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-by Alan Jacobs
Among the Augustines
Augustine and the Limits of Politics
By Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Notre Dame Press
143 pp.; $21.95
Augustine the Reader
By Brian Stock
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
463 pp.; $39.95
As Jean Bethke Elshtain notes in her new book, anyone with the temerity to write about that titanic enigma Augustine of Hippo must reckon with "the fact that there are so many Augustines--the pessimistic Augustine; the pluralist Augustine; the romantic Augustine; the reactionary Augustine; the sexist Augustine; the anti-sexist Augustine; even a sort of proto-socialist Augustine." The bishop himself had to acknowledge the problem when, near the end of his life, in his Retractions, he sorted through his works and tried to figure out what in his mature judgment he could endorse and what had to be repudiated. Clearly, his prolific mind had produced less a unified corpus than a clamoring crowd of books, jostling one another and arguing (like Jesus' disciples) over precedence and quality. Leaving aside his "wanderings," as he called them, in the fields of Manichaean error before his conversion to Christian orthodoxy, one still has, in the 30 years between the Confessions and the completion of the City of God, a bewilderingly diverse array of texts.
Given this profusion, one is tempted to conclude that evidence can be found somewhere in these works for any thesis about Augustine one might be inclined to formulate. This temptation Elshtain seems determined to resist: for her, a great many interpretations of Augustine are indeed valid, but some simply miss the mark. Indeed, one of the key purposes of the book seems to be to launch a kind of pre-emptive strike against some of the more common false Augustines. For instance, the picture familiar in some academic circles of Augustine as a world-hating ascetic receives its quietus in this passage from On the Trinity that Elshtain uses as her epigraph:
Behold, and see again if you can. Certainly you love only the good, because the earth is good ...