Watering the Dust

James Wood

  • Saint Augustine by Garry Wills
    Weidenfeld, 153 pp, £12.99, August 1999, ISBN 0 297 84281 1

When I was 16 or so, my parents moved to Weardale, a farming area where little villages and farms flock between Durham on the east and Northumberland on the west. The church in the village we lived in was Late Victorian, devoutly ugly, its furnishings as decent and sparse as its congregation, who regularly comprised an ancient churchwarden (the only man) and five or six elderly ladies. I often played the organ, which was a tinny wheezer. It was not a rich village; there were people in it who had never left County Durham, and one set of brothers who had never been on a train. One of the women in the congregation was so tone-deaf that she seemed to speak the hymns rather than sing them; another always mispronounced the word ‘apostolic’ during the recitation of the Creed (‘Holy, catholic and apostolic church’), landing heavily on the second rather than the third syllable. Since there were so few congregants, her stumble tended to put everyone else out, like a lame pall-bearer.

You could laugh at these people, if you wanted, but you could not condemn them. They were guilty ... of what? Of small flickerings of envy or petty snobbery, perhaps, or the occasional visitation of the ghost of a younger lust. Emphatically, I felt, these were not wicked people and yet every Sunday, during communion, I watched them grovel on their dry knees, condemn themselves and ask for forgiveness from God in their strong Durham accents: ‘we have sinned through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault ... we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.’ I can write these words, and much more of the liturgy, from memory, because they are branded in me. Long before I read Nietzsche, I was offended by the slavishness of this self-abasement. The belittling of the human, the superstitious fear and the blackmail, seemed almost pagan to me.

Augustine, the great early theologian, the North African bishop heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, is in many ways the patron saint of this pagan Christianity. Majestically, Augustine spent much of his life as a Christian applying his superbly lucid and restless mind to the hazard of human sinfulness, the release of redemption and the agency of God. Crudely put, his massive attempt, derived from the certainty that God is only good and cannot create anything evil, was to reconcile how we are the source of our own evil and how at the same time God is the source of us. Since God cannot be the source of evil, it is we who have gone astray. Augustine decided that Adam was good when created by God, but had used his God-given free will to sin. Adam’s sin is physically transmitted to all his descendants through sex, so that we are all guilty: this is the doctrine of original sin. In his treatise De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, written in 411, he argued that unbaptised babies die in original sin and thus incur some kind of divine condemnation in the afterlife. ‘For in thy sight no man is free from sin,’ he writes in the first book of the Confessions,‘not even a child who has lived only one day on the earth ... what sins, then, did I commit when I was a baby myself? Was it a sin to cry when I wanted to feed at the breast?’

Augustine is easy to attack, and paradoxically easy to defend. Since popular reputation dirties him as a sex-consumed, life-denying fatalist, it has not been hard for most responsible scholars to wash that reputation of its accretions. Recent accounts have stressed that he was not obsessed with sex; that he was lenient in the matter of his own priests’ sexual misdemeanours; that, unlike, say, Thomas More, he was a powerful combatant but a tolerant prosecutor of heretics (such as the Donatists); that his strong sense of the evil humans can do was more than balanced by his love-flooded sense of God’s grace and beneficence; that his apparent rigidity in thought was often only the terminus of an immense cognitive flexibility, a searching and modest rationalism of enquiry that can be felt, by all readers, in the very prose of the Confessions and the City of God. It is thrilling to read Augustine’s chapter on the faculty of memory in the Confessions and watch him patiently angle his way towards the discovery that there is an unconscious, that we forget nothing.

Garry Wills’s defence of Augustine – for that is what his short biography amounts to – is finely original and often brilliantly convincing. Anyone interested in Augustine, even those who thought they knew a fair amount, will learn from Wills. He not only admires Augustine, but is clearly moved by his combination of lucidity and hesitancy. Augustine’s texts, Wills writes, ‘draw us into a process’. He is sensible about the apparent obsession with sex, without his narrative becoming hostage to this defence; instead, in a rich rereading of the Confessions, he suggests that certain scenes which seem unusually sex-tinged are rhetorical allusions to, and re-enactments of, Adam’s loss of innocence in Eden. This does not quite absolve Augustine of his obsession, of course, but at least it dignifies it in formal drapes.

