Augustine speaks: `The thirteenth of November was my birthday. After a lunch (light enough to keep from putting a burden on our mental faculties), I called the whole group that dined together that way every day, to go and sit in the baths, for that seemed a suitably private spot.'2 Some of those present had probably spent the morning reading a bit of Vergil and were now ready for higher and nobler things. What followed was the conversation recorded in the first book of Augustine's de beata vita.
And so we are here, 1505 years after that afternoon in the baths, 1537 years after Augustine's birth, speaking of this man long deceased as though we know him. This lecture is about him, it belongs to a series named after him, and it has the sponsorship of a venerable and international order of religious men dedicated to his name and example. I have spent my entire adult life reading him, and writing books about him. We live in a time, moreover, in which his words have reached their largest audience (if we count rather than weigh readers), but it is a time that imagines itself more free of his influence than any other since his lifetime, and that views some of his most characteristic ideas as rebarbative. But even hostility is a token of esteem: if you despise Augustine and write or speak about him in that vein, you judge him worth despising somehow; and so even there he hovers over us.
The power of this man's name is much with us. My topic is precisely that power. How did he come to have it? And what are we to make of it? Why have we made of Augustine a saint of this sort? Did he wish to be treated so? What right have we to acclaim him? And what decorum should govern our applause?
For holy men often attract a veneration that they would deprecate. To take an example Augustine could have known, the first paragraph of the ostensibly quite pious Life of Plotinus by his chief disciple Porphyry records an act of rebellion against the philosopher and offers a measure of the distance between master and disciples. Porphyry recounts a subterfuge by which the students managed to have an artist create a portrait of the philosopher, despite Plotinus' reluctance.3 The subterfuge was comical: the painter Carterius attending Plotinus' lectures as if to listen though actually to look, and look hard, at the speaker, then go out to create just the sort of image of an image that Plotinus abhorred. Though the reluctance to face the painter is soundly based in Plotinus' philosophical ideas,4 and though his disciples could cite nothing in his doctrines in support of their act, they nonetheless overrode his judgment in order to ensure that he was made a plaster (or pigment) sage according to their preconceptions of the role that was his to play.
We leave our holy men no choice: we insist they be saints. One could as easily cite the veneration accorded Socrates or Francis of Assisi. But they did not write, and Plotinus resisted writing, and wrote with difficulty: is it different when we deal with a figure like Augustine, who wrote as though his life depended on it? Does not he at least deserve to become a Great Book? We will return to the difference that his being a writer makes.
To speak circumspectly of the authority of Augustine, it is worth first asking what Augustine's own attitude in the face of authority was, both in theory and in practice; and then how Augustine came to achieve what authority he did; and finally what we can make of that authority today.
Augustine's epistemology is, like so much of his thought, difficult to characterize in a way that avoids misinterpretation. He has the knack, as so often elsewhere, of holding views that seem irreconcilable with each other. The paradox of Augustine's epistemology is that it sometimes sounds completely a prioristic and intellectualist, and at other times it sounds completely ecclesiastical and authoritarian. It is both, and in the combination is the genius of it. What I set forth here is a tentative interpretation. It draws on works of the early period, and chiefly on the de vera religione: not because that period is to be privileged as authoritatively Augustinian, but because it was at that period that issues of this sort moved him most often to theoretical statement.
In principle, Augustine held that human powers suffice to know, love, and serve God. A purely natural theology approach is possible: Romans 1.20, `for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made: his eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable,' offers the scriptural warrant. It ought in principle to be possible for a person to look upon a tree, infer from that tree the existence of God, and have not only reached the right conclusion, but have done so in a logically impeccable way. In practice, such natural theology is impossible.5 In practice, men do not think that way; but, Augustine would argue, they should do so, and they are for him, as Paul says, inexcusable if they do not do so. Created nature itself is the source and human reason is the instrument.
In a fallen world, God provides an alternate path. Scripture,6 the book of God's word, tells a portion of the history of creation, with certain passages underlined. If it is not possible to see God in any tree you happen to gaze upon, it may be possible to see him in a bush that burns and is not consumed. Specific deeds of God and men and specific accounts of those deeds have the effect of calling to human attention the data necessary to come to an adequate and redemptive knowledge of God. But unaided human reason still cannot achieve that goal, even with the help of Scripture; a multiplicity of conflicting opinions, a diversity of heresies, the perversity of men, all conspire to make univocal interpretation difficult to achieve.7 Here is the place for `authority'.8
For just as scripture represents the created world with certain passages underlined, `authority' for Augustine represents the world of the working of human reason with certain passages underlined:9 certain specific acts, certain specific individuals, who have been granted by God to see and know what is divine through the unimpeded working of their rational faculty,10 have interpreted scripture at crucial points and in essential ways in such a fashion that those who come after, bound together with them in the community of the church,11 may confidently believe what they have been told.
