Let Augustine Move Up a Weight Class

I got to see Restless Heart, the new Augustine biopic last night.  It’s not yet in theatres, but community groups can do special showings, and I was lucky enough to snag tickets to the one sponsored by St Anthony of Padua Church here in DC.  (You can put in a request to host a showing or see the list of upcoming events here).  Here’s the trailer:

YouTube Preview Image

The trailer is super dramatic, but large parts of the movie are just people in period clothes standing around talking to each other… which is just the way I like it.  Be warned, there’s a really bad CGI shot of birds right at the beginning, which made me nervous about the quality of the film, but that turned out to be an abberation; on the whole, it’s well put together.

What most surprised me about the film was how unsurprising Augustine’s eventual conversion felt.   I’m not sure whether or not I was pleased about that choice.  When Augustine is ascendant, as court orator, he was hesitant.  Perhaps this was meant to be the canny hanging-back of a mouth for hire, but it certainly came across as a yearning, only too aware that he was eating what was not bread, spending his labor on what failed to satisfy.  I think this will end up making it more attractive to Catholics, but less useful as outreach.

Throughout the movie, I wanted the struggle over Augustine’s soul to look a little less one-sided.  It’s not surprising that Ambrose is Augustine’s strongest opponent, but I would have liked to see the other philosophies Augustine explored given similarly poignant and eloquent defenders.  The audience snickered through the scene where Augustine was being pitched on Manichaeism, and no wonder, since it was quickly glossed as “No one is responsible for their actions, since our nature is imprisoned in matter, which is evil, but if we follow Mani, we will become pure light or spirit.”  It sounded New Agish, and Augustine looked uncertain when we saw him in their midst.

But Manichaeism is tempting.  (Not just to me, I swear!).  It has echoes in the modern worship of the intellect and the abstract.  Augustine was drawn to Manichaeism because he was seeking truth, and they seemed plausible at the time.  I would have liked to see more of his upward striving toward knowledge and disappointment when he realized he was on the wrong path.  In the film, he seemed to be primarily choosing between Catholicism and nihilism.  The starkness of that choice makes more sense when you can see that Augustine has been stumbling on his pursuit of Truth and might have reason to wonder whether his mistake was in his choice of path or in believing there was a path at all.

As it is, the nihilism he’s offered is pretty boring nihilism.  The Roman court is petty and cruel, and Augustine never seems drawn in.  The Empress mother comes off as villainous from her first appearance, so it feels like Augustine sacrifices very little when he throws away his political life in his conversion.  I’d prefer the malignancy of his life at court to be less obvious or for the audience to feel more implicated in its ugliness.

His tutor in rhetoric is a more successful devil.  The orator asks him if he is strong enough to live without the truth, and he’s not just offering simple hedonism as the prize.  Augustine looks the most alive when he is speaking as a lawyer.  He wields rhetoric the way an painter uses a brush and tempts us to think the results of both are value neutral.  Isn’t technical genius its own licence?  You get a real sense of Augustine joy in creation, and that true joy animating unworthy ends is what makes this temptation harder to brush aside and the eventual victory more exhilarating.  A philosophy looks strongest when you let it loose on non-strawmen.

 

P.S. A couple times I wondered about the accuracy or timing of a few incidents (since biopics usually telescope events), but I’m forgoing Wikipedia and rereading the Confessions, instead.  This was, as best I can recall, the first Christian work I read post-conversion, and I’m looking forward to returning to it now that some time has passed and I’ve entered the catechumenate.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

    I definitely recommend the Ignatius Critical Edition of “The Confessions”. It’s the *best* translation along with some excellent annotations:

    http://bvogt.us/QDv31T

  • deiseach

    “It sounded New Agish, and Augustine looked uncertain when we saw him in their midst.”

    Well, when the Gnostic text “Thunder, Perfect Mind” has been used for a fashion advert – what else can you say? “Augustine, join us, and you will always look faaaabulous”?

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      Actually it looks like a very good advert. I will watch it more alter, when urgent matters of ancient philosophy are less pressing.

  • Noe

    As I’d said – his beards weren’t convincing ;-). Manicheanism tasted from the film just enough like Scientology – more could have been done with that, if it were outreachy a presentation of the more familiar new-age beliefs would be accessible, but I wonder if outreach should aim more for the un-Churched, the poorly-Churched or the anti-Church (who unlike the latter care enough to argue rather than walk by). Given the modern immersion in courtroom dramas, Gilmore Girls, etc – I thought the orator depiction was terminally weak – modern consumers are capable of more complexity than “facts not words” ad infinitum. The quips people laughed at were so thin compared to so much contemporary film featuring thoughts and conflicts. The uninformed could easily be left wondering what was so impressive about Augustine or the world he came out of – alluded to as being “preserved” in the Church. I thought “There be Dragons” was stronger.

