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Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography
Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography
Miles Hollingworth
Oxford University Press, 2013
336 pp., 45.95

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Sarah Ruden


Missing the Point

On Augustine and the peculiarities of academic publishing.

I must have been only six or seven when my parents put me to work clearing the garden of potato beetles at five cents each. There weren't terribly many beetles—I remember devoting an hour or so to finding four or five—nor were they particularly destructive. But at that piecework rate I could supplement my tiny allowance and indulge in fluorescent, fruit-flavored bubble gum (for which I had an unseemly passion). My parents mainly wanted to keep me out of trouble and teach me a lesson in useful, justly compensated work at the same time.

Looking at academic publication now, and thinking about general discussions of "productivity" in the US, I speculate about how my parents could have gone wrong in their terms for my work. Had they paid a quarter each for the insects, I would have come out with an absurd sense of my efforts' importance.

At a penny apiece, on the other hand, our bugs wouldn't have financed a single worthwhile candy run the whole season. I might have shown up at neighbors' front doors as free pest control, turned in those bugs to my parents, and (in my small way) skewed the local chore economy; or, feeling shamed and cheated by a handful of pennies in exchange for my sweat and sunburn, I might simply have become even more disaffected and annoying than before.

My parents made a pretty good arrangement through thinking, as they habitually did, about human beings with a continuing stake in each other—themselves, me, the neighborhood, my future associates—and not potato plants in isolation. (And no, there couldn't be any perfect, libertarian marketplace for bug-gathering, or for anything else, unless the human minds that effect pricing were perfect.)

Nowhere does the opposite kind of thinking—a wanton numerical reductivism—show up more embarrassingly than in academic publication. In the humanities, at least, the quality of the experience for everybody should be the main thing. The formulaic manipulation that superficially prevails tends to be that of placing prices for "research" way too high. Among the "outcomes" are, for example, volumes of conference proceedings that look as if cubes sporting words of current jargon have replaced the letter cubes in many solemn rounds of Boggle.

It might seem attractive to set prices very low as a way to induce more attention to teaching—a goal most of the public favors. But this "solution" would yank teaching itself out of the human, ethical context and ruin it. Somebody should start a company called Solutions Solutions, which consults on cleaning up the havoc caused by trying to turn human beings into data sets. But the company wouldn't have much to do but ask, "Is this the best way for the various parties to be treated—judging from the way you'd want to be treated?" and "Then why do you think it would work in the long term?"

Two recent books on Augustine of Hippo seem to show excesses of academic publication in both directions. It's expensive, because institutions need to "support" it for self-preservation, within the conditions they themselves have set up and don't see a way out of. There have to be wide publication opportunities, and generous promotion for publications, or few people could qualify to become or remain academics, so quite high "prices" tend to be paid for researching and writing a book. But how arbitrary these prices are shows in the literal pricing of the two books I'm reviewing here: same publisher, similar length and presentation, issued the same year—but the list price for the one is more than twice as much.

Yet the academic presses' output is, in more practical terms, cheap in that conscientious vetting beforehand and wide use and praise afterward are hardly common. Editors and the public undervalue these books, and the authors' colleagues themselves usually give them only brief attention—and it would be remarkable, in the circumstances, if this attention were free of quid-pro-quo insincerity. Imagine a performance that you're urged to give, helped with money, technology, and infrastructure to give, that in fact you have to give, but that hardly anyone watches or cares about.

I was nonplussed at just the title of Miles Hollingworth's Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Augustine himself wrote the ultimate intellectual biography, his own, the Confessions. As a translator of Augustine, I naturally feel that this literary genius and leading Christian theologian should merely be presented more clearly and discussed and debated in his own terms, not disappeared and strangled as a political inconvenience and replaced on his platform with an Augustine mock-up. But I wouldn't have become his translator in the first place were I not deeply convinced that the first way is the way to go. And I think most readers would share my annoyance with Hollingworth's view of his mission:

[T]he modern historian must be a diplomat. He must promote the democracy of facts on the principle of equality—and in light of the understanding that social power has historically been wielded in the prejudices of the "grand narratives." Man over women; civilization over barbarism; religion over reason. Yet he must not go so far as to eliminate altogether the space for human agency and spiritual currencies of the human heart.

Uh, thanks so much? That is, for not making a book "about" Augustine about nothing at all but premises in which he wasn't even interested. Only a quite grotesque inflation of scholarship's purported value could convince a modern scholar that this is the right role for him.

The book is packed with language inapplicable to ancient culture, such as "multiculturalism" and "the race card." Citations of thinkers who have a looser connection to Augustine than my mailman does make the head spin: Vaclav Havel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, the Buddha, Hannah Arendt. Like the vocabulary, the names seem to be there mainly because they're trendy.

All of this is strung together with remarks that could apply to just about anyone, any time, anywhere: "Augustine's age looked out upon a world of intensity"; "To a sensitive child making terms with the world, Roman North Africa in the fourth century could be discouraging"; "We possess and are possessed by what is straight before us," etc., etc. The Freudians' concentration on Augustine's close relationship to his mother and on his sexual guilt looks cogent by comparison.

