Jagged city


Gareth B. Matthews
148pp. Blackwell

James J. O'Donnell
A new biography
396 pp. Profile

Gareth B. Matthews's brief guide to Augustine the philosopher is the second volume in a series that began with Kant and will continue with Aristotle, Descartes and other major philosophers. Augustine, whose central subjects after his conversion were God and the soul, was not, strictly, or academically, speaking, a philosopher at all. James J. O'Donnell says disparagingly, "Augustine could look like such an amateur". As a philosopher, in fact, Augustine not only looked like an amateur: with bad Greek and minimal direct knowledge of Plato or Aristotle, he was one. The word, however, like the word philosopher, means lover, and Augustine, an orator who became a theologian and was always a psychologist, a thinker about the soul, was a lover of wisdom in God who "first loved us": "What have we that we have not received?". His philosophy is there in his books because he thought; and because he thought, he ran into the perennial questions that have no evident answers: Do I exist? If I know that I exist, why do I exist? What is time? Why is there evil? Is my will free? What are words? What is a lie? Matthews lays a grid of these problems, identified, sorted and labelled -- the Argument from Analogy for Other Minds; the Modal-Placement Solution (to the Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will); the Consistency Problem of Evil -- over the vast expanse of Augustine's work, and summarizes his findings for students who, one hopes, will be drawn to read some of Augustine's own writing by the sheer attractiveness of the quotations used here. They are usually -- because they were written by someone who, though an amateur philosopher, was a professional and quite exceptional communicator -- a good deal easier to understand than the commentary, or translation into modern philosophical terminology, that accompanies them.

Matthews is entirely right to begin his book with a clear statement of the "view from somewhere", that is, from the observed self, always in relation to God, that is the basis of Augustine's thought. This is borne in mind throughout, though heavy weather is made of Augustine on language learning, and heavier weather, in a chapter called "wanting bad things" (no capital letters for chapter titles, despite their prolific use for philosophical topics), of the pear-stealing adolescent recalled in the Confessions. But the material here is psychology rather than philosophy, and good psychology too. That teenage boys become petty criminals for no better reason than gang excitement was not the kind of observation philosophers in the ancient world were accustomed to make. Nor was the impressive guess that toddlers learn single words from what they are told but that syntax comes from within.

Passages from Augustine's writings, Matthews says, "can easily be used in an introductory philosophy class today". But as recent books by Christopher Kirwan (1989) and John Rist (1994) have shown, Augustine's thought is not only for beginners. One upshot of this book is that the force of Augustine's provisional answers to the big philosophical questions has not weakened -- some are, in Matthews's words, "among the live options to be considered even today" -- becuase philosophy does not either necessarily or actually improve as time goes by. Augustine changed his answers to various philosophical question; some of his early suggestions work better than later ones. He regarded human thought as in any case partial, imperfect, always relative to the truth that is whole only in God. At nearly sixty he wrote to a friend: "Cicero, the prince of Roman orators, says of someone that 'He never uttered a word which he would wish to recall'. High praise indeed! -- but more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man".

James O'Donnell, editor of, and leading authority on, the Confessions, is not to be disarmed by any such remark: he is resolutel ydistrustful of all we know about Augustine from his own writing. This amounts to nearly everything. According to him, Augustine's every effort to understand himself, or God, or the world, as he writes is driven by the will to power, for himself and "his" church, to be achieved by self-presentation of an unparalleled effectiveness. It is difficult to see why this book is called Augusinte, Sinner and Saint, since it quickly becomes clear that neither word means anything to O'Donnell beyond their use as public relations signals, negative and positive. The word God means even less to him, so he writes it as "god" throughout. He says this is to "remind readers" to avoid the danger of thinking they know what Augustine meant by "God", but augustine himswelf was acutely aware of this danger and all "god" does it to remind us constantly of O'Donnell's own perspective.

