Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Augustine of Hippo - Peter Brown

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown

Augustine was born in 354 C.E. in Thagaste, a Roman colony (suffering from “egregious self-respect”) in North Africa.  At the time of his birth, the expansion and prosperity of the previous centuries was beginning to slow, with most of the income moving from the cities to the cultivation of olive trees in the countryside.  North Africa, and Roman power more generally, was in the early stages of the decline that would accelerate throughout Augustine’s life, but at the time of his birth Augustine’s surrounding culture nonetheless remained unquestionably Roman, placing the highest value on the study of Latin texts.
Though Augustine’s father Patricius was relatively poor, he was free and “civilized.”  Since classical education offered the only possible means of social advancement, he sent Augustine to school.  School was run on the “ancient Anidjar model,” focusing on very few texts in excruciating detail with attention to each word.  Unlike nearly every other major philosopher of antiquity, Augustine did not learn Greek.  Cicero, Virgil, Sallust, and Terence were the only authors read in detail.  Brown argues that this mode of reading that takes every word extremely seriously and that valued verbal ingenuity would go on to characterize Augustine’s style as a biblical critic.  
More immediately, though, Augustine’s exposure to Cicero’s Hortensius led to his decision at 19 to abandon his desire for worldly success as a lawyer to the pursuit of wisdom supporting himself as a teacher of rhetoric instead.  Raised in a Christian household, Augustine sought a specifically Christian form of wisdom but, disappointed by the Bible, he turned instead to Manichaeism.

Manichaeism was founded by Mani in Mesopotamia, who was executed in 276 CE by the Persian government.  Augustine was drawn to the religion, then a persecuted sect, by his fixation on the problem of evil.  Afraid of charging God with creating evil, the Manichees chose, instead, to create a rigid dualism, limiting God’s omnipotence by attributing evil to an opposing dark power.  Though the human world was unequivocally fallen and the source of all evil, each human had a shred of pure goodness in his soul that longed to return to and merge with the greater goodness of God.  In later years, Augustine will attribute the appeal of this philosophy to its capacity to disown any personal sense of responsibility and guilt.  Additionally, he will also condemn it for depicting good as totally passive.   
In his period as a Manichee, Augustine takes a concubine (372), sails for Rome (383), and then later Milan (384).  By the time he reaches Milan, he is mostly disillusioned by the Manichees, largely as a result of talking to Faustus, a man renowned for his learning who turned out to be completely incapable of resolving the questions Augustine had about the scientific claims of the Manichees.  

Things improve somewhat when Augustine meets Ambrose in Milan.  Ambrose had been the bishop of Milan for since 372 AD when, working as the governor of the province, he was seized by the population and forced to become their bishop.  Ambrose, though not aristocratic by birth, was an extremely political religious leader, most evident in his confrontation with local city authorities when the mother of the emperor tried to force him to give up a church for pagan use.  Ambrose gained popular support, forced the advancing troops to give up, and later built himself a basilica out of pure spite.  One can see Augustine following in Ambrose’s model later in his dealing with Donatists.
Intellectually, Ambrose was important for offering Augustine an alternative to materialism.  While Augustine had always thought within a materialist system, as with the Manichees, Ambrose suggested the existence of a purely spiritual reality.  In addition, Ambrose did much to alleviate Augustine’s worries about biblical passages by offering “spiritual” interpretations of the text.

Platonism becomes Augustine’s new philosophy of choice, both through Ambrose’s references to it in his sermons and through his gradual absorption into  social circle of Christian Platonists.  The previous century, the writings of Plato had been rediscovered, leading to a philosophical Renaissance.  Augustine received his Platonism through Plotinus (death, 270 CE), author of th Enneads and through Porphyry, his disciple, who systematized the writings of Plotinus.  Most of the Platonists in Rome were Christian, largely because of the conversion of Victorinus, a prominent pagan who later publicly converted to Christianity.  Augustine, I believe, mentions Victorinus’s conversion in the Confessions; Brown adds the information that Victorinus was the man responsible for translating many of the neo-Platonic works into Latin.
Christian Platonists believe that Platonism and Christianity dovetailed in the same conception of an otherworldly existence.  Just as Plato’s ideas existed in another world, so too did Christ say “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Similarly, both philosophies, at least as adopted by Augustine, shared the notion of the world as a decline, as an increasingly unclear and diffuse shadow emanating from the true reality of the One.  All existence is a tension between this natural tendency to fall and move away from the real and the desire to return to or regain contact with the real.  Plotinus’s universe, in sum, was a monistic one that did not admit the radical dualism of Manichaeism or their claim that evil was in anyway opposed to the good.  Rather, evil was an absence or deficiency of the good, as blindness is a lack of sight.  Evil can only be a turning away from the natural unity with the real.  The links of all of this with the Confessions  seems clear.     

