A great book about a great man

I first read Peter Brown’s magnificent Augustine of Hippo: A Biography in 1974, while preparing to write my dissertation on Augustine’s sermons on John’s Gospel. Like everyone else, I was struck, even stunned, by the sheer brilliance of this detailed “life and times” of Augustine. Leaving virtually no stone unturned, Brown presented to us a truly great man whose life was bound up with the tumultuous events of the late Roman Empire, and whose career – especially his writings – both transformed that world and laid the foundation for Western civilization.

Peter Brown painted a rich, even lush, portrait of Augustine’s times; showed him striving to refute the errors of the Manichees, Donatists, Pelagians, and pagans; followed him through his daily routine of preaching, counseling, teaching, and mediating innumerable lawsuits. He integrated Augustine’s writings and sermons with his own role as a bishop, the conflicts of the period, and the inner life of his soul. All in all, it was – and remains – a justly-famous work of biography, written with exquisite beauty and elegance.

Alas, Augustine’s powerful achievements were presented along with his terrible mistakes, above all his growing willingness to use force against the Donatists. Admirers of Augustine must face the enormity of his error in turning to the government to crush theological opponents, even if his reasons, which we must take at face value as sincere, were theological.

Aside from teaching a course on Augustine’s thought in 1976 and giving a public lecture in Taiwan on the Confessions in 1981, I largely put aside Augustine for about twenty years. In the early 1990s, I decided to try to finish the City of God – except for the long refutation of paganism as represented by Varro . A marvelous compendium of his writings on grace (The Triumph of Grace: Augustine’s writings on Salvation, edited by N.R. Needham) re-convinced me that Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was not, as Brown had argued, “the departure of a tired old man from the views of an earlier, ‘better’ self.”

Then came a re-reading of the Confessions, surely one of the most exalted literary achievements of human history. On Christian Doctrine, the lens through which I had studied Augustine’s sermons, followed, then the Enchiridion. Now I am working slowly through On the Trinity, which challenges the reader to wrestle with the theological profundities of the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the one Godhead. On every page, you are confronted with a towering genius whose mind must find solutions to virtually insoluble conundrums.

In that context, I obtained and read the second edition, with an epilogue, of Brown’s now-class work. All the delight and awe of my first encounter with the book returned; I could hardly put it down, eager to see what the Epilogue would bring.

This time, however, I was bothered by Brown’s psychological reading of Augustine, which seemed to me to ignore the biblical fountain from which his theology flowed. I wondered, too, whether Platonism – or, rather, Neo-Platonism – had really continued to permeate Augustine’s thought. Most importantly, I could not agree with his assessment of Augustine’s views on sin and grace, including his teaching on predestination.

Imagine my delight when, in the second and last part of the Epilogue, “New Directions,” Brown himself admits how his earlier reading had been the product of the psychology-obsessed climate of the Sixties, when the book was first penned. He now believes that the core of Augustine’s theological structure remained pretty solid throughout his career as a bishop (after the earliest period after his conversion), and Brown sees that the doctrines of grace were meant to convince ordinary believers that they, too, could be “elect,” like the heroic martyrs whose feasts they celebrated. God’s mercy was available to all, freely, and would carry common Christians through their lives and into eternity.

Brown’s earlier understanding of the role of Neo-Platonism in Augustine’s thought now reflects his belief that this pagan philosophy had been dramatically altered by Augustine, who replaced wonder at the universe with adoration for the Maker of this glorious world. Even Augustine’s lamentably-negative attitude towards sex within marriage as for procreation only is shown by Brown to have been relatively liberal in his time!

Much more could be said in praise of this new edition. Indeed, I wish I could include long quotes from the Epilogue; Brown’s prose has lost none of its power and elegance. He has spotted and corrected some of the major weaknesses in the earlier work and has given us an example of a truly humble scholar, a worthy biographer of one of history’s most influential figures.