An Analysis of the Life and Writings of Bishop Augustine


From his writings it is clear how this bishop beloved by
God lived his life, as far as the light of truth was
granted him, in the faith, hope, and charity of the
catholic church, and those who read what he has written
about the things of God can profit thereby. But I think
that those who could hear and see him speaking before them
in the church could profit more from him, especially those
who knew how he lived among men."[1] So wrote Augustine's
friend and biographer, Possidius, not long after the old
bishop died (28 August 430). He felt what every reader of
Augustine has known, the inadequacy of trying to hear the
message of this man through the written word alone. Every
powerful writer is doomed in this way to outlive his own
grave, and to suffer the transformations and deformations
that later generations impose on one who is no longer able
to protest aloud. 

For fifteen and a half centuries, Augustine's words have
gone on being read and misread, gone on fueling controversy
and lending comfort. Whatever those words meant in his
lifetime, and whatever their role in the controversies of
the day, they have meant more and exercised more influence
since their author's death than before. The history of
Augustine's posthumous readership is a part of any attempt
to grasp the character of his thought. 

Augustine's own last contributions played an important role
in shaping and directing posterity's judgment of him.
Augustine had lived long enough to see optimistic phrases
of his youth thrown up in his face by the Pelagians and
their allies. He felt deeply the gaps that separated past
from present and present from future. We have seen how the
"historical" part of the Confessions, the painstaking
archaeological investigation of his own past, was meant to
put that past to rest and in so doing to clear the stage
for what would follow. For Augustine, all human life is
preface to a future the human imagination can scarcely
grasp; so at every point, the whole past becomes preface
anew and the future, whole and entire, remains. 

 Because Augustine continued to grasp the freshness of the
future and refused to accept the finality of the past, he
maintained with surprising vitality in old age not only the
convictions that had fired him in the fervor of conversion,
but even the tenacious power to explore their implications
further. This attitude produced what deserves to be
recognized as the first wrok in the history of Augustinian
scholarship; it is a book called the Retractationes (in
English, best perhaps as Reconsiderations). 