Conversion and Ordination:
Augustine decided upon reading Plotinus to “convert” decisively to the philosophical life and withdraw from public affairs.  Conversion to Christianity wasn’t self-evident at this point, largely because Platonism offered the possibility that man could reach a vision of God through rational ascent, not through institutional guidance.  Nonetheless, convinced by Ambrose that the Scriptures could be a source of authority and wisdom, Augustine began reading Paul.  From here, Brown basically recapitulates Augustine’s account of conversion in The Confessions.  Suffice to say, his conversion marks a decisive break from the ideal of autonomy found in neo-Platonists.  Reason is not sufficient to lead one to truth; rather, grace is necessary.
From here, Augustine spends four years studying with friends - an ideal lifestyle, it sounds - before, one day, while visiting a friend in Hippo in 391 CE, he is shanghaied into the priesthood, in a scene I can only imagine resembled the moment in frat parties when the crowd starts shouting, “chug!”   Shortly thereafter, in 395, he is named bishop.  

The Confessions:
 Augustine writes the Confessions in 397 CE, at a point when Augustine was feeling overwhelmed and alienated by his duties as a bishop that he had assumed two years earlier.  “Confessio” has the double meaning of praising of God and accusing oneself, both senses of which Augustine obviously has in mind.  The piece straddles several different genres.  In certain respects, the piece is a very recognizable type of a neo-Platonic philosophical treatise, which addresses itself to an unknowable God and uses prayer as a vehicle for speculative inquiry.  However, Augustine’s formulation of the text as a dialogue with God breaks from this neo-platonic genre.  Similarly, Augustine lifts the notions of God’s omnipresence, the existence of a spiritual reality, and the idea of a Fall characterized by turning outward (as with the concupiscences) from Plotinus; however, redefining the Fall as a personal one, rather than simply a cosmic one, is Augustine’s own innovation.  Finally, regarding Platonism, the notion of an immeasurable inner world is also from Plotinus, but while Plotinus retains an optimistic faith in the impossibility of losing touch with God, Augustine believes our access to and perception of the divine can become obscured.
Likewise, the Confessions also holds an ambiguous relation to a Christian genre of confession.  In “African Christianity” of Augustine’s time, there existed an extremely strong tradition of seeing saints and heroes as predestined.  This comes out more fully in Augustine’s later theology, but we can can see it here in moments such as Monica’s dream.  Yet the piece also breaks with the tendency to see baptism as an absolute break with the past.  Had The Confessions been a traditional book of this genre, it would have stopped with the conversion scene in Book IX; as stands, the fact that it went on for another 3 books would have baffled the contemporary reader.  Perhaps one could read here a Freudian understanding of the past, which refuses to discard anything as lost or overcome.  In later years, Augustine would become even more adamant about the impossibility of ever overcoming human frailty and temptation, even through baptism.  In this sense, the work can be read as iconoclastic, an effort to humanize the bishops who were such unquestioned figures of power at the time.
Stylistically, Augustine’s incorporation of the Psalms in the text was new.  Content-wise, the book signals Augustine’s growing conviction that simple knowledge was not enough to overcome the power of force of habit.  The scope of what Augustine thinks the intellect can accomplish visibly declines throughout the narrative, and in his life; the inadequacy of intellectual knowledge of truth is essentially the reason he turns from Plotinus to Christianity in the text.  Instead, we need desire to motivate the will to act.      

