From James Wetzel’s book, Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed, published in 2010 by Bloomsbury Academic.
Prologue: A Life Confessed
Look, my life is a stretch. —Augustine, Conf. 11.29.39
Augustine was born on the 13th of November 354 in the town of Thagaste in Roman North Africa. His historical placement puts him, on the one hand, in a fallow period in the history of philosophy, at least by conventional standards, and, on the other, in one of the richest times in the history of theology. To scholars of Patristics, who study the theological formation of the early Christian church (roughly from the end of the first century to some indeterminately medieval beginning), Augustine is a titanic figure. No one in the increasingly Latinized West can rival the literary achievement of the man who wrote Confessions, City of God, and The Trinity—these being only the most celebrated items in a vast collection of writings whose depth and insight continue to this day to surprise.
Meanwhile his philosophical readers, for whom Patristics is an alien category, can barely find a way to place him at all. Augustine is too distant from Plato and Aristotle, and frankly too Christian, to be considered classical, and so he tends to be lumped in with the underappreciated medieval figures in canonical histories of philosophy. Mostly he gets compared to Thomas Aquinas—one of the first university professors of philosophy—who, unlike Augustine, made a big point of distinguishing properly philosophical theology from extra-rational revelation. The other tendency is for Augustine to get slipped into philosophy’s history as a proto-modern. Antoine Arnauld, a contemporary of Descartes and Pascal, was only the first to claim that the Cartesian discovery of an indubitable thinking self—immaterial, impersonal, and uniquely capable of knowledge—has a precedent in Augustine’s conception of a self-related mind. In general Augustine is credited with having a peculiarly modern sense of selfhood, but this usually has more to do with the agonized self-consciousness of his confessional persona than his interest in a dematerialized psyche, or with what makes him seem more like a Dostoevsky than a Descartes.
Augustine’s slippery presence within the margins of philosophical canonizations makes his outsized theological stature all the more striking—but also perplexing. Is it really possible to have a highly articulate, hugely influential vision of religious possibility and not in some substantial way be cultivating a philosophy? What does it say about our intellectual culture, about us, if we find it relatively easy, even unremarkable, to tell stories about the past that partition off the history of our reverences from the history of our philosophical inquires?
I ask these questions keenly aware of the difference in cultural moment between Augustine’s day and our own. He was born after the fateful conversion of emperor Constantine to Christianity but before Christianity became the only sanctioned way of being Roman. Augustine’s father, Patricius (Patrick), was a pagan until soon before his death, when he accepted baptism; his mother, Monnica, grew up with a Christianity that was still mostly a cult of reverence for local saints and martyrs. As he came to his own, not always consistent, sense of a catholic faith, Augustine would have to negotiate a pluralistic mix of religious ritual and philosophical ambition, fluidly pagan and variously Christian. When he dies in August of 430, after more than thirty years as bishop of the port city of Hippo, his version of Christianity will have become, at least nominally, the imperial choice. In 380 Theodosius outdoes Constantine and makes Catholic Christianity the official religion of the Roman imperium; some ten years later we find him outlawing pagan worship. The emperor Honorius, ruling after the partition of the empire into East and West, not only continues the imperial campaign against Rome’s ancestral religions; he also weighs in against Donatism, the more home-grown form of Christianity in Roman North Africa. In 405 Honorius issues the Edict of Unity and Donatism is declared a heresy—a Christianity too defiant, too proud, too anti-Roman to be sustained. The problem for the favored form of Christianity was that its catholicity was being fitted out with the clay feet of a far-from-eternal empire. Lying on his death-bed while Vandals were blockading Hippo and preparing to besiege the city, Augustine surely knew this to be the case. We who live on the other side of Christian hegemony have the long view on the devil’s pact between political power and religious affiliation; we also, as children of the genocidal 20th century, know something about the cruelty of which secular regimes are all too capable. We live in fragilely pluralistic times, hounded by resurgent fundamentalisms and bereft of a benignly secular sanctuary. We are far from Augustine’s moment.