For scripture and authority are sufficient to engender belief and to guarantee the validity of sacramental initiation into the Christian community. In practical terms, as is well known, what was passed into the hands of the individual baptismal candidate was the simplest and most stripped-down form of Christian doctrine: the Lord's prayer and the creed.12 Those texts, the first scriptural and the second based on ancient church authority, embodied in practice what new Christians needed to believe and know. The faith they acquired in this way was adequate for salvation.
The genius of Augustine's paradoxical combination of natural reason and authoritative guidance lies in his familiar notion of the relation of faith and understanding, a notion which is fully developed by the time of de vera religione. `Faith' is what is achieved by reliance on scripture and authority; `understanding' is the fully autonomous and the paradoxically fully obedient knowledge of God that will in practice for the faithful come in the next life; but movement towards `understanding', the ascent of the mind to God, is a very old theme13 in Augustine and one that never leaves his works. The straining of belief towards something richer and stronger and more powerful than belief is the most poignant movement in all of Augustine's thought.14 Augustine the believer, the bishop, the writer, lives in the radically ambiguous time between faith and understanding, in hoc interim saeculo as he would call it later,15 relying on faith and struggling confidently towards an understanding that will not come now, but that is worth struggling towards all the same.
How far Augustine's theory is validated by his practice is a large question in the development of his thought. Does he begin with scripture? How far is he guided by authority? It is notorious that a natural theology does precede the scriptural for Augustine: he believes in `God' before ever he can bring himself to become a baptized Christian, before ever he can achieve an adequate relationship with scripture. I personally incline to think that he could have defended his practice, arguing that his notion of `God' itself came to him mediated by the Christian church of his youth, but he might have a hard time convincing us.16 I do not then mean here to undertake any comprehensive investigation of how far theory and practice coincide in Augustine. I mean rather to ask the more specific question of the concrete forms `authority' took for him. What `authority' did he know and recognize? There are points of interest.
First, it is easy to forget how thin was Augustine's `library of the Fathers'. Most of what Greek thought had produced was still closed off to him for most of his career.17 The possible library of Latin fathers was still thin, and he had some trouble gaining access to it; and the looming figure of Tertullian was hedged away from him by late turning to heterodoxy. In practice, he confronts Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, and Jerome, in various degrees and various ways.
I will set aside Hilary, for he appears in Augustine as do many of the Greek writers of whom he knows a little, as a mediator of the teachings of the councils of Nicea and Constantinople; and with them I will set aside the question of conciliar authority. Such authority is relatively unproblematic for Augustine: the universal councils he accepts, and the Nicene (or Niceo-Constantinopolitan) orthodoxy he accepts. (He was fortunate enough not to have lived through the years of Constantius II, when knowing which council to accept was not so simple a matter.) It is worth noting in passing (and we will return to this) that counciliar authority could still be problematic in one way: if you did not know what the council had said, you could go astray. When bishop Valerius set Augustine to preaching while Augustine was still only a presbyter and later ordained him bishop while he himself was still alive, the canons of Nicea itself were violated, and when this later came to light, Augustine could only plead (not to universal credulity) ignorance. That is a worthy reminder that one aspect of `authority' in the early church was always access: texts were hard to come by, and you could very well know of a writer and his wisdom without being able to get at it.18
Ambrose came first chronologically. Augustine knew him, and heard him preach. He was a bishop, he baptized Augustine, and if we are to believe the narrative of the conf. at all, his influence was important in shaping Augustine's own view of scriptural interpretation.19 Several points merit comment, however. First, the problem of access. In the 390s, Augustine has to make a special effort to gain access to some of Ambrose's works.20 Second, the problem of accuracy of oral tradition.21 Third, the place of authority in discourse. For many years even after Augustine acquires some of Ambrose's works, there is little mention of Ambrose as an authority. Augustine works characteristically alone, under the spotlight, and whatever he has learned he makes his own, distinctively. That all changes late in life when Augustine encounters the fierce attacks of the Pelagians. At this point, Ambrose becomes a buckler and shield. Ambrose is certainly orthodox, Augustine's reiterated arguments run, so in saying what he said, I am certainly orthodox myself. It is only in this period that we see an abundance of quotations (many of them repeated over and over again) from a wide variety of Ambrose's works.22 This is appeal to authority not merely to find truth but to win argument. The technique is distinctive.23
