem, not a part of
the solution. And embrace the textual consequences of clear
thinking: if in the name of the Gospel Christians have dropped
circumcision, Sabbath observance, food taboos, and all the myriad
fleshly things that the Jewish god demanded, why on earth should
they retain the carnal Jewish book?

The Manichees commanded Augustine's loyalty from his early years in
Carthage until he was almost thirty. Throughout Books Three and
Four of the Confessions, the older man belittles the younger man's
attachment to their message. He claims that even at the time he
found much of Manichaean theology, cosmology, and scriptural
interpretation unpersuasive. But in Book Five we find him lingering
with them still, not only in Carthage but also, later, in Rome.

Brighter lights, bigger cities: chasing after professional
advancement (and pursued by his family's ambitions for him),
Augustine moved on, first to Rome to look for a better job, then to
Milan to take up the municipal chair of rhetoric that his
Manichaean connections had helped him to secure. Once in his new
position, he found himself in a city without his familiar support
structure: Milan had no Manichaean community. His attachment cooled.
Besides, in Milan the best and the brightest--and the most socially
established--were Christians of a less exotic stripe. Ardently
ambitious, uncomfortably aware of his African accent, unexpectedly
unmoored, Augustine drifted.

Milan was a northern capital of the late Empire, abuzz with the
wealth, the energy, and the talent that concentrations of political
and military power often gather. In the mid-380s, it was also a
cultural powerhouse, at the height of a renascence of Platonic
studies. The erudite sponsored salons and reading groups dedicated
to the study of Neoplatonic philosophy. Ambrose, the city's
aristocratic bishop, borrowed from these late pagan works, as well
as from philosophically sophisticated Greek patristic writings, to
enrich his own sermons. Seeking connections, social advancement,
and models of effective rhetoric, Augustine floated between the
reading groups and the church. He thus received--in translation,
the only way he could receive it--a double dose of late Platonism:
the pagan stream via the salons, the Christianized stream via

Books Six and Seven of the Confessions chart the effects of his
sudden immersion in this cosmopolitan culture. Through Ambrose,
Augustine learned to think about the Old Testament allegorically.
Biblical passages of seemingly intractable carnality, such as God's
making man in his image, now yielded shining new truths. "Image"
referred not to flesh but to mind, of which the processes, like the
divinity they reflected, were utterly immaterial. Scripture's
humble style embraced the uneducated many, while its obscurities
enticed the interpretive skills of the learned few. Read in the
bright light of Ambrosian allegory, the old Jewish texts revealed
Christ and his church. The Manichees had it all wrong: the Old
Testament, understood spiritually, really was a Christian book.

Pagan metaphysics, meanwhile, dissolved the seeming reasonableness
of dualism as an explanation for the problem of evil. For the
Manichees, evil had been a cosmic force, an entity, an active power
pitted against good. But late Platonists held that evil did not
exist, in the same way that darkness or silence does not exist.
Darkness is the absence of light; silence, the absence of sound.
Thus evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing--namely, of
good. Accordingly, sin occurred not because the individual was
overwhelmed by the incursion of a superior evil force, but because
of a poor choice of his will. And if aspects of the universe seemed
corrupt, this very corruption measured its essential goodness,
since only what was good to start with could become less so. At a
stroke, for Augustine, the creator god in Scripture was absolved of
the problem of evil. Indeed, to think him responsible for evil was
not only impious, but also illogical: no one, not even God, can
"make" nothing.

Though released from the intellectual knots that had bound him for
so long to Manichaeism, Augustine still tarried, unable to make
himself join Ambrose's church. Books Six through Eight of the
Confessions lay out why. Augustine's own perfectionism (aggravated,
perhaps, by his social insecurity) paralyzed him. In the late
fourth century, when even most clergy were married, the church made
no requirement of celibacy. But philosophy did. For the social and
intellectual elites among both Christians and pagans, sexual
celibacy was forte la mode. In Milan, Augustine moved on the edges
of such circles. Whether Christian or pagan, the man truly
dedicated to the life of the mind would forswear the entanglements
of domestic sexuality.

