James J. O’Donnell: The Strangeness of Augustine
Augustinian Studies 32.2(2001) 201-206

   To spend decades in the company of a long dead African bishop cannot
fail to leave its mark on the sojourner. It may be extreme to speak of
Stockholm syndrome, and I suppose it might be questioned whether it is he
that holds us hostage or we him, but perhaps the relationship is more one of
the old Spanish married couple that Peter Brown spoke of in the preface to
his Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine,*1 bound by ties of
illusión, a shared version of the world arising out of shared experience.

   Augustine holds special sway over his students, more than most other
ancient figures, for several reasons. First, his influence over after-generations
has been broad and deep and he has merited close study. Second, his
association over the last centuries with one and another stream of modern
Christianity has assured him a cadre of partisan readers, both supporters and
opponents, but has also assured that few people read him seriously without
preconceptions. Third, the vast bulk of his surviving oeuvre makes it
impossible to pay brief scholarly calls on him and come away with any serious
observations. To work seriously on Augustine is to declare, willingly or not, a
kind of allegiance and to establish a kind of co-dependency. We must know
this of ourselves, our colleagues, and our forerunners, if we are to advance in
such study.
   Robert Markus and Peter Brown have provided, from their long and wise
experience, striking snapshots and some bits of video footage (as it were) of
the last half-century. To one whose memory is reliable, if at all, only for the
last quarter-century, they seem, of course, as giants from another era. The
fifties and sixties, years when the bibliography of Augustinian secondary
literature began truly to “gallop”—in André Mandouze’s word*2—defined the
landscape in which we all now live, the years between Courcelle and Marrou
on the one hand and Brown and Markus on the other.

   And like many citizens of these decades, Augustine has gone through his
own changes. He entered the post-war world as rather a fashionable liberal,
and to study him was to declare yourself as, howbeit traditionalist, of a
forward-looking bent of mind. Does he end this half-century, as others might,
rather chastened and subsiding back into conservative ideas, unchanging
himself perhaps but understood differently by new generations for whom the
forward-looking conservatism of another era seems no longer so coherent, or
so nearly liberal?

   This is not to say the last decades, especially since the discoveries of
Divjak and Dolbeau,*3 have not been exciting ones, though perhaps not
entirely riveting. The revelations of the new letters and sermons have sufficed
to enthrall the scholars, but have not made headlines beyond scholarly circles.
Augustine remains philosophically quite broad-minded, but just a little bit
more high church and state church than most of his modern readers would

   And his language: the old cadres of ecclesiastically-trained Latinists who
could edit and interpret him with proprietorial care have largely slipped away,
replaced in quality if not in quantity by younger scholars without ecclesiastical
roles. His original Latin words are far more readily available in print to readers
on every continent than ever before, and if we consider digital versions of his
texts, bid fair to be nearly ubiquitously available very soon. But translation is
the necessary precondition of any but an extremely narrow readership, and
the greatest services to scholarship in the last half century have been supplied
by the Bibliothèque Augustinienne in French, the Nuova Biblioteca
Agostiniana in Italian, and the New City Press in English.
   Prognostication is a silly exercise: at best what the prophet says will
happen is a useful sketch of what won’t. But issues that loom in 2001 are
easier to see: how we will respond to them is the question. I will confine
myself here to sketching a few that interest or worry me.

   Pierre-Marie Hombert’s Nouvelles recherches sur la chronologie
augustinienne*4 is a sobering reminder, first of all, of the ever-renewed labor
of mastering any of Augustine at all. Five million words of text can scarcely
be imagined, much less read and known with any consistent intensity. When I
worked on the Confessions in the 1980s, I passed every page and line of
Augustinian text then known before my eyes, fully aware that if I ever said I
had done so, Isidore of Seville would rise up to call me a liar—and fully
aware he would be justified in doing so, for the “reading” I gave those texts
was partial and focused on their relevance for the Confessions only. While I
pursued those studies, I thought I could identify only two other travelers in
the last century who had followed the same idiosyncratic path, reading every
text to throw light on the Confessions—Alfaric and Courcelle. A handful of
other suspects have crossed my path over the years who may have similarly
ranged so broadly, but they have done so with different inquiries in mind, and
we have all missed much that we might have seen. And time passes and the
mind forgets what it has known.

   And so in every generation and repeatedly in every lifetime, every one of
us needs to refresh, reread, remind ourselves what we have known and what
is there to be known, just of the primary texts. Hombert suggests, and I
venture to hope it is possible, that renewed effort of attention and comparison
can bring new fruit to chronological (and by implication other) studies.
Mechanical means of searching, finding, knocking, opening, tabulating, and
recording what we seek may support that effort, but in the end, nothing
substitutes for patient years of attention.