The case of Cyprian is very different. Cyprian was a figure of authority whom Augustine inherited by virtue of their relative positions in the African church. Cyprian had written, not abundantly, and not as an intellectual, but the texts were preserved, and Cyprian's standing as martyred bishop of Carthage gave him incomparable status in the African church. Unfortunately for Augustine and his community, Cyprian was an ambiguous figure. In the great controversy of the African church in Augustine's time, that with the Donatists, the authority of Cyprian was on balance more readily cited by the Donatists than by the Christians. Cyprian was one who dealt sternly with those who had lapsed in time of persecution, and he seems to have been in favor of rebaptism -- and in favoring rebaptism he was out of touch with his own tradition. This was a source of great awkwardness for Augustine, and it is no coincidence that the most extensive anti-Donatist treatise, the one he had been trying to write for some years,24 was the de baptismo. This treatise, whatever else it is, is an extended exposition of a way to reconcile the available texts regarding Cyprian with the position of the contemporary church. The importance of this example is that it shows Augustine in dialogue with a figure of authority whom in principle he follows wholeheartedly and with whom he has no sound reason for disagreeing; but there is a dialogue here in which Augustine himself `receives' the authoritative in such a way as to shape it carefully.25 I think it fair to say that there is not in Augustine a theory to justify or explain this practice: it represents an instinctive adaptation of technique to hard facts.26
What remains remarkable about Augustine's practice, however, is how small a part `authority' appears to play in his texts.27 Texts are rarely quoted, names infrequently cited. One may explain this in various ways. Part of it is literary style of a sort (quotation of anterior texts is relatively infrequent in discursive, for example philosophical, literature, even when those texts -- like the philosophical dialogues of Cicero -- are pervaded through and through with the ideas and expressions of anterior texts); part of it is to be explained as a reflection of the specific Christian deference to scripture. Scriptural texts are the waves of the ocean beating on the shore in Augustine's work, while the quotations from the works of the `fathers' are by comparison occasional glasses of tap water. Part should be explained in terms of Augustine's own standing as bishop: for the church in front of him, he was the living authority, and that standing is explicit in works like doctr. chr. and cat. rud. and implicit everywhere else. In the way he deals with his authorities, Augustine is not untypical: the example of Gregory the Great comes to mind -- a writer who has read widely and deeply in the Latin theological tradition available to him, but who nevertheless rarely quotes or cites those texts, while designedly allowing the ipsissima verba of scripture to permeate his text as fully as they do that of Augustine.28
But part of this independence is Augustine himself. It requires no partisanship and not even any approval of a single word he wrote to stand nevertheless in awe of his independence of mind, his freshness of approach, and the novelty of the questions he asked. It is characteristic of Augustine that each time he takes up the task of writing, he approaches his subject afresh, asking good questions. Where there is repetition in Augustine, it is the repetition of the jazz improvisionalist repeating old themes but never in the same way.29 Though many themes and expressions and ideas recur in Augustine, few if any of his works may be dismissed out of hand as simple rehash of something that has gone before: every sermon and every work of his that you pick up does something he has not done before, asks some new question, presses some new line of argument. And he is not dependent on others for the questions that press him, though he exploits the curiosity of others with rare resourcefulness. To read the dossier of correspondence with Marcellinus and Volusianus in the early 410s30 and then to turn to the de civitate dei is to see what extraordinary range and power of thought Augustine could bring to bear on pedestrian and really rather thoughtless lines of inquiry. There is a moral elegance to the way in which Augustine continues to ask questions, fresh questions, and to press his inquiries well into late middle age. It is conventional nowadays to decry the turn Augustine's thought took during the Pelagian crisis, and the last works against Julian certainly make for us wearying reading; but the detailed biography of Augustine in these late years still needs writing,31 and I think that a fair reading of all his late works would show that the strength of mind and the freshness of approach was still there, however the atmosphere had clouded.
The question how Augustine emerged as a figure of authority perhaps deserves to be prefaced with the question whether: for it is one of the remarkable gaps in our scholarly literature that we have no satisfactory, and really very little unsatisfactory, treatment of the question of the spread of Augustine's influence. It is often assumed that `the early middle ages' were a period profoundly influenced by Augustine, but in just what way this influence was exercised, what its limits were, and how it came to be, these are questions that still deserve attention. Here I will only sketch, by way of suggesting the questions and problems that remain, something of how Augustine's reputation grew in his lifetime, and then how his name survived in the century and a half following his death.
