August 13, 2010

St Augustine

Henry Chadwick's book on St Augustine is not really a biography in the conventional sense, it is a biographical essay. The key difference between the two genres is that whilst the first is a sprawling account that attempts to convey the whole entirity of someone's life, the latter is an attempt to draw across a couple of themes and explain how those themes made this person someone worth writing about. To write anything about St Augustine scarcely needs a justification: as an acute observer of late Antiquity and an incredibly influential force on Christianity both ancient, medieval and modern, Augustine has always attracted attention. His master pieces, the City of God, the Confessions and his sermons, have always attracted attention. In the Middle Ages he was used not merely as a theological model but also his educational treatises were mined for information, his political thought was the basis of the approach of the Church to politics and his fierce denounciations of paganism rendered it intellectually incoherent. Chadwick draws out the ways in which Augustine victored on the field of ideas and the ways in which the trophies he left on those fields map out the contours of modern Christianity.

So what are Chadwick's themes? The first is the way in which the personal position of Augustine interrelated with his ideas. We can see this in Augustine's concentration on sexuality. Augustine's prayer in the confessions is well known 'Give me chastity but not yet'. Its a prayer that sums up the temptation that the Saint faced but also his addiction to chastity as a model for the way that people ought to behave. Chastity forms a key part of Augustine's later response to the Pelagian question- whether people are free to do good or whether their 'goodness' is only present through the action of God. We can see it in other less obvious ways: Chadwick presents Augustine as a deeply conservative person, aware that in his society a slave costs less than a draught animal, but also a believer that society is evil because it always will be. THe City of God and the City of Men will never be drawn together, they are separated. This is a quietism that turns conservative very quickly. Furthermore Chadwick draws out the importance of Augustine the Bishop. When he was made Bishop of Hippo in the late 4th Century, Chadwick argues Augustine became a more mature and more interesting philosopher, his collision with reality changed him into a different thinker.

This post will be continued later tommorrow- due to a lack of battery life, I'm going to leave it there for a minute with an encouragement to read the book!


James Higham said...

and his fierce denounciations of paganism rendered it intellectually incoherent

Rendered paganism incoherent?

Gracchi said...

Well in his eyes and those of many others that's what he did, he exposed its intellectual contradictions.