Augustine God Time Essays
Augustine entered the afterlife on 28 August 430. The most authoritative modern interpreter of Augustine's life quotes and renders the deathbed scene thus:
Those are the last words of the penultimate chapter of Peter Brown's magisterial biography.1 This book, now nearly thirty years old, has exercised a huge dominion over the field of Anglophone Augustinian studies even in an age when those studies have exploded and flourished as never before. When an Anglophone reader begins to read Augustine, the first text read is still likely to be the Confessions, and I would surmise the third is City of God or some portion thereof, but to an extraordinary degree, Brown's biography is usually the second and sometimes the first. Certainly to those curious readers who come from adjacent disciplines to learn what they can of Augustine for their own purposes, the book is inescapable. Our Augustine is Brown's.
There was good reason for this ascent to eminence. In many important respects it was the first modern biography of Augustine, and it is still the only one. That is, it was the first narrative account that was both fully post-hagiographical and fully post-Freudian and that set out to construct a narrative of a man's life, not a bishop's. The early life of Augustine had long attracted biographical attention, but Augustine past the age of 45 and the writing of the Confessions offers so many challenges to the would-be biographer that he had been for the most part left alone. Brown accepted and mastered the challenge of maintaining narrative focus throughout. His success lay in a charismatic union of scholarship and interpretation. It is hard now to recapture the approving surprise with which this book was greeted, inasmuch as we have since come to recognize the master's style, even to track the efflorescence of its adjectives with guilty precision.
One characteristic feature of Brown's style and methodology probably comes close to encapsuling the power of the book. On the one hand, there is express disavowal of psychoanalytic interpretation: "The unexpected combinations, ramifications and resolutions that a properly sophisticated knowledge of modern psychology would lead us to expect, escape the historian." That sentence attracts a footnote: "The studies known to me ... [citing three landmarks of psychoanalytic interpretation of Augustine] show that it is as difficult as it is desirable to combine competence as an historian with sensitivity as a psychologist."2 But eight pages later, in a sentence almost every reader of the book retains in memory, we hear him say "Far from being the libertine that some authors have imagined, converted at the age of 32 from a life of unbridled sensuality, Augustine was, in reality, a young man who had cut the ebullience of his adolescence dangerously short."3 That judgment is unintelligible to a reader, or from a writer, not deeply imbued with the platt-Freudianism of the twentieth century. That and similar turns of phrase led one scholar to call this book indeed "a 'closet' psychobiography."4 All our biographies today expect to be such, claiming no professional credentials but borrowing the interpretive apparatus.5 The sophistication of Brown's application, however, needs emphasis. What he had learned brilliantly at an early age was precisely the combination of narrative, interpretive, and investigative skills needed to produce a book in every way satisfactory to the biographical taste of his time.
To take one example of the transformation of Augustine at Brown's hands, consider the case of Julian of Eclanum. Brown's depiction of Julian as the youthful foil to the aging Augustine has been a central, if often barely acknowledged, part of the last generation's enthusiasm for working through Augustine's ideas on sexuality. Brown's Julian is an essential part of Brown's own later work, but also of that of countless writers of lesser erudition. But Julian is far from obviously the figure Brown makes of him. Hugh Pope's still essentially hagiographical biography of 1961,6 mentions Julian all of four times. Gerald Bonner's work of 19637 mentions him only twice in the chapters devoted to "life".8 In Brown's account, he earns a chapter of seventeen pages of his own, and the narrative of Augustine's old age from that point on runs to a full fifty pages. This is not to say that Brown's reading is unduly emphatic; indeed, Brown is the first biographer to have worked so patiently through the mass of Julianic and anti-Julianic prose that survives. But Brown's reading, precisely because fresh and so far uncontested, has been decisive in a way that merits caution. The confident and polished young bishop, a liberal intellectual avant la lettre, is just the foil needed to set off Brown's depiction of Augustine as increasingly rigid, gloomy, and authoritarian. In an environment where Julian himself has not yet been the object of synoptic study on his own of adequate quality, a single powerfully effective account will take the day and encourage those who know it and little else to think that they have the story whole and complete.
Simply put, it is the power and success of Brown's biography that requires us, a generation after its appearance, to question it closely, to see what it has made of Augustine, and to question ourselves, to see what we now make of Augustine. The thought experiment may be put simply enough as this: what would the next life of Augustine look like?
To pursue that inquiry, I propose to take several soundings in Brown and in Augustine for comparative purposes. To begin, let us return to that deathbed scene and the commentary as quoted above. At that point, to the name "Plotinus", Brown appends this footnote:
Already, this juxtaposition makes the "of course" of Brown's version far from transparent. Possidius' first twentieth-century editor, H.T. Weiskotten, said he was "not able to identify this vague reference", but Pellegrino's edition two generations later cites the Plotinus. Still, at best, the words Possidius reports are a Latin translation verging on paraphrase. If we pursue the sources cited, we find, however, that the parentage of this attribution in twentieth-century scholarship is powerful. It is noted first (probably independently) by Willy Theiler10 and by P. Henry.11 Theiler finds it "reizvoll" that A. consoled himself with the phrase of Plotinus, while Henry explained the textual divergence by arguing that Augustine revised the line as he cited it ("Jusque sur son lit de mort, Augustin est sensible aux charmes de la rhétorique"!) and took the citation as evidence of the power of Plotinus' influence on Augustine. But Henry, the Jesuit, noticed that "ce mot, dans son contexte original, les Ennéades, est teinté d'un nuance d'orgueil. Sur les lèvres d'Augustin, il se change en humble aveu de l'infirmité de l'homme et du néant de la créature. Praesumptio et confessio!"12 Henry further points to the slightly later lines of Possidius in which Augustine has the penitential psalms posted around his sickroom and concludes, "c'est en récitant les Psaumes de la Pénitence qu'il rend � Dieu son �me de chrétien."
Pierre Courcelle's authority was added to this attribution in a short note13 in which he made the important connection to earlier echoes of the same phrase on Augustine's lips, from the time of the sack of Rome in 410, e.g., civ. 2.2, "Romam quippe partam veterum auctamque laboribus foediorem stantem fecerant quam ruentem, quandoquidem in ruina eius lapides et ligna, in istorum autem vita omnia non murorum, sed morum munimenta atque ornamenta ceciderunt." ("Rome was begotten and expanded by the labores of the ancients, but they had made it a shabbier thing while it stood than when it fell, for in its ruin stones and wood fell, but when the Romans themselves fell it was all the fortifications and ornaments not of their walls [murorum] but of their morals [morum] that fell.") Courcelle saw Augustine giving the Stoic theme a Christian value: it is the Christian sage's resignation and compunction that are on display. But Courcelle also took from the text a concluding lesson most relevant in 1944: "Belle fermeté, et qui nous serait très nécessaire, ... l'heure où tant de monuments historiques, et des villes entières, viennent de périr sous les coups de la guerre."
Now I have argued that the echoes from the time of the sack of Rome are decisive in showing precisely the Christianization of the theme by Augustine. "The 'quotation' is not to be taken as homage to Plotinus, therefore, but criticism in the same vein as that directed against the anti- Christian polemics attacked in civ.; here, A. is saying, is a non- Christian sage offering good advice; how much more likely, therefore, that a Christian will have hope in time of crisis?"14
The transparency of Brown's "of course" then is entirely dependent on our contemporary experience. In an age when Theiler, Henry, and Courcelle have collaborated to establish a filiation of text, the contingency, uncertainty, and distance that lie between Augustine's words and Plotinus' disappear in a purely scholarly "of course". But look again at Brown's presentation of the quotation itself: "these words of a proud pagan sage". The selection and presentation of this episode at the close of a chapter gives it a dramatic effect not justified by Possidius, in whom the connection between the "Plotinian" words and the express reference to the seven penitential Psalms is close and consequent. In separating them and in placing these at the end of a chapter, Brown begins a process of implicit interpretation highlighted by the words just quoted. What is striking about this passage ("reizvoll" was Theiler's word) is that the aged bishop quotes the "proud pagan sage". All three of those words are carefully chosen to highlight the distance from Augustine's putative status as humble Christian bishop. "Pride" in Brown's voice has none of the pejorative quality of, let us say, the "typho turgidus" of Conf. 7.9.13, when applied to the most important, if still anonymous, Plotinizer of Augustine's acquaintance. At all events, the choice of words is clearly meant to avoid the tone of, say, "arrogant polytheist charlatan": words equally applicable, did we not adhere to the decorum of academic deference, according to which the serene anti- clerical Plotinus merits a respect not always accorded Augustine.
The presentation of this moment in Augustine's life, then, carries with it an implicit judgment. Somehow or other, Augustine is not what, at that moment, we are to expect him to be. How can that be? This censoriousness only makes sense, I argue, if we have so far committed ourselves to following Augustine's narrative of his conversion that we accept, with him, that every moment of his life must be interpreted in terms of the change of life that the Confessions narrate. But we are not required to accept the converted life of Augustine on his terms. Rather, we are allowed to pursue him through the years and hold his behavior up to our expectations of what the fully converted Christian must be like. If, as I have argued, there is potentially a way to read the episode in terms that would suit Augustine's sense of his conversion, we are nevertheless inclined at the outset to let common sense -- our common sense, not his -- be our guide. If the argument I have suggested to give Augustine a favorable reading that deflates Brown's patronizing tone is valid, it is itself still valid in terms of an implied narrative of fundamental conversion.