Wills is most illuminating when discussing Augustine’s pastoral work as Bishop of Hippo, and when analysing the literary strategies of his many sermons. He argues that Augustine used puns, aphorisms and jingles rather as the Rev. Jesse Jackson does. As examples, he provides his own springy translations from Augustine’s Latin. Augustine flourishes in Wills’s hands and, dappled in a flickering, modern light, takes on a benign bloom. We see him as a busy priest and correspondent in a country whose bishops were mostly unimpressive, and in several cases illiterate; above all, we see him both as a man of his time and as a philosopher whose hospitality towards free ratiocination makes him seem timeless – both pre-religious and post-religious; or religiously pagan, perhaps. Nevertheless, Wills’s defence is got at a price, inasmuch as he makes only brief mention of Augustine’s struggles with Pelagius and barely discusses his late position on predestination and grace. Reading Wills, one would not guess that Augustine formulated a position so unpalatable that the Church would effectively condemn it in the 17th century.

Augustine was born in 354, in Thagaste, now Souk Ahras, in Algeria. His father, who died when his son was 18, was not a Christian; his mother Monica, a devout Catholic, was clearly an influence on her son and prayed for his rectitude and conversion. As a child, he was indifferent, as a young man he was frankly hostile to the Bible stories. In his Confessions, Augustine offers a portrait of his childhood so saturated in sin and so marked by the eventual triumph over sin that it is sometimes difficult to retrieve its innocent normality: the schoolboy who was brilliant and restless, and who idled at his Greek, who was often punished, who kicked around the streets with his friends, who stole pears from a man’s garden for the hell of it, and who robustly explored his developing sexuality. Augustine did not consider these habits innocent, of course, when he came to write his autobiography at the age of 43, two years after his appointment as bishop. Like most conversion narratives, the Confessions is a tribute paid to an invisible gestation. The book is an account of predestination and free will, as it manifested itself in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. On the one hand, given the free will to sin, Augustine sinned plentifully as a young man – indeed, his every thought and deed was an edition of sin. On the other, he had been chosen by God’s grace to be saved, and so even as he sinned, God was plotting his salvation; it is as if the air was heavy with divine immanence, which he breathed in ignorance.

Despite Wills’s distinguished efforts, it is still difficult to admire many parts of the Confessions, and difficult to warm to Augustine’s asceticism, which rises to a hysteria of self-mortification. He tells us that he was ‘in a ferment of sin’: he was sinful as a baby, sinful when he shirked school, sinful when he enjoyed the theatre, sinful when his body asserted itself at puberty, sinful when he enjoyed music. Even for liturgical use, Augustine has his doubts about music: ‘For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves ... when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.’

Wills offers a persuasive analysis of two celebrated early incidents in the Confessions. In one, Augustine tells us how he and his friends stole the pears: ‘Our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.’ Wills notes the parallel with Adam’s plucking of the forbidden fruit and astutely observes that Augustine’s point may be that, like Adam, he was tempted by company. In another incident, Augustine describes his father’s pleasure at the baths when he sees his son naked, realises that he has emerged into manhood, and will himself be a father one day. Eager to counter imputations of sex-obsession, Wills argues, with brilliance, that Augustine’s use of the word ‘clothed’ – ‘I was clothed in unstable manhood’ – is a reference to Adam’s first nakedness and to the moment when, having lost his innocence, he found it shameful. ‘So the odd word “clothed”, in this sense of nakedness, is the key to the whole passage. Augustine in the public baths is a fallen Adam, not yet clothed in Christ’s grace.’ This is entirely convincing and deepens one’s sense of Augustine’s formal ingenuity: his autobiography is a carpet of inevitability, each thread carefully woven so as to suggest the very pattern of predestination.