One of the two major controversies of Augustine’s life, the Donatist affair traces back to 311 CE.  In the Persecution of Diocletian in 303 - 305, some bishops had collaborated with the authorities, handing over copies of the scriptures to be burned.  A certain sect of Christianity, which considered the Church to be exclusively a place for the righteous, believed that such an act  stripped a bishop of all ecclesiastical power and authority, making all of his actions null and void.  Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, was rumored to have been ordained by such a fallen priest, which would make his ordination invalid.  Consequently, a council of 80 bishops got together in 311, declared his ordination invalid and elected another, “pure” bishop in his place. Donatus.  The emperor Constantine supported Caecilian against Donatus and, eventually, the Catholic Church reinstated Caecilian as the bishop.  The Catholics imposed unity by force against a strong local Donatist group, but the reign of Constatine’s successor “Julian the Apostate,” brought renewed tolerance for the Donatists.
The issue at stake, particularly by Augustine’s time, was the identity of the Church.  Was it universal, a place for sinners and saints alike, or a sanctuary for the pure?  The Donatists saw themselves as something like the new Israel, and like the Chosen People of the Old Testament, they were filled with anxiety about the possibility of losing God’s favor through becoming ritually impure or violating his commandments.  The emphasis on “pure” bishops was something between a symbol of and substitution for this ideal of purity.  
When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, he was in a Catholic minority.  Yet, through a series of campaigns, catchy jingles, and legislation, he managed to get legislative support outlawing the Donatists, but not yet forcing their conversion to Catholicism.  The law was called “the edict of unity” and passed in 404.
However, in 410 Alaric sacks Rome, leading to a renewed period of toleration for the Donatists, as Rome is otherwise distracted.  After a short while, though, this toleration ends and representatives of both the Donatist and Catholic positions are summoned to Carthage to be tried by Marcellinus, a good Catholic, regarding the legitimacy of the Donatist position.  In 411, after relatively short trial, Marcellinus rules in favor of the Catholics, Augustine having saved the day, and in 412 the Edict against the Donatists is passed, allowing Augustine to ruthlessly persecute all members of the sect.        
The main points regarding the Donatist controversy is that it shows Augustine consolidating his political power, and comes at his moment of greatest enthusiasm for the alliance between Church and Empire, something that will decline in later years, particularly when Marcellinus is executed by state officials despite his intervention.  Additionally, this marks one of the moments when the Church settles on its message as a universal one, and not as another version of chosenness.

Sack of Rome and City of God:
I still don’t really know what City of God is about.  Nonetheless, the background is that with the sack of Rome, a series of Roman aristocrats fled to the provinces, including Hippo.  In reaction to their loss and anxiety, they developed a nostalgic valorization of the past, specifically through past classics.  City of God is written in what I take is an extremely pretentious literary style, with an unnecessary number of references to Cicero, as a response to the anti-Christian dialogues such aristocrats wrote.  The aim is to persuade the intelligent, cultivated pagan aristocrats of the rationality and appeal of Christianity.  
The first 10 books are devoted to critiquing and deconstructing the pagan religion, contextualizing Rome as a merely earthly city, born of a “lust for domination.”  This earthly city is contrasted with the “heavenly city.”  The citizens of heavenly Jerusalem, as opposed to those of earthly Rome, are characterized by their capacity to yearn for the beyond.  Consequently, Augustine turns to psalms, borrowing their language of love, longing, and desire.  This split reveals something of Augustine’s relation to the sack of Rome; while still convinced that Roman civilization will endure, he sees the empire nonetheless as worldly, fallen, and characterized by deep, destructive pride.  Though the sack of Rome is unfortunate, one’s true city is the City of God. 
Concomitant with the division between two cities is the split between two types of history: earthly and prophetic.  One could maybe conceive of the Augustinian earthly history as Benjamin’s mythic history.  Without the prophetic history, it would be a blank, meaningless succession of events.  However, it is punctuated by brief moments of revelation, such as the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets.  This red thread shows earthly history to be dynamic, providential, and meaningful.  Prophetic history is the rupture which allows us to orient ourselves in relation to the earthly.  
Pelagian Controversy:
Pelagius was a well-connected British “servant of God,” a religious layperson in the same way Augustine had been before ordination.  Very basically, he believed God had made man for happiness and that, therefore, not only was man capable of being corrected, if only he could buck corrupt human habit, but that perfection was mandatory.  Pelagius was extremely eager to stay in good standing with the Church, believing his theology necessary to reform it.    
By this point in his career, Augustine believed very firmly in predestination.  Not only did Pelagius’s teachings contradict that, not only did they deny that all humans shared in the sin of Adam, which made their redemption by Christ necessary, they also seemed to resurrect the old Donatist mania for purity.  On a basic phenomenological level, Augustine also thought Pelagius’s noion that one could control one’s desire and remain pure hopelessly naive.  Like Freud, Augustine believed that not all desire were accessible to consciousness.  Nocturnal emissions were the case in point.  
Augustine appealed to the pope, asked these beliefs to be declared heretical and basically won, becoming in the process an international figure.