The origin of that narrative of conversion is Augustine himself. Our researches into the Confessions over the last two generations have shown us as never before how clearly and deliberately Augustine went about constructing the story that did justice to his own experience. I have shown him virtually rehearsing the Confessions narrative in much smaller compass at lib. arb. 1.11.22,15 and in many similar ways it has become clear just how much the outline of Augustine's life that he gives depends on the interpretive equipment with which he shaped it. The interest of that life, when it is recounted for us, lies in part in the way in which the choice of interpretation by Augustine himself becomes a shaping factor on the way, from his middle years onward, he lived that life.
We can, however, watch Augustine choose the interpretation and see him seek to enact it, without necessarily accepting it as the full and only way to read the evidence for his life. Better, we can see the way the flight to narrative was a characteristic Augustine shared with others in his own time. "The central problem for fourth-century Christians was their own past. A continuous biography is the core of our sense of personal identity. This is true no less of a group's sense of identity. It needs to be able to recognize itself as one and the same group enduring through time, the heir of its own past."16 If we still struggle with a similar neediness, we are not justified in universalizing it. The centrality of conversion to the narrative in Brown's case is on full display in the chapter devoted to the climactic garden scene in Milan so familiar from the Confessions.17 On the one hand, Brown fails to supersede Augustine's narrative, and so his pages consist of little more than quotation (with ellipses to intensify the effect) of Conf. 8; but the title of the chapter is "Philosophy," hardly an obvious choice and yet at the same time one marvelously responsive to the nuances of Augustine's account.18 Near the end of his chapter, Brown allows himself this observation: "A sense of purpose and continuity is the most striking feature of Augustine's 'Conversion'."19 Brown does not resolve the quarrel raging a decade and more before he wrote, whether Cassiciacum or the Confessions provides a truer account of Augustine's experience, but he embraces both in this unresolving way.
The difficulty lies with the very centrality of biography to our notion of historical study, the subject of no satisfactory recent discussion known to me.20 Even as our sense of the possibilities of history widens, there is a powerful attraction that pulls writers -- the present one included! -- to the coherent narrative of a single life. The anthropological and psychological assumptions run deep in our culture, and the virtual substitution of psychological for theological essentialism only reinforces a tendency we have little reason to want to suspend. And so we are driven to assume that comprehensiveness of narrative is good -- better than fragmentation -- and thus, in ancient and medieval studies more often than not we are driven to prefer the speciously knowable hero to more difficult and remote figures. To make the comprehensive narrative, of course, it is necessary to blend the hypothetical with the assured in ways that do not always do justice to the variable reliance we can place on the evidence. Real chronological problems must be elided or forced to a solution, and the tentativeness of a world in which there is always one more unfinished scholarly project21 that cannot be waited for is frozen into the narrative of the authoritative moment. Our biographical style, moreover, knows the Bildungsroman best, the narrative of youth and maturation. It does not know how to describe maturity and age, but struggles as best it can to impose its stereotypes. But in Augustine's case, we have ample reason to remember that the narrative of conversion was not ineluctable. For one thing, even so devoted an epistolary friend as Paulinus of Nola seems to have had something simpler in mind: not for him the taste of Gerard Manley Hopkins for a "lingering-out sweet skill" ("The Wreck of the Deutschland") -- something "at a crash" was more to his taste and perhaps to that of his contemporaries. Secundinus the Manichee and Vincent the Rogatist both weigh in, for their part, with admonitions that to some who knew the young Augustine, the narrative of the Confessions seemed a bit overblown, and it is well to bear in mind that even so friendly a reader as Consentius (ep. 12*.1) found it tough going.22 Julian of Eclanum seems to have used the text merely as a source for bits of scandal, and there is little sign that the Donatists were persuaded by its account. What biography would those readers have written?23
How then could we construct another story for Augustine's life, not to replace the conversion narrative but to supplement it? Can we achieve a kind of binocular vision, or better a vision from multiple perspectives? Suppose we sought out consciously, for purposes of illumination, "Augustine the unconverted"? Whom would we find? Would those deathbed words evade our censure or surprise?
First, we could notice that much of what Augustine himself accounts as central to his conversion consisted not so much of changing his own opinions as of discovering that Christian positions were consonant with his own beliefs, or at least his expectations of belief. The three questions he famously attributes to the Manichees (Conf. 3.6.10) -- whence comes evil, how may God's substance be conceived, and how were the fathers of the Old Testament justified in their private lives? -- each carried with them an implicit critique of imputed Christian answers, and in each case the change came when Augustine realized that Christians did not give the answer the Manichees accused them of.24 Similarly in matters of Christology, though there is still some lack of consensus among scholars on just when and how Augustine's views assimilated themselves to orthodox Christianity, it is clear (Conf. 7.19.25) that a decisive step came when Augustine realized that orthodoxy was not the naive and indefensible thing he had thought it to be. For so central a tenet of Christianity, it is striking that Augustine does not report explicit movement on his part, but only the removal of a misunderstanding.25 Further, Augustine's ascetic ideal was the philosophical sage.26 He was brought to his conversion narrative by the intermediacy of Paul, Paul chosen because27 he was the Christian rival of Platonic mystagogues. Paul had been where Plotinus claimed to have gone, and hence for an Augustine newly disappointed with his Plotinian "tentatives d'extase" (Courcelle's phrase), he was the appropriate guide, his texts ratified by a mystic wisdom. The authority of Paul, put another way, was no more than half-Christian at the point at which (on Augustine's narrative) it meant most to Augustine's conversion.28 The philosophical sages over whom Paul triumphed, moreover, remain forever serious and respected figures for Augustine. Even when he disagrees with them, and even when in complex ways around and after 400 he realizes how anti-Christian Porphyry in particular had been, the Platonic authorities remain ones to be taken seriously and treated with respect.29
Seen closely, indeed, the immediate trajectory of Augustine's formal "conversion" was deeply conservative. If any point in his life is to be marked as a venturesome philosophical or theological leap, it would be his youthful fling into the arms of Manicheism, the resolutely modern (one might almost say "New Age") cult of that time, sternly scientific and rationalist and at the same time daringly occult and dangerous. The movement to Christianity under the patronage of Ambrose is a movement towards the Ciceronian decorum of the public man, Platonist in spirit if not always in letter.30 We do not need to read the Confessions very closely at all, indeed, to see in the narrative of Books 6-9 a time when Augustine manages to reconcile the religion of his mother (once suspect as "puerilis superstitio"31) with the culture and class of his father. The reconciliation of Monnica to Ambrose's way of doing things in religion is one sign of this, and the positioning of the narrative of Patricius' conversion to coincide with the moment where Augustine is baptized and Monnica departs for heaven reinforces it. Augustine had left Christianity in his youth to pursue a worldly career. When he finally discovered, through Ambrose's example, that it was possible to be a Christian and a gentleman (Cassiciacum is the essential rehearsal of this role), he was then ready to reconcile himself with the church of his mother.
Similarly, on return to Africa, nothing in Augustine broke with his past in any way that would occasion remark. Retirement to his estates, literary leisure, and the determined pursuit of a literary career even after accession to the Christian clergy all marked him out as traditionalist.
His epistolary habits in particular mark his pattern of expectations and his aims. The delight with which he takes up an epistolary démarche from Paulinus of Nola is one sign. His public epistolary engagements (e.g., with Maximus of Madaura) are another. Most telling of all is the way in which he comes into contact with Jerome.32 His first letter to Jerome (ep. 28) seems never to have been sent, but that it survives for us is a reminder that Augustine still preserved it as one of his own works. A second attempt seems to have been more successful in reaching Jerome and eliciting an answer,33 but our attention is riveted by the adventures of the next attempt (ep. 40). This letter begins pursuit of the controversy over Paul's relations to Peter in Galatians. Written and sent in perhaps 397, it did not reach Jerome in any direct way. Instead, it seems to have gotten into circulation in Italy and the environs, where it was found on an island in the Adriatic by Sisinnius, a friend of Jerome, who had a copy made and sent it on to Bethlehem. Jerome's fierce reaction was understandable in the circumstances, but we should beware of taking sides in the ensuing rivalry. Augustine did not mean to write a book "contra Hieronymum", and was surely sorry that the original of the letter had not made it to Jerome's hands; but at the same time, we must assume that he was delighted to hear that the letter had had a literary success in Italy, and we may even suspect that he had taken steps to assure that it would. Engaging a leading literary figure in epistolary intercourse was a distinct way in which the bishop of Hippo, very much a man with a reputation yet to make, would come into the eyes of the select but influential Christian literary public then emerging. But what must be emphasized is how traditional a way of making your way in the world this was: there is little to separate Augustine from his elder contemporary Symmachus in this regard, except that Augustine had to work harder to make himself known.
In the same way, Augustine's struggle to find his voice as a writer34 shows him staggering under the challenge of finding a way to be both writer and priest/bishop, but in the end he not only triumphs, but triumphs in a way that gives him a career as writer very much in a classical mode and employing classical genres.35 If we think of the books that came into circulation in his lifetime, indeed, he will look very traditional -- the most distinctive genre that we have from his "pen", the sermon, is precisely the one that circulated least in written form in his lifetime. Instead he left letters and books in abundance, but only for their abundance and their content do they occasion remark. In this regard, it is instructive that a turning point in his literary career was his first book as bishop, unfinished for many years, but still showing where his head and heart were at that moment. The de doctrina christiana is a Christian version of Cicero's orator, and it cannot be coincidence that this gesture imitates Ambrose's own maneuver in writing the de officiis ministrorum in a similarly traditionalist mode. We know how to remark that Cicero has been Christianized and we have given that transformation full value, but it is equally important that it was thought necessary and useful to "do Christianity" in so Ciceronian a vein.36
And of course it was Augustine himself, in a relentlessly modern exercise in "self-fashioning", who by his retractationes and by the indiculum of his work that comes to us with the name of Possidius, assured that his life would be known from his texts, and from his texts as he wrote them. The history of modern scholarship has been the history of collaboration in that exercise, as much as in the construction of the narrative of conversion. Erasmus' influence is decisive here as elsewhere,37 but the Maurists and their modern avatars, the scholars of the Paris études Augustiniennes, have given us not only a consistency but also implicitly an orthodoxy of tradition.
