St. Augustine in His Study (circa 1480) by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. CNS photo/Muscarelle Museum of Art

Comment: Writings of St. Augustine can lead us to City of God

  • September 30, 2017

One of the sweetest attractions of off-the-grid summertime breaks is the opportunity to push out the parameters of your usual reading routines. This summer I decided it was time to finally immerse myself in the writings of St. Augustine (354-430 AD) and read the two works for which he is best known, Confessions and The City of God.

After sacred scripture and documents produced by various ecumenical councils, no authority is cited so frequently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as this incomparably influential Doctor of the Church.

Incredibly, though he pre-dates Dante by some 900 years, St. Augustine is a much less formidable and more immediately engaging read. Partly this is because with St. Augustine you’re reading translated Latin prose, not Italian poetry. But I expect this ease of access has at least as much to do with the more pastoral and often playful cast of this great saint’s mind.

I started with his earlier work, Confessions, written shortly after he was ordained Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. It is the very first autobiography as we understand the term today. While recounting his childhood and young manhood and his meteoric rise as a widely respected orator, he also spins off a series of wonder-drenched speculations on the nature of memory, time and knowledge, the formation of character and the stubborn hold exerted on the human soul by habit and vice.

St. Augustine’s recollections are peppered with expressions of revulsion for his sinful ways. As a boy he could be selfish and headstrong and a thief. As a young adult shinnying up the greasy pole of social and occupational advancement, he was disgusted with himself for his pride and his greed, his shameless flattery of the rich and powerful and, most of all, his frequent capitulation to lust.

Far be it from me to suggest improvements to the moral temperament of a saint but I must admit I sometimes wish he’d given himself a break. Though he eventually came to reject Manichaeism (a religious philosophy of bifurcation that saw matter forever at odds with spirit) I suspect it continued to influence him. Following his conversion, he had his long-time mistress and mother of his son (a woman he indeed loved) put away instead of marrying her.

The commonest complaint about St. Augustine as a philosopher of religion is that he was not a systematic thinker — unlike, say, St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) with his magisterial Summa Theologica. A beautiful writer, yes, and an omnivorous reader and a profoundly observant, compassionate and curious individual. But as a theologian we are told repeatedly (and perhaps just a little resentfully by more academic scholars of infinitely less renown and influence) that St. Augustine lacked rigour and torque. So how can we explain his undisputed position as the greatest of the Fathers of the Western Church and as a major shaper of Western civilization itself?

For one, there was his popularity and the sheer volume of his writing. He is estimated to have written 113 books, plus countless letters and sermons. He was writing early enough in Church history that he was the first to stake out a number of themes and was writing at a time when people urgently needed answers to existential questions. During his final years — a decade and a half when St. Augustine worked on that monumental capstone of his writing career, The City of God — Rome had been sacked by invading vandals and the city of Hippo in North Africa, where St. Augustine presided as bishop, was under siege as he lay dying.

The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson writes that this tectonic 5th-century shift “was no ordinary political catastrophe, but ‘a day of the Lord’ such as the Hebrew prophets describe, a judgment of the nations in which a whole civilization and social order which had failed to justify their existence were rooted up and thrown into the fire.”

Unlike other contemporary writers, St. Augustine did not assume that the fall of Rome was a sign of the end times. In The City of God he sought to comfort and strengthen his rattled flock by formulating a way forward and to help his people cope with life in this never-more dangerous world. Taking inspiration from numerous scriptural sources, he posited the existence of and delineated the differences between the City of Man and the City of God.

St. Augustine believed that the animating principle in both cities is love: “Two loves built two cities — the earthly, which is built up by the love of self to the contempt of God, and the heavenly, which is built up by the love of God to the contempt of self.”

St. Augustine does not call for a rejection of the City of Man. Rather he instructs us to properly align our love and to cultivate gratitude for the gift of this heartbreaking world for which God gave His only Son, this world from which we too set out on our journey to the City of God.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont.)

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