Filed under: Patristics
Pope Pius XI said that, “of all those who have lived since the beginning of the human race until today … almost no one, or certainly very few, can be compared” to Augustine. Apart from the biblical writers, he is the author most frequently cited in the teachings of the Catholic Church. His ideas on governance shaped the political development of the West through the Middle Ages. Literary scholars say he practically invented the genre of autobiography. He established the foundations of western monasticism, which Benedict would later build upon. He can even be seen as one of the early practitioners of what today we call scientific method. He conducted experiments on peacock flesh to see if it was truly resistant to decay, as common wisdom had it.
But it was all for the sake of souls. He told his congregations that he didn’t want to be saved without them. And he worked and prayed so that, if they somehow avoided salvation, they couldn’t blame any lack of effort on Augustine’s part. He preached constantly. (He even preached about his experiments with peacock flesh!) He wrote letters prodigiously. He composed massive theological works that are, still today, the standard equipment in any true theological education: “On the Trinity” (De Trinitate), “City of God” (De Civitate Dei), “On Christian Doctrine” (De Doctrina Christiana).
And I haven’t even mentioned his books on philosophy, scriptural interpretation, and morals. His surviving works fill many volumes and even entire library shelves. And long-lost pieces still turn up occasionally — sermons, letters, and such.
Nevertheless, no one gets to be such a giant without having critics; and Augustine has had his share in every age. To modern secularists, he seems a fideist, a simp who would stop an argument in its tracks just because Rome said so. On the other hand, some Eastern Christians (a vocal minority) have accused him of rationalism. Augustine revered both faith and reason as gifts from God, each having its place in Christian life, each complementing and strengthening the other. To intellectuals who were struggling with faith, Augustine would say: Believe, that you may know. To fideists who denigrated philosophy he would say: Know, that you may believe.
(I should emphasize, again, that the Orthodox opposition to Augustine is a minority. This comes through very well in Dr. William Tighe’s coverage of a recent Fordham University conference on “Orthodox Readings of Augustine.” It’s in this month’s Touchstone. You really should subscribe, and not just for my monthly book reviews.)
There’s lots of Augustine to read online, in every language. And he is readable. He’s the guy who said: “I prefer to be criticized by the grammarians rather than not to be understood by the people.” You can find good pictures for screen-savers here.
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