Augustine's authority spread in his lifetime in two ways: ecclesiastical and personal. Both were important, though on Augustine's own theory only the first should have been determinative. The personal influence came through his epistolary contacts with the world outside his native Africa. The correspondence with Paulinus of Nola was a standing link between Augustine and one of the best-placed and best-connected ascetic aristocrats in the Roman world.32 There is no exhaustive treatment of Augustine's letters, but one would be most welcome. The contact that Augustine had with Melania and Pinianus, by letters and in person,33 is a reminder that from humble origins Augustine had become himself a well-connected figure: his books would travel and his name would be spoken of where his letters and his correspondents went.34 What was novel about this was that before the generation of Ambrose and Augustine, Latin bishops tended not to move in those circles.
The case of Jerome is of course important and instructive as well. Jerome was nothing if not well-, if often acerbically, connected, and by coming into communication with Jerome Augustine was linking up with a `textual community'35 of no small importance. What is most instructive about that relationship is the way in which authority was balanced between the two. On many points, it is easy for us to see Jerome as more authoritative, more scholarly, than Augustine, and Augustine's comparative reluctance to accept Jerome's translations looks a lot like institutional foot-dragging to our eyes. But we should remember that in that correspondence, Augustine was a bishop, Jerome was not. At the most nettlesome moments of their correspondence, Jerome did not forget this. If he expressed himself with irony sometimes36 and was resourceful enough to cover himself in the authority of a bishop even greater than Augustine,37 he also knew how to maintain proper protocol38; how much genuine deference there is in such texts remains hard to say, but what is important is that both Augustine and Jerome expected the deference and acted, whatever the facts of their respective scholarly authority on given points, with the protocol in mind.39
To the wider ecclesiastical world and to the general public, such as it was, Augustine's name first became important in connection with his role in the Donatist controversy.40 The renown that he achieved at this time was far from unambiguously positive: as he took an increasingly strong part, with Aurelius of Carthage, in attacking the Donatists, the Donatists themselves took advantage of what they perceived to be chinks in his armor to attack him.41 Augustine came on to the center stage defending himself and his past against various charges; the Confessions may very well have reached some of their first audience in the same way and for the same reasons that Newman's Apologia reached an unconverted and unconvinced audience. And the Confessions were of course not universally well-received.42 The most famous case is that of Pelagius, not yet then famous but already mingling in Italy in circles that Augustine's name and book reached because of his personal, rather than his ecclesiastical, contacts; and we have the story of how Pelagius was so shocked by some of what he heard that he leapt up and left the room where the text was quoted.43
For all that, Augustine's visibility and influence (if not universal acclaim) continued to grow through the early 400s, culminating in his strategic mastery of the politics of the conference of Carthage of 411.44 That moment represented the high point of Augustine's career as a political bishop: the execution of his friend Marcellinus on trumped-up charges two years later, on the other hand, sent Augustine back to Hippo a changed man; his visits to Carthage -- for him the center of action linked to the great world of church and empire -- drop off sharply after that date45 and he was content to work for the most part from his home base in Hippo from then on: at about age 60, one important part of Augustine's career was over.
