Archive for the 'Books' Category

Lenten reading: “the sharp dart”

March 6, 2015

He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.

The Cloud of Unknowing.

Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross

February 13, 2015

The Ball and the Cross
G.K. Chesterton
Introduction by Martin Gardner
(Dover) [1906]
190 p.

In this, one of his earliest novels, Chesterton tells the story of two Scotsmen, MacIan and Turnbull, the former a Catholic and the latter an atheist, trying to settle their differences not through argument but rather by that time-honoured tradition: the duel. But each time they find a quiet place to conduct their business, they are interrupted at the last moment. The characters who wander between them roughly represent different philosophies and views of life, and so the book is a sequence of scenes in which the Catholic and the atheist argue with a wide spectrum of opponents, all the while wanting only to fight one another. In the end the two find that, despite their differences, they can indeed fight side by side, for they share one conviction not shared by the others: devotion to truth.

It is not one of Chesterton’s best books; he himself claimed later in life that he did not like it, even penning a little verse on the subject:

This is a book I do not like,
Take it away to Heckmondwike,
A lurid exile, lost and sad
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.

His judgement is basically sound: little effort is made to disguise the fact that the minor characters exist only as an occasion to critique one worldview or another. It has some structural problems, too; one gets the impression that he didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen; his attempts at probing the deep significance of the conflict between MacIan and Turnbull through their dreams are failures. Yet, even so, I would not be as hard on the book as Chesterton was.  There are some good things in it. The premise that a metaphysical dispute can and should be settled by a brawl or duel is itself a Chestertonian joke. Like all of Chesterton’s work, the book is full of good humour and that joie de vivre with which he was so generously endowed.

Chesterton frequently defended the merit of fighting for religious ideas.  Here is a passage in which MacIan, the Catholic, recalls the reason for the duel and defends it to a judge:

If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out.  If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place.  Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife.  I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends.  To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity.  If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything?

Chesterton made his living in journalism, and here he makes some amusing remarks about that profession:

…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding.

The two would-be duelers meet a character – a `Tolstoian’ – who advocates non-violence, mutual understanding, and love. MacIan responds with memorable vehemence:

Sir, talk about the principle of love as much as you like. You seem to me colder than a lump of stone; but I am willing to believe that you may at some time have loved a cat, or a dog, or a child. When you were a baby, I suppose you loved your mother. Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that will only make you vomit, until you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you, even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name…It is a monstrous thing for which men die.

Which, to put it mildly, is not usually the way one thinks about it.

One of Chesterton’s favourite themes — even here, a full 15 years before his conversion — was the continuity and endurance of Catholicism contrasted with the ephemeral careers of all those doctrines attacking her. Thus, MacIan says to his opponent, James Turnbull:

I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas…and every one that I understand I deny.  Take any one of them you would like.  You hold that your heretics and sceptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress.  I deny it.  Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces.  Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught?  Who cares?  There are only two things that we know for certain about it.  The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after.  I defy you to go back to the freethinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all.  I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century or the nature-worshipping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ twice as much from them as you differ from the Pope.  You are a nineteenth century skeptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature.  If you had been an eighteenth century skeptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature.  You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century.  Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity.  You are a materialist and you think Bruno a scientific hero.  See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic.  No, the great freethinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity.  What he does destroy is the freethinker who went before.  Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety.  But here is one thing free-thought can never be by any possibility – free-thought can never be progressive.  It can never be progressive because it will never accept anything from the past; it begins every time from the beginning, and it goes every time in a different direction.  All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say who has gone the furthest.  Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer a pessimist?  It is like asking whether the corn is as yellow as the hill is steep.  No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority.  They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.

Do I hear an Amen?

52 authors

February 2, 2015

Over at Light On Dark Water Maclin Horton has organized a year-long blogging project called 52 Authors. It’s a community effort: each week either Maclin or one of his regular readers will contribute a short appreciation or overview of the work of a favourite author. I might even contribute myself if I can find some time.

The project started at the New Year, and so far we’ve had posts on Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Howard, Salman Rushdie, Mark Helprin, and, today, Henri de Lubac. If you’re a reader — and if you’re not, what the heck are you doing here? — I recommend taking a look. Oh, and it might be time to invest in some new bookshelves.

