An intellectual colossus of late antiquity, Augustine of Hippo straddled many worlds. Born in north Africa in a town of Romanised Berbers, he moved confidently around the empire’s Italian heartland, which although under terminal threat was still a very sophisticated place. He was sufficiently clever, eloquent and sociable to have made a grand worldly career; instead he devoted his life to articulating a philosophical system that fused Greco-Roman ideas with those of Semitic monotheism. He was a sensual man who embraced celibacy, while rejecting world-views that divided the material from the spiritual. He could speak with magisterial authority and great vulnerability.
Robin Lane Fox, a historian of classical antiquity at Oxford University, finds him captivating. This is not for spiritual reasons (he does not share his subject’s faith) but because of the light Augustine shed, in more than one sense, on the dying imperium. His is the best-known life in the ancient world.
This book interweaves political, military and personal history to describe in detail the first four decades of Augustine’s life (he died at 75); in other words, the time leading up to his “Confessions”, a work which in Mr Lane Fox’s view was composed in a short space of time in 397AD.
The “Confessions” are certainly worth setting in context. They are a very unusual piece of writing, ranging from memoir and introspection to elaborate theological reasoning; the whole thing takes the form of a passionately delivered prayer. To situate this vastly influential work, Mr Lane Fox explores everything that is known about the great teacher’s life and social world, including his various lovers and intellectual partners.
But not all readers will find the author’s fascination with Augustine infectious. The Christian teacher can be disarmingly frank (he passes into popular culture with outbursts like “Make me virtuous, but not yet”). But his public introspection can seem narcissistic, even to a modern sensibility that is used to psycho-jargon.
As the book shows, Augustine’s vocation to be a master-synthesiser led him to some pessimistic conclusions about man’s relationship with God. The process started when he embraced and then firmly rejected the Manichean religion which made a radical separation between good and evil, the spiritual and the physical, and also between the Old and New Testaments.
In other words, Augustine moved from a world-view based on sharp division to one that tried to hold everything together. He struggled to reconcile the God of ancient Israel, who could seem inexplicably unfair (why did Jacob fare so much better than his brother Esau?) with the Christian God of love. His solution was to stress man’s sinfulness and inability, through his own efforts, to redeem himself.
Many Christians today are discomfited by Augustine’s downbeat views on human nature. Christians of the east have always thought he went overboard in his doctrine of original sin: the idea that all human beings have inherited guilt from Adam and must rely on God alone to raise them up from this dire condition.
As the book recalls, Augustine’s belief that people inherit sin and mortality from Adam is in part based on a misreading of a line in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose meaning is clearer in the original Greek (a language which Augustine struggled to master) than in the Latin translations. With typical precision, Mr Lane Fox pinpoints the momentwhen Augustine arrived at his pessimistic view of mankind, one that gave human beings little prospect of escaping the fate that God had assigned to them. It was in a letter to Simplicianus, a churchman in Milan. God, he wrote, for his own inscrutable reasons, has chosen to remake certain people as vessels of beauty, while consigning others to ignominy; it was not for humans to reason why.
This grim conclusion is probably less depressing to a scholar like Mr Lane Fox, who views Augustine through the lens of secular history, than it is to somebody who turns to Augustine in search of spiritual inspiration. Over the centuries, Augustine’s highly charged prose and large personality have impressed many generations of Europeans, including the pioneers of the Renaissance whose humanist world-view was at the opposite extreme to his. But there are many who, for good reason, prefer the style to the content.
Adapted from http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21679165-british-historian-offers-fresh-take-best-known-life-ancient-world-o-come