So what can we expect from reading him again, assuming that we have grown tired of both religious nostalgia and secular indignation? I keep using the first person plural. I should come clean about my presumption. I am not writing a guide to Augustine for Christians, much less for Augustinian Christians, though I am, in more ways than not, an Augustinian Christian myself. I am not writing to convince a secular audience of the secular value of a suitably pruned Augustinianism, though I don’t deny that this exercise can be of some ecumenical interest. I am writing to those who are willing to entertain the notion that the history of their reverences includes more than the history of their current allegiances. More to the point, I am writing to those who are willing to entertain this notion but are perplexed by how to do so in practice.
Philosophers generally have no trouble with the idea that it is possible to take wisdom from a Plato or a Chrysippus and not have to become a card-carrying Platonist or a Stoic. But this catholicity, admirable as it is, has a much harder time taking in more religiously identified thinkers. In the Apology, the dialogue that dramatizes Socrates’ day in court, Plato ties his teacher’s philosophical vocation to a form of religious piety; Socrates turns to philosophy out of respect for the Delphic Oracle and his faith that the god must be telling him the truth, however hard the truth may be for him to interpret. He becomes a philosopher, a true craver of wisdom, when he resolves to understand what the god means. I dare say that few contemporary philosophers—Platonist or otherwise—agonize much over Plato’s faith in Apollo when trying to get at the meaning of Platonism. Matters are very different when it comes to Augustine. The comparatively few philosophers who include him in their catholicity make a conscious effort to divest his philosophy from his allegiance to his church and his love of Christ. Partly this is because of history: Christianity, not paganism, becomes the dominant, sometimes domineering, religion of Europe and its colonizing efforts. (And what is more bluntly contrary to philosophy than coercion?) Partly this is because of Augustine himself. Unlike Plato, he explicitly ties the pursuit of wisdom, or true religion, to a prior acceptance of dogmatic authority (util. cred. 9.21): “Apart from believing the beliefs that we later grow to understand and follow, if we acquit ourselves well and are worthy, true religion cannot, absent authority’s weighty power, be rightly entered—no way.” These words suggest the disposition of a religiously identified thinker: they exult belief over doubt, favor interpreting over knowing.
But here we need to be careful. The assumption that either consigns Augustine to a Patristics cul-de-sac or exports him unceremoniously into the Middle Ages (philosophy’s Age of Faith) has him assuming beliefs without trying very hard to understand them. Imagine a hypothetical argument between two philosophers—a self-described empiricist and a faithful Augustinian. Let’s grant that they have the same basic conception of how to reason. They start with premises that they deem to be true and important, and they attempt, when drawing implications, to rely as firmly as possible on the truth of the foundational premises (basically a matter of maintaining consistency). Having them begin with different premises, we can expect, given their common form of reasoning, that they will end in different places. The empiricist tells you that to be an empiricist you must begin with the premise that all knowledge is based on the senses; the farther away a claim is from verification in sense experience—e.g., the claim that God is immaterial—the less likely it is that a claim to knowledge is being made, much less a false one. The Augustinian tells you that God is the reality most worth knowing, that nothing else, like, say, the sensed world, is all that real when compared to God. To come to know God, the Augustinian continues, you must begin with the premise that the sublime father of all things, the creator of heaven and earth, has entered human awareness most intimately by way of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, his only begotten son. The Incarnation is your meditative point of departure for a knowing life.
I have, for effect, made the two sides sound as alien as possible to one another, and the easiest way to do this was to make the Augustinian sound unabashedly devotional, the empiricist soberly philosophical. One way philosophers have had to adjudicate this sort of difference has been to assume that a secular premise, having no religious intonation, is readily intelligible to all (i.e., we know what makes it true or false), while a religious premise, being dressed in the language of a particular faith, is intelligible, if at all, only to the practitioners of that faith. But if the proper context of philosophical inquiry is cosmos and not church, philosophers being assumed to be the most cosmopolitan of thinkers, then this form of adjudication is not going to come out well for the religiously identified philosopher. Augustine will be granted philosophical credentials in as much as his vision of things can be abstracted and assessed apart from his specifically Christian commitments. As for what remains, the stubbornly sectarian part, that will define for us an Augustine who is a man of his times, socially conditioned to clip his own wings and maintain the status quo.
