Augustine Renewed

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St. Augustine seems to be everywhere these days. While he was never in hiding, one source of his prominence in recent decades may have been Pope Benedict XVI, whose thinking – as many have noted – is deeply influenced by Augustine. As the moral chaos around us seems to have accelerated in recent years, so too has interest in the Doctor of Grace.

Augustine’s view of the world is marked decisively by the fall of man and is impervious to the false notion that fallen man can perfect himself by his own efforts. This, of course, runs counter to the progressive notion that we humans can, exclusively through our own planning and diligence, bring to earth the glories of the City of God. His view offers much needed clarity and explanatory power, especially given the current trajectory of politics, philosophy, and theology.

So it’s no surprise to find Augustine cropping up everywhere. Just to take some recent examples: C.C. Pecknold of the Catholic University of America has written about how Augustine teaches us to think about classical political liberalism and Catholicism; a First Things article by the distinguished Dominican Thomist Fr. Thomas Joseph White points to the crying need for metaphysics in political thinking, concluding that “the great political theology of our age should be that of Augustine in the City of God”; and Fr. Robert Imbelli, long a professor at Boston College, invoked Augustine in a critique of nominally Catholic institutions here at The Catholic Thing only a few days ago.

For those who want to go deeper into Augustine’s work in order to grasp why such contemporary references appear so often, one difficulty is that the vast body of his writing, letters, and sermons requires a lifetime of study to begin to master. A second problem, for some, is the distance in space and time between Hippo in Africa in the decades around the fall of Rome, and our own place and time.

But here’s a solution: a new book by John M. Rist, On Ethics, Politics and Psychology in the Twenty-First Century. This volume is part of a series, “Reading Augustine,” published by Bloomsbury, which describes it as intended for “people who see Augustine everywhere.” That’s a good group to be part of.

Rist, who taught at the University of Toronto for many years as well as Catholic University, is a philosopher and an Augustine scholar of long standing. His earlier award-winning Augustine Deformed: Love, Sin and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition describes the distortions that came into the understanding of Augustine’s thinking over the centuries since Confessions, City of God, and the many sermons and commentaries were first written. Rist makes great headway in setting the record straight.

This latest volume performs two services simultaneously. It provides an excellent introduction to and summary of the key aspects of Augustine’s thought on topics ranging from personal responsibility and original sin to politics. And this it does in a thorough and academically rigorous way while remaining engaging and highly readable, as in this passage:

Augustine has now reached the third of his basic themes, and that in virtue of which he finds himself particularly unpopular among many in the twenty-first century, whether secularists or soi-disant Christians whose overriding concern appears as to remain in communion (it has been well put) with the Guardian, Le Monde, or the New York Times. That third theme is the continuing and ineradicable reality of sin in human individuals and human society.

John M. Rist

The three great themes of Augustine that Rist explains here are truth, love, and evil. Rist goes into Augustine’s understanding of each theme, but he provides a second service for his reader: he places Augustine in our own day and considers how he would look back on many of the thinkers of the modern era in philosophy and theology. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Mill and others receive the full Augustinian treatment.

Rist carries this out not as a merely entertaining intellectual exercise, but as a thoroughly grounded appreciation of what Augustine’s thought, as seen in his original texts, would yield if put into conversation (and sometimes confrontation) with many of the ideas and beliefs that over the last few centuries have come to dominate our culture and society. The result is insight both into Augustine’s thought and how that thought would respond to the most notable and damaging ideas that have a central place in contemporary life. This combination helps us understand why it really is right to see Augustine everywhere, far as we are from fifth-century North Africa.

The book concludes on a lighter note with an imagined radio interview with a latter-day Bishop Austin Redivivus, who encounters, on-air, the streams of distracted mental gymnastics that now pass for ethical thinking and theology. The idea for this dialogue came from Rist’s wife Anna, and it highlights just how far we have come from the profound wisdom of Augustine to the ersatz wisdom of celebrities that prevails in the media and, too often, in academe today.

On Ethics, Politics and Psychology in the Twenty-First Century is a terrific tour of Augustine’s thinking both for those who want more than a basic introduction and for those who have long studied his work. Those who don’t yet see Augustine everywhere will, after reading this volume, be inclined to join those who do.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.