More on Mantel’s malicious More

January 24, 2015

My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.

Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.

In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.

From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.

(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)

Chesterton: The Flying Inn

January 18, 2015

The Flying Inn
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2001) [1914]
320 p.

There are people who judge The Flying Inn to be one of Chesterton’s better works of fiction — and perhaps it is, though that would not be saying all that much. Is it a philosophical comedy? A farcical dystopian vision? A profound cultural critique? A mere excuse to string together drinking songs? It’s a little difficult to get a clear reading, because the dang thing won’t sit still. My view is that Chesterton was going for something like the good-natured adventuring of Pickwick, but this time through a landscape in which everyone but Pickwick and friends — sorry, Dalroy and friends — have forgotten what England is all about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, in which English society, and in particular the elite class, has fallen under the exotic sway of Islam. It’s simplified theology, the sumptuous aesthetic appeal of Arabic carpets and purfumes, and the ascetic appeal of teetotalism have endeared it to people who matter. The kinds of arguments on behalf of Islam that appeal to them are superbly half-witted (much more so than any such real-world arguments would be). Most significantly for the story, the English Parliament has passed laws shuttering all pubs that do not have a sign in front, and the signs have been confiscated — mostly. Captain Dalroy and his friends still have one, and the book is a record of their wild romps over rolling English roads with a sign, a barrel of rum, and an armful of cheese. They plant their sign in the unlikeliest of places, serve up warm cheer to the common folk who gather around them, and then abscond again before the authorities catch up with them.

The story is punctuated by spontaneous song-making on the part of the characters, and some of Chesterton’s better-known warm-hearted poetry comes from this book: “The Rolling English Road”, “The Logical Vegetarian”, “The Song against Songs”, “The Song of Right and Wrong”, and “Wine and Water”, among others. It’s not great poetry, but it is the sort of thing one would enjoy singing while drinking rum and running from the police (or so I imagine).

Considered as cultural criticism, The Flying Inn is vexing. The face of Islam presented in the book is a largely aesthetic one: only those aspects which appeal to the “progressives” have been adopted, and it seems to me that the real target of his satire is modern secularism. The character of the novel’s central villain, Lord Ivywood, bears this out; in his notes on the book, Dale Ahlquist summarizes Ivywood well:

Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”

As such, it is not really clear what the quasi-Islamic background adds, unless it be simply its value as a foil. Maybe Chesterton needed something to oppose the traditionalism of his protagonists, and an unadulterated secularism was just too bland. Certainly the prospect of a marriage of progressivism and Islam has comedic value. Oh, did I mention that the book lies well out of the political correctness safety zone?

As a road novel, the book inherits the weaknesses inherent to its genre: a general shapelessness, haphazard action, and transient characters. I imagine Chesterton writing his episodes on napkins in pubs, puffing on a cigar and laughing to himself, and finally delivering the stack of napkins to his publisher. The book is witty, disorganized, genial, tedious, and sort of fun. I’m glad I read it, and please God I’ll not read it again.

Favourites of 2014: Books

January 2, 2015

With the advent of the new year, it is time to look back at 2014. Over the next week or so I’ll write a series of posts about my favourites of the books, music, and film that I encountered in the past 12 months. Actually, these posts are already written, but it will take some time to embellish them with little pictures.

I’ll begin today with books.


This year much of my reading was devoted to re-reading: I re-visited Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dickens. This did not leave a great deal of time for other things, but from those slim pickings I offer a few brief recommendations.

aubrey-maturinA couple of years ago a friend told me that he had read the twenty-one volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and had enjoyed them so much that, upon completion, he had returned immediately to the first volume and read all twenty-one volumes again! His was perhaps an extreme case of Aubreyphilia, but he was not the first person whom I had heard praise these books in glowing terms, and so this year I set sail on my own voyage, reading the first half-dozen titles in the series. For the landsmen among us, the books chronicle the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and physician Stephen Maturin aboard His Majesty’s naval vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian has been praised for his richly textured historical writing, and justly so, but the heart of the books is their portrayal, both separately and in friendship, of the two principals. They are wonderful characters. The books are not to be ranked with the greatest literature, but they are examples of compelling storytelling wedded to admirable craftsmanship. I am looking forward to reading another half-dozen or so volumes in the coming year.