The Pelagian controversy itself when it erupted about then thrust Augustine into the limelight, but in a different way. From this point on, it was his books that spoke for him; and because books could speak beyond the range of his voice and travels, and because the Pelagian controversy quickly became `international' in scope, it was in the last fifteen years of Augustine's life that he became a figure of truly international reputation.46 Julian of Eclanum is the appropriate cautionary figure here: he would never have attacked Augustine so vehemently, so copiously, and so often if Augustine were not a figure of commanding presence in his world. At the same time, he would not have attacked him so boldly or in the same way if he did not sense in Augustine vulnerabilities that he could exploit. Augustine's name did not travel abroad from his home during his lifetime except accompanied by this ambiguity. But we run a risk in calculating positive and negative reputations even in our day of public opinion polls, and we have no serious method of balancing the books for a period as far removed as that of Augustine. The poignant description of the power of the Confessions from the Retractations47 tells us something of the praise Augustine must have heard, as for that matter does the long meditation in Book 10 of the Confessions on the perils of vainglory to which someone in the exposed and veneration position of bishop was exposed.48
Augustine the bishop, of course, was not without some responsibility for assuring his own reputation. We have already seen and will see again the importance in the manuscript culture of late antiquity that attaches to the availability of written works. The most brilliant and uplifting book lying unread in a single copy was far less influential than much more pedestrian works widely disseminated. Augustine, with the help of his discipline Possidius, bishop of Calama, is directly responsible for his own literary success in a way he did not perhaps anticipate. By the preparation of the Retractations49 and by Possidius' authorship of the Life of Augustine50 and his compilation of the little pamphlet we call his indiculum of Augustine's writings,51 Augustine left this world with a more secure claim on future readers' attention than any other writer of his age. The availability of the two comprehensive lists of Augustine's authentic works did more, immediately and throughout the middle ages, than anything else could have to assure that the names of Augustine's books were known; and that knowledge in turn made it easier for readers everywhere to seek out his works, to fill gaps in their collections, and to recognize doubtfully attributed works as authentic.52
For all that, it remains remarkable that so much of Augustine's work survived the twin blows that shattered his homeland and the church he had worked for. The Vandal invasion completed shortly after his death (he died, let us not forget, in a city under siege) led to a regime in Africa for a hundred years that was at times fiercely hostile to orthodox Christianity,53 and if there then followed a century and more of Byzantine interim,54 the eventual conquest of north Africa by Islam by the end of the seventh century meant the extermination of Augustine's heritage in his native land. We know too little about the movement of his works from Africa to the northern shores of the Mediterranean; but this movement must have been facilitated by the handy index of the Retractations, and we surmise that there may have been a systematic movement at some point. The translation of Augustine's body from Africa first to Sardinia and then to Pavia (where it may still be seen) suggests a deliberate and timely withdrawal: if his mortal remains received such attention, it is not unlikely that his literary remains were similarly cared for.
Now for the unwritten history of Augustine's influence after his death, I will sketch here briefly only two important and early episodes. The first shows us how ambiguously he could be received, the second how enthusiastically he could be received in spite of ambiguity.
Already in Augustine's lifetime, his argument with the Pelagians had earned him trouble on another front: in its mildest form, it took the shape of inquiries from monks -- still a relative novelty in the Latin west -- asking just what their numerous privations and disciplines were for, if divine predestination had assorted them their lots long beforehand.55 The center of the controversy that followed was southern Gaul, and the intellectual master was Augustine's near-contemporary John Cassian.56 Cassian was less well educated and well connected than the mature Augustine, but he was also in many ways less provincial and more widely sensitive to the varieties of Christianity in his time. He was writing books (the Institutes and the Conferences) that would be the spiritual charters of monasticism for all the early Latin middle ages. The story of how and why Cassian and his disciples found Augustine's teachings unacceptable has been told, but deserves retelling soon. Suffice it to say that the dangers of elitism and perfectionism that Augustine sensed in a mixed lay community in a provincial city, and against which his doctrine militated, were very different from those of indifference that a Cassian sensed and against which he wrote. The necessary differences of circumstance taken into consideration, the positions of African and Gaulish churchmen in this period are not so very far apart, perhaps,57 but at the time what counted were the differences.
Nevertheless, all agree that the remarkable thing about the controversy that flourished in Gaul in the fifth century, and that came to an end only in the early sixth century under the leadership of Caesarius of Arles, is the relatively eirenic tone and the absence of mutual excommunications. Augustine's opponents and defenders all deferred to him. Vincent of Lérins, whose commonitorium is rightly taken as the most strident attack on what it saw as the novelty and excesses of Augustinian doctrine,58 was also the compiler of a respectful anthology of passages from Augustine's own writings.59 There was remarkably little name- calling, and remarkable circumspection in all the debates. The results of this controversy were scarcely less remarkable: the council of Orange in 529 promulgated what may be taken as a reading of Augustine, but at the same time may be taken as a quiet refusal to accept all that Augustine said or seemed to say. The decrees of Orange could be taken by all sides in good part: they represent in many ways the most successful resolution of a doctrinal controversy in all of Christian antiquity. But as one sign of that success, and perhaps one reason for it, the issues and the decrees quickly became a matter of little interest. Serious argument over predestination and free will in the west was put off until the ninth century, and the Augustine who is read and praised in the intervening years is not the Augustine of predestination.