I must emphasize again that the point of this exercise is not to replace, even in posse, the conversion-based narrative of Augustine's life with another. That would probably be impossible, first of all, and second of all, my point in beginning with a review of Brown's biography is to emphasize that it is precisely the assumption that one narrative must dominate that is most questionable in the way of proceeding that he both epitomizes and nearly transcends. The line of argument I have made here encourages us to return to consider just what "conversion" consisted of, but at the same time to begin to imagine knowing Augustine not as a single unity, presumably to emerge from the conflict of scholarly opinions, but as a figure seen through a prism -- a figure in that limited way not unlike ourselves and our contemporaries.
It is a fruitful time in which to begin to contemplate the Augustines we may find this way. The electronic transformation of the technologies of knowing, coincident with revolutions in critical theory, will require us to reconsider every aspect of our scholarly practice and purpose. Within the last decade, the five million words of Augustine's surviving oeuvre have suddenly become accessible as never before. At the same time, we feel vaguely threatened that in a flood of information the linear contemplative reading of individual texts will seem to be a thing of less value. We see as well a secular landscape where the past in which Augustine dwells is becoming ineluctably more remote. We may be at the point where a new boundary between "history" and "prehistory" will open up. The merely textual will recede from view as history is filled with the people and events that can be known from sound and video recording. We stand at a point when information, long a precious resource husbanded with skill and manipulated with craftsman's care, will cease to be scarce; and the economist will quickly tell us that in such a case, the value of the thing that has become ubiquitous drops precipitously. It is a vertiginous moment, but that vertigo should drive us to think already more carefully about what we expect of our past.
Against narrative, the next constructions of Augustine will emphasize the constitutive role of Augustinian self-fashioning, the way the mature Augustine created his own literary and public persona, attached to it a highly selective account of his early life, and both maintained and propagated that persona into succeeding generations. Thus "Augustine the Writer" is indeed one new persona that needs to be delineated.38 But that figure is not a subset of the whole man, for the only life we can write is a creation of "Augustine the Writer". We resist that writer and so claim from his texts a "life" of our own choosing, but one that is utterly conditioned by his precedent creation of himself. But "Augustine the Politician" demands our attention as well. For many who knew him, his power lay in his regular annual visits to Carthage and the influence he wielded there. To know all of Augustine is to know him, after all, as none of his contemporaries did, and thus to falsify him by creating a whole that is quite different from a sum of the parts seen as parts.39 The same can be said of "Augustine the Bishop," who has his own very large biographical book already,40 but it is precisely that role that could not be given a chronological arrangement in the traditional mode.
But there are other more venturesome Augustines left to be excavated. Not only Augustine the unconverted, but Augustine the skeptic,41 Augustine the Manichee,42 perhaps Augustine the Donatist, certainly Augustine the Pelagian.43 All the things Augustine feared to be, he was himself: this is probably true of all of us. It is precisely our most earnest asseverations that need most to be cast in doubt and whose opposites need to be kept in mind as plausible, and probably true even on our own reluctant and anxious admission. What is more remarkable is the way (particularly in the case of Augustine's "pagan" and Manichee sides) modern scholarship has internalized his anxieties and made them its own. When we disagree with him, we must disagree with him -- we are so far caught up in the toils of the arguments as he and his contemporaries constructed them. What we will now come to see is that continuity is not crisis, that the line between "pagan" and "Christian" need no longer interest us so passionately; similarly the lines between philosophy, mysticism, magic, liturgy, and religion will disappear.
In an environment where these multiple images are possible, is there any room for another "life" of Augustine to compete with Brown? I think not. The maker of the next "life" of Augustine will be not so much creator as impresario of performances, organizer of tours and blazer of paths. There need not be, probably cannot be, a single narrative line, but a variety of modes of exploration. The result need not be the authoritative monologue, but will better be the continuing conversation, the ongoing dialogue among many participants over time and space.
The making of networks (i.e., the exploration of continuities) is precisely the post-modern approach,44 as against what Lyotard and others identify as the disjunctive, discontinuous form of analysis native to modernism. Certain continuities will be reasserted and linkages improved. In practical terms, there will be real benefits any modernist Augustinian scholar can recognize, just as we all instinctively recognize the benefits of the computerized database of texts. Other areas of patristic study will be less securely closed off from the student of Augustine, as electronic texts of Ambrose and Jerome and their contemporaries will be as close at hand as any text of Augustine. Similarly, the boundary between sacred and secular texts will increasingly disappear, and the separation between students of the Christian and non-Christian traditions will continue to dwindle. Most challengingly, the boundary between Augustine's work and its afterlives will prove illusory, as we accept that we have Augustine only in the form of his influence. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the future that I have been sketching is that it continues the traditional way of thinking of Augustine as a man of his time, when our own very interest in him is the best reminder that his importance lies as much in what he has become as in what he was.
Closure in such a world will be impossible. No more the finished book, but rather the site of the continuing excavation. The author disappears (again!), and the isolated, autonomous scholar will disappear, and somewhere past that, it is reasonable to expect that "Augustine" will disappear as well. The autonomous figure of authority, proud inhabitant of the massive "collected works", was created as the coherent unit of humanistic study by Erasmus and his generation, and belongs to the world of print. Beyond the world of print, we will recover our perspective and lose some of our veneration. Before the next life of Augustine can be written, it will cease to be necessary.
Intellectually, Augustine represents the most influential adaptation of the ancient Platonic tradition with Christian ideas that ever occurred in the Latin Christian world. Augustine received the Platonic past in a far more limited and diluted way than did many of his own Greek-speaking contemporaries, but Augustine's writings were so widely read and imitated throughout Latin Christendom that his particular synthesis of Christian, Roman, and Platonic traditions defined the terms for much later tradition and debate. Both predominant modern strands of western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, owe much to Augustine, though in some ways each community has at times been embarrassed to own up to that allegiance in the face of irreconcilable elements in his thought. Augustine can be and has been cited as a champion of human freedom, but also as an articulate defender of the supremacy of divine predestination. His views on sexuality were humane in intent and have often been received as oppressive in effect.
LIFE. Augustine was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (modern Souk-Ahras, Tunisia), a modest Roman community in a river valley forty miles from the African coast. It lay just a few miles short of the point where the veneer of Roman civilization thinned out in the highlands of Numidia in the way the American west opens before a traveler leaving the Mississippi valley. Augustine's parents were of the respectable class of Roman society, free to live on the work of others, but their means were sometimes straitened. The family managed, sometimes on borrowed money, to acquire a first-class education for the clever son--he had at least one brother and one sister, but only Augustine seems to have been sent in pursuit of learning. He studied first in Tagaste, then in the nearby university town of Madauros, and finally at Carthage, the great city of Roman Africa. After a brief stint teaching at home in Tagaste, he returned to Carthage to make his career as a teacher. He taught rhetoric, the premier science for the Roman gentleman in search of well-received self-satisfaction, and he was evidently very good at it. While still at Carthage, he wrote a short philosophical book aimed at displaying his own merits and advancing his career: unfortunately, it is lost. At the age of 28, restless and ambitious, Augustine left Africa to make his career at Rome. He taught there briefly before landing the plum of an appointment as imperial professor of rhetoric at Milan. Milan, customary residence of the emperor in this time, was the de facto capital of the western Roman empire and the place where careers were best made: Augustine tells us that he (and a passel of his family members who came piling along after him) expected no less than a provincial governorship as the eventual (and lucrative) reward for his merits.
But Augustine's career ran aground in Milan. After only two years there, he resigned his teaching post and, after some time of soul-searching and apparent idleness, made his way back to his native town of Tagaste, there to pass the time as a cultured squire, looking after his family property, raising the son left him by a lover taken from the lower classes, and continuing his literary pastimes. The death of that son while still an adolescent left Augustine with no obligation to hand on the family property and so he disposed of it and found himself, aged 36, literally pressed into service against his will as a junior clergyman in the coastal city of Hippo, north of Tagaste.
The transformation was not entirely surprising. Augustine had always been a dabbler in one form or another of the Christian religion and the collapse of his career at Milan was associated with an intensification of religiosity. All his writings from that time onward were driven by his allegiance to a particular form of Christianity both orthodox and intellectual. His co-religionists in north Africa accepted his distinctive stance and style with some difficulty, and Augustine chose to associate himself with the "official" branch of Christianity, approved by emperors and reviled by the most enthusiastic and numerous branches of the African church. But Augustine's literary and intellectual abilities gave him the power to articulate his vision of Christianity in a way that set him apart from all of his African contemporaries. It would be his particular gift to be able to write at a high theoretical level for the most discerning readers while still able to deliver sermons with fire and fierceness in an idiom that a less cultured audience could admire.
Made a "presbyter" (roughly = priest, but with less authority than modern clergy of that title) at Hippo in 391, Augustine became bishop there in 395 or 396 and spent the rest of his life in that office, dying on 28 August 430. Hippo was a trading city, without the wealth and culture of Carthage or Rome, and Augustine was never entirely at home there. For many years, he traveled yearly to Carthage for several months of the year, there to pursue ecclesiastical business in a milieu more welcoming to his particular talents than his adopted home city would be.
