Brown: Augustine of Hippo

August 28, 2014

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown
(California University Press, 2000; Second Ed.) [1967]
563 p.

Though it is now nearly 50 years since its first publication, I believe that this biography by the distinguished historian Peter Brown is still considered to be among the most eminent modern studies of Augustine’s life and thought. I first read it — in a fragmentary and harried fashion — when I was an undergraduate taking a course on medieval philosophy. To revisit it now, many years later (though still under circumstances that only a satirist could describe as leisurely), has been a great pleasure. I may have greater affection for one or another saint of the Church, but there is no saint whom I revere more than Augustine.

All biographers of Augustine have to contend with the fact that they are writing about a subject who has already written, famously and with penetrating insight, about himself. Of course his Confessions were published when he was yet “in the middle of the way,” and there remains much to say about his long and productive life. Brown covers the principal events of his life — his boyhood in north Africa, his migration to Italy as a young, ambitious man, his embrace of Manichaeism, his encounter with St. Ambrose and conversion to Christianity, his election as bishop of Hippo, and his many subsequent struggles to defend the Christian faith against rivals, struggles which decisively shaped Christianity itself. More than this, however, his purpose is to set Augustine in his context, filling in the background not with gold-leaf, as in so many of those beautiful medieval portraits, but with the intellectual and social ferment of the times. In this he is notably successful, though it must be said that even his living, breathing Augustine turns a bit wan and pale when Augustine’s own voice is given room on the page. Is there another figure from antiquity who speaks to us today with such immediacy?

Brown emphasizes the influence of Plato, mediated by Plotinus and Porphyry, on the thought of Augustine. His reading of Plotinus was a deep and creative one; he assimilated that mystical system so thoroughly that he was able to extend it in a way that was distinctively his own, grafting it fruitfully onto his theological work. Yet as he aged he moved away from the neo-Platonism of his youth in important ways, and the care with which Brown traces this gradual change is one of the principal virtues of the book.

As a young man, Augustine believed that with the proper discipline, education, and determination it would be possible to achieve a kind of complete spiritual transformation in this life, to live the life of a “philosopher”: wise, virtuous, and untroubled by sin. But his own experience, not to mention his troublesome duties as a bishop among his wayward flock, gradually convinced him that this was mistaken. Our hearts are so ‘wounded’ (his own word) that in this life they are likely never to be entirely healed; even our baptism does not lift this burden from us; we struggle onward, helped by grace but struggling even to co-operate with it. Much of his most potent and valuable philosophical and theological work, on grace and freedom, on faith and reason, and on love, was born directly out of this darker view of our human condition. Brown puts the matter this way:

“The ideal remained the same: the ‘purification’ of the mind, where shadows gave way to reality. ‘In the morning I shall stand before Thee and contemplate.’ But the process of ‘purification’ itself, had become infinitely more complex. In Augustine’s early works the soul needed only to be ‘groomed’ by obvious and essentially external methods, by a good education, by following rational demonstrations, by authority conceived of primarily as an aid to learning. In his middle age, this ‘purification’ is treated as more difficult, for the soul itself, he thought, was more deeply ‘wounded’; and, above all, the healing of the soul has come to involve more parts of the personality. The problem is no longer one of ‘training’ a man for a task he will later accomplish: it is one of making him ‘wider’, of increasing his capacity, at least to take in something of what he will never hope to grasp completely in this life. No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart’. This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must ‘look into the Scriptures, the eyes of their heart on its heart’.

“… To separate ‘faith’ and ‘reason’… goes against the grain of Augustine’s thought. For what concerned him was to set a process in motion: it was to ‘purify’, to ‘heal’ a damaged mind. He never doubted for a moment that this process happened through the constant interplay of the two elements: of faith ‘that works by love’, of understanding, ‘that He may be known more clearly and so loved more fervently’.”

And, in another place:

Augustine’s early ideal had been to lead a life of spiritual elevation achieved through intellectual effort and in the company of like-minded friends. He later came to see himself much more as a pilgrim, seeking something which he would never find in this life, and always necessarily incomplete: “Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? … I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and, in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation.”