The minority response from within philosophy to a condescending and perhaps overly self-confident philosophical secularism has been to try to level the playing field. So what if the empiricist premise seems simpler and less culturally invested than the Augustinian alternative? Appearances can deceive. Were we to investigate the matter more thoroughly, we would discover that the foundations of the empiricist world-view are no more self-authenticating, no more self-founding, than the cardinal truths of the Christian faith. Faith-disdaining empiricists would soon begin to look less cosmopolitan and more like self-deceived sectarians. Meanwhile the self-aware Augustinians continue to acknowledge their debt to their church and philosophize with all due humility. The problem with this picture of the contest between secular and religious philosophy is that it distorts, in an all-too-tempting way, what Augustine tries to mean by church.
Suppose that you are puzzled by the choice between the empiricist and the Augustinian. Neither philosophy seems intuitively obvious to you in its foundational premise, but it strikes you that it matters, and matters a great deal, whether you live your life more like an empiricist or more like an Augustinian. You take the empiricist to be telling you that your best course in life is to ground yourself in the self-evident facts of your situation, steel yourself against the fantasies of your fears and false hopes, and work patiently to get to know the world that you have been given to know. You take the Augustinian to be telling you that your world is laced, perhaps infused, with the mystery of divinity; it has walked in your shoes, so to speak; your best course in life will be to strive humbly to discern difference between the mystery that you manufacture to keep others in their place and the mystery that comes through your compassionate desire to connect. How will you choose between these paths?
If you look to the Augustine who is writing less than ten years past his conversion (and this includes both the leisured contemplative and the young priest), he will tell you to associate yourself with the better class of people. Let’s say that the Augustinians, as a self-supporting group, prove to be more virtuous as a community than the empiricists: that will be sufficient evidence, given a view of knowledge that unifies fact and value, that the Augustinians have the better claim for the truth of their foundational premise. This early view of his, in terms of the way I have just described the options, is actually more empiricist than Augustinian: it assumes that there is a fact of the matter—the superior goodness of one person or group over another—that can be exploited to define an authentically wisdom-seeking community, a true church, and secure it against its ignorant and badly behaved rivals. He loses his hold on this kind of imperious empiricism, however, soon into his tenure as bishop of Hippo, near the beginning, that is, of his big responsibilities as a church leader. His sense of what a church is, of what it means to be either on the inside or the outside of one, changes deeply for him. He will spend the rest his life returning to that depth and attending to its mystery.
I refer to the radicalization of his doctrine of grace. Even the most pugilistic seeker of truth has to admit at the end of the day that truth is not the product of argument but is on occasion the blessing that is bestowed upon the winner of an intelligent fight; on other occasions, the winning seems to lack altogether the grace of truth—the winner’s perspective being narrowed, not enhanced. There are all kinds of ways in which we are made more receptive to truth: some have us winning arguments, others losing them, some delight and uplift us with revelations of beauty, others knock us off our feet and reveal to us our blindness. The revelation that made Augustine most receptive to truth—and more or less knocked him off his feet—has been by far the most perplexing for his readers to comprehend. While working as a new bishop on a bit of Romans exegesis, Augustine reluctantly comes to the conclusion that God’s favor of Jacob, the second twin out of Rebecca’s womb, over Esau, his big brother—the topic of Romans 9—has nothing to do with some greater potential for virtue on Jacob’s part. From the perspective of grace (what Augustine takes Paul’s perspective to be), the two brothers share the same birth, despite Esau’s head start in life. Esau, in other words, isn’t being denied grace because of his natural gifts of strength and vitality; Jacob is being granted grace despite his apparent lack of these same gifts. The moral of the story, when shifted to the register of truth-seeking, was to Augustine both clear and unsettling: the desire for truth is not a natural virtue to be perfected and rewarded; it is a grace that compels continual transformation. Looking back on his struggle to resist this wisdom, Augustine, now an old bishop, will write (retr. 2.1): “I labored on behalf of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God won out.”
