March 30, 2011

Why read Augustine

Why should I or anyone else read Augustine- it’s the question implicit in Georg's comment below. After all I am not a fourth century Christian, I do not find Augustine's theology attractive as a method to live my life or understand the world, nor do I see the problems he addressed as key to my own life. So why therefore would or should I read the great African Bishop?

I think there are reasons to read people we disagree with fundementally. The first is a simple one and is the reason why everyone who thinks seriously about politics and history should try and read someone like Augustine. He was a genius. The City of God is a monumental achievement and though we may disagree with its argument, the logic is beautiful, the construction impressive and the execution is interesting. His thinking intrigues me. Like so many other thinkers whose ideas I disagree with, I see Augustine's thought as a roccoco structure which interests me for the intricacy of its design. By following him through these logical paths and understanding the way that his argument works, I improve my own methods of thinking and arguing. In the medieval world you would describe such a study as rhetoric: it is as useful today as it was then.

Secondly Augustine was a phenomenally important thinker. There are few that instantly I can put on the same plane as him. His influences cascade down the centuries. 10 centuries after he died the Reformation in Europe proceeded largely out of his interpretation of justification: one eminent historian has argued that the reformation was a family crisis, on the one hand those people who believed in Augustine's theory of salvation (Protestants), on the other those who believed his theory of ecclesiology (Catholics). Just like reading the Bible or Plato, reading Augustine is essential to understanding Western history and current Western politics. He shaped our language of politics: even those who disagreed with him fundementally used his language of politics and even if we may live in the slipstream of their responses, we cannot abstract ourselves from a context in which Augustine is a major player.

Thirdly the Fifth century AD is one of the most interesting moments in the history of the West. I am fascinated by Rome. Partly that is because we are its inheritors. Partly though its because whatever happened in Rome, it went through successive changes which must be important to the way that we understand our world today. Tacitus sketched the collapse of democracy into tyranny. Gibbon the collapse of empire into anarchy. We may refine those perspectives and understand those words differently today but the fourth century is still a key pivot in world history. In 410 the event which prompted Augustine to write was the sack of ROme by Alaric- the first sack of Rome since the 2nd Century BC. These are momentous events and we read in Augustine the reaction of a contemporary who was incredibly close to events and the people (a pupil of Ambrose of Milan for example) who shaped those events.

Those three reasons may not satisfy Georg (or you) and I could think of others I am sure were I to write formally about this but they are my reasons tonight for thinking about Augustine. Ultimately I may not want to take Augustine's arguments (though I may be convinced and one should never stop being open to being convinced) but I do want to understand him, for by doing so I will learn both about my own capabilities and my culture and about his time.


James said...

There must be something stupid to say about St Augustine on a chilly March evening, but if there is, I can't think of it.

James Higham said...

You outline some great reasons here to take what he says seriously, Tiberius. Of course, there are those who flatly refuse but still, as you say - he is there and can always be read and read about.

goodbanker said...

I've not read City of God, but I do know Augustine's Confessions a bit. Based on my knowledge of those, I completely agree with your arguments about why we should read Augustine, even though (again, like you) I do not find his theology attractive.

Regarding your third argument - that the C4th/C5th are among the most interesting moments of the West - I find your emphasis on the politics/military (rather than the religious) curious... at least in the context of an argument based on Augustine's influence. Don't get me wrong - the political changes to the Western Roman Empire during the C5th in particular are genuinely fascinating. But for me, the thing that I took from Augustine was an insight into the way in which Christianity consolidated its hold on the Roman Empire. Following Constantine's conversion, it was not a gimme that Rome would remain Christian: most obviously, there was Julian's return to paganism at the start of the 360s. But there were other potential tipping points - e.g. the battle to win the heart and mind of the boy emperor Valentinian II in the ?380s, who - on one interpretation (according to one contemporary source - I'd need to go back and check exactly which) was uncompromisingly bullied into Christianity by Ambrose of Milan.

In short, having moved from (hitherto) martyred sect to (now) official religion of the Roman Empire around the start of the C4th, Christianity was not assured of the supremacy that it has turned out to enjoy right through to today. And Augustine was an important part in consolidating Christianity's position.

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker: I think you are right to fasten on Augustine's key position in the 400s and perhaps I didn't explain myself well enough. I think one of the many reasons that Augustine has such an impact is becuase he explained why that crisis was not a rejection of Christianity. In a sense the pagan faction had a perfect moment- the Empire adopted the religion in the 4th Century and then in the 5th Century the West falls apart. What Augustine does is supply the reasoning to explain that and I think that's a very important moment.