Wills does not go on to quote Augustine’s own gloss on this scene. His father, Augustine writes, was happy to tell his mother that they would have grandchildren, ‘for his happiness was due to the intoxication which causes the world to forget you, its creator, and to love the things you have created, instead of loving you, because the world is drunk with the invisible wine of its own perverted, earthbound will’. This is typically eloquent, but also typically dismaying: a dour, religious poisoning of ordinary, healthy pleasure, an always unfinished subtraction from life, so that even Augustine’s father must be rebuked for his exultant, aspiring grand-paternity. Such moments remind one of Mill’s correctively secular comment in On Liberty: ‘It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either.’

The young Augustine was more inclined to the Periclean than to the religious-ascetic life. He first travelled to Carthage in 371, to study rhetoric, and there he fell in with a group of young, high-spirited Manichaeans. Once a Christian, he would become their fiercest opponent, but for at least ten years, until he visited Rome, he called himself a Manichaean. The Manichaeans, followers of Mani, a third-century Persian thinker, had effectively found a way around the dilemma which dominated Augustine’s life: how to reconcile the existence of evil and the existence of God. Evil and pain seem either to limit God’s power or to qualify his goodness. Either God cannot control this evil (in which case he is impotent), or he will not (in which case he is cruel). The question is unanswerable, and the Manichaeans circumvented it by denying that God had anything to do with evil in the world. God is good, they said, and all that he creates is good. Thus evil must come from elsewhere, and the Manichaeans found it in a dark force that was not created by God, but is somewhat God-like, for it originated itself. The Manichaean vision raises as many problems as it solves because a God opposed by a force of darkness may be good, but is not obviously very powerful. Still, one might say that the Manichaeans managed to suspend the acuteness of the dilemma by converting it into a problem of origin rather than practice: as we do not know how God came about, neither do we know how evil came about.

Augustine was what Wills calls ‘a star’ in Manichaean circles. But when he finally turned against them, he formulated a position that is still the most convincing, indeed the only convincing Christian explanation of why God lets evil prosper. It is typical of Augustine that he will not endorse the Manichaean evasion and assert that evil is simply ‘there’. Instead, he reasons that if God did not create evil, then we did. Evil flows from the human. But the fact that God created humans seems only to reprise the dilemma and so, in De Libero Arbitrio, he argues that God must have given us free will, and hence the freedom to do evil, in order for our devotion to him to have any meaning at all. Without free will, we would be like animals or trees, just obeying our natures. A tree’s relationship with God is a meaningless one.

Augustine developed these ideas in his great book City of God, written between 413 and 427, and in De Naturaet Gratia, written in 413-15. The angels were created good, as was man. But Satan, like Adam, chose to stray from righteousness, and Adam’s fateful choice had repercussions for the rest of mankind, who inherit his taint. Evil issues from man’s rational will. This is the only intellectually decent theodicy in Christian theology (others propose monstrous cruelties, such as the idea that our suffering is good for us, or that a few years of hell on earth are but as yesterday to God’s eternal peace in heaven). Putting aside for a moment the question of original sin, Augustine’s notion of free will still seems vulnerable on two counts. The first is that God’s gift to us of free will fails to absolve him of cruelty. For, as the 17th-century French sceptic Pierre Bayle devastatingly remarks in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow a gift that he knows in advance will be abused in such a manner as to bring about the ruin of the person to whom it is given? (Our freedom to do evil does not merely cause us or others temporary pain, but may also condemn us to eternal damnation.) Bayle’s example is that of a mother who allows her daughter to go to the ball, knowing in advance that she will be seduced and raped. Augustine never successfully answered this obvious objection (though he acknowledged a form of it), and indeed responded only by making God crueller still, coming to believe that God predestines some to be saved and some to be condemned.