Augustine's culture trained him for the arts of rhetoric: declaring the power of the self through speech that differentiated the speaker from his fellows and swayed the crowd to follow his views. That Augustine's training and natural talent coincided is best seen in an episode when he was in his early 60s and found himself quelling by force of personality and words an incipient riot in a town he was visiting. The style of the rhetorician carried over in his ecclesiastical persona throughout his career. He was never without controversies to fight, usually with others of his own religion. In his years of rustication and early in his time at Hippo, he wrote book after book attacking the Manichees, a Christian sect he had himself joined in his late teens and left when it became impolitic to remain with them ten years later. For the next twenty years, from the 390s to the 410s, he was preoccupied with the struggle to make his own brand of Christianity prevail uniquely over all others in Africa. The native African tradition had fallen afoul of the Christian emperors who succeeded Constantine and was reviled as schismatic, branded with the name of Donatism after one of their early leaders. Augustine and his chief colleague in the official church, bishop Aurelius of Carthage, fought a canny and relentless campaign with their books, with their recruitment of support among church leaders, and with careful appeal to Roman officialdom. In 411, the reigning emperor sent an official representative to Carthage to settle the quarrel. A three-day public debate attended by hundreds of bishops on each side ended with a ruling in favor of the official church. The ensuing legal restrictions on Donatism decided the struggle in favor of Augustine's party.
But even then, approaching his sixtieth year, Augustine found, or manufactured, a last great challenge for himself. Taking umbrage at the implications of the teachings of a traveling society preacher, Pelagius by name, Augustine gradually worked himself up to a polemical fever in pursuit of ideas that Pelagius himself may or may not have espoused. Other churchmen of the time reacted with some caution and perplexity, but Augustine persisted, even reviving the battle against unlikely opponents (austere monks and dignified bishops) through the 420s. At the time of his death, he was at work on a vast and shapeless attack on the last and most urbane of his opponents.
Through these years, Augustine had carefully built for himself a reputation as a writer throughout Africa and beyond. His careful cultivation of selected correspondents had made his name known in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and the near east, and copies of his books circulated in Africa and beyond. In his last years, he compiled a careful catalogue of his books, annotated with bristling defensiveness to deter charges of inconsistency. He had opponents, many of them heated in their attacks on him, but he usually retained their respect by the power and effectiveness of what he wrote.
Augustine died a failure by any reasonable standards. When he was a young man, it was inconceivable that the pax Romana could fall, but in his last year, he found himself and his fellow citizens of Hippo prisoners to a siege laid by a motley army of invaders who had swept into Africa across the straits of Gibraltar. Called by contemporaries the "Vandals", the attacking forces comprised a mixed group of "barbarians" and others seeking adventure and a place to settle. Hippo would fall shortly after Augustine's death, and not long after so would Carthage, and these Vandals, holders to a more fiercely particularist version of the Christian creed than any of those Augustine had lived with in Africa, would rule in Africa for a century until Roman forces sent from Constantinople invaded again and overthrew their regime. But Augustine's legacy in his homeland was effectively terminated with his lifetime. A revival of orthodox Christianity in the sixth century under Constantinopolitan patronage was brought to an end in the seventh with the Islamic invasions that permanently removed north Africa from the sphere of Christian influence--until the thin Christianization, now rapidly disappearing, of French colonialism in the nineteenth century.
But Augustine survived in his books. His habit of cataloguing them served his surviving collaborators well. Somehow or other, essentially the whole of Augustine's literary oeuvre survived and escaped Africa intact. The story was told that his mortal remains went to Sardinia and thence to Pavia (Italy), where a shrine concentrates reverence on what is said to be those remains. Whatever the truth of that story, some organized withdrawal to Sardinia on the part of Augustine's followers, bearing his body and his books, is not impossible and remains the best surmise.
Life retold. As outlined above, the story of Augustine's life will seem in numerous ways unfamiliar to readers who already know some of it. The story of Augustine's early life in particular is exceedingly well known- -better known than that of virtually any other Greek or Roman worthy. Augustine's best-known book, his Confessions, recount that early life with immense persuasiveness and few biographers can resist abridging that story to serve their own purposes. But it is a story told with a sophisticated purpose, highly selective in its choice of incident and theological in its structure. The goal of the book was ultimately self- justification and self-creation. Modestly successful in his lifetime, the book has been triumphant ever since, defining the life of Augustine on his terms in ways both obvious and subtle.
The fundamental claim of Augustine about his life is that all his experience hinged on his religious conversion to an intense and highly individual form of Christianity. He dated this experience to his time in Milan and with it explained his ensuing career. But contemporaries found it at first odd to single out that particular moment--when he was conveniently away from Africa and scrutiny of his motives and actions--in a life that was not always as he seemed to narrate it. None of the handful of contemporaries known to us who read the Confessions were persuaded by its narrative of youthful dissipation turned to austere maturity. Augustine was always a "good boy", dutiful and restrained. Neither Augustine nor any of his modern biographers has yet succeeded in getting at the essence of his personality. The hostages he left to psychobiography in the Confessions have not made it any easier for modern readers to find Augustine: in an odd way, the Freudian readings of Augustine common in this century share with Augustine an emphasis on the selected emotional high points he chooses to narrate and so are hostage to his own storytelling.
The observable facts about Augustine's religious history are that he was born to a mother who was a baptized Christian and a father who would take baptism on his deathbed when Augustine was in his teens. Neither was particularly devout while both were alive, but the mother, Monnica, became more demonstratively religious in her widowhood. Augustine himself was enrolled as a pre-baptismal candidate in the Christian church as a young child and at various points in his life considered taking baptism but deferred out of prudence. (In that age before the prevalence of infant baptism, it was common for baptism to be delayed until the hour of death and then used to wash away a lifetime of sins.) His classical education was supplemented by a curious but dismissive reading of the Christian scriptures, but he then fell in with a particularly zealous and secretive sect, the Manichees, and enjoyed their company and their polemics (in which he took eager part) for most of a decade. He sheltered himself with them and used them for political influence even after he claims to have dissociated himself mentally from their beliefs, then abandoned them when he found himself in Milan. It was at Milan, where Ambrose was making a name for himself as champion of orthodoxy before emperors, that Augustine found orthodoxy--or at least found orthodoxy satisfactory as something a gentleman could practice. But when Augustine accepted baptism at the hands of Ambrose in 387, thereby joining the religion of his mother to the cultural practices of his father, he managed to make it a Christianity of his own. To some extent influenced by Ambrose (but few others influenced by Ambrose went in the same direction), Augustine made his Christianity into a rival to and replacement for the austerity of ancient philosophers. Reading Platonic texts and getting some of their doctrine correct, Augustine decided for himself that Christianity was only possible if he went further than any churchman said he was required to go: to espouse not only the church but a layman's celibacy. After life with a succession of lovers, Augustine compelled himself to achieve sexual abstinence as the price of religion. After a long winter in retirement from the temptations of the city, he presented himself for baptism at Ambrose's hands, then slipped away from Milan to pursue a singularly private life for the next five years. That this life ended in his entering the Christian clergy was something he did not foresee and he should probably be believed when he says that he did not want it. But it was in office as Christian bishop of Hippo that he chose to tell the story of his life as a drama of fall and rise, sin and conversion, desolation and grace. Telling that story at a time when his own credentials were suspect--his "Donatist" opponents thought it queer, or at least suspiciously self-serving, that he left Africa a raving Manichee and returned meekly claiming to have been baptized in the official church, and his telling of the story was meant to reassure his followers and disarm his opponents.
But if the Confessions did not survive, we would not surmise its story. We should learn to hear it without letting its self-interested narrative blind us to a fresh reading of Augustine's life.
Works.Two of Augustine's books stand out above the others for their lasting influence, but they have had very different fates. City of God was widely read in and after Augustine's time throughout the middle ages and retains an historic grip on modern attention, but is impossible to read without a determined effort of historical consciousness. The Confessions were not much read in the first centuries of the middle ages, but from the 12th century onwards have been continuously read as a vivid portrayal of an individual's struggle for self- definition in the presence of a powerful God.
The Confessions. Though autobiographical narrative makes up much of the first nine of the thirteen books of Augustine's Confessions, autobiography is incidental to the main purpose of the work. "Confession" for Augustine is a catchall term for acts of religiously authorized speech: praise of God, blame of self, confession of faith. The book is a richly textured meditation by a middle-aged man (Augustine was in his early 40s when he wrote it c. 397) on the course and meaning of his own life. The dichotomy between past odyssey and present position of authority as bishop is emphasized in numerous ways in the book, not least in that what begins as a narrative of childhood ends with extended, and very churchy, discussion of the narrative of the book of Genesis--the progression is from the beginnings of a man's life to the beginnings of human society.
Between those two points the narrative of sin and redemption holds most readers' attention. Those who seek to find in it the memoirs of a great sinner are invariably disappointed, indeed often puzzled at the minutiae of failure that hold the author's attention. Of greater significance than the sins, however, is the account of redemption. Augustine is won for the religion that he ends with by the powerful intellectual preaching of the suave and diplomatic bishop Ambrose, who reconciles for Augustine the attractions of the intellectual and social culture of antiquity, in which Augustine was brought up and of which he was a master, and the spiritual teachings of Christianity. The link between the two was Ambrose's exposition, and Augustine's reception, of a selection of the doctrines of Plato, as mediated in late antiquity by the school of neo-Platonism. Augustine heard Ambrose and read, in Latin translations, some of the exceedingly difficult works of Plotinus and Porphyry, and acquired from them an intellectual vision of the fall and rise of the soul of man, a vision he found confirmed in the reading of the Bible proposed by Ambrose.
