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.
March 30, 2011
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.