He does not mean to suggest that divine power obliterates human freedom—if that were so, how could he even confess to a conflict? His point is that his efforts at self-assertion, bent on earning him absolute favor and love, assume the existence of a self not yet in evidence. The ultimate source of life or the great parent that Augustine is trying to impress with his independence is still parenting him, both from within and from without, and to whatever extent Augustine has a self to assert, he has a cause for gratitude, not a demand for recognition. This qualification of his doctrine of grace does nothing, of course, to resolve the perplexity that the doctrine occasions; it makes it worse in fact. The usual complaint against the Doctor of Grace is that he undermines the rational basis of reward and punishment: his God gives us too much help when it comes to virtue and too little when it comes to vice. The real perplexity runs deeper than this. If I am to be grateful for every aspect of my being that can be considered, however meagerly, to be good, what of me is left over to express the gratitude? I would be happy and quite grateful to be able to live a life of gratitude, but wouldn’t my gratitude have to be the one grace that I could not, on pain of self-contradiction, credit to God? If the grace of God preempts my freedom even to express my gratitude, I will not thereby be diminished or repressed: I simply never will have been.
Augustine becomes Augustine, a religious genius, when he shifts his manner of struggle with the great perplexity of being a self-conscious but wholly derived being. He gives less effort to the attempt to reserve for himself and the rest of us a small pocket of human initiative and more attention to an apparent paradox of ultimate power: that the God who parents humanity enters into our human genealogy as his mother’s baby boy—a stunningly mundane intervention that invites each of us to receive, along with our universally divine parenting, a distinctive birth, a unique beginning. There is no contradiction between having a personality and revering oneness, not if this paradox is only apparent. But there is a fearsome struggle in human life—Augustine calls it the struggle of sin against grace—to hold onto the appearance and resolve personality into the oneness that is either jealously one or guardedly other (same difference). The church that would be a sanctuary for God’s children would have to refrain from using its beliefs to divide and conquer, even as it commits itself in faith to a particular love. Augustine tries not to mean by church the institution that has the terrible responsibility for making its beliefs everyone’s. He does not always succeed in this, but he never fails to remind us that the temptation to live in that impossible pocket of God-free initiative (i.e., to live in hell) is always with us in this life. Expect the church, mortal as we are, to falter.
I call him a genius not to praise him but to signal my intent to engage him where truth and force of personality are distinct but inextricable. The two ideally conjoin to reinforce and amplify one another, but their conjunction can also be a confusion that conspires with bad faith and self-deception. The essence of Augustine’s perplexing faith is his confidence that the ideal is more real, more substantive than the confusion. It is impossible, he thinks, to escape the confusion, or even to want to escape it, apart from first being claimed by the ideal. That realization will always be a cause of gratitude, and in that gratitude there is both the beginning and the end of a life. Augustine’s ideal of a life is of a life confessed. More often than not, confession connotes an admission of wrong-doing. When Augustine thinks of confession, he does have sin in mind, but where confession of wrong-doing subjects a person to censure or prosecution, confession of sin liberates a person from self-inflicted punishment. The more we learn to speak with God, this being the root meaning of confession, the less we will be tempted to belittle our lives and stuff them into tiny boxes of false security. The philosophical life, as Augustine conceives of it, is a lesson from life in how to petition for life. “Only those who think of God as life itself,” he writes (doc. Chr. 1.8.8), “are able not to think absurd and unworthy things of God.” And of themselves.
I lack the skill and the inspiration (and frankly the nerve) to write philosophy in the form of a prayer, but I think I understand the impetus to do so. In this guide to Augustine, the most confessional of philosophers, I will give you my best sense of this impetus and what actively resists it. Augustine is especially good at helping us see through some of the counter-forces to a life’s liberation—especially the ones that masquerade as desires for self-sufficiency and moral responsibility. He is harder to follow, but still good company, when it comes to unmasking sexual desire. I will not shy away from using his best inspiration not only to clarify but also to challenge some of the things that he says. I do not do this out of any sense of having wisdom superior to his. I respect and share his view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self. I correct expecting to be corrected. I trust that I will expand rather than wither. I owe Augustine’s spirit no less a confidence.
