Watering the Dust
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 21 No. 21 · 28 October 1999
James Wood’s review of Garry Wills’s Saint Augustine (LRB, 30 September) gets some things wrong. First, what Wood calls the ‘wicked idea’ that ‘all humans are sinners at birth because of something Adam did in Eden’ is not Augustinian in origin. In the Second Book of Esdras (a first-century Jewish text), Ezra complains to God: ‘You … laid … one commandment’ on Adam ‘but he transgressed it, and immediately you appointed death for him and for his descendants … Thus the disease became permanent; and the law was in the hearts of the people; but what was good departed, and the evil remained.’
Second, the sin of Adam, as both Esdras and Augustine represent it, is not ‘physically transmitted to all his descendants through sex’, but through heredity. Human beings ‘sinned’ in Adam in just the same way that Levi ‘gave tithes’ to Melchisedek, ‘while he was still in the loins’ of Abraham ‘his ancestor’. Disordered concupiscence was a result, but not the medium, of original sin.
Third, Newman was not ‘devoured by his apprehension of hereditary evil’. Christians do indeed have great difficulty in explaining what Newman calls the ‘defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin’, but atheists cannot deal with them at all. (‘There is no forgiveness of sins’ – George Eliot.) The doctrine of the fall was a relief to Newman: it explained evil and opened the way to the Atonement. ‘Man had rebelled against his Maker,’ he wrote in Apologia. ‘It was this that caused the divine interposition: and the first act of the divinely accredited messenger must be to proclaim it.’
Finally – the lady penitents of Wood’s Durham childhood: if you deny that we are all sinners, you are in danger of dividing people into sheep and goats, publicans and pharisees, maiden-ladies and militias. The alternative is to claim that we are not really free at all (in spite of what Wood says, free will cannot be rationed), which does away with the problem of judging others, but also makes it impossible for anyone to see God.
Vol. 21 No. 23 · 25 November 1999
William Myers objects to my gloomy view of Augustine and original sin (Letters, 28 October) and suggests that my review ‘gets some things wrong’. Alas, he gets more things wrong. He corrects me for claiming that original sin is Augustinian in origin. Actually, I never claimed this in my review of Garry Wills’s book; but if I had, Myers would still be wrong, because Augustine can certainly be said to be the originator of a particular emphasis on Adam’s sin. Augustine’s belief is particular in three ways: in its insistence that Adam’s fall corrupted the whole of human nature; that this corruption is transmitted through the sexual act; and that this corruption cannot be lifted by our own free will but only by God’s gratuitous grace.
Myers suggests that theologians who preceded Augustine were similarly preoccupied. Yes, softer versions of Augustinian doctrine can be found among early Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Origen. But they generally stress, as Augustine generally does not, our free capacity to escape that taint. Tertullian wrote, in very non-Augustinian fashion, that ‘God’s justice should then judge individuals and not the whole race,’ and goes so far as to suggest that the soul is Christian by nature, something Augustine would never have hazarded. And the Gnostics, of course, often explicitly rejected pre-Augustinian ideas of inherited sin.
Myers then corrects me because I wrote that, according to Augustine, Adam’s sin is ‘physically transmitted to all his descendants through sex’. Not so, says Myers, it is transmitted through heredity. But by heredity Augustine means sex, and says so on numerous occasions. Augustine believed that Adam’s sin had tainted sex itself, that this was one of the punishments of the Fall, and that sex was both distorted by, and the vehicle of, original sin. ‘The very root of sin lies in carnal generation,’ Augustine wrote in De peccatorum meritis. Henry Chadwick puts it like this in his book on Augustine: ‘the physical act was, he urged, the vehicle for the transmission of the flawed human nature subsequent to the Fall.’ Augustine’s belief in transmission through sex enabled him to argue in the Enchiridion that Jesus was not tainted in this way, because the Virgin Mary had not had sex in order to conceive him.
Myers is clearly on something of a crusade to defend the notion of original sin, and takes issue with my assertion that Cardinal Newman was ‘devoured by his apprehension of hereditary evil’. I’m sure Myers likes Newman more than I do, but it is hard to read Newman’s Apologia and not recoil from its consuming and consumed obsession with sin and evil, an obsession that bulks so large that Newman comes very close to defining the Church solely as an institutional response to evil: ‘a power as tremendous as the giant evil that has called for it … it is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it’. So the great Church has been shrunk to a ‘suitable antagonist’ of evil! It is this apprehension that sanctions Newman’s truly repulsive declamation: ‘The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul … would commit one single venial act, would tell one wilful untruth, or would steal one poor farthing without excuse.’ Christianity has written no greater self-condemnation than this sentence of Newman’s, unless it is Augustine’s equally cruel comment in the Enchiridion that ‘infants are involved in the guilt of the sin not only of the first pair’ – Adam and Eve – ‘but of their own immediate parents’.
Vol. 22 No. 1 · 6 January 2000
After nearly 25 years as a member of an Augustinian Order of Canons Regular I would like to endorse everything James Wood writes about Augustine (LRB, 30 September 1999). Over those years, to a background of the eulogising of ‘our father Augustine’, I slowly moved from seeing this man as an anguished spiritual genius of theological profundity to a pervert who has had a more malign effect on Western culture than probably any other individual. I still find breathtaking his ability to distort scripture – also noted by his contemporary St Jerome – as well as the persuasive rationality with which he twists reality. But it is when one has to deal with people who have been traumatised by the crass application of his teachings (bereaved mothers who were told that their unbaptised children would be eternally damned) that the time comes to say enough is enough.