Brown reads predestination as a response to the instability of the time and, more generally, to the instability of human life.  It seems a continuation of Augustine’s anxiety about the possibility of the self being dispersed through sin and inattention to God.  Nothing could guarantee the coherence of the self except the presence of God, yet observation proved that nothing - neither baptism, nor conversion, nor desire - sufficed to keep a human sinless.  Therefore predestination acts as a guarantee that for some individuals, if not for all, a coherent self does exists, providing the possibility of hope and the strength for action.  


  1. Sorry about that, put a blank one in by accident:

    Great discussion of a seemingly exhaustive, and definitely exhausting in length, work. A few things:

    Reading about Augustine's struggles with both the Donatists and the Peligians got me thinking about our discussions about Monotheism and Universalism this semester. I guess I hadn't really realized how long it took the Church to really become universalistic in message. Now obviously Paul's bringing the Gospel to the Nations was a great step towards universalism, but as we see here there were Christian groups still around in the 4th century who believed that the Church would always remain the home of only a few. It took thinkers like Augustine to truly universalize the Church by recognizing that there was room for sin in Christianity. The formula, Monotheism --> Universalism --> Coercion is not as straightforward as scholars like Assmann would have one believe. Interestingly, it seems like Augustine, by making the Church more internally tolerant, more universalistic, allowed it to become more externally intolerant. To him now, Christianity was not the domain of only the select few, rather it should and must encompass everyone, despite that fact that they would not all be saints.

    Another thing, I found Brown's discussion of Augustine’s journey from the perspective of the perfectibility or need for grace of man fascinating. I think it tied together his movements from Manichaeism to Neo-Platonism as well as his own issues in the debate between the doctrine of Grace and Peligianism well. Brown notes well the tensions in Augustine's later thought as he espouses a position, the need for Grace, that seems to bring him back to the Manichaeism of his youth. What I thought was really great about this text is that Brown indicates the important connections between Augustine’s biography, his personal experiences and feelings, and his philosophical positions, without being reductionist. Brown doesn’t explain away Augustine's positions on the basis of his biography. Partially, this is probably thanks to the insightfulness of Augustine himself, but I think Brown deserves credit too. It is all too easy to say that Augustine believed in Grace because of his own frequent nocturnal emissions.

    Lastly, I was struck by the role of the subconscious in Augustine’s work. Especially, in the role that it plays in ascribing sinfulness to individuals. Absolutely pure intentions are made essential, and then individuals are damned or in need of Grace because they cannot live up to it. The effect that this idea will have on our own civilization is obvious, but why it should be necessary is far from clear. It’s interesting that the Talmud, which was being formulated at the same time, took a very different track. While intention is necessary in order to fulfill commandments, this intention is not the Augustinian pure desire. Rather, it is merely the intention to complete the action that one is about to do. According to the Talmud, one should obviously strive to do commandments for the sole reason that God commanded one to perform them. However, if one did it for alternative reasons, for glory say, it would not subtract from the fulfillment of the commandment.

    Got to get back to packing for the move, so that it for me for now.

  2. Thanks, Yoni; great response.

    I was struck as well by the sense in which Christian universalism had to be invented. It makes sense that Augustine would have gotten his version of Christianity from Paul, given that. But Brown offers an interesting contrast to Assman or Freud, who depict monotheism as an outgrowth of imperialism, as something imposed on others from a position of strength. The situation is quite the contrary here; it's only in the decline of the empire that monotheism becomes the law. It's only as the state fragments that the religion becomes unified. It certainly lends itself to christian rhetoric - strength found in weakness, etc.