   But who will pay that attention, and why? Old quarrels have faded, and
few fight out denominational battles with Augustine any longer, nor is he a
particularly convenient tool to use in battles between orthodoxy and atheism,
if any are still fought. And if he now belongs to the undiscipline of “late
antique studies” (by “undiscipline” I mean only that the phrase refers to
nothing that is widely recognized by deans, provosts, rectors, or presidents as
an organizing factor in great universities) rather than the old undiscipline of
“patristics” (known as a discipline, to be sure, in theological schools, but only
there), it can only be for the good that he is seen in a wider, richer, less
ideologically predictable context. We are still a long way from forgetting,
however, if we could ever forget, that the Augustine of history was associated
with people and movements and ideas whose later history has been linked
through the generations to living social organizations well beyond the
academy’s walls. To know Augustine of the fourth century historically
requires us to forget all the other Augustines encountered along the way
since.*5 The study of Chrysostom or Jerome or Cosmas Indicopleustes
requires a far less vigorous effort of forgetting.

   But to see Augustine without his futures, to see him in his own time,
remains a great challenge.

   One discipline that has brought less to the table for Augustinian studies
than all would have hoped fifty years ago is archaeology, and the limitations
here are purely external. Despite the good work of the UNESCO Carthage
excavations of two decades ago, Augustine’s own sites remain essentially
unexplored since Marec’s work of half a century ago at Hippo.*6 But Tagaste
may be lost irrevocably, and the high plains of north Africa remain now
unexploited for fully sixty years, since World War II, for all that they clearly
contain sites and opportunities of great interest for the history of Roman
Africa, Augustine’s own time not least of all. In this regard, Augustinian
studies and studies of Roman Africa are decidedly backwards, compared say
to study of Roman Britain or (even more pertinently) to what has been done
with the study of early medieval Italy in the last generation.

   But any report on Augustinian studies runs the risk of resembling the old
Monty Python sketch about “news for parrots.” There is a wider world yet of
debate and discovery in humanistic studies with whose fate our studies are
inevitably bound up. I will confine myself to one, not quite prognostication
perhaps expectation is the better word—in that domain.

   Augustine writes often and with great care about the nature and function
of the human soul. From the Soliloquia of 387 to the last pages against Julian
forty and more years later, it was important for him to know and say what he
could about the immortality, the immateriality, and the peccabilities of the
soul. So much is obvious even to the superficial reader. But what is less
obvious, and has been if anything beclouded by the last generation’s quarrels
over particular doctrinal points (what did Augustine really think of the origin
of the soul?), is the extent to which his deployment of the notion of soul was
part of a broad late antique movement that has continued to shape Western
thought ever since. Plato and Aristotle may be credited with having disciplined
earlier Greek notions, but Augustine and his late antique Christian and
Platonic counterparts gave new reality and experiential sense to the soul.*7 If
the Confessions are indeed “the first modern biography” in any useful sense,
it is because they assume that the soul is a scene of narrative, and that the
narrative of the soul is the deepest and truest story of the person. Augustine
tells us his version of his own such story, and no biographer from his day to
this can possibly escape its sway.

   But that form of story-telling depends on a particular configuration of
“soul.” The soul must be a unity that has lost its coherence and seeks in life to
regain it: whether the interpretative structure is Augustinian or Freudian, the
fundamental assumption is the same. But if instead, as serious cognitive
scientists now argue, the notion of “soul” disappears behind the rigorous
analysis of multiple seats of activity in the brain and endocrinological system,
all of which contribute to the lived experience that Augustine interpreted as
evidence for “soul,” then readers of Augustine are presented with both
challenge and opportunity. On the one hand, our connivance with Augustine
and his heirs, evinced every time we tell a life-story or talk about their
theology, is called into question. If it is not a question of how the soul exists
but whether, and whether any unitary mind/soul/personality can be posited,
then much of what we say as humanistic scholars in many disciplines is
suddenly rendered questionable. But as students of Augustine, we have the
opportunity to engage the skeptical materialist in conversation. We, if no one
else, understand the theoretical underpinnings and the plausibility of the
construction they gave rise to. No one can or should predict what the
imagined configuration of the human personality of the mid-twenty-first
century will be or should be, but the issue is one that must be faced. And to
bring current debate and discovery back into Augustinian studies cannot but, I
think, be fruitful.

1. Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine
(London: Faber and Faber, 1972) 16.

2. André Mandouze, Saint Augustin: L’aventure de la raison et de la grâce
(Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1968) 28.

3. On these letters and sermons, see the afterword in Brown, Augustine of
Hippo: A Biography, new edn. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2000) 441–81. But note also the work of P.-M. Hombert (below, note 4),
who begins already to subvert the chronology that Dolbeau established and
that Brown depends on.

4. (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 2000).

5. It’s an old battle. At the “premier colloque international sur saint Augustin”
held in Algiers and Annaba/Hippo in April 2001, André Mandouze spoke of
the long struggle that he and Henri Marrou had carried out “against
Augustinianisms and for Augustine”; virtually those very words can be found
in Marrou’s Saint Augustin et l’augustinisme (Paris: Seuil, 1955) 180. [See
also James J. O’Donnell, “The Authority of Augustine,” The 1991 Saint
Augustine Lecture at Villanova University, Augustinian Studies 22 (1991):

6. For an impressionistic glimpse of the sites today, see my trip report on the
Algiers/Annaba conference at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/algeria.

7. No treatment I know of the ancient history of the “soul” carries the story
from pre-Socratics to late patristic figures: it is an important stretch of cultural
history left unconnected in fragments of specialized studies.