The second count of vulnerability is even greater. Augustine assumes, like every defender of free will after him, that free will is a greater good than freedom from human suffering. In other words, he assumes that to live in a world without free will – a robotic world – would be more terrible than to live in the world as we know it, which is free, but full of pain and evil. Augustine might say in his defence that he cannot know whether a robotic, unfree world would be a painless one, but he can know that it would be religiously meaningless, and therefore not worth having. But how can he know this? If we were all automata, and had always been automata, incapable of doing harm to one another because absolutely unfree, how would that mean our world was meaningless? The question is not what is meaningful for us, since we did not ask to be created, but what is meaningful for God. A world in which we can do no harm and commit no evil supposedly exists, of course – it is called heaven; and why could God not have created heaven on earth? In other words, free will is obviously important for humans as we are currently constituted. But it is not clear that the relationship with God that we currently suffer (or enjoy) is essential for him. Why could God not have created a world in which humans were somewhat less free but also somewhat less evil and somewhat less in pain? Such a question opens onto the larger question, which is why God created us at all and, as such, is barely discussable, let alone answerable, by a theologian.

And what of Augustine’s idea of original sin, in which the world is primally baptised in black water? Garry Wills, who rushes the reader a little when discussing abstractly theological matters, is disappointing at only one moment in his book, when, uncharacteristically, he attempts to bluster his way around Augustine:

Augustine based his concept of original sin not on one Bible verse but on a reading of large problems in Scripture, on the saving role of Christ, and on the common-sense observation that there is something kinky or askew in ordinary human nature. Though Augustine is called a pessimist and G.K. Chesterton an optimist, it was Chesterton who said the reality of original sin can be observed at that point in a lovely summer afternoon when bored children start torturing the cat. A Jewish scholar tells me he thinks original sin the most self-evident concept in the whole world of thought. And Cardinal Newman said that the present mess of human society suggests it underwent ‘some primordial shipwreck’.

Perhaps Wills thinks that the presence of the Jewish scholar adds an ecumenical flame to the Catholic firebreathers, Newman and Chesterton? The tremor in his tone is interesting, suggesting as it does an anxiety. For surely he sees that one can have a theory of evil without a theory of original sin. (This may be what his Jewish friend means.) No one doubts that humans, most humans, commit sins: this is ‘self-evident’, indeed. But that all humans are sinners at birth because of something Adam did in Eden is not only far from self-evident, but a wicked idea. To say that humans have a propensity to sinfulness is to judge each of them on the evidence of his or her propensity; to say that humans are predestined to sinfulness is to deny them mercy. Those old ladies on the floor of my childhood church were innocent, not guilty.

The doctrine of original sin has bullied the Church into an obsession with sin that, ironically, outstrips Augustine’s own (considerable) involvement in the matter. Cardinal Newman, alas, is no witness for the defence, and only undermines Wills. I doubt that there is a more cruel and inhumane Christian book than Newman’s Apologia, in which, devoured by his apprehension of hereditary evil, he defines the Church’s mission in the most drained terms, as ‘a great remedy for a great evil ... a supereminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil’. The emphasis on predestination was bound to force Augustine into further expansions of the idea of inevitability, so that in the end God must seem our jailer rather than our saviour, as one of the interlocutors phrases it in More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, ‘the chief jailer over this whole broad prison the world is (as I take it) God ... ere ever they come quick into the world out of the mother’s womb, God condemneth them unto death by His own sentence and judgment for the original sin that they bring with them, contracted in the corrupted stock of our forefather Adam.’

Once we are condemned to sinfulness (though Augustine stresses that we choose to sin, and are never compelled by God), we are condemned to be saved from sinfulness. Augustine began to move most decisively towards this position around 410, when he felt the need to distinguish his teaching from that of Pelagius, who believed that since we sin out of an act of free will, we can turn to God and righteousness out of a counterbalancing act of free will: we do not need God’s help to turn to him. Augustine strongly disagreed. In a succession of tracts between 412 and 425 – De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione (411-12), Contra Duas Epistolas Pelagianorum (420), and the Enchiridion of 423 – he argued that only when God pours his grace on us are we enabled to free ourselves from sin. In the Enchiridion, he suggests that not all humans will find God’s eternal blessing. Only those who are chosen are saved. In her brilliant book Augustine on Evil (1982), G.R. Evans comments sadly: ‘Augustine’s developing conception of how God helps us to know him gradually blotted out any notion that man might contribute to his own salvation by trying hard.’

