Very few figures in history have had reception as wildly divergent as that of Augustine of the Hippo, the most influential church father and, perhaps, the most important Christian theologian for the Western world. To read the ways in which Augustine has shaped and influenced major thinkers throughout western history is to read a who’s who of the western canon.
But this is also a major problem. The very elasticity of Augustine’s thinking, the ways in which he pressed the bounds of human thought, are so prodigious and free form that it makes him susceptible to wildly different interpretations. Throughout the middle ages Augustine is called into the lists on behalf of every theologian, church leader, or thinker to support their cause.
Claiming you were in line with Augustine was akin to saying you were in line with the Bible. As with all thinkers whose thought seems to hang over us and influence us, the problem is that Augustine becomes almost meaningless because he means everything. His thought is so pervasive, so all-consuming, that it actually empties the particular person of their particular thoughts and positions. If you are everything then you are nothing.
James K.A. Smith of Calvin College has been one of the recent popularizers of Augustine’s thought. Speaking recently at the Trinity Forum in Washington, D.C. on the release of his new book, On The Road with Saint Augustine, Smith offered Augustine up as a figure who can speak to the questions and issues that we are wrestling with in our late modern world. Responding and reflecting along with Smith was Elizabeth Bruenig, columnist for the Washington Post who often sprinkles her own editorials with insights from Augustine.
Whatever one makes of Smith’s project and appropriation of Augustine, I will say that he is very much on point in asserting that the beating heart, or one of the beating hearts (there are so many!), of his famous Confessions is that of a deep spirituality. The depths of searching and attention to human psychology in Confessions is unmatched in the ancient world.
Augustine’s insights are strikingly modern and uncanny. In the opening book of Confessions Augustine launches into a riff on the psychology of children that would make Freud jealous. So I do not find fault with Smith trying to relate the brilliance and substance of Augustine’s insights to our (post) modern world.
In listening to Smith and Bruenig, however, I was struck not only by the relevance of Augustine but how they have made Augustine into a certain image in order to speak to our times. During the Q&A Smith took time to chide American Christians (read evangelicals) for their eschatological heresy of supporting Donald Trump too enthusiastically.
Smith trots out the tired critique of white men supporting “nationalism” as the pathology that Augustine would be horrified by. Really? The bishop who used Roman authorities to force Donatists back into the church by force would be horrified by men being attracted to the idea of nationalism over and against cosmopolitanism?
By bringing Augustine so close to our time Smith and many other interpreters make the error of fashioning Augustine in our own image. Making Augustine speak to our issues can give the illusion that Augustine was bothered or cares about or understands these issues in the same ways that we do. He does not.
The obsession with the “self” and liberty are distinctly modern American obsessions and to read Augustine as if he thinks “finding a self” is the core of his project is to read Augustine anachronistically. Canadian communitarian Charles Taylor popularized this interpretation of Augustine which sits uncomfortably with the whole of Augustine’s oeuvre.
Augustine climbed the ladder of success in the Roman Empire and after he converted became a part of the church that had linked its very structures with that empire. Augustine no doubt becomes disillusioned with notion that empire itself could be Christianized, he does not reject the favor nor deference that the empire shows to the Catholic church.
Further, Smith brings Augustine into a discussion about liberty and cites Confessions as addressing this issue, giving the impression that Augustine was actually interested in the question of negative or positive liberty. Perhaps Smith would agree with this statement, but there is no functioning conception of negative and positive liberty in Augustine because there is no notion of individual rights and autonomy that would make such a notion of liberty intelligible in the ancient world. We must wait at least a thousand years before this more modern understanding to emerge.
The world of late antiquity was an extremely hierarchical and deferential one. Rather than the modern quest for meaning amid a barren wasteland of nihilism and infinite options, the person in late antiquity would have been squashed and hemmed in by community and hierarchical control, the exact opposite of how Smith employs Augustine to speak to our modern rootlessness and desire for community. In the late antique world there was too much community!
Perhaps no scholar better captures this sharp disjunction between Augustine and our modern notions than John Cavadini at Notre Dame. In his deeply insightful article on the idea of the “self” that Charles Taylor and other philosophers have conjured up in Augustine’s corpus, Cavadini offers a simple, “no.” There is no “self” in Augustine, and not only because the Latin language itself has no word or phrase to capture this idea. When we see anything approaching a “self” in Augustine, Cavadini asserts, “it is this reified structure of pride, an attractive illusion, but ultimately a self-contradiction, doomed to eternal incoherence.”
When I was reflecting on the type of Augustine that modern Americans seem attracted to it is basically a bourgeois Augustine. An Augustine who holds many of the same predilections and assumptions that we do. But Augustine was not an American and did not obsess over the things that we obsess over. Many of our obsessions would appear petty to a bishop who spent time trying free Christians who had been abducted by slave traders.
Augustine is a dark thinker, darker than any other thinker I have ever encountered – a point that Smith and Bruenig seem to deny. Our discomfort with Augustine’s darkness says more about us than him. We will die will probably die in a hospital connected to machines fighting to hold onto life with everything that modern medicine has to offer. He died lamenting his sins in bed while his town was being besieged by the Vandals.
That is not to say we cannot learn from Augustine and draw out the implications of his writings. I do this constantly. But we must always appreciate the profound distance between the late antique Mediterranean world and our own, of Augustine’s world and ours. A distance we must respect and appreciate before we can learn what is worth learning from this most revered and profound of God’s creatures.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.