These mature views entered directly into Augustine’s famous conflict with Pelagius. In many respects, in fact, Pelagianism bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s own youthful views, consisting as it does of an essentially optimistic view of human nature, a simple notion of human freedom, and an expectation that a life of moral perfection is attainable in this life. In struggling with Pelagius, Augustine was, in a sense, struggling again with his own self, and this perhaps accounts not only for his perceptiveness but also the passion with which he entered the fray.

Against Pelagius’ rosy view of human nature, Augustine’s can seem dire. Yet Brown argues that it was, deep down, the kinder and more forgiving: “Paradoxically … it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.” And he did find room: it is reassuring to hear the language with which this pastor of souls discussed his own moral failings and those of the flock entrusted to him: “Many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…”.

For Augustine in his maturity, self-control and reason were insufficient: man was beset by unconscious and conflicted desires that eluded control, and could only be healed by a long process, under grace.

A fundamental difference between Pelagius and Augustine was the way they understood freedom: “For Pelagius, freedom could be taken for granted: it was simply part of a common-sense description of a human being…” For him “the difference between good and bad men was quite simple: some chose the good, some the bad.” But for Augustine matters are more complex: “‘I could say with absolute truth and conviction (that men were not sinless) because they did not want to be sinless. But if you were to ask me why they did not want to be so, then we are getting out of our depth’.”

At the root of our action and even our thought, for Augustine, is our love. He distinguished his two great cities, the City of God and the City of Man, on the basis of the objects of their love. “My love is my weight,” he said, and so no account of human life can be adequate if it does not place love at the center of things:

“For an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. And in men, this capacity to know and to feel in a single, involved whole, has been intimately dislocated… Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love…

“Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.”

That last thought is a rather striking one. I remember being startled by it when I first encountered it — not in the pages of Augustine, mind you, but in Aquinas. It is, perhaps, just one small indication of the pervasive influence which Augustine’s life and work has had on subsequent Christian history.

There are many threads running through this book; I have here plucked at only a few. In an extended (~100 p.) epilogue for this second edition, Brown surveys the extensive academic work that has been done on Augustine and his world since he first wrote. I was surprised to learn that substantial collections of otherwise unknown sermons and letters of Augustine were discovered as recently as the 1970s and 1990s; he gives an overview and discusses their importance. And he candidly assesses his book’s strengths and weaknesses. The latter, while not absent, are rather minor when set beside the book’s sobriety, competence, and humane spirit.

6 Responses to “Brown: Augustine of Hippo”

  1. Grumpy Says:

    reading that book as an undergraduate was one of the great experiences of my life.

  2. cburrell Says:

    For me that great experience came from reading the Confessions itself; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the basic shape of my life would probably be quite different if I hadn’t read it at that time. But it’s a good biography, no doubt.

    Grumpy, are you familiar with any of Peter Brown’s other books? Can you recommend anything? I am interested in his book on the rise of western Christendom, but any book these days has to be carefully vetted before I’ll commit.

  3. Filia Artis Says:


    You are not the only friend of mine who found the Confessions to be a life-changing read.

    Dr. Michael Siebert has just defended a dissertation on Augustine that I’m sure will soon be filed close to yours in the Robarts library. You should seek out a conversation with him as he seems to be the Augustine expert amongst our immediate friends.

    I’d like to read that Brown biography some day.


  4. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I believe he wrote his thesis on the theme of “illumination” in Augustine’s writings. He told me exactly, but I haven’t got it handy.

  5. Grumpy Says:

    I think the Augustine biography is one of his best. I have read his book on sex in the ancient world/patristics and it’s useful for someone who wants to know a bit about the period, but I would not recommend it for any other purpose.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Grumpy. I know I have his book somewhere on “The Cult of the Saints” in late antiquity, but I’ve not yet read it. I’ll put that big book on the formation of Christendom on a back burner for now.

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