May 10, 2010

St Augustine the Classicist

The City of God is an attack on the whole of Roman history and the whole of classical civilisation: and yet the more you read it, the more it appears written from that civilisation rather than against it. Take for example Augustine's attack on the Roman Empire in Book 4. Augustine famously compares Rome to a band of robbers, what is a state or an empire he asks accept for a band of succcesful robbers. He also, less famously makes another analogy that any reader of Aristotle would immediatly find helpful. He asks about the happiness of the Romans: 'is it wise or prudent to wish to glory in the breadth and magnitude of an empire, when you cannot show that the men whose empire it is are happy' (IV 3). Augustine illustrates that argument by reducing it to the personal level, asking his readers to neglect the vainer baubles of political authority and concentrate instead on happiness itself.

He asks us to imagine two men. One of whom is wealthy, but 'troubled by fears, he pines with grief; he burns with greed. He is never secure, he is always unquiet and panting from endless confrontations with his enemies. To be sure he adds to his patrimony in immense measure by these miseries; but alongside those additions he also heaps up the most bitter cares. By contrast the man of modest means is self sufficient on his small and circumscribed estate. He is beloved of his own family and rejoinces in the most sweet peace with his kindred, neighbours and friends. He is devoutly religious, well disposed in mind, healthy in body, frugal in life, chaste in morals and untroubled in conscience. I do not know of anyone could be such a fool as to dare to doubt which to prefer' (IV 3). Augustine here is making an important point: it still holds true for many today (amongst the reasons Gracchi isn't a corporate lawyer, investment banker or dare I say it this week, politician is that I don't fancy the privilege of greatness) but it is profoundly classical. It is the ideal of otium, leisure, and it is the idealisation of the mean- of private virtue.

Of course there were other traditions in the classical world that lauded public engagement- but Augustine confronts and attacks those. We should not see him neccessarily as a partisan against the classical world but as a partisan within it. Much early Epicurean philosophy at its base sounds like Augustine. Augustine of course gives this an other worldly spin, indeed the whole of the City of God is about the futility of life on earth, the futility of this dream of moderation, but it is still there in Augustine. Even in the City of God, there is this remnant of a classical view. It should not neccessarily surprise us: Augustine was a classicist as well as a Christian polemecist, during my most recent reading of City of God I've counted quotations by Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Seneca and of course Varro amongst others. It would be amazing if this did not touch Augustine: in this case his arguments against earthly happiness are discarded in favour of rebuking one type of conquering happiness with another quieter happiness. Augustine in the end does oppose the entire pagan world and all the classical philosophers, but he also speaks their language and his attacks reflect their influence.


James Higham said...

he also speaks their language and his attacks reflect their influence

As it was with the advent of protestantism.

JD said...

"imagine two men...."
Does wealth automatically lead to misery? Does poverty make you happy?
Having sampled both stations, I prefer the former and I am happier for it.

as for "the privilege of greatness"
That could or should include "the responsibility of greatness?"