The missing of the point is like a moon shot that plunges into the sun. Augustine's world had a particular kind of intensity, his mind a special kind of sensitivity. And he was definitely not possessed by what was before him, but struggled monumentally to perceive deeper reality—and then spent decades as a popular scholar, preacher, and polemicist, expounding and defending what the historical evidence suggests were at the time compelling if not entirely fresh versions of metaphysics and ethics. Most Christians still hold, largely because of him, that God as the creator and ruler of time and space isn't vulnerable to quibbles about how he fits into either; and that the necessity of choosing between sexual abstinence or legally binding monogamy applies equally to men and women.

Hollingworth's exposition is so shredded among various political and social fashions that it manages to muddle in psychobabble Augustine's fundamental conviction—never wavering even at times of greatest confusion, doubt, and discouragement—that God exists:

Being is the psychological condition that life puts us into. Being implicates all human resources for survival, up to and including the rational apprehension of knowledge. Being is therefore something we do not share in common with God [sic]… . It is really another term for self-consciousness [sic; as if God would not be conscious of himself].

This kind of digression leaves me muddled myself: such ideas seem in no way attributable to Augustine, and yet they aren't a rational qualification or contradiction of anything Augustine wrote either. What, then, are they doing here?

Quotations of Augustine (though they hardly fit in) are like chances to come up for air. The man was a popularizer par excellence; he's almost always vivid and to the point—except where he's badly translated. But don't get me started about that.

To modern readers, probably the most distressing thing in Augustine's writings is his treatment of sin and guilt. He insists on human sinfulness inherited from Adam and Eve, and he perceives evil even in babies (including his past self) who cry and want their own way; infant baptism is supposed to provide special moral and spiritual protection for them. He raves about how, as a teenager along with others, he viciously raided a tree—for fruit so bad that no one had bothered to pick it.

He uses the language of filth and disease about the ordinary condition of young men such as he was, who didn't have either the means to marry or the capacity to forgo sex. (Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 looks on the sex drive compassionately and seems to assume that, within the Christian community at least, everyone who needs to will be able to marry. So much for that, in Augustine's Confessions.)

Yet God, the creator of human nature and all other things, is not to blame, according to Augustine; evil doesn't even exist as such, but is only the absence of good, so that God can't be said to have formed humankind—which is naturally good, like all of creation—to sin. Sin is a twisting of the human will away from God—but a strangely universal twisting.

However, Jesse Couenhoven, in Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology, problematizes these views far too much, in effect presenting Augustine as a failed systematic theologian and bumbling 21st-century ethicist and psychologist. The present-day scholar all but ignores the ancient seeker's deep need for and joy in God, a need and a joy understandably felt through personal limitations. Augustine repeatedly imagines God laughing at his inability to draw intellectual conclusions, of which, he repeatedly asserts, a believer has no essential need: life's business, after all, is about faith and love.

Augustine was also, and not incidentally, a busy clergyman and popularizing religious author, drafted into that role from the seclusion of a religious community. He was trained in rhetoric to be a public man, and after he refused to be a worldly one, he became one in the church. And those who decry the institutionalization of the early church in alliance with the Roman state in this period should look at the actual humane, helpful, guiding, scolding, nonsense-refuting forms that Augustine's million or so words tended to take.

He was, in short, a pastor, and a good one—which has nothing to do with being right all the time in the eyes of people two thousand years later (who don't happen to have figured out a perfect relationship with God or built perfect societies themselves). Here is a little of what he preached about free will: "[W]e have to pray that we may be able to fulfill [what we are commanded]; but not in such a way that we let ourselves go, and like sick people lie flat on our backs and say, 'May God rain food on our faces.' "

This urging is better than perfectly fair morality or a comprehensive description of the universe: it's true and useful. You have to lie still in traction after a bus has run you over because that's just the way things are, and we tell you so because we care about you. I'm reminded also of a campus minster's encapsulation of human responsibility in relation to God: You party the night before the final, and you flunk. God will forgive your sin, but do you expect him to raise your grade?

Couenhoven quotes the Augustinian sermon while developing a "compatibilist" theology, or one that sees determinism and free will as reconcilable. Augustine is a compatibilist, if you have to put a label on him. But you don't; much less do you have to try to improve upon him, in this manner:

In the following chapters, I argue that although Augustine's views must be reformulated to order to be defensible, many of his central claims are insightful and can be redeemed. In particular, though I ignore Augustine's ideas about a historic fall and reject his claim that infants share a common blame forgiven only through baptism, I offer revised versions of Augustine's ideas about human solidarity and inherited constitutional faults ….
In order to retrieve [his] ideas, it is essential to have a theory of responsibility that clarifies how it can be appropriate to hold persons responsible for involuntary, inherited sins.

I have to gulp down anger at such condescension about a man who was—minimally—a literary genius. I'm even angrier when Couenhoven concludes a book-length disquisition by stressing the need for compassion, the fact that "sin often functions as its own punishment," and trust in divine grace; none of which points Augustine missed, but all of which he expressed with verve, sincerity, and common sense. To me, that's what literary genius does best, and among human achievements it can't be improved on.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Harp, the Voice, the Book: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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