We have been warned. This book is a contest with Augustine in which O'Donnell's principal weapon is postmodern suspicion. We are to trust nothing, certainly not anyone's account of his own motives. Augustine's career as an orator was "an ordinary sort of failure". So he joined, for its social cachet, the sect which worshipped "the best new god in the world", and joined its clergy to avoid the boring responsibilities of a minor landowner in Roman Africa. Back from Italy in his home town "he was professing to have been baptized a catholic Christian ... by no less a figure than Ambrose of Milan"; he had learnt from Ambrose "how to act the part of the gentleman bishop of a discreet minority church and how to turn that minority into a majority". So, driven by snobbery, ambition, and a pathological fantasy of dependence on "his god", he "ended up impresario to a new culture made up out of old Jewish texts and traditions, half-0understood and badly translated". So Christianity, in O'Donnell's view, was a confidence trick, its only valuable legacy being its respect for objective truth, now entirely transferred to science, and those who still take it or Augustine seriously must be shocked or mocked out of their assumptions. "Monasticism", "persecution", "scriptures" and "apostle" (Paul) are among the terms deprived of weight by scornful inverted commas; Paulinus of Nola is described as "a Teflon ascetic", and Athanasius as "the greatest theological diva of the age".

More serious is O'Donnell's distorted representation of the City of God; only once does he recognize the relativization fo the worldly empire as Augustine's great achievement in this book. Most of the time he confuses, as many do, the civitas Dei with the Church, and accuses Augustine of intending to take over "the Rome story once and for all to servce Christian purposes", an easy but radically false charge. Meanwhile the opponents who provoked Augustine to his theological campaigns, against the diea of a church for the virtuous only, and against the delusion of moral self-reliance, are given O'Donnell's approval because Augustine was againsit them. In a long, unclear chapter called 'The Augustinian Putsch in Africa" the Donatists are romanticized into "native African Christianity", "that oldest church", rather as the Celtic church has been by some historians, while the Pelagians, in "Augustine's Great Failure", are praised for "a fundamental ordinariness" which had the merit of rendering the Christian fantasy harmless.

It is to be hoped that no one will read O'Donnell as their first book on Augustine: most of the reverse spin would in any case be lost on someone not already well acquainted with his writing and with the period in which he lived. Towards the end O'Donnell recommends "the wisest" reader" to "go away from these pages to read Augustine unmediated", but presumably in the hope that confidence in him will have been sufficiently undermined for him to be regarded as no more than a historical and psychological curiosity. One would, however, back the Augustine of the Confessions roundly to defeat in a new reder's mind O'Donnell's preposterous claim that in that book Augustine "undervalues the human personality, as we might understand it, in favor of a lifeless and unengaging notion of the soul". O'Donnell even describes the astonishing inquiry into memory, the mind and conscience (much referred to by Matthews) as "the repellent and frustrating text of Book X". At the end of his book he at last praises Augustine for "his independence of mind, his freshness of approach, and the novelty of the questions he asked". But according to O'Donnell he answered those questions as no more than an "inspired imaginer of divine truths" (inspird?), and his days, sixteen centuries of them, are now numbered. The soul, transmogrified by Freud, has survived thus far but "whatever becomes of 'soul' will determine what becomes of augustine", and O'Donnell foresees the imminent abolition of both by "better science".

There is a good deal in this jagged, suspicion-fragmented story of Augustine, who knew a lot about the power of the story and more about his own fallibility, with which eh would have agreed, notably O'Donnell's recognition of the paradoxes within Christianity, its mysterious resolutions of the apparently conflicting justice and mercy of God, and of the apparent collision between his freedom and ours. On the other hand, to the central truth of Trinitarian Christianity, the spokenness of Christ as the word made flesh, O'Donnell is stone deaf, and Augustine would have been eithier appalled or amused by the absurd exaggeration of his achievement in James O'Donnell's final hope, that Augustine's "sense of the contingency of human existence is a creation of him and his culture that will long outlive any formal association with his expressed doctrine".