My guide falls into four chapters. The first two take up illusions of selfhood that he struggled to combat. One of the illusions is about self-sufficiency. Is it a reasonable wisdom to want to live outside the shadow of loss? You know that you and yours are mortal, but you work to become sufficiently secure in your self-conception to be able to accept mortality and not feel diminished. The philosophy that Augustine inherits, especially in its Romanized version, encourages him to embrace this path, but he finds himself hoping more to grieve well than not at all. The latter is an ideal, but not for this life. The other illusion of selfhood, and it has a much deeper bite for Augustine, concerns responsibility for sin. He is very tempted to embrace the notion that sin is his one absolute initiative as a human being in a God-governed world. It is a perverse initiative, to be sure—a self-defeating form of self-assertion—but it seems nevertheless an initiative that speaks to the essence of his individual responsibility. Augustine finds it much easier to share his virtue with God than share his sin. The sin-sharing seems to him disreputable for both parties. It makes him irresponsible, and it makes God out to be corrupt. Augustine will have to think very differently before he can learn to subordinate his responsibility for sin to his more fundamental responsiveness to God. When he is led into himself and into a new way of seeing, he is set to become aware of the tension between Platonism’s ideal and Paul’s Christ—between philosophical catharsis and the resurrection of flesh.
In the third chapter, I revisit Augustine’s preoccupations with death and sin, this time within the context of his myth of origins—his reading of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Augustine uses this story to illustrate, but not derive, his version of the doctrine of original sin. I criticize the part of his doctrine that has sin being transmitted from parent to child by way of sexual reproduction. But I do this by way of immanent critique. It is the profundity of Augustine’s own reading of Genesis that suggests why sin simply cannot be construed to be procreative. His reading tells us other things as well: about the nature of his conversion, his torment over his sexual desire, his ambivalent love of an incarnate God. This chapter is really the heart of the guide.
The last chapter, Almost an Epilogue, is a necessarily inconclusive meditation on the radicalization of grace. Augustine generally gets pegged as an eschatological thinker. This means that he expects the last things about human life—the final perfection of its form in some, its ultimate corruption in others—to happen outside the purview of historical time. In terms of what we can foresee, we can reasonably expect a lack of resolution. Yesterday’s sinner is potentially today’s saint, and today’s saint is potentially tomorrow’s sinner. The play between grace and sin, like light and shadow, infuses the time-defined world, in some sense creates it. But there is an ambiguity in Augustine’s eschatology. Does he think that our human conception of the good remains perpetually open to revision over time, or does he subscribe to a largely fixed conception that awaits a final, extra-temporal fulfillment? If the latter, then Augustine would likely be identifying Christianity—or at least his version of it—with the form of the good. God would have to supply form with substance (the divine self-offering), but Augustine and his church should be able to establish the right environment for the reception of an interior grace. While I don’t think that this is the best way to read Augustine, I concede that he makes this reading tempting when he gets down to the business of justifying imperial sanctions against the Donatists, whose Christianity rivaled his own. Ultimately I resist the temptation and leave him a thinker of radical grace.
I have decided, for the purposes of this guide, to engage the thought of only a few of Augustine’s ancient sources. Cicero figures prominently in chapter 1, Plotinus and Paul in chapters 2 and 3, Virgil in the concluding meditation. I have made no attempt to supply a running commentary on the Augustine scholarship. Somewhat artificially, but I think justifiably, I have focused this guide on what makes Augustine perplexing and not on what makes the vast scholarship on him perplexing (a fine topic for a different book). This choice of mine should not be taken to imply that I have no gratitude for the scholarship. There are great riches there, and I have given you a treasure map of sorts in the lists of suggested readings that appear at the ends of chapters and at the end of the book. I have annotated all the individual items and arranged them under headings to give you some idea, admittedly rudimentary, of the structure of Augustinian studies. Please don’t assume that the books listed are just the best books, whatever best might mean, or that they are a fully representative sampling of what’s out there. The field of Augustinian studies is too vast and too diverse to represent succinctly, and I have had to leave off many worthy titles. I will say that every book and essay on my collective list is well worth reading.