On Reading Augustine

On Reading Augustine August 28, 2007

Happy Memorial of St. Augustine of Hippo!

“Lord, renew in your Church the spirit you gave Saint Augustine. Filled with this spirit, may we thirst for you alone as the fountain of wisdom and seek you as the source of eternal life.”
(Morning Prayer, Memorial of Augustine, Bishop and Doctor)

To commemorate who is arguably the single most significant Bishop, Father and Doctor of Catholic tradition, I decided to write a few tips on how to read Augustine. Please excuse the presumption!

For years I struggled with Augustine. Questions from other Christians stumped me: Did he prefer symbolic explanations of the Eucharistic? Did he produce a nascent Calvinism? Is Augustine responsible for producing every ‘heresy of the West’? Internal questions plagued me: Do we encounter the real Augustine in the Confessions? Should we privilege Augustine’s later writings, such as the ant-Pelagian tracts or his Retractiones, over his earlier works? Did Augustine properly distinguish between Neoplatonism and Christian doctrine? Did Augustine really have a full-blown just war theory as many presume?

This is only a sampling of the questions that every serious student of Augustine must face. Here, I offer some tips on approaching Augustine’s work and dealing with the complexities that lie within his texts.

TIP #1: Start with Augustine’s Confessions. Sure, this work appears in the middle of his writing career, but it is the only time Augustine gives us an extended glimpse of his own soul. Not only does Confessions mark the first true instance of introspective and existential writing in Western literature, but it also provides the first intellectual autobiography by a saint. By starting here, you will understand and appreciate the academic formation of the Bishop of Hippo, which will pay huge dividends when you attempt to plow through his much more difficult works. Plus, Confessions provides that needed spiritual boost with its emphasis on sin, grace and conversion from a personal, and not abstract, point of view.

TIP #2: Unlike many of the others Fathers of the Church, Augustine wrote a handbook and summary of the faith, the Enchiridion. This is available in English from New City Press and is titled The Augustine Catechism. The Enchiridion is a later work from Augustine and covers what he believes to be the most essential aspects of the Christian faith. This little work will give you his mature reflections not only on grace, but also on how grace and salvation work themselves out within the context of the Church and the sacraments. Here you will get a taste of the whole Augustine. The Enchiridion will help you get your bearings for Augustine’s other treatments on more specific theological issues.

TIP #3: Get to know Augustine’s intellectual roots in Neoplatonism. I cannot recommend you do this enough. Cicero, Plotinus and Porphyry were always in Augustine’s head. Try to get your hands on his more philosophical pieces, which were written early in his career, such as Against the Academics, Soliloquies, and On Free Choice of the Will. These are short writings in dialogue form, no doubt inspired by the Socratic dialogues. These are for the most part dry, but they will give you an orientation toward Augustine’s intellectual milieu, as well as a familiarity with a framework of thought which stayed with Augustine to the last spill of ink.

TIP #4: Once you have an acquaintance with Augustine’s philosophical foundations, his greatest works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), will make a lot more sense and your reading of them will be more fruitful. Do not neglect these works! One will lack a true appreciation for Augustine and his influence on Western Christianity until one has tackled these tomes. I also have to metion his De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine/Teaching Christianity) for its development of hermeneutics and catechetics.

TIP #5: Don’t forget about the secondary literature on Augustine. Essential reading in this regard is John J. O’Meara, The Young Augustine. O’Meara will introduce you to Augustine’s intellectual formation in rhetoric and Neoplatonism while guiding you through the Confessions. I also recommend Mary T. Clark’s Augustine for a good overview of the complexities of Augustine’s thought. Last, but not least, Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia is quite good for researching any topic about or from Augustine.

TIP #6: Read Augustine as a historical figure AND as a contemporary. Augustine has much to say in terms of Christian living that is immediately applicable to today’s world of faith. Don’t underestimate the value of reading Augustine for spiritual and practical guidance!

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  • Bubba

    Here’s a tip: forget all the tips and just read St. Augustine. If you follow policraticus’s advice, you will not be reading Augustine, you will be reading policraticus. That is to say, you will not be reading Augustine as Augustine meant his books to be read, but you will be studying him like a bug under a microscope, which is quite a different thing.

    The policraticus approach is the modernist approach and it is deadly both to your intellect and your faith. It forces you into a particular philosophical stance prior to your even cracking the book; a critical stance which leaves no room for the possibility that it is Augustine’s teaching and not the a priori presumptions you are bringing to the table that might be true.

    So just read Augustine. And by all means read Plato (and Plotinus, etc.) too. Just don’t read any of them as if they are some sort of amusing anachronism to be studied for their historical “flavor.” For if they are, there’s no point in reading them at all, and if they’re not, putting words in their mouths serves no purpose other than to prop up the very regime that has laid waste to both Western Civilization and the Church.

    (This isn’t particularly meant as an attack on you, policraticus. Your #6 more or less saved the day for you. But burdening the reader up front with questions that never faced Augustine, and with the opinions of others about his thought before reading St. Augustine’s own words out of his own mouth is the great intellectual sin of modernity. It’s fundamentally dishonest. The same goes for every other thinker, Catholic or no.)

  • policraticus


    Thank you for your comment. However, I am quite confused as to how recommending a certain order of Augustine’s works–an order that I have found quite helpful in understanding Augustine–is “deadly.” What is so deadly and “modernist” about helping to guide readers through one of the most difficult Fathers to read? And how would someone who is reading Augustine actually be “reading Policraticus” by reading Augutine? I think you are just being a bit too paranoid.

    As to “burdening the reader up front with questions that never faced Augustine,” one must remember that reading is a dialogue, a two-way street. The reader always brings presuppositions and questions to a text whose author may never have dealt with. We do not read in a vacuum, and to suggest otherwise is to be “fundamentally dishonest” with yourself.” The only way a text remains relevant is to bring new questions to bear. Otherwise, you remain entrenched in the sort of historicism that you describe, which is actually quite systemic in modern times.

    Once more I suggest to all that the key to understanding large, difficult tomes such as the De Trinitate and the De Civitate Dei is to be familiar with Augustine’s style and intellectual milieu. In other words, one must be mindful of historical context and the philosophical paradigms which permeate those contexts. Reading Augustine is no exception. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with “just reading St. Augustine,” one will gain much more and understand much better if one is acquainted with Augustine’s historico-philosophical context, rhetorical style and progression of thought (after all, Augustine changed his mind often!). There is nothing modernist about this at all. It’s just good, smart reading of a good, smart saint. Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, recommends the very some manner of reading Augustine in his first dissertation on the theme of the House of God in St. Augustine.