The best evidence we have for the way Augustine was really being read in the sixth century is the thousand page anthology of Augustine compiled by Eugippius at the monastery of Lucullanum, near Naples.60 He is known otherwise mainly for his life of saint Severinus of Noricum, but we have recently been made aware that his monastic and literary endeavors were more extensive than we have previously known and indeed give him reason to be set alongside Cassiodorus as one of the leaders of the monastic/literary life in Italy of his time.61
The anthology that Eugippius put together has not yet received an adequate critical edition, and so some conclusions must be drawn with care. In particular, we do not yet know accurately just how large Eugippius's original collection was and how many of the added items in some manuscripts may have come from revision by him or from later accretion elsewhere. The order of excerpts is in the main guaranteed, but there are some problems there too. Some things may, however, be said with fair certainty. First, the `authority of Augustine' in this collection is limited in an interesting way. Eugippius had no idea of producing `The Essential Augustine' with a view to illuminating Augustine's special contributions to Christian thought or his distinctive positions. Rather, the usefulness of Augustine lay in his way of representing the common Christian tradition. What was valuable about Augustine, put another way, was not what was distinctive about him but what he had said that formed a useful part of the common deposit of faith and interpretation. He had acquired his authority not by being unique and brilliant and original, but by accomplishing the common task of interpretation and teaching in a way that others could share wholeheartedly. So we might think that, especially in view of the controversy over grace and free will that had animated Gaul in the fifth century, a reasonable anthology would have a distinct section of clear and concise excerpts from the anti-Pelagian writings, to make Augustine's position clear. Those writings are seriously underrepresented in the collection as a whole, and the few excerpts that do appear come near the end, with no special emphasis.62
So there is no attempt to represent distinctive Augustinian ideas or works. Passages that we regard as essentially Augustinian are missing, and the organization is at every turn an obstacle to an attempt to see what Augustine thought. The extracts from the Confessions, for example, show very little interest in the autobiographical element and reflect rather an interest in passages that modern, post-Romantic readers regard as stolidly theological.
So the principle of organization that does obtain is scriptural. The arrangement of excerpts does not follow the order of Augustine's own works, except incidentally, and does follow the order of the books of scripture. What Augustine has to say that can in one form or another illuminate the book of Genesis, for example, leads the collection.63 Old Testament first, New Testament later. The point is again the effacement of the cult of personality and emphasis on the common task of interpreting scripture. Whatever we may think of the relation of theory and practice in Augustine's own writings, Eugippius is an heir of the theory who is determined to put it into practice: the `authority' of Augustine for Eugippius is what there is in Augustine that helps the reader come to a better interpretation and fuller understanding of the scriptural text.
It is on those terms that I think we can best understand Augustine's authority in the sixth century. So when Augustine is quoted by Primasius of Hadrumetum, in the prologue to his commentary on the Apocalypse, or by Pelagius I in his Defense of the Three Chapters, there is no special axe to grind, there is no special cult of personality directed towards Augustine being exploited. The Second Council of Constantinople of 553 quotes three Latin authorities only: Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine. At that moment, it is still clear that one element in the council's choice is the episcopal standing of those it quotes. So in the `sententia synodica' at the end of that council, Augustine is quoted thus: `Letters of Augustine of holy memory, who shone among the bishops of Africa, were read, to the effect that it is necessary that heretics be excommunicated even after death.'64 The recitation took place at the fifth session, with texts put in consideration by Sextilianus of Tunes, representing Primosus bishop of Carthage: ep. 185, c. Cresc., ep. cath., gesta coll. Carth. Now the content of the passages quoted is of interest and importance for our theme. In in every case where he was quoted, Augustine was speaking of affairs in the orthodox controversy with the Donatists in the fourth century; he spoke about words and deeds of the early Donatists as they were reported in other texts, but he was not actually talking about excommunicating texts; the second council of Constantinople, on the other hand, was the first that sought to excommunicate not men but dead men, which is to say, men represented only by texts, not by their living words. In a city in which the books of long-dead Origen had lately been put under the ban, this was not altogether surprising; but it was unprecedented, as serious observers at the time knew, and as the leaders of the council had to deny. They could not allow themselves to be aware of the difference.
We come closer to the heart of Augustine's reputation in the west with Cassiodorus' Institutiones, where Augustine is a regular component of the bibliography,65 and the object of one of several short paragraphs of eulogy, in praise of Hilary, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome, and is followed by a single chapter praising Cassiodorus's contemporaries, Dionysius Exiguus and Eugippius (n.b.: none of the last three was a bishop). The paragraph66 on Augustine comes after the numerous paragraphs in which Augustine's works on scripture had been cited (including doctr. chr.), and so the works that remain to be praised there are conf., his numerous expositions of the creed (ecclesiastical `authority' of a very specialized and important kind), and his translation and expansion of Epiphanius' work on the heresies. Augustine is praised for his polemical skills and for his mixture of subtlety and accessibility: `what he says clearly, he says sweetly, and what he says darkly is rich and filled with great usefulness.'67 In short, Augustine is useful, but he is no longer an authority because he was a bishop, nor again because he was an especially holy man, but he is an authority because he was a brilliant writer. This marks a sea-change with profound implications for the future. It creates a world quite different from the one in which Augustine lived.
