August 15, 2010

Augustine by Chadwick

I promised another installment on Henry Chadwick's Augustine. The book is an educational tool: at least it was for me. I know very little about Augustine save for by acquaintance from the City of God and reading Chadwick has been a way of widening what I know. Chadwick shows us though that Augustine would have disagreed with me. Augustine did not beleive in the education that I think Chadwick has given me: instruction by a teacher in truths that otherwise I would have had to discover by myself with increasing labour. That whole idea of truth as something to discover and to consider was something that Augustine disagreed with. Truth and knowledge were not for him coextensive concepts. Rather he argued that any teacher was insignificant. A teacher merely drew out of his pupils what God had already placed therein. Rather than language, it was 'an inner experience of a sharing of minds' (Chadwick Augustine 46) that prompted development, this inner experience was performed in the light of and by means of faith. Augustine's Christianity was founded on the postulate that the only central truths were religious.

This leads on to a further surprising reflection on Augustine's life. No matter where he was, whether as a pagan intellectual, a Christian intellectual or a Bishop, Augustine was first and foremost a monk. In Italy when he arrived there he set up a community with his friend Alypius and others who reflected upon Manichean and later Platonic philosophy. After he converted to Christianity he kept the community going, though now his mother Monica joined it. When he returned to Africa, so did the community: the return might be seen, and Chadwick describes it as, a resignation in order to reflect. When he was appointed to the bishopric, reluctantly, he immediatly turned the Bishop's house in Hippo into a monastery where all the clergy in the neighbourhood came to live a 'quasi monastic' life (Chadwick Augustine 66). These monasteries were places in which men could refine each other's faith and each other's virtue. The centrality of monasticism to Augustine's thinking ressembles the centrality of education to his thinking and flows from the same source: Augustine was concerned, as a serious thinker, with how thoughts were produced and where they came from. He was also concerned, as a serious Christian, with how faith might progress and be reinforced. The answer to both questions came in a monastic form.

What before Chadwick I had not got was this central aspect of Augustine's experience. When reading texts by him and when understanding his role in influencing later Christianity, its key that we recognise that the bishop of Hippo was not modern. He did not believe that truths were located out there and could be found. Rather the central truths, the only important truths were located within the created creature and lay in his own special insight that he had been created. This meant that a creature should spend his time with other creatures who had the same insight, breeding that community of insight that would further faith. Hence Augustine believed in monasteries which would unite the faithful, hence his sense of the importance of that vocation and hence his description of Christians as a parallel society in the world. It is important to recognise.

There are many other aspects of Chadwick's book that this two part comment hasn't really touched; if it is inadequate in part it is because I ran out of time last week and am writing cold this week. But I do reccomend you read it.