But religion for Augustine was never merely a matter of the intellect. The seventh book of the Confessions recounts a perfectly satisfactory intellectual conversion, but the extraordinary eighth book takes Augustine what was for him one necessary step further. Augustine could not bring himself to seek the ritual purity of baptism without purifying himself of the desires of the flesh to an extreme degree. For him, baptism required renunciation of sexuality in all its express manifestations. The narrative of the Confessions shows Augustine forming the will to renunciation through a reading of the letters of Paul, and the decisive scene in a garden at Milan--where a child's voice seems to bid Augustine to "take up and read"--has Augustine finding in Paul the confirming words that he needs to resolve to have no more to do with womankind after the ways of the world.
The rest of the Confessions is mainly the present meditation of the bishop on his state: how the continued study of scripture and pursuit of divine wisdom inevitably falls short of perfection and how as bishop Augustine makes restless peace with his imperfections. The work as a whole is drenched in language borrowed from the Bible and is a work of penetrating artistry that eludes detection on reading after reading, even while the persuasiveness and vividness of the work remain undiminished.
City of God. Fifteen years after Augustine wrote the Confessions, at a time when he was bringing to a government- enforced close his long struggle with the "Donatists" but before he had worked himself up to action against the "Pelagians", the Roman world was shaken by news of a military action in Italy. A rag-tag army under the leadership of a general named Alaric, himself of Germanic ancestry and so credited with leading a "barbarian" band, had been seeking privileges from the empire for many years, making from time to time extortionate raids against populous and prosperous areas. Finally in 410, they attacked and seized the city of Rome itself, holding it for several days before decamping to the south of Italy. The military significance of the event was nil--such was the disarray of Roman government that other war bands would hold provinces hostage more and more frequently, and this particular band would wander for another decade before settling mainly in Spain and the south of France. But the symbolic effect of seeing the city of Rome taken by outsiders for the first time since the Gauls had done so in 390 B.C. shook the secular confidence of many thoughtful people across the Mediterranean. Coming as it did just less than 20 years after the decisive edict against "paganism" of the emperor Theodosius in 391, some voices were heard speculating that perhaps the Roman empire had mistaken its way with the gods: perhaps the new Christian god was not as powerful as he seemed, perhaps the old gods had done a better job of protecting their followers.
It is hard to tell how seriously or widely such arguments were made: "paganism" by this time was in disarray and the hold of Christianity on the reins of government unshakeable. But Augustine saw in the murmured doubts a splendid polemical occasion he had long sought, and so he leapt to the defense of God's ways with the world "against the pagans". Over the next fifteen years, working meticulously through a lofty architecture of argument, he outlined a new way to understand human society, setting up the City of God over against the City of Man. Rome was dethroned--and the sack of the city shown to be of no spiritual importance--in favor of the heavenly Jerusalem, the true home and source of citizenship for all Christians. The City of Man was doomed to disarray, and wise men would, as it were, keep their passports in order as citizens of the city above, living in this world as pilgrims longing to return to that home. The work is divided in twenty-two books, the first ten of which refute the claims to divine power of various "pagan" communities, the last twelve of which retell the biblical story of mankind from Genesis to the last judgment, offering what Augustine presents as the true history of the City of God against which, and only against which, the history of the City of Man (including the history of Rome) can be properly understood. The work is too long and at times (particularly in the last books) too discursive to make entirely satisfactory reading today, but remains impressive as a whole and fascinating in its parts. The swingeing attack on "paganism" in the first books is memorable and effective, the represented encounter with Platonism in books 8-10 is of great philosophical significance, and the last books (especially book 19, with a vision of true peace) offer a vision of human destiny that would be widely persuasive for at least a thousand years. In a way, Augustine's City of God is (even consciously) the Christian rejoinder to Plato's Republic and Cicero's imitation of Plato, his own Republic. City of God would be read in various ways through the Christian middle ages, at some points virtually as a founding document for a political order of kings and popes that Augustine could hardly have imagined. At its heart is a powerful contrarian vision of human life, one which accepts the place of disaster and death and disappointment while holding out hope of a better life to come, a hope that in turn eases and gives direction to life in this world.
Other Works.None of Augustine's other works has the currency or readership of his two masterpieces. Of greatest interest are the following:
Christian Doctrine: Written in the first years of Augustine's episcopacy, this imitation of Cicero's Orator for Christian purposes sets out a theory of the interpretation of scripture and offers practical guidance to the would-be preacher. This book would be widely influential in the middle ages as an educational treatise claiming the primacy in all education for religious teaching based in the Bible. Its emphasis on allegorical interpretation of scripture, carried out within very loose parameters, was especially significant.
The Trinity. The most widespread and longest lasting theological controversies of the fourth century had focused on the Christian doctrine of the trinity, that is, the threeness of God represented in father, son, and holy spirit. Augustine's Africa had been left out of much of the controversy, and most of what was written on the subject was in Greek, a language Augustine barely knew and had little access to. But he was keenly aware of the prestige and importance of the topic, and so wrote in 15 books his own exposition of the subject. Augustine is carefully orthodox, after the spirit of his and succeeding times, but adds his own emphasis in the way he teaches the resemblance between God and man: the threeness of God he finds reflected in a galaxy of similar triples in the human soul and sees in there both food for meditation and deep reason for optimism about the ultimate human condition.
Literal Commentary on Genesis. The creation narrative of the book of Genesis was for Augustine scripture par excellence. He wrote at least five sustained treatises expounding those chapters (if we include the last three books of the Confessions and books 11-14 of City of God). His "Literal Commentary" was the work of many years work from the late 390s to the early 410s. Its notion of "literal" commentary will surprise many moderns, for there is little historical exposition of the narrative and much on the implicit relationship between, e.g., Adam and Eve and fallen mankind.
Sermons. Almost one-third of Augustine's surviving works consists of sermons--over a million and a half words, most of them taken down as Augustine spoke extemporaneously by shorthand scribes. They range impressively over wide ranges of scripture, with certain focuses. Many are simple expositions of the texts read aloud at a particular service according to church rules, but Augustine followed certain programs as well. We have sermons from him on all 150 Psalms, deliberately gathered by him in a separate collection (called by moderns "Enarrations on the Psalms"). These are perhaps his best work as homilist, for he finds in the uplifting spiritual poetry of the Hebrews messages that he can apply consistently to his view of austere, hopeful, realistic Christianity: his ordinary congregation in Hippo will have drawn sustenance from them. At a higher intellectual level are his "Tractates on the Gospel of John", amounting to a full commentary on the most philosophical of the gospel texts. Other sermons range over much of scripture, but it is worth noting that Augustine did not have much to say about the prophets of the Old Testament, and the much he did have to say about Paul appeared in his written works much more than in his public sermons.
Early writings. Moderns enamored of Augustine from the narrative in the Confessions have given much emphasis to his short, attractive early works, several of them express imitations of the style and manner of Ciceronian dialogues with a new, Platonized Christian content. These works (Against the Academics, On Providence,On the Blessed Life, and Soliloquies) both do and do not resemble Augustine's later ecclesiastical writings and are much debated over for their historical and biographical significance, but the debates should not obscure the fact that they are charming and intelligent pieces. If they were all we had of Augustine, he would be a well-respected minor figure in late Latin literature.
Controversial writings. Over 100 titled works survive from Augustine's pen in all, the majority of them devoted to pursuit of issues in one or another of the ecclesiastical controversies that preoccupied his episcopal years.
Of his works against the Manichees, the Confessions probably remain the most attractive and interesting: the sect itself is too little known today for detailed refutation of its more idiosyncratic Gnostic doctrines to have much weight.
Augustine's anti-Donatist polemic, on the other hand, has had a modern resonance for its role in creating the relationship between church and state (in Augustine's case, church and state using each other deliberately to achieve their ends) and in arguing the case for a universal church against local particularism. John Henry Newman was shaken in his allegiance to the Church of England by some of what Augustine wrote against what Newman saw in Donatism as the "Church of Africa". For the theology, Augustine's On Baptism expounds his anti-Donatist views most effectively, but the stenographic Acts of the Council of Carthage of 411 (not yet available in English) offer a vivid view of the politics and bad feeling of the schism.
The issues raised by Augustine's attacks on "Pelagianism" have had a long history in Christianity, notoriously resurfacing in the Reformation's debates over free will and predestination. On the Spirit and the Letter (written 412) comes from an early moment in the controversy, is relatively irenic and beautifully sets forth Augustine's point of view. On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin (written 418) is a more methodical exposition. The hardest positions Augustine takes in favor of predestination from his last years appear in The Predestination of the Blessed and The Gift of Perseverance.
Augustine's Spirit, Augustine's Achievement. The vast readership of Augustine in the middle ages cannot be underestimated. Thousands of manuscripts survive, and many serious medieval libraries-- possessing no more than a few hundred books in all--would have more works of Augustine's than of any other writer. His achievement is paradoxical, inasmuch as--like a modern pop star who makes more money after death than in life--most of it was gained after his death and in lands and societies far removed from that in which he lived. Augustine was read avidly in a world where Christian orthodoxy prevailed in a way he could barely have dreamed of, hence a world unlike that to which his books were meant to apply. Some of his success is owed to the undeniable power of his writing, some to the good luck of his having maintained a reputation for orthodoxy unblemished even by debates about some of his most extreme views.
But above all, Augustine found his voice around a few themes which he performed eloquently and well for a long career. When Augustine asks himself in his early Soliloquies what he desires to know, his reply is "two things only, God and the soul". Accordingly, he speaks of his reverence for a God who is remote and distant and mysterious, and yet at the same time powerfully and unceasingly present in all times and places: "totus ubique" was Augustine's oft-repeated mantra for this doctrine, "the whole of him everywhere".