Ever the alpha, Augustine recoiled from what he could only consider
second- class status--that is, baptism as a married layman. Besides
his natural competitiveness, his prior experience as a married (and
thus second-class) Manichee would have stiffened what resolve he
had. Meanwhile he worked all fronts. His common-law wife, an
impediment to his social ascent, was sent back to Africa. He
contracted an advantageous marriage to a Milanese aristocrat,
though he was forced to wait two years until the girl came of age.
(She was twelve at the time.) Finally, as an interim arrangement,
he took a mistress. This seemingly unremarkable development in fact
mortified him deeply, because it publicly gave the lie to his
philosophical pretensions. The only reason to take a mistress (as
everyone knew) was for sex--an activity that the best and the
brightest eschewed.

And so Augustine foundered. In the elaborately written Book Eight,
he presents a sequence of interlocking conversion stories
interspersed with panting portraits of his own indecision, his
divided will, the paralyzing paradox of wanting and not wanting the
same thing at the same time. Da mihi castitatem et continentiam sed
noli modo: "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."
Finally, abruptly, the climax (at least for the modern reader)
comes. Augustine, irresolute and exhausted, is surprised to hear a
child's voice chanting: Tolle, lege, "Pick up and read." He
snatches up a volume of the Pauline Epistles, and takes as divine
counsel the first lines his eye falls on. He lands, happily, on
Romans 13:14: "Make no provision for the flesh and its appetites."
And then "all the shadows of doubt were dispelled," Augustine
continues. His way clear, his resolve firm, he commits to the
celibate life.

Ancient readers, and Augustine himself, would probably see the
autobiographical climax of his story in Book Nine, when he is
finally baptized. But thereafter the scope of the Confessions
changes. Book Ten shifts abruptly from Augustine's past (the
autobiography ends in Italy in the year 387) to his present (circa
397, when the bishop of Hippo meditates on how humans know what
they think they know). Memory, time, eternity: the Confessions seems
to end at a completely different place from where it began, with a
life story. And as the life story disappears, so, it seems, does
the plot.

But what emerges with the soaring speculations of these difficult
final books is the question that had driven Augustine's tale all
along: how can the time-bound, imperfect human being know the
timeless, perfect God? God has planted in each soul the desire to
know him. But man, as a consequence of Adam's sin and his own, is
adrift in time, and knowledge of any and all sorts (of the world,
of the self, of God) is always necessarily mediated (by the senses,
by images, by signs, by words). In such an infinitely interpretable
universe, what certainty can one ever have? Augustine's answer: only
such certainty as God imparts (as he had done for Augustine with
the counsel to "pick up and read"). Truth without shadows will come
only at history's end, when time is swallowed up in "the Sabbath of
eternal life." The final paragraph of the Confessions closes by
evoking the transformation of creation at the resurrection of the
dead, somewhere off in an unknowable Beyond. Augustine thus
concludes the story of his past with a hope for his future, that he
will stand among the community of the redeemed. "That door opening
onto eternity," O'Donnell notes, "is the real goal of . . .
[Augustine's] narrative of the Confessions."

All scholars writing biographies of Augustine avail themselves of
the material in the Confessions, augmenting its elements and
expanding its time frame by appeal to the huge corpus of his other
writings. O'Donnell is no exception. Other than by virtue of its
recent publication, then, does this biography live up to its
subtitle? Is it, in any substantial way, really "new"?

The short answer is an emphatic yes. O'Donnell's strategies of
reading, his choice and presentation of topics, are admirably
innovative. His broad knowledge of the culture and the politics of
late antiquity, together with his intimate command of Augustine's
own writings, produces a study of enormous range and depth. The
multiple tones shading and shaping his discussion--somber and
irreverent, sober and playful, effortlessly erudite and
effortlessly vernacular--give the book striking freshness and
originality. Sometimes Augustine the brilliant performer and
ecclesiastical street fighter overwhelms Augustine the thinker, in
O'Donnell's portrait. And O'Donnell's many contemporary references
will have the unfortunate effect of quickly dating his valuable
book. (Invoking the Grateful Dead in connection with late antique
relic cults will not remain as illuminating as he thinks.) Still, he
provides us with fresh ways to look at Augustine's commitments, his
obsessions, and his blind spots, and to appreciate how all these
shaped his life and, eventually, his times.

Consider, for example, the virtuoso act of self-interpretation
performed in the Confessions. O'Donnell enriches our appreciation
for what Augustine did not confess, and enables us to interpret
more shrewdly what he did confess, by having us attend to two other
contemporary Christian communities: the Manichees and the
Donatists. In relating his past, Augustine had suppressed the
importance of the first group, and refused even to mention the
existence of the second. Together, however, they define the
controlling preoccupations of his book.

