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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