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.

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