The Manichees were with Augustine both early and late. He treats
them in the Confessions as just one more species of error, a
prolonged adolescent phase. And through his baroque descriptions of
exaggerated youthful passion (he married and became a father,
remember, at age eighteen), he artfully linked Manichaeism to a
continuing sexual profligacy that real Manichees would surely have
rebuked. Moreover, Augustine had been just as serious about his
Manichaeism as he would be about his later catholicism. As an
auditor, a second- tier member of this dualist church, he would
have participated daily in the ritual of bringing vegetarian meals
to the celibate elite, the Elect. His own marital relationship
precluded his ascending to that rank. Renouncing sex in his early
thirties would be difficult, but possible; at nineteen, clearly, he
just could not do it. Thus, while Ambrose might have given him
better philosophical reasons for choosing celibacy, the normal
seasons of life also played their part. All through his twenties,
in sum, from his university days to his first great professional
success, Augustine was caught in a situation where he could not
succeed, could not be among "the best." But being among the best is
what he always craved, no matter what group he belonged to.

Most importantly, the question at the center of Manichaean
theology--Unde malum? Whence, and why, evil?--remained at the
center of all of Augustine's own work. Other Christians of
different temperament, free of the force of this question, wondered
about him. O'Donnell catches this beautifully. "Manicheism," he

was the one truly impassioned religious experience of his life. He
was the sort of person who has a great love affair when young, sees
that it just won't work, breaks it off, then settles down in a far
more sober and sensible marriage. What he says and does for the
rest of his life will be marked by firm allegiance and commitment
to the late-blooming relationship, but the mark of the first never
goes away, and some who knew him early will be unable to credit the
marriage because they remember the passion.

The Donatists were among those Christians who questioned how much
Augustine had really left the Manichees behind. That we have to
identify such Christians as Donatists already distorts the
historical picture. "Donatism" was, quite simply, the form of
Christianity native to North Africa. During the last of the pagan
imperial persecutions, in 303, some of North Africa's clergy had
complied with the government's orders and handed over Christian
holy books to be burned. Other clergy defied the order, and were
jailed or even martyred. A new day dawned shortly thereafter: in
312, Constantine decided to favor the church. But by that point
North Africa's clergy was riven with dissent, as the stalwart
accused the pliant of collaboration. The confessors regarded their
compromised brethren as traditores and challenged the legitimacy of
their sacraments. How could a cleric be a conduit of the Holy
Spirit when through his conduct he had sinned against the Spirit?
The integrity of the sacraments was at stake. Those baptized by
traitorous clergy, said the majority, had to be baptized again.

The confessors called the treasonous clergy "Caecilianists," after
the name of one of their number. The Caecilianists returned the
favor, and called the confessors "Donatists," after Donatus, one of
their bishops. Both sides took advantage of Constantine's new mood
and asked him to adjudicate. The emperor convened a committee of
overseas bishops to examine the African case. These foreign
bishops, disliking the idea of rebaptism and fighting their own
fights against local purists, found in favor of the Caecilianists.
At a stroke, the Caecilianists became the "catholics," the
representatives of a universal (catholica) communion, and the
confessors became the "Donatists."

Augustine entered the church through Ambrose in Milan. When he
returned shortly thereafter to Africa, he identified with the
Caecilianist minority. Retreating to his family's up-country
estate, Augustine read books, wrote treatises, and lived the life
of a philosophical Christian gentleman in retirement. By 391,
however, everything had changed. His son Adeodatus died, and with
him Augustine's reason for holding on to family land. Then, while
visiting the undistinguished coastal town of Hippo, Augustine was
wrenched out of his former life and inducted into the priesthood by
the town's Caecilianist minority. In this way, public life found
him again.

This period from 391 until 396, when Augustine became Hippo's
bishop, is the years of Augustine's real conversion. His
cosmopolitan catholicism did not impress the locals, though his
rhetorical presence did. Striving to acculturate himself, he
plunged into a study of biblical texts, especially Genesis and
Paul, long familiar from his Manichee days. The trail of
half-finished and unsuccessful treatises that litter this period
gives the measure of his struggle to fit himself into what had
become his life. He does not pull himself together until he works
yet again on the issues of free will and grace as he sees them
configured in and by Paul.