There is still another history to be written here, of the quality of Augustine's readership in late antiquity. Cassiodorus offers two cautionary pieces of evidence. One is his revision of Pelagius' commentary on Paul:68 for all the deference Cassiodorus shows to Augustine, and for all his awareness of Pelagius's problems, the revision of Pelagius's commentary produces a hybrid artifact with which Augustine himself might have been very little satisfied. Similarly, when Cassiodorus talks of original sin, the distance between him and Augustine is, for all that he would have wanted to be completely faithful, very great.69
For the point I would make here is that the history of Augustine's rise to widespread acclaim in the fifth and sixth centuries accompanies and exemplifies one of the most important developments in the history of Christianity: the emergence in the Latin west of a distinctively Christian body of religious literature. Now it is conventional in our histories to focus on the producers of a high literature, and so to emphasize what can only be called a golden age: the few decades in which Hilary, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, Prudentius, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, and Cassian, to name only the leading lights, created a body of Latin Christian literature that far outshone all that had come before and that would loom large over all that came after. But in the conditions of a manuscript culture, production was only a part of the story. In their lifetimes, those authors' books had a certain life, but also certain very pronounced limitations. There were no Christian libraries or schools, no established means of distribution, not even any systematic means of disseminating the mere fact that a book existed.
So the second essential stage in the making of Latin patristic literary history is the period from roughly Jerome to Cassiodorus when the fact of the literature's existence imposed itself on the minds of an audience. Gradually an ancillary literature began to emerge. Augustine's own Retractations and Possidius' indiculum are early examples of texts that helped the reader keep track of other texts. Jerome's de viris illustribus marks the first major attempt to gather and disseminate in Latin information about Christian writers generally; Augustine's catalogue de haeresibus makes an odd counterpoint to it. But in the course of the fifth century we then get Gennadius,70 also writing de viris illustribus, followed in the early sixth century by the very important `decretum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis' once attributed to pope Gelasius and now thought to be north Italian in provenance.71 Eugippius gathering the works of Augustine and indexing them with `chapter headings' represents another stage in the attempt to gather and control the growing body of literature.72 Dionysius Exiguus' collection of church canons is another such exercise, while at Rome we have evidence of the increasing dependence on texts and the consequent organization of texts of the papacy itself: the library of pope Agapetus73was only one example; the first compilations of the liber Pontificalis apparently date to the early sixth century,74 and it is noteworthy that we even have evidence from that period of competing versions of the book of Popes being created and disseminated by rival factions in the Laurentian schism that arose from the papal election of 498/9. That schism also the generation of bogus documents from earlier papal history, the so- called Symmachan apocrypha,75 whose relevance here is that they show that authority by now resided for the Christians of Rome in texts brought forth from an armarium and was no longer controlled by the spoken word of the inspired and anointed leader of the community.76
The story of the textualization of Latin Christianity deserves to be told at greater length elsewhere; for our purposes, I think it worth rehearsing briefly by way of showing one important reason why, and method by which, Augustine came to the pre-eminent place he held in later Christian thought. He was not only a bishop and a holy man, but he was the preeminent writer, his works far outrunning in sheer bulk those of any nearest competitor.77 His office, his holiness, and his orthodoxy were all factors in claiming his place: but had he not written, had he not written so much, and had his works not survived so consistently (we have already seen some reasons why they did), he would never have become the authority figure that he did become. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
To explain how Augustine came to his place of pre- eminence is one thing. To know what to make of it now is another. I am not the one to trace the history of Augustine's prestige in later times, and a checkered history it is. The medieval history alone is rich and varied and of great interest; as in so many other areas, the insular, then Carolingian phases seem essential to the shaping of the reputation that emerged,78 but here again, there have been too few detailed studies and certainly no serious attempt at synthesis.79 It has generally been recounted in theological terms, and those are terms that are sobering to consider.80 But even on those terms, there are cautions for us. Surely the reverence for Augustine of a Jansen has something demented about it, and at the same time it has the mad logic of great dementia.81 If we place Augustine on a pedestal, then why not do the job seriously?
