The legacy of Augustine

on augustineReview by Nick Mattiske


Born in 354 AD, Saint Augustine was a modern thinker, relentless in his inquiring, and insightful on the formation of the self, traits that endear him to the secular as well as religious reader. But – just as playing a Beethoven symphony on a ukulele may result in the loss of nuance – over-simplifications and distortions creep in to summaries of Augustine’s thought.

Augustine is blamed for the reluctance of Christians to be involved in politics, a long-standing negative view of human sexuality, and the obsession with the self within Western culture. In this collection of linked essays, Rowan Williams aims to correct these perceptions. Though the writing is sometimes heavy going – be warned – Williams offers plenty of insight, partly due to the breadth of his familiarity with his subject, which puts Augustine’s better-known views into their proper theological context.

And so, says Williams, Augustine is not arguing for a separation of Church and State, but about the difference between good and bad politics. Rather than being high-minded at the expense of the body, Augustine recognises that our material lives don’t live up to their potential without a spiritual impetus. He is realistic about our limited capacity to know ourselves.

And we miss Augustine’s point when we separate what he says about the self from his conception of God and his insistence that the attempt to understand ourselves is not done under our own steam but by God working within us. Along the way we are reminded of how Augustine was grappling with concepts of knowledge and the mind that still grip modern philosophers today.

Worthy as Williams’ book is in itself, hopefully it also points readers to Augustine’s own books, especially the Confessions and On Christian Teaching, where Augustine’s enthusiasm and curiosity leap off the page.

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