By 396, he has his answer: people are saved not by their own
efforts, nor even by calling on God for help with those efforts,
but simply and solely by the inscrutable will of the Divine. God
chooses whomever he will, for his own unknowable reasons. He turned
the persecutor Saul into the Apostle Paul because he, not Saul, had
wanted it; and he has the sovereign power and authority to do
whatever he wants with his creatures. Humanity universally requires
redemption, because of the sin of Adam; but it universally deserves
only damnation, again because of the sin of Adam. Thanks to Adam,
all human flesh is rebellious and mortal; but so too is the soul,
especially its erotic life. Human love, unaided by grace, is
compulsive, uncontrollable, disordered, intrinsically depleting:
only the love of God--which can be given only by God--heals and
fulfills. If God calls the sinner to redemption, he works by
re-orienting the person's love. Only through God's grace does the
person come to love what is good, rather than simply what he

The "autobiographical" part of the Confessions narratively presents
this new theological insight of Augustine's. The idea had
implications for society as well as for individuals. For one, it
meant that, in this period before the final judgment, no one can
know who is elected to grace or left to perdition: no one can know
the heart of another, and what looks like right action could
actually be motivated by self-love, that is, pride. Meanwhile--and
here this theology was a blow to the Donatists' self-image--the
church itself was, and would remain until the end, a mixed
population of sinners and saints. In this life there can never be a
church of the pure. Uncertainty and opacity characterize both
individual and social life before the final redemption. In the
meantime, however, Augustine did know one thing for certain. Outside
the church--the true church, that is: Augustine's church, the
church of Ambrose, the church of the emperor--there could be no

Why, then, when Augustine writes the Confessions, does he tell his
story as he does? Why does he minimize his childhood exposure to
the Caecilianist church of his mother? Why does he underplay his
faithful attachment to the Manichees? Why does he ignore his own
ordination, stopping his narrative in 387? Why does he not mention
the Donatists at all? O'Donnell argues that this is because
Augustine wished to center his story in Italy, in a purely catholic
milieu, far from these African disorders. In this account, he meets
"true" Christianity only in Milan, when he meets Ambrose. And it is
that "true" Christianity that he, as bishop, carries with him
forever more. "Caecilianism" (and, accordingly, "Donatism")
disappears in this retelling. There is only the catholica.

O'Donnell's description of Augustine's lifelong campaign against the
Donatists is chilling, and gripping. With consummate party
discipline and political skill, Augustine and the talented cadre of
Caecilianist bishops who were his friends brought the full force of
imperial authority and power to bear on this extremely local fight.
The result of his success was a Christian population so utterly
demoralized that within a few centuries it disappeared, embracing
the new religious message of Islam.

As he traces the stages of Augustine's Caecilianist putsch--the
imprisonments, the simmering threat of legal violence, the ingenious
acts of co- option--O'Donnell also presents the unlovely portrait
of "triumphant" Christianity. Fourth- and fifth-century
emperors--successful generals first of all--remade Christianity in
their own image. Bishops came to assume the role and the trappings
of civic authority, with the support staff needed for
administration. (Without the secretarial assistance entailed by his
office, Augustine would have been very hard-pressed to finance his
prodigious, and expensive, literary output.) Imperial agents
clarified theological disputes by force.

Ever solicitous of imperial favor, late Roman aristocrats hastened
to join the emperor's fashionable new cult, and so brought their
wealth and prestige into the church. From their ranks came a new
generation of educated and socially well-connected clergy (like
Ambrose, among others). The old civic cults, formerly bankrolled by
this class, wobbled as their funding dwindled; and finally they
were banned, the temples shut, the rites outlawed. Contemporary
Jews remained Roman citizens, though the idea of "the Jew" served
as a favorite target of episcopal invective. The main victims of
this ecclesiastical revolution, however, were the Christians
themselves. As the ideology of a universal orthodoxy took hold,
emperors used it and enforced it. More Christians suffered at the
hands of the Roman state after the conversion of Constantine than
before. From his own vantage point, Augustine saw the use of such
force as tough love, a kind of muscular pastoral care. In the
perspective of history, however, he stands as a chief architect of
the theology of religious coercion.