But the twentieth century prestige of Augustine has little to do with old doctrinal quarrels. He benefitted rather from the general revival in prestige of the church fathers that was fueled by the liberal wing of Roman Catholicism in the first half of this century. Augustine was easy and relatively safe to praise, and a collection of cutting-edge scholarly publications could easily be prefaced by nothing less than a papal encyclical;82 and at the same time, Augustine and the fathers generally offered a vocabulary and a range of reference quite different from that of the official scholasticism of the time.
But Augustine came to the twentieth century not only as an authority to churchgoers. He has imperceptibly been granted a position of high eminence by scholars of every stripe. There are those who admire him without believing a word he says;83 and then there are those who do not admire him at all but, believing him to be a powerful influence, feel they must attack him precisely because he embodies all that is wrong with -- what? Modern Christianity? Or the society that Christianity shaped? It is often very hard to tell, when Augustine is being attacked,84 just what his crimes really are, or why he matters so much.
I would argue that we live in an age that has discovered in itself a curious need for Augustine's authority, precisely among those who would attack it. We have imperceptibly moved into a post-modern culture, one which is more like a cargo cult than anything else. In such a culture, Augustine becomes a piece of vaguely significant debris from another culture that has washed up on the shore. So he is read in the most strikingly out-of-context ways, though he is known vaguely to be an authority of the highest order and so he may be made, quite arbitrarily, part of the problem. The great Father of the Latin church is just the father that moderns and post-moderns need in their own Oedipal struggles with the past.85 It is safe to say that Augustine is now more quoted, either to be attacked or to defend something he would never have defended,86 and read, when he is actually read, in ways that go far astray from the original contexts and purposes of the works. The post-modern version of sanctity is of course celebrity, and Augustine's authority today is often hard to distinguish in effect from that of Mark Twain or Yogi Berra.
Now I say all this conscious that I am speaking to an audience that presumably still respects Augustine (though there may be those here who have a family quarrel with him of one sort or another) but that may find it difficult to express just how that respect is to be managed and displayed in these curious times. My purpose in sketching the story of his authority has been to provoke reflection and give some basis for serious consideration of just how we who are inclined to esteem and admire him should go about that business. I will conclude with a few remarks meant to be anything but prescriptive: here I am genuinely only thinking aloud.
Let me call to mind again the example I instanced at the outset of the disciples of Plotinus making a portrait of the master against his express wishes. Nothing seems clearer to me than that Augustine himself had no intention of ever being made a plaster saint. In his own treatment of the Christian past, he had an absolute respect for and veneration of scripture as the word of God. His veneration for and respect of such intermediate figures as Ambrose, on the other hand, is of quite a different sort. To him, ecclesiastical authority is always faute de mieux: contingent and transient, however practically necessary. He does not allow his veneration for another person to determine or limit his own spiritual life. He never surrenders that life to another. Augustine's questions remain his own questions; he remains constantly in touch with the text of scripture himself, asking his questions and pressing for answers. That he knows how to accept no answer87 is a sign of his wisdom; but whatever he has received from his teachers, he has received it with all his wit, faithfully but at the same time discerningly. When we read Augustine, we are reading no disciple of any human teacher;88 what we value in him is the authentic directness of the Christian experience, checked by ecclesiastical authority in some ways, but enlivened and liberated by it in others.
The challenge for the modern disciple of Augustine is to behave towards him in a way that confounds the attacks of his enemies. The anti-Augustinian of our time assumes that Augustine had, and even meant to have, mindless disciples, who would take every word at face value and believe it and repeat it without end. The one thing we can say about such disciples, if any there are, is that they are the people in our midst the most un-like Augustine of all. What we can learn from Augustine, it seems to me, is intellectual and spiritual integrity: fidelity to scripture and the church that is at once complete and at the same time resourceful, imaginative, and enriched. To read Augustine is to encounter one who has made of orthodoxy, of `thinking with the church', an adventure that is very like a high-wire act. His Christianity arises from liturgy and scripture, both contributing to a spirituality that is at once fully obedient and at the same time fully personal -- private, but at the same time communitarian or, better, ecclesiastical. The authority of those who have gone on before gives him confidence, but in the end it is his own faith and courage -- not any borrowed bravado -- that bears him along.
To put it another way: in Augustine's Christianity there is no vicarious experience; all is immediate. For us to become disciples of Augustine in such a way that we let him live our Christian exploration for us would be to betray him in something essential. What he finally teaches us is Christian freedom.