hart-experienceMy favourite nonfiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart mines the basic features of conscious experience, and even the very conditions for such experience, to exhibit what they reveal to us about God, or at least about a transcendent order surpassing those things in heaven and earth dreamed of by our modern Horatios. It is a serious book that gives the reader a good deal to grapple with, and beautifully written. I wrote extensively about the book, so I shant elaborate further here.

bate-johnsonMy runner-up is W. Jackson Bate’s much-praised biography Samuel Johnson, published in 1977. There is a temptation, even among Johnson’s admirers, to reduce him to a wit or a sage merely, but Bate wants to unfold for us the man in all of his complexity: his generous heart, his pride, his insecurities and fears, his depressions, his moral wisdom and piety, and, yes, his genius. It is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of a great man, which I hope to write about in more detail in the coming months.


I always enjoy looking at when the books I have been reading were written. Here is a histogram showing the original publication dates of those I read this year:


You can see Euripides and Virgil there on the left, then Augustine, then Dante, and so forth. Looking at that last bin, which counts books from the past hundred years, one might wonder how a father of two (now three!) small children, with a full-time job, and a wife working more-than-full-time, and a long commute, and a house to take care of, etc., etc. has time to read so many books! What is the secret of my success? I answer with just two words: Beatrix Potter. Remove those from consideration (as I have not considered any other of the many children’s books I read this year) and my numbers drop off drasti– but let’s not remove those from consideration.

An incident

October 13, 2014

W. Jackson Bate relates an episode from the life of Dr Johnson, drawing on the memoirs of Frances Reynolds, sister of Johnson’s friend Joshua Reynolds:

“An incident occurred shortly afterward — again at the Miss Cotterells’ — which both Reynolds and his sister thought amusingly characteristic. While Johnson was following some ladies upstairs on this visit, the housemaid, noticing his shabby dress, seized him by the shoulder and tried to pull him back, exclaiming, “Where are you going?” Startled into shame and anger, Johnson roared out like a bull, “What have I done?” Meanwhile a gentleman behind him quieted the maid, and Johnson “growled all the way up stairs, as well he might.”

Already chagrined, he became more offended when two ladies of rank suddenly arrived (the Duchess of Argyle and Lady Fitzroy), and the Miss Cotterells, engrossed in their titled visitors, neglected to introduce him or Reynolds. Inferring that this was because they were ashamed of him and Reynolds as “low company,” he sat for a while in silent meditation and then, “resolving to shock their supposed pride,” called out to Reynolds in a loud voice, “I wonder which of us two could get most money by his trade in one week, were we to work hard at it from morning to night.”

Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

Related Book Notes:

Pratchett on Chesterton

September 3, 2014

Since I like to keep an eye on Chesterton-related items, I’ll draw your attention to a recent interview with Terry Pratchett in the New York Times Book Review:

Sell us on your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer.

G. K. Chesterton. These days recognized — that is if he is recognized at all — as the man who wrote the Father Brown stories. My grandmother actually knew him quite well and pointed out that she herself lived on Chesterton Green in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, here in the U.K. And the man was so well venerated that on one memorable occasion, he was late in sending a piece to The Strand Magazine and a railway train actually waited at the local station until Mr. Chesterton had finished writing his piece. When she told me that, I thought, Blimey, now that is celebrity.


If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?

Well, it would have to be The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a damn good read that I believe should be read by everyone in politics.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.

The whole interview is worth a read; it’s not long, but it brings in Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame, and an old joke that Chesterton himself once used.

I confess I’ve never read one of Pratchett’s books, but on this evidence perhaps I ought to do so. That he would bring Neil Gaiman to dinner with Chesterton and Twain is not surprising: Pratchett and Gaiman co-authored a book some years ago called Good Omens and they dedicated it to Chesterton, “a man who knew what was going on”. Indeed, he did.

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.


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