    • deiseach

      Oh, that’s a point I wondered about – as a Roman(ish) citizen, shouldn’t he have been clean-shaven, rather than bearded? Or were beards acceptable at this date (Tsk! These crazy foreign fashions of kids these days!)

      • Adrian Ratnapala

        When I saw the picture up top, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why this great Lybian hero had such pink skin. So it *definately* didn’t occur to me to wonder about the beard.

        But if you must know: the historical Augustine looks *exactly* like my cartoon. Spooky.

  • evetushnet

    If you do want more biography, Peter Brown’s AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO is both well-respected and really fun.

    • leahlibresco

      And in the DC library system!

    • KL

      Seconding Brown! A fantastic insight not only into Augustine, but his historical and cultural milieu.

  • JohnH

    From Confessions one gets the very strong impression that Augustine was first a neo-platonist and second a Christian (i.e. he rejects and says he is and is proud of rejecting beliefs he identifies as being held by many Christians in favor of beliefs coming from Neo-Platonism). Given that he was whole heatedly a neo-Platonist then him being attracted to (and heavily influenced by in his writings) Manichaeism shouldn’t be any sort of surprise.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    I’d recommend “A Man for All Seasons”, except I’m not sure which version I saw, and it looks like there’s some law requiring any dramatic re-enactment of St. Thomas More’s life to be called that.

  • Tom H

    Dear Leah,

    As Augustine himself says, his great and enduring love, from the time he was introduced to Cicero’s Hortensius, was wisdom. Looked at from the standpoint of his practice of philosophy or his eventual conversion to Christianity, Manicheanism looks implausible indeed. But he himself describes himself in his Manichean days as suffering from an immense crudity of mind. He says he was neither humble enough nor well-educated enough for Scripture or philosophy at that point, and the only alternative to offer wisdom was Manicheanism. So he joined them. But he’s almost immediately dissatisfied with Manicheanism. He describes his attraction to Manicheanism more as an attraction to the name of wisdom than to wisdom herself.

    I agree with the above poster on Brown’s book: there’s too easy a relationship between Augustine’s Platonism and his Christianity that Brown posits. Augustine learned much from the books of the Platonists, but the structure and the argument of the Confessions shows that Augustine himself did not think that he could be both a Socratic philosopher and a Christian. Compare the Platonic ascent to wisdom in Book 7 with his Vision at Ostia with Monica after his conversion.

    The best secondary source, challenging but incisive, on Augustine in recent years are Ernest Fortin’s short essays “Augustine and the Hermeneutics of Love” and “Reflections on the Proper Way to Read Augustine the Theologian”, which can be found in his collected essays, vol. 1, “The Birth of Philosophic Christianity.” Happy reading!

  • Fred

    “No one is responsible for their actions, since our nature is imprisoned in matter, which is evil, but if we follow Mani, we will become pure light or spirit.”

    http://www.yorku.ca/jspot/1/cauchi.htm

    The Metaphorical Body of Justice: Re-turning to Augustine and Kant

    Injustice usually rears its ugly head when the attempt is made either to separate literally or to unify mind (or soul) and body…

  • Adrian Ratnapala


    but it certainly came across as a yearning, only too aware that he was eating what was not bread, spending his labor on what failed to satisfy. I think this will end up making it more attractive to Catholics, but less useful as outreach.

    But my (meagre) understanding of Augustine was that he was never a happy, settled unbeleiver. He ws one of those chaps who was always both too pericingly philosophical and too worried about sin to just let things be. That, and his mother (or father?) was a Christian.

    • leahlibresco

      Yes, but I would guess he was slightly more hopeful that other philosophies would work and that his unsettledness wasn’t so externally apparent. It made me a little curious about why people were so confident he’d orate on their side.

    • deiseach

      His mother, Monica (or, as we are reminded, Monnica in the more-correct Punic spelling) was a Christian and the major influence on him – she worried a lot, lectured him, and involved St. Ambrose (amongst others) to chivvy him onto the right path.

      Her feast day is 27th August, Augustine’s feast day is 28th August, and the 29th August (the night Leah got to see the film) is the Decollation (that is, Beheading) of John the Baptist.

      And apparently you’re right that Augustine is too pink-skinned; Mon(n)ica is said to have been of Berber origin, so as an Algerian, he should be more tanned and less pasty! :-)


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