At the same time he captures the poignancy and tentativeness of the human condition, centered on the isolated and individual experience of the person. For all that Augustine writes of the Christian community, his Christian stands alone before God and is imprisoned in a unique body and soul painfully aware of the different way he knows himself and knows--at a distance and with difficulty--other people. (Augustine must have been an overpowering friend to many who knew him, a whirlwind and almost bullying force, but at the same time we see no friend of his as intimate as Atticus to Cicero or Lou Salome to Rilke--to select two other eloquent loners.)
But Augustine achieves a greater poignancy. His isolated self in the presence of God is denied even the satisfaction of solipsism: the self does not know itself until God deigns to reveal to human beings their identity, and even then no confidence, no rest is possible in this life. At one point in the Confessions the mature bishop ruefully admits that "I do not know to what temptation I will surrender next"--and sees in that uncertainty the peril of his soul unending until God should call him home. The soul experiences freedom of choice and ensuing slavery to sin, but is to know that divine predestination will prevail.
Thousands upon thousands of pages are written on the details of Augustinian doctrines on a myriad topics of philosophical and religious interest. Given his influence, he is often canvassed to discover his opinion on controversies (from the "immaculate conception" of Mary to the ethics of contraception) that he barely imagined or could have spoken to. But the themes of imperial God and contingent self run deep and go far to explain his refusal to accept Manichean doctrines of a powerful devil at war with God, or Donatist particularism in the face of universal religion, or Pelagian claims of human autonomy and confidence. His views on sexuality and the place of women in society have been searchingly tested and found wanting in recent years, but they too have roots in the loneliness of a man terrified of his father--or his God.
In the end, Augustine and his own experience, so vividly displayed and at the same time veiled in his Confessions, disappear from view, to be replaced by the serene teacher depicted in medieval and Renaissance art. It is worth remembering that this teacher ended his life in the midst of a community that feared for its material life and chose to shut himself up in his last days in a room by himself, posting on a wall where he could see them the texts of the seven penitential psalms, to wrestle one last time with his sins before going to meet his maker.
Texts and Translations:
No complete printed edition of Augustine's works exists; the most recent attempt is the Maurist edition of the late 17th century, but many works, particularly sermons and letters, have been discovered since then. For a work-by-work index of editions, see E. Dekkers, Clavis Patrum Latinorum, 3rd ed. (1995). Two different electronic versions of the Latin texts only are available: Cetedoc Library of Christian Latin Texts, 3rd ed. (1996) and Corpus Augustinian Gissense (1995). Translations of most important works appear in the series A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (also 19th century; available on the Internet at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ and on CD- ROM from Logos Systems (1997). A new translation of the complete works is under way with many volumes already published (New City Press, 1990-).
The Corpus Augustinianum Gissense CD-ROM (1995) contains a comprehensive bibliography current to the date of publication. Ongoing bibliographical survey is provided in the annual volumes of Revue des e (Paris). The Augustinus-Lexikon (1986-) is approximately 1/4 completed and will comprise a detailed encyclopedia of subjects relating to Augustine; similar, but in one volume and in English, will be Allan Fitzgerald, ed., An Encyclopedia of Augustine (forthcoming).
Biography: Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967) is indispensable and justly acclaimed; see also Gerald Bonner, Saint Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963). Several concise introductions to A.'s life and thought exist: James J. O'Donnell, Augustine (1985), Henry Chadwick, Augustine (1986), John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised (1994). Frederic van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop (1961; orig. Dutch 1947), surveys, readably and in great detail, the pastoral work of Augustine at Hippo.
Confessions: Two substantial commentaries have been recently published: James J. O'Donnell (3 vols., 1992) and Jacques Fontaine, ed. (five volumes, 1992-97), but both presume knowledge of Latin. Best English translations: John K. Ryan, Henry Chadwick, Maria Boulding. Studies: John J. O'Meara, The Young Augustine (1954), Michele Pellegrino, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin (1961), Robert J. O'Connell, Saint Augustine's Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul (1969), and esp. Gillian Clark, Augustine: The Confessions (1993).
City of God: No comprehensive commentary on the text, but cf. George McCracken et al., edition/translation in Loeb Classical Library (1957-72); best translation, Henry Bettenson (1972). Good collection of current essays by scholars in several languages: Elena Cavalcanti, Il De Civitate Dei: l'opera, le interpretazioni, l'influsso (1996).
Augustine's Thought: best in one volume, Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (1970); John Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (1938) is sympathetic and illuminating but dated. For Augustine in his cultural context, there is still nothing better than Henri Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, 4th ed. (1958); see also Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader (1996) and Sabine MacCormack, The Shadow of Poetry: Vergil in the Mind of Augustine (1998). On Augustine's political views, Herbert Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of Saint Augustine, and Robert A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine 2nd ed. (1988). A.'s views on sexuality have come under searching scrutiny in recent years: most comprehensive is Kim Power, Augustine on Women (1996), but see also Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity: (1988).
Augustine: His Time and Lives
Augustine's world has transformed itself in the last generation. Ever since Gibbon, at least, the fourth and fifth centuries had been marginalized in the historical imagination even of specialists. The triumph of barbarism and religion was too good a story to disregard, and the evidence was overwhelming and unambiguous.
But from the 1960s onward, the concept of "late antiquity" born earlier in this century was used to transform our grasp of the period. French Catholics, Italian Marxists, and German philologists all had a part to play, but late antiquity's most persuasive apologist and the real shaper of the revolution is the liminal figure Peter Brown -- Irish-born Protestant on whom, as an infant, the emperor Haile Selassie laid ecclesiastically potent hands claiming descent from Solomon. Brown made his mark as Augustine's biographer and leads, thirty years later, the continuing reimagination of Augustine's age. The diversity of that world and the ambiguity of its transformations are painted in richer and richer colors, and with each few years new tracts of space and time are infused with fresh vitality. The barbarians and the Christians of the age now appear to have had more in common with each other and with their fellow Romans than we once thought, and the many cultures of that Roman world now stand out in greater and more differentiated relief.
Old conventionalisms about Augustine are quite true. He was born in the reign of Constantius II, in a Roman world flea-bitten at its borders by outside armies but fundamentally secure, and he died in the reign of Theodosius II in a part of the empire that no longer recognized Constantinople's sway, in a city surrounded by besieging armies that all agreed were "barbarian" in origin and who would capture his city and his province shortly after his death. In the world of his youth, it was still easy to imagine a world without Christianity; in the world of his old age, it was beginning to be impossible to do so. Augustine continued to live in the imaginary world of his youth and never fully realized the implications of a Christianized society. He lived most of his life as a member of one religious minority or another, and yet his writings have had wide influence among his followers in ages when they were in an unchallenged position of dominance.
Augustine's physical world was far smaller than the whole of the Roman empire. Apart from a few years in Italy in the 380s, he lived his life chiefly in three places: Tagaste, Hippo, and Carthage. His trips elsewhere in north Africa were few and limited. Though his words traveled widely, his spatial limitations are important to remember, not least because they kept him chiefly in the more urbanized and coastal north Africa, away from the high plains and the frontier, away from the districts where a rougher form of life and perhaps a more native form of religion held sway.45
Augustine himself is a figure whose life we know too well.46 He has offered us such a variety of materials, of such high quality, for reconstructing his life that it would be almost impossible not to use them, gratefully, to good advantage. But if we would use them, it is equally almost impossible not to use them to tell the story in the way he would have us tell it -- and therein lies the danger.
The evidence of the danger lies in the biographies of Augustine, on large canvas or small, that accumulate in our libraries. In the case of Brown, fully 40% of the book is taken up with the narrative of Augustine's life before his ordination as bishop -- before he achieved the position that made it possible for him to exercise a significant influence in his lifetime and after. Narratives briefer compass regularly find it impossible to restrain the narrative of early life into even so little as 40% of their bulk.
The reason for this preoccupation is famously not far to seek. The Confessions are not, indeed, an autobiography in any useful sense of the word, as those of us who write on them regularly aver. But they contain autobiographical narrative and vignettes whose power no recounter of Augustine's life can resist. Consider the episode at the end of Conf. 2 in which Augustine tells how he and a few youthful friends stole pears from a neighbor's tree and threw them to the pigs. An hour at most, ten minutes more likely, in the life of a man who lived near half a million waking hours, but the episode is unavoidable, even for those (the majority of readers today) who are baffled or disapproving at finding the episode at all or at finding it made much of.
The Confessions are the chief instrument by which Augustine shaped the narratives of his life. The achievement of that self-presentation lies in the way the narrative is made to revolve around a defining moment of conversion, localized to a specific place and time and dramatized in a particular way. From infancy to age 18 and again from age 27 until his death, any reasonable person who knew Augustine and was asked his religious affiliation would have said "Christian." For the intervening nine years, many would still have said the same, while others would have named a group, the Manichees, that non-Christians would have distinguished from Christianity at large only with difficulty. And yet Augustine has persuaded us that the religious drama of the years 386-87, when he decided to accept Christian baptism at the hand of Ambrose, is the interpretive key to his whole life. The issue has generally been not whether he is right in the frame he gives his narrative, but rather whether we have adequately tested his narrative in detail at all points against the other facts.
But he is virtually our sole source of facts. Even those documents of Augustine's life that come from other pens usually reach us because he allowed them to. We have today some 5,000,000 words from Augustine's pen, vastly more than we have from any of the famous writers of antiquity. None of that material survives against Augustine's will. Though from time to time we hear of scandalous accusations made against him, we hear of them only from him, or if he quotes them to take polemical advantage.