This cruel ‘double predestination’ became 17th-century Jansenism, which was condemned by the Pope. Its vision of our relationship with God is aptly caught by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, in the title of his book about Jansenism: God Owes Us Nothing. During his lifetime the implications of such thinking troubled some of Augustine’s followers. Even if we were able to ignore the pious cruelty, an illogicality stands out: we are apparently compelled by grace to turn to God (and Augustine became sure that this was how he himself found God), but we are free to sin (God merely foresees sin). This is only resolved, like much in Augustine, by the saving assertion that God is good, and cannot create anything bad. There again, since, by original sin, we are effectively condemned to sinfulness, if not forced to commit sin, it could be said that Augustine’s mature theology stoppers both ends, salvation and sin, and encircles us in the inevitable.

Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus offers a systematic inversion of Augustine’s thought. (Like Augustine an Algerian, Camus wrote his thesis on Augustine.) Against the grey asceticism, Camus asserts a fat paganism, the demanding pleasures of the here and now. Against Augustine’s fervent belief that life exists only so that it can be extended in heaven, Camus asserts that life must be extended on earth – in life itself. He finds this idea eventually in the image of Sisyphus, rolling his rock back up the hill. Against Augustine’s purity of withdrawal from life, Camus argues that the ‘absurd’ secularist best extends life by adding to the quantity of worldly experiences, not their quality. This is really a figurative or metaphorical extension, something like the idea of repeated curtain calls, or of adding extra songs to a concert. Augustine says, in effect: ‘condemned to death, let us prepare for it, religiously.’ Camus says, in effect: ‘condemned to death (but condemned by biology not theology), let us keep it entertained.’ Against the endless repetition of heaven, Camus proposes secular repetition: ‘the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man.’ And most important, against Augustine’s idea of original sin and predestination, Camus argues that to be ‘absurd’ is to be living in a state of ‘sin without God’. The absurd is like living sinfully because, like Augustine’s sin, we cannot escape it: it is a kind of original sin but without the origin, which would be God. It is the sentence passed on us by life.

Augustine fathered a considerable cruelty. But his thought tends to seem cruel only when it is abstracted. Wills is right to emphasise its travelling hesitancies, the process of thought itself. In many ways, Augustine was not hard on others, but too hard on himself; he extrapolated from his self-mortification, he turned his own hair shirt inside out, and called it universal. In particular, his notion of evil and the challenge to God that it represents was weighted far too heavily towards the sin we commit rather than the pain we suffer. Convinced of his own sinfulness, Augustine saw sin as the great theological threat, the one that most deserved to be combated. Yet the pain that humans suffer is surely as great an indictment of God’s providence. Practically, however, if not in theory, Augustine was alert to the pain of others. As a bishop, he intervened with the secular authorities to save murderers from execution, and on one occasion used the Church coffers to emancipate some slaves from their owners. Wills quotes a striking passage from his Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in which Augustine warns against censoriousness: ‘it were best, while watering the dust with your tears, to remember that we have no right to crow over another’s sin, since we sin in the very reproach of sin if anger is better at making us sinners than mercy is at making us kind.’ Here, Augustine uses his own acute sense of his sinfulness to warn against judging the sinfulness of others; how rarely such a gentle awareness is exercised by the Church.

Wills ends his book beautifully. Dying, Augustine asked that oversize transcriptions of the penitential psalms be fixed to the walls of his cell, so that he might lament his sins. A monk who brought him his food found him weeping. ‘It is appropriate,’ Wills writes, ‘that he died surrounded by the laboriously traced words of Scripture.’ It is a fitting image for one who built so large and complex a theological edifice. But, more mournfully, it is also an image of a man who had imprisoned himself in cruel grace, surrendering himself to what Thomas More called ‘the chief jailer over this whole broad prison the world’.