O'Donnell brings all these different factors to bear--Augustine's
personal past, his theological convictions, his political
effectiveness (and ruthlessness), his gnawing social ambitions--in
his brilliant review of the Pelagian controversy. With aggressive
single-mindedness, Augustine insisted on making Pelagius into his
great opponent, though Pelagius resisted the role. As O'Donnell
points out, Pelagius resembles no one so much as the younger
Augustine, the philosophically attuned catholic optimistically
embracing the salvation of the church. That is the Augustine
invisible, indeed disowned, in the Confessions; but it is an
Augustine well attested in those gentlemanly treatises written
before the theological revolution of 396. Pelagius had cited these
early works in making a case for free will that the older Augustine
found offensive. In attacking Pelagius, then, Augustine attacked
his own younger self, the one who preceded his re-invention in the

More poignantly, Pelagius embodied the future that Augustine had
lost when he returned to Africa. Genuinely cosmopolitan, at home in
the salons of the moneyed aristocrats whom he exhorted to moral
excellence, Pelagius was what Augustine never became: a minister to
the Italian elite. Augustine could cultivate the attention of these
people only from a distance, through polite and carefully
constructed letters. How much did resentment and regret fuel
Augustine's overheated reaction to Pelagius?

Augustine had not sought out these reminders of the road not taken.
His past found him in 410, when a wave of Roman aristocrats and
their chaplains, fleeing the Vandal incursion into the old capital,
washed up in Carthage. Approaching the apogee of his local efforts
against the Donatists, Augustine vigorously engaged these new
social and theological contacts, wooing the wealthy (with an
embarrassing lack of success) and attacking their clerics. One year
later, Italy settled down. "Pelagius sailed away from Africa,"
O'Donnell remarks. "The aristocratic refugees from Rome sailed away
as well; and the Donatists stayed behind. Augustine always wrote as
if it were the other way around."

Why? O'Donnell speculates about insecurity and social climbing. If
the tensions in Augustine's makeup contributed to his fight with
Pelagius, they were exacerbated that much more by Pelagius's
younger champion, Julian of Eclanum. Julian was everything that
Augustine had never been: well born, well educated, bilingual,
effortlessly chaste. A bishop who was the son of a bishop, Julian
as a young man contracted a mariage blanc with the daughter of yet
another bishop in a ceremony celebrated by no less a personage than
Paulinus of Nola, a fellow aristocratic churchman and family
friend. (Augustine knew Paulinus only through correspondence.)
Augustine used Julian to stage his last great public battle. It was
a battle entirely of his own making, played out on an international
stage thanks to the letters and treatises that he lobbed all over
the Mediterranean. The struggle secured Augustine's broader
reputation, but at a cost. In the course of the conflict, he once
again found himself accused of being a closeted Manichee. Worse,
the younger man stereotyped Augustine as the African, the
provincial, the uncouth outsider. It stung.

Augustine "won," ensuring a papal condemnation of Pelagius and
driving Julian from his see. He unscrupulously exercised the
political connections in the imperial court that he had cultivated
so carefully in campaigning against the Donatists. Still, as
O'Donnell points out, Augustine also lost. His grim ideas on
predestination were impossible as a pastoral theology. Invoking his
authority, later churchmen carefully re-interpreted and reshaped his
message, softening its doctrinal impact. The extremist strain that
he left behind remained in western Christianity, exploding
centuries later with Calvin and with Jansen. But extremes are, by
definition, marginal.

O'Donnell ends his book with a chiaroscuro appreciation of the
multiple Augustines conjured in his volume--Augustine the
politician, Augustine the poet of the divided self, Augustine the
theoretician of infant baptism, Augustine the anxious sinner, alone
on his deathbed, going to his God. But the one he closes on is the
one who made all the others possible: Augustine the writer, whose
textual afterlife ensures his continuing cultural presence.

As O'Donnell observes, Augustine wrote as if his life depended on
it. Perhaps it did. The five million words that he dictated from
the time of his conversion until his death amounts to the
equivalent of publishing a modern three-hundred-page print book
every year for forty years. (And he "wrote" only at night, after
meeting his daytime obligations.) However unelevating some of his
motivations, however unfortunate his positions and however damaging
his successes, Augustine's astonishing literary legacy remains, a
monument to his burning intelligence and to his unquiet heart.
O'Donnell's vibrant new study brings this imperfect saint to life,
both in his wrenching smallness and in his exhilarating grandeur.
Tolle, lege.

By Paula Fredriksen

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article


You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top