Augustine shaped his own survival with great care. Late in life47 he compiled a catalogue of his own written works under the evasive title Retractationes (Reconsiderations).48 Each work was listed with some description of the circumstances of its composition and its purpose, as well as corrections or explanations of difficult or controverted passages. The work does not so much record changes of mind as dig defensive trenches around things said imprudently, or simply in a different spirit, when he was young. The result is a catalogue of Augustine's authentic works, reinforced by the survival of a hand-list from Augustine's library, written by his disciple and authorized biographer Possidius (bishop of Calama, not far from Hippo, and a lifelong follower of Augustine).49 Possidius' list includes not only "books" but also lists sermons and letters. Augustine left for the afterlife with a vastly better than average chance that his works would survive, be collected, and be read as his. The survival of so much of what he wrote is extraordinary.50 (At least we may be sure that the surviving books are his. Judicious skepticism will stand alongside piety in the presence of the relics of his body presented to view in Pavia.)
The purposes of the modern student of Augustine may best be served if we come to the personal core of his life from the outside, working in. Accordingly, this essay will present Augustine's life not as a conversion narrative but as the unfolding of a dazzling piece of origami. We will begin with the textual Augustine who lies heavy on our shelves, proceed through the public Augustine (or rather the several Augustines known to different publics in his lifetime), and come only at the end to the man and his ultimate self-presentation. Such an approach gives more value to the social context within which he worked and more value to his social interactions with others. It will remain an open question how far the imperial individualism that Augustine practices and implicitly teaches is a useful discipline, whether for self-presentation or for historical analysis.
Augustine's books range from the highly personal and polemical to the lofty and abstract, but even the loftiest and most abstract are charged with a clear idea about where error lies and how it is to be opposed. For modern philosophical readers, the most important titles are well known: Confessions, De civitate Dei, De trinitate, De Genesi ad litteram, and the brace of early works written during and after Augustine's post-conversion winter of 386/87 -- de Academicis (also known as contra Academicos), De ordine,De beata vita,Soliloquia, and De libero arbitrio voluntatis. Philosophers today generally quail before, but then reluctantly plunge into, the late works against the Pelagians, looking for but not often finding solid ground on which to assess Augustine's views on free will and predestination. But the most generous armload of accessible and interesting works, available in translation and regularly read today, still adds up to only a small fraction of the surviving oeuvre. Least well represented in modern readings of Augustine are his letters (by happenstance of bulk and relative rebarbativeness -- the annotation needed for each letter and its moment of pedagogy or polemic can be annoying) and his sermons (because of their bulk, running to approximately 1/3 of the surviving oeuvre, and their short and scrappy focus on issues of pastoral urgency).
Augustine today, moreover, dances for us behind numerous veils. His Latin is correct and clear, but can be read effortlessly by few today. Accordingly, he penetrates contemporary thought in ways conditioned by the history of his translations, and there is no modern language that has yet seen a translation of his complete works.51 The prestige of French scholarship on Augustine has been undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that French Augustinians published, beginning in the 1950s, an extraordinarily valuable series of editions of Augustine's works, with Latin text and French translation, accompanied by learned and helpful notes. They remain a vital path into Augustine's work and thought for serious readers, even while they implant in those readers a style of interpretation characteristic of that particular Paris.
Augustine's books are for the most part today presented to us by those in the contemporary world who see themselves as his coreligionists. Modern Augustinian scholarship was in its formative decades overwhelmingly baptized, and indeed baptized Roman Catholic. It remains extraordinary that a provincial religious writer and churchman of sixteen centuries ago should be so fortunate as to have his works presented to our world by a relatively homogeneous and sympathetic body of interpreters. Here again, as with the Confessions, we know him too well. If we could forget that he is "Christian", and if we could forget the story he tells us of his own life, what would we think of him?
Here is one way to answer that question. Who was Augustine to his contemporaries in his lifetime? Beyond a circle of friends and colleagues, he came to public attention in a series of roughly concentric or at least overlapping circles.
Augustine the bane of "Pelagianism". This Augustine was known farthest and widest, beginning with the early 410s, when he was nearing 60. This renown was both good and bad for him, in that it propagated his name but won him influential and ferocious enemies. He ended his life in a futile and dispiriting literary combat with a learned Christian bishop from Italy, Julian of Eclanum, with whom he sparred endlessly before a Christian literary public on all Latin-speaking shores of the Mediterranean. At the end of his life, his reputation had penetrated erratically into the Greek church and an invitation was sent for him to attend the council of Ephesus -- but he had died before it could reach him in Africa.
The controversy in which Augustine found this fame was largely factitious. The "Pelagianism" that he attacked was a construct of his own, founded on his imputations of implications and logical conclusions to a writer who disowned most of them. When Pelagius was himself examined for his beliefs by a relatively independent and unbiased ecclesiastical court, in Palestine in 415, he came away vindicated.52 Augustine could not accept this and pounded away for a few years more on Pelagius himself, winning the Pyrrhic victory of papal approval for some of his own condemnations. The victory backfired when in his last decade, Augustine found himself under fire for it, from the doctrinaire Julian (who was willing to accept some of the conclusions that Pelagius himself shied from) and from devout Christian ascetics to whose belief and practice Augustine would have ordinarily been closely attuned. These last (some of them in Africa, rather more in Gaul) saw defeatism in Augustine's ideas and feared his view of predestination denied value to their ascetic achievements. Although Augustine's most extreme ideas were hotly confuted in these circles, he himself was rarely condemned as a heretic and his opponents were strikingly reluctant to mention him by name, so great was the prestige he had created for himself.
Augustine the Literary Lion. That prestige had come in good measure from long years of assiduous literary self-promotion. Beginning in the early 390s, while not yet himself a bishop, Augustine had carefully built for himself a choice audience of readers for his works beyond his homeland. Though his works doubtless circulated in Hippo and Carthage, we know he had found ways of bringing them to the attention of distinguished literary Christians elsewhere. Paulinus of Nola, in particular, a retired Christian gentleman in Italy, poet and literary man, seems to have been one conduit for Augustine's reputation and for his works themselves.53 More strikingly, we have a fairly full record of Augustine's correspondence with Jerome in Bethlehem, showing a fierce but repressed competition of egos between the two ambitious men.54 Though Jerome was a clergyman of the second rank, he had carved out a position of authority based on his learning and his status as impassioned and persuasive writer. Augustine came on the scene years after Jerome and set out to achieve a similar kind of reputation. Writing to Jerome in the early 390s was a way of calling himself to the older writer's attention and entering into the literary public that Jerome dominated. Over the years that followed, Augustine's books became well known outside Africa in upper-class Christian circles.
His time in those circles led to one of his two most famous and lasting books, De civitate Dei. The ostensible point of departure of that work is "pagan" reaction to the sack of Rome by Visigoths in 410 AD and the learned debates of upper-class refugees in Carthage. What if, so they supposedly argued, the fate of the city of Rome is due to our impiety toward the ancient gods and to our adhesion to the new Christian god? Should we perhaps revive ancient practices?55 Augustine overwhelms those arguments in the first five books of De civitate Dei, which he wrote within a couple of years of the controversy's eruption, but he then continued for another decade and more to add another 17 books to the work, going far beyond what the moment of controversy called for. The work in the end outlines a large view of human history, from creation to apocalypse, and situates Roman, and indeed all Mediterranean, history within that perspective. It refutes every form of "paganism" that Augustine cared about, but chiefly the neo-Platonism that he understood from what he knew of Plotinus and Porphyry. The style of the first books shows that Augustine could play the part of the learned traditionalist to a fare-thee-well and take pleasure in using a pastiche of quotations from the most classical of Latin authors to demolish the pretensions of Roman religion.
Augustine the anti-Donatist. Augustine's most widely-known public persona, however, was one that requires a distinct effort of historical construction for us today. Augustine the anti-Pelagian has been made current to many following generations by the timelessness of the debates over grace and free will that he instigated and guided. Augustine the anti- "pagan" makes a case against a straw man enemy that moderns understand readily, so familiar are we with the glib juxtaposition of "pagans" and Christians in the Roman world.56
But Augustine the anti-Donatist is a figure who has spoken directly only to a few moderns and, I venture to suggest, to none of our contemporaries. The most notable example of a modern resonating with Augustine on these points is Newman, who quoted a line of Augustine's directed against the Donatists as though it were his own mantra of conversion.
Augustine found the widest (if not always receptive) public for his writing and speaking as an opponent of Donatism.57 He surely spent more of his energies as bishop of Hippo on this one issue than on all the other controversies of his career combined. After the last wave of official persecution of Christianity in the early 300s had ebbed, Christians in north Africa fell into two camps. To name them is to take sides, but perhaps one may characterize them as rigorist and latitudinarian. The rigorist camp held that those who had in any way compromised the ferocity of their Christian allegiance in time of persecution had thereby exiled themselves from the Christian community and required sacramental initiation in order to re-enter. Particular hostility was directed towards clergy who had handed over the books of scripture to the Roman authorities to be burnt. Traditores ("traitors," lit. handers-over) they were called and they were thought to have disqualified themselves as clergy by that act. Ordinary faithful who had fallen in similar ways were to be rebaptized and clergy, if such there were, who had fallen and sought clerical status again would have to be reordained.
The latitudinarian camp took no less harsh a view of the betrayals of the time, but took a higher view of the sacraments of the church. Baptism could only be administered once for all. If you lapsed from grace after baptism, then only by a tedious ritual of repentance could you, in principle, be re-admitted to communion. This may not sound latitudinarian, indeed is in some ways even more rigorist in theory than the other position, but in practice this community pursued lapses with less fervor and was more inclined to let bygones be bygones.
To make matters more complicated, the whole fourth century in Africa was punctuated by arguments over who the traditores had really been. Had the first bishops of the post-persecution latitudinarians really been themselves traditores? Or had, on the other hand (as was alleged, with good evidence), the leaders of the rigorist faction themselves included some who had fallen away and never been rebaptized? Each side accused the other of bad faith and bad behavior at every level, most persuasively.
