16 August 2009

Two St Augustine Biographies

As an ardent admirer of the Confessions of St Augustine (see this post, where I quote Fr Seraphim’s reference to the ‘profound repentance, warmth of heart, and genuine Orthodox piety that shine through every page of the justly-renowned Confessions of Augustine’), I was well chuffed this week to acquire at local used bookshops two top-notch books on the life of this renowned Father of the Church: Garry Wills’s contribution to the Penguin Lives series, Saint Augustine: A Penguin Life (NY: Lipper/Viking, 1999), and a reprint of the classic biography, Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown (NY: Dorset, 1986).

I was already well disposed toward Catholic historian Garry Wills, having read not only his introduction to and translation of Book 8 of the ConfessionsSaint Augustine’s Conversion, trans. Garry Wills (NY: Viking, 2004)—but also his study of Thomas Jefferson and slavery, Negro President: Thomas Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003). While many consider the latter too rambling and not focused enough on Jefferson, I quite enjoyed it, and learned far more about the first forty years or so of American history than I ever had before in my life. In the intro to the Confessions 8 translation, I was thrilled to discover Wills arguing against those scholars of the past 150 years who have argued that essentially the entire story of St Augustine’s famous ‘conversion’ is a mere literary device (see pp. 3-41). Adding to my determination to buy the book however (a mere $5.98 at Half-Price Books), was the enthusiastic recommendation I was given by the inimitable Esteban Vázquez, whose injunction to ‘close the deal’ turned a back-of-my-mind intention into a major priority. I already see good things in the biography, such as the response to the overly Freudian interpretations of the bath scene in Conf. 2.6 on pp. xvii-xix, or Wills’s closing words, to which I was irresistibly tempted to turn:

Yet it is appropriate that he died surrounded by the laboriously traced words of Scripture. He had, all his life, been building a palace of words in which he lived, this antirhetorical rhetorician who yet saw the divine Word reflected in every word men speak or write (or even mentally formulate), a man who loved words too well, perhaps, indulging them as they frisked from him in catchy ways, curling back around and through each other, carrying heavy loads of meaning at times, or else just bubbling up in self-indulgent echoes or assonance, yet reaching us—all those words, profound or playful—with an extraordinary immediacy, even today. . . (pp. 144-5)

As for Peter Brown, I think at some point I determined to purchase any used copies of any of his books I came across at a reasonable price. This was partly a result of the incessant citations I’ve noticed of his seminal article, ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101, and partly of the passing reference to ‘Peter Brown, whose luscious prose I and so many others have enjoyed with delight’ in the Preface to Et Introibo ad Altare Dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites with Special Reference to Its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition by Fr Alexander (Golitzin) (Thessalonica: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1994), p. 7.

I’m sure that somewhere I’ve seen something referring specifically to Brown’s St Augustine biography, but at the moment I can’t remember what it would have been. Anyway, when I saw it on the shelf—a bit steep for me at $14.50—it immediately took its place as the top priority in the lengthening mental list of books I wanted from 30 Penn Books (a delightfully ramshackle shop a couple of miles away, on the West side of my alma mater). Here is Frank Kermode’s blurb on the back jacket:

A masterly book. Mr Brown’s aim seems to have been to make available to the common reader, not merely facts and opinions and historical contexts, but a sense of their relation to the way we live now. He does so with elegance and with vast but unobtrusive scholarship. Mr Brown communicates with unhurried power a sense of the quality of life at the end of the fourth century, and a sense of the powerful relevance of those faded controversies. Above all, one grows clearer about the genius of Augustine.

Opening the book randomly, in imitation of St Augustine’s famous reading of St Paul in Conf. 8, and reading ‘the first words on which my eye fell’, I found this, on p. 255:

But, above all, there is Augustine’s amazing power of integration. He could communicate to perfection the basic idea of the ‘Word’ in the Bible, as an organic whole. His beautiful sermons on the Psalms are quite unique in Patristic literature. For, for Augustine, each Psalm had a ‘single body of feeling that vibrates in every syllable’ (Enarr. in Ps. 70, I). Each Psalm, therefore, could be presente as a microcosm of the whole Bible—the clear essence of Christianity refracted in the exotic spectrum of the Hebrew poem. Augustine seldom wanders: he ‘unwinds’ (Enarr. in Ps. 147, 2 and 23). A single incident, the juxtaposition of Christ and John the Baptist—is ‘unravelled’, so that the associations of John’s statement ‘He must grow and I must diminish’ spread throughout the whole Bible and come to be reflected in the rhythm of the seasons: ‘There are many things that could be said about S. John the Baptist, but I would never be finished with telling you, nor you with listening. Now let me round it off in a nutshell. Man must be humbled, God must be exalted’ (Guelf. 22, 5, [Misc. Agostin., i, p. 515]).

This sense of the particular incident as the vehicle through which an organic whole can find expression accounts for the beauty of Augustine’s exegesis. For, as in the incidents of his own life in the Confessions, significance suddenly comes to light on a tiny detail. The Father of the Prodigal Son ‘falls upon his shoulders’: it is Christ placing His yoke on the Christian, and in a flash we see the incident as Rembrandt would see it; every line of the heavy figure of the old man charged with meaning. ‘In some sense or other, Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite’ (A. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 1938, p. 28).


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Make sure to get the 2000 edition of Brown's Augustine biography when you do get one. He wrote the first editions in the sixties, and much material (I recall a collection of authentic sermons and letters) surfaced in the intervening years which led to some alterations of Brown's conclusions. His reappraisal is contained in a lenghty epilogue, though the text of the biography itself is unaltered.

aaronandbrighid said...

Whoops. This is a later printing, but definitely not the 2000 edition. I might just have to try to talk a friend into scanning the epilogue and sending me a pdf or something!

Andrea Elizabeth said...

The descriptions of St. Augustine's style reminds me of David B. Hart's. I don't know if you've posted about the latter before.

aaronandbrighid said...

I haven't yet read anything of Hart's, nor have I yet mentioned him on Logismoi. I had intended to read Beauty of the Infinite when I first heard of it, but aside from a mixed review or two by heterodox readers, all I've heard on both sides of the Atlantic is criticism. Fr Loudovikos said there were serious theological problems with the book. Not to say I won't read it, but I'm a bit wary now!

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Yes I've heard from several people that DBH has some unaccepted views. But there is apparently some wheat among the chaff and other interesting things that can tip the scale to motivate one to read him. I'm also warming up to the idea of reading St. Augustine's Confessions. I hope the comparison doesn't offend.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh, no offense taken for sure! I was a bit surprised though, because all I've heard about Hart's style is that it is perhaps excessively 'postmodern'--in my mind, a far cry from a premodern writer like St Augustine.

There are always those, however, who will rush to deny the differences between such things, if not the 'differances'! ;-)