 In 427, Augustine reopened the excavation into his own
past, in a way almost as remarkable as that which produced
the Confessions: he set out to catalogue his own works,
part of a project that was to include a complete register
of his letters and sermons as well as his formal literary
products. Only the first stage of the catalogue was
completed in the form of the Reconsiderations we have, but
it is to that work, along with an index compiled by
Possidius shortly afterwards, that we owe not only our
knowledge of the identity and scope of Augustine's works,
but even to some extent the very survival of those works.
No other ancient author came equipped with so detailed a
list of his works for medieval scholars to use in searching
out copies with which to supply their libraries. The works
had therefore a better chance of survival. 
But Augustine was not content merely to catalogue the past.
He also reviewed it. For every work listed, he says
something of the circumstances of composition and
publication and adds something of the corrections and
amendments that, in his old age, he found necessary. A fair
number of these alterations treat points that had come into
controversy since the rise of the Pelagian movement, but
the corrections are scarcely limited to such
The Reconsiderations offer a final open chapter in an
intellectual autobiography: "The reader who reads my works
in the order in which they were written may learn something
of how I progressed as I wrote them."[2] The ideas and
themes of Augustine's past literary works were not for him
dead accomplishments of his past, but living testimonies to
faith. As such they were subject to change and improvement
as much as he was. The Reconsiderations retroactively turn
every one of Augustine's works into a kind of preface of
its own. What is important is not that the works were
written at some dead time in the past, but that they
continued to be read. What matters is not his achievement
in writing the works, but the reader's enlightenment on
encountering them. To that end, improvement, revision,
clarification, and correction all had a role to play.
Confession and reconsideration go hand in hand. 
The old Augustine observing the young Augustine at a
distance, qualifying and rephrasing but for the most part
affirming: he is not a bad model for his later students to
follow. Not all of his readers have been so indulgent to
his faults, though to be sure not all have been so
cautiously attentive to the nuances of what he said.[3] 
Augustine's death did not transform his readers overnight
from partisans to scholars. The debates that had begun over
grace and freedom in his lifetime lingered, to divide and
embarrass his followers. He was defended,
vociferously--perhaps too vociverously, against the
criticisms of the Gaulish monks, by Prosper of Aquitaine
(d. c. 463), but he was also the thinly veiled target of an
influential pamphlet, the Commonitorium of Vincent of
Lérins (d. c. 450), who proclaimed that Christian doctrine
consisted in what had been taught "always, everywhere, by
everybody"--and hence by implication did not include novel
ideas about predestination propagated by African bishops.
Behind both these relatively minor figures stood the
charismatic and magisterial authority of Augustine's
contemporary, John Cassian, a veteran of eastern monastic
discipline who had settled in Gaul and wrote two
tremendously influential collections of essays on the
monastic life, his Institutes and Conferences; his
authority and his restraint were equally influential in
keeping the controversy within remarkable bounds of
toleration. Schism was avoided. Eventually the cause of
Augustine's doctrine was taken up by the greatest Latin
preacher of the early church after Augustine, Caesarius of
Arles (d. 542), who shepherded the bishops of Gaul through
an important council in Orange (in 529) at which the
essence of the Augustinian doctrine was affirmed even while
certain doctrines (particularly that of double
predestination) were foresworn without prejudice to the
argument whether or not they could be found in the pages of
Augustine's reputation for learning and authority was not
materially damaged by the controversy. His generation had
given the Latin church four remarkable writers--Augustine,
Ambrose, Jerome, and Cassian--and there was never any
question but that the greatest of these was Augustine. For
the Middle Ages, Augustinianism did not consist solely or
even primarily of his doctrines of predestination (this is
exactly the reverse of what must be said of the modern
period); when controversy arose in these matters, his name
would be invoked (and there was a particularly lively
outbreak in the ninth century[5]), but his influence was
sought most eagerly elsewhere. From the fifth century to
the twelfth in the Latin west, the preeminent cultural
institution of Christianity was the monastery. In the
monasteries of this period Augustine's influence knew its
most unchallenged domination. In the sixth century, the
Neapolitan monk Eugippius (d. c. 535) put together a huge
anthology of excerpts from the writings of Augustine, for
those who could not find time for reading all of him.[6]
Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) is in many ways the most
Augustinian of theologians, and at the same time the most
original of his early disciples: his thirty-five books of
commentary on the book of Job (his Moralia) are Augustinian
in method and style, with few disagreements on points of
doctrine but some rather different emphases at the same
time.[7] Isidore of Seville (d. 636) made him an authority
in Visigothic Spain,[8] and the immensely learned Bede (d.
735), perhaps Augustine's greatest pupil, distinguished the
Anglo-Saxon church with a long series of commentaries on
The reforms of Charlemagne (d. 814) in matters of education
and church government expanded the influence of all the
great church fathers by improving the facilities for
copying and disseminating manuscripts, and by raising the
level of teaching in the monastic schools, but did little
more for Augustine particularly than continue what had been
now a centuries-long tradition. It remained for the
schoolmen of the first universities--particularly that of
Paris--in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to find new
ways of exploiting the rich vein of Augustine's teaching.
In their works we see the beginning of the process of
continuous transformation, and even deformation, that has
been Augustine's fate since. The monks had not after all
been very far from Augustine in the underlying spirit and
method with which they approached scripture and its
teachings. The new universities, half-drunk with the heady
influence of Aristotelian logic, replaced the scriptural
commentary with the formal disputation as the chief vehicle
of theological argument: though they quoted Augustine with
lavish praise[10], their real function was to supplant him.
Though he was still the object of great veneration, he was
no longer the latest and highest authority. 
Veneration is often the subtlest form of betrayal. That
Augustine's own teachings were not exactly the same as
those of the scholastics who praised him, imitated him, and
betrayed him can be seen in the later history of medieval
theology. Martin Luther came out of an Augustinian cloister
to brandish Augustinian doctrines of predestination in the
face of late scholastic churchmen--but it was a sometime
Augustinian monk, Erasmus, who took up the challenge to
debate Luther in the 1520's on precisely the issues of
grace and freedom that had been seemingly put to rest at
Orange a millennium before. (Erasmus also oversaw in the
same decade the publication of the first complete printed
edition of Augustine's works.)[11] 
From the Reformation dates the beginning of the tendency to
give the name Augustinianism narrowly to a limited body of
pessimistic doctrines about grace and freedom. Not
surprisingly, the reputation of Augustine in later
centuries often rose and fell according to the reputation
of just those particular doctrines. The Roman church
retained an ancestral reverence for his name and teachings,
but found itself increasingly compelled to disown in
controversy specific propositions for which support could
be found--most embarrassingly--in the writings of Augustine
himself. The respectful tone and zeal for harmony that had
been characterized the debates of the sixth century was
entirely absent in the sixteenth, to the lasting
disadvantage of Augustine's reputation. The
Counter-Reformation marks the decisive ascendancy of the
prestige of Aquinas over that of Augustine in the Roman
church, a transformation scarcely imaginable as late as
perhaps 1500. 
The last great battle over Augustine's heritage among
churchmen was fought in seventeenth-century France.
Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres (d. 1638), wrote a
monumental treatise, the Augustinus, published two years
after his death, the fruit--he said--of his having read the
entire body of Augustine's works ten times, and the works
on grace and freedom thirty times. His teachings found
fertile ground in an aristocratic enclave of asceticism
outside Paris, the convent of Port-Royal. The austere and
rigorous writers of this school, particularly Antoine
Arnauld (d. 1694) and Blaise Pascal (d. 1662)--especially
in his Provincial Letters, waged relentless polemical
warfare against the latitudinarian teachings of the
Jesuits, in pitched battle for the hearts of the French
ruling classes. Papal condemnation in 1653 and partial
capitulation by the Jansenists in 1668 marked the end of
this brief flowering of Augustinian passion.[12] It should
not be overlooked, however, that the great edition of
Augustine's works by the Benedictines of St. Maur
(beginning in 1672) is owed at least in part to the
enthusiasm the Jansenists fostered. 
The heat of controversy did not offer much hope of a calm
resolution to the question whether a synthesis of
predestinarian teaching such as Jansen's could
satisfactorily represent Augustine's many-sided character
to a modern readership. The fading of ecclesiastical
controversy and the rise of critical scholarship in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to create an
environment in which such questions could be debated
seriously and real progress made. For Augustine's
reputation, this was at best a mixed blessing: if the
scholastics had replaced obedience with a sometimes
faithless veneration, the age of criticism has often
accompanied its veneration with suspicion, and old
allegiances faded slowly. Catholic scholars were slowt o
forgive Augustine for the aid and comfort he offered
Luther, but Protestants were no less slow to forgive him
for the medieval church and its practices. 
In our own time, Augustine is no longer the venerable
ancestor looming over every ecclesiastical controversy that
he was for so long, and this is almost certainly to his
advantage. We are freer than any generation since his own
to confront him as he was, to let him speak for himself,
and to live out the implications of what he had to say.
Little has changed. The future of Augustine's teaching
remains exactly what it was when he was alive and writing;
his works exalt and exhaust, just as they always have. 

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