    Augustine is, for me, extremely appealing in certain ways. Obviously Brown soured on him about halfway through the book, but Augustine seems to capture a lot of themes that pomo theory claims to be returning to - the role of affect, this skepticism about the power of pure rationality, the role of desire. in a lot of ways, Augustine reads as if one were to take Freud and uproot him from the context of the Enlightenment and the concomitant scientific ideals. Freud has that ambiguity of pressing up against the limits of his theory, of formulating the unconscious in pursuit of a form of self-transparency. Augustine has the unconscious without the project of mastery assumed by science. Perhaps Augustine has something in the tension between the theology of weakness and his politics of strength? Weakness is theorized in a context of action, agency, and strength, just as the Freudian unconscious is theorized in the context of a will to mastery? I'd be curious to hear more thoughts on the relation between Freud and Augustine.

    One of the other themes I found extremely interesting was the relationship to text and reading that kept reemerging in the book. I suppose the quest for meaning inside the infinitely expansive Bible is really the analogue to the turn inward to the infinite soul.

    Just some thoughts -

  3. Thanks y'all. I wasn't so excited about this book, but I have been slowly won over. I agree that Brown did an excellent job biographizing without subjecting Augustine to a "premature death." So often biography and "context" are used to distance us from an author; here it's exactly the opposite.

    I especially liked his discussion of the City of God. It's all too easy to associate imperialist aspirations with the will to "distinguish oneself" as a man of God, but for Augustine these "otherworldly" people are distinct in this world for their "exilic" quality, their inability to be at home in a world of sin but simultaneous recognition of the need to engage that world in order to change it. A case could be made that this mode of altruism, the unwillingness to absent oneself from the world despite the conception of it as evil, is itself an "innocent" constitutive gap that engenders colonialism, imperialism, x-ism, but it's funny (and terrifying and evidencing a truly brilliant insidiousness) to see how it emerges from a self-conception as "resident alien."

    Regarding the invention of Christian universalism, Brown's book could almost be seen as a case study for Nietzsche's slave revolt: the story of a man who fights to universalize his particularity. In the Pelagian controversy, I found the story very reminiscent of the Genealogy of Morals. Pelagius, a model of virility who believes in the strength of the individual to "choose" his destiny, versus Augustine, a self-proclaimed invalid subservient to a strict inner/outer distinction. It was almost hilarious how Brown transitioned at the end of Chapter 29 where he talked about Augustine's fascination with babies, and how what ultimately separated him from Pelagius was his understanding of the human being as essentially helpless, to Chapter 30 where he detailed Augustine's ruthlessness in the Pelagian "witch-hunt." Babies persecuting "sovereign individuals."

    Finally, I attributed a great amount of importance to the following line on pg. 376: "The idea that we depend for our ability to determine ourselves, on areas that we cannot ourselves determine, is central to Augustine's 'therapeutic' attitude to the relation between 'grace' and 'free will.'" The basic idea that something lies outside of our consciousness and is yet constitutive and determinative of it is in Freud, in the German idealists, in Heidegger, etc. If I had to point to one feature of Augustine's works that evidences his impact on modern philosophy, it would be this.

  4. Thanks; the Nietzsche parallel is a good one.

    I think I'm troubled still by the question of imperialism without being able to articulate why, exactly. Do you two think Augustine is a classic example of imperialism or an anomalous one? I ask because, to take one example, I can't imagine the British empire basing its ideological justifications for imperialism in the rhetoric of weakness, alienation, and the claim of an evil world. Maybe if one reads the "uncivilized" as evil, part of the equation works, but the rhetoric of weakness seems missing. Do we just read the rhetoric of weakness in conjunction with repressive politics an act of bad faith on Augustine's part? Is it possible that Assman and co. are missing something essential when they characterize monotheism as an inherently violent, imperialist endeavour, an uncomplicated exertion of force? Or are they simply going behind the rhetoric of christianity and describing how it works in practice? I suppose the question is whether or not the language of exile is an irreducible part of imperialism, or whether it's something historically contingent and specific to Christianity.