But the rigorist faction inherited the traditions and practices of the church of Africa and throughout the fourth century, it dominated African life, despite numerous attempts by the latitudinarian party to invoke imperial authority against it. When Augustine became priest and then bishop at Hippo, he was a member of the minority community there. Moderns debate the social roots of both communities, cautiously concluding that the rigorists were more broadly planted in African society at a variety of levels (including the highest), while the latitudinarians tended to be confined to the more Romanized and urbanized segments of society.
Augustine made it his business as bishop of Hippo to fight for the latitudinarians against the rigorists -- hence for the "catholic" church (he uses the adjective in its root meaning of "universal", and he made much of the fact that his church was in communion with churches all over the Roman world) against the "Donatists" (so-called after a charismatic founding figure). He made common cause with his faction's bishop in Carthage, Aurelius, and for twenty years they were a tireless team, working together for the defeat of their opponents. Augustine wrote book after book, and together they pulled every lever of government influence. Eventually they prevailed by the latter route, when the emperor sent a commissioner to convene a hearing and resolve the issue. The commissioner, Marcellinus, was a devout layman who immediately fell in with Augustine. There was never any doubt at the conference, held in the baths at Carthage in June of 411 (we have the stenographic transcript of most of the three days of the conference), that he would find for Augustine's catholic party, and he did so. From that day onward, "Donatism" had no legal standing in Africa and effectively vanished from history. In all this period, Augustine often spent half his year in Carthage, preaching, writing and debating against the Donatists. Those audiences saw a learned and fluent preacher with a taste for the kind of debater's tricks of language and argument that audiences loved. They knew about his books and they knew about his influence with powerful people, and some of them encountered those books and that influence more directly. But he was pre- eminently a public and visible figure. Augustine always traveled reluctantly, but he took his anti-Donatist persona on the road from time to time, debating Donatist leaders and seeking converts. When he came to one or another small city, it was very much as a publicly recognized visiting dignitary, absorbed in the high politics of the moment. Many of those who knew him this way loathed him as a powerful figure in a party they abhorred, but such is the pathology of celebrity that the loathing was part of his power. This Augustine reached the most people, however superficially, and this Augustine shaped the impressions of Africans about all the other Augustines.
Augustine at Hippo. For all that Augustine made himself known to a wider world through his writings and his involvement in the affairs of the day, he still spent more of his time, from 391 until his death in 430, at home in Hippo than anywhere else. There he invented and struggled to define his role as bishop and leader of his community and there he performed the sacramental acts in which he and his followers believed that divine power flowed through his hands. (He tried to be in Hippo every year for the most sacred rituals of Easter, when new members were initiated to the community and received baptism.) He appeared serene before his congregation as they stood, row on row, straining to hear his voice. It troubled him that they venerated him so, for he was acutely aware of his own failings -- even to the point of what later churchmen would call scrupulosity. Did he delight to a fault in the beautiful music of the church service? When his mind wandered from prayer, did he return to the task promptly enough? He judged himself against a high standard and found himself wanting, and so felt unworthy in the eyes of his congregation. The writing of the Confessions was, among many other things, an attempt at self-understanding that would permit him to continue as bishop with this acute consciousness of imperfection.58
But it is unlikely that Augustine's congregation shared his sense of those imperfections. To them he was a hieratic figure, dispenser of God's word and God's sacrament, but judge and jury as well. In increasing numbers, they came to him, divinely authorized and reliable, to settle their petty legal cases, in an age when Roman justice was more remote, more expensive, and more unreliable than ever. He expressed his frustration at the time he spent on this kind of business and finally, in his early 70s, designated a successor in order to hand over the worldly business of the bishopric so that he, Augustine, could retire to his study and his studies.
Those studies took place in a privileged space that Augustine carved out for himself. It is conventional but anachronistic to call it a "monastery": Augustine used the word monasterium a few times, specifically to speak of the little community he created in Hippo, but the word was so new and he used it so infrequently that it must have rung far more strangely on his contemporaries' ears than it does on ours. The word and the thing would have been unfamiliar: a household of men without women, men without social status (or at least without property), dressed in a way that set them apart, pursuing activities of marginal social value -- study and prayer. The ethos of the ascetic who separated himself from civil society was still a novelty in Africa and the choice to set himself apart in
In this Book Augustine assesses the nature of time itself and discusses how it relates to the eternity of God. At the beginning of the Book he tells his readers that the arguments are both intricate and difficult, and that he has to appeal for God to help. This is a rhetorical device that negates the possibility that he might be critiqued for any philosophical errors, and also serves to show that he is not philosophizing just for the sake of doing so. He is writing this with God in mind, and in an effort to further his own understanding of God. Indeed, this is true of all the Books in Confessions.
Leading from his discussion of memory, the understanding of the nature of time appears to be the next logical topic. The temporality of Earth and the eternity of God are tenets of Augustine's faith. His primary problem begins with Genesis, and the idea that God created the universe. Genesis states that God made the universe, but that suggests that there was a time before the creation of the universe. That would mean that God existed in time, and was thus limited by it.
Here, Augustine employs the figurative, or spiritual, interpretation of the Bible that was first taught to him by Bishop Ambrose. The "And God said" (Gen 1:3) passage in Genesis also presented problems for Augustine. Augustine explains that all human speech exists in time, with even a single word having a beginning and an end and "the syllables sounded and passed away." The Word could not have been like temporal speech: God's Word is always being said, and has no beginning and no end.
Another temporal word that Moses wrote in Genesis was "beginning," which caused similar problems for Augustine. Manichees were wont to question this, asking what God was doing before creation. Augustine cannot fully answer this question except to say that it is the wrong kind of question. God exists separately from time, and temporal things unfold as part of his eternal design. God decided outside of time how creation should be, and the fact that it exists in time does not mean that God exists in time. The reading of the word "beginning", as Augustine says, is not a temporal starting point, but rather the fixed point outside of time to which all temporal things can return. God is this fixed point. This response to critiques of Genesis allows Augustine to contradict the Neoplatonist notion that creation couldn't have happened, because that would have made God exist in temporality.
Augustine continues, saying that God didn't create the world at a given moment, because for God there is no time. The creation happened in a moment, and is happening eternally. The reason we cannot understand this is because human beings exist in the world, which is bound by time. God didn't start things at one point - he simply is the point at which all things begin and to which all things return. God is unchanging.
Augustine states that on earth, time is difficult to define. He writes that all creation seems to exist in time: the past, present, and future are the ways in which time is knowable to human beings. However, he argues that the past and the future, regardless of the presence of memory, do not exist: all we have is the present moment. He breaks that moment down into the smallest instance, and he cannot define what the present moment really means. This present moment cannot have space (for it is time), nor can it have duration, for once it has happened it is gone into the past. From this he posits that time doesn't truly exist, even though it seems to (because it can be discussed and measured). In this hopelessly negative argument, Augustine accepts that the notions of past, present, and future are useful for human beings.
He refutes the idea that time can be measured through the movement of stars and planets. He points out that they may move in time, but that those heavenly bodies are not actually time. Even if none of the stars or planets existed, time would still pass. Augustine cannot give the reader a positive definition of time - he offers only a negative one. He suggests that, as Plotinus writes, time is actually a distention of the soul. He adds that this is a distention away from the perfect being of God.
In an about-face, Augustine suggests the possibility that time is something that we measure within our own memory. We cannot grasp the past (for it has no existence), but we can consider the memories of the images or sensations we had in the past. Time is thus not a feature or property of the world, but a property of the mind.
This criticism of the beginning of Genesis, which is also referred to in other parts of Confessions, was common amongst Manichees and other Christians in Augustine's day. This discussion of time in the rigorous philosophical sense may seem out of place in a theological text. In fact, Augustine apologizes somewhat at the beginning of this Book for the philosophical nature of this discussion. He does not want to appear to be philosophizing for vanity or curiosity's sake (he considers idle curiosity a sin; see Books II and III). On the surface this discussion may seem like secular philosophizing, but, especially in light of the preceding Book and Augustine's ongoing difficulties with the Biblical book of Genesis, the understanding of nature of time is necessary to defending the nature of the omnipotent, unchanging God of Catholicism.
Many of the points in this chapter seem either unknowable or pointless even to the modern metaphysical philosopher. In Augustine's day, however, these ideas were of the utmost importance to religion. It was a time of many different types of heresy (Manichaeism, Donatism, Arianism, Gnosticism, among others), most of which differed with each other specifically with regards to the nature of God and Jesus Christ. Definitions of things like creation and time were integral to the explanation of the nature of God, so these sometimes arcane arguments were of the highest dogmatic necessity.
The Catholic Church at this time was not only defending its dogma from heresies, but was also in the process of codifying it completely and writing it down. Things like baptism and some kinds of sin were thought of slightly differently in the Catholic Church of Augustine's day, partially because questions like these were not completely codified. This kind of theological inquiry, especially from someone of Augustine's education and theological genius, was necessary and very valuable to the early church.
The refutation of the existence of time is persuasive even today. The idea that God is the "beginning point" rather than the beginning in a temporal sense is particularly neat, though Augustine, as in so many things, owes a debt of gratitude to the Neoplatonists for this concept. Despite the muddled and convoluted form Augustine's arguments sometimes take, these arguments are useful not only to metaphysical philosophers, but to anyone who has ever pondered the first principles. Augustine is rigorous in that he takes nothing, not even the Bible, on pure faith. In true skeptical fashion, he is willing to question everything, and is determined to try to get to the base of any philosophical problem, no matter how remote or difficult.