Miles Hollingworth, author of Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography, recently met up with fellow Augustine scholar Todd Breyfogle to discuss the timeliness and relevance of Augustine over the last 1,659 years since his birth. The interview was set up by the OUPblog to celebrate Saint Augustine's birthday on November 13th and can be found on their site here.
Saint Augustine in meditation. Painting by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. Public domain via WikiPaintings.
Todd Breyfogle: Why Augustine? Why now?
Miles Hollingworth: I have simply felt for some time now that we are the age who can do most for him. I suppose this is a statement about how history treats genius figures like Augustine. The usual way has been to investigate what they have done of right and wrong to get us to this pass – i.e. their impressive contributions to histories of various things like Christianity, literature and sexuality. But I felt compelled to go in the other direction: to try to summon up every bit of empathy and humanity that we have collectively learnt in the intervening 1600 years (and should be proud of, by the way): and then to use that to reach a friendly hand back to him. Remember: geniuses make history, but they are also ahead of their times. So I wanted to see what kind of middle he and I might meet in if I did that. Because I feel we owe that to sensitive souls like Augustine, who might have felt alienated by their own ages, and who can be helped by us now.
TB: One of the most compelling aspects of your summoning up “every bit of empathy and humanity” is to ask us to think of Augustine as “a novelist”, as an artist striving to integrate a personal, cultural and existential narrative against the backdrop of the stories of Genesis. What makes Augustine “a novelist”?
MH: For me, it is because all of his leading ideas function, and are described, like human characters. Like Adam and Eve. This made a giant impression on me against how, nowadays, we can be encouraged to feel we should be reaching instead for neutral, sanitized language in human studies. You know – ‘the agent’, ‘the actor’. I accept that doing this holds out the tantalizing prospect of stumbling onto the same kinds of patterns we already get in, say, mathematics. Yet when we read a great novel, we don’t look for or enjoy this. We take for granted that there is a ready-written storyline (predestination); and therefore what we look for and enjoy is the relationship of truthfulness that strikes up between that storyline and the characters we follow through it as we read. Augustine got the ready-written storyline given to him by his acceptance of the Christian Scriptures and God’s omniscience; but what he did with it next made me think of his achievement as like, yes, a great novelist. He wants you – his reader – to rate what he is saying according to that same inner gyro you use when you enjoy good fiction; and enjoy it by recognizing its human element to be true. And for him, of course, that true human element is what he means by talking of love all the time. We don’t just rationalize like automatons: we don’t have the advantage of seeing it all from on high like the gods and devils: our feet are on the ground and we love (and hope)! It is responsible for the best and the worst of us. I believe this is why his writing on the Two Cities remains such an evocative motif today – and by the same token, why it was so quickly able to become the Middle Ages’ very own 19th-century novel. Their Crime and Punishment, if you like!
TB: In your exploration of Augustine’s multiple narratives of “that true element” of humanity, what about Augustine the person did you come to find most compelling?
MH: His determination never to get over the woman, the great love of his life, who was torn from his side at his mother’s instigation after 15 years of happiness – all so that he should be free to make a ‘better’ society marriage into an upper class Christian family. This played out shortly after his conversion, when he was actually in deep ennui about what to do next with his life. Everyone knows that as his tribute to her he would choose celibacy ever after and his famous and epic silence about her unto death. He never gave up any further details about their love together, other than that it was a great love; or even her name. But silence in a passionate man is sound everywhere else: and as I became gripped by this, I started to see her beautiful shape in motion behind more and more of his soaring, stand-alone depictions of beauty, loss and regret. Yes: he was remembering her, and making fluency out of that heartbreak! The fact of the matter is that Augustine should never have let her go. But good for him that he chose to suffer under this knowledge to his dying day. Good for him that he let her haunt the rest of his life. Another kind of man would have closed ranks and ironed her out of his heart. So to me he became most compelling as the man who just wouldn’t – who just couldn’t – do that.
TB: In that same vein, Augustine—perhaps not unlike Montaigne—has always seemed to me as someone who both thinks and feels deeply. How have you come to see Augustine’s integration of how we know and how we feel—how we love?
MH: That’s right. Except for Augustine, thinking is parasitic upon feeling, parasitic upon love. He would therefore have approved of the argument for the (traditional) lights of conscience that C. S. Lewis made in The Abolition of Man. Actually, if I remember correctly, Lewis did actually enlist Augustine’s help in that essay. Augustine deals with this important question of thought and feeling best when he is looking forwards to eternity. It is the essence of his contribution to mysticism. Think of his ‘vision at Ostia’, or his countless epigrams concerning the inexpressibility of God. Pure thought can document its own processes; and some excellent treatises on logic and language already existed in Augustine’s day. Pure thought can also predicate and classify; and this descriptive power has given us the wonder of science and human knowledge. But pure thought cannot live for itself: I mean, it cannot create things ex nihilo. Adam and Eve were not made rational in order to thrill at their own capabilities – that came afterwards, as their fall. The actual, tactile content of life is encountered as that which we feel. So Augustine says that we feel God; but then in thinking through that feeling and trying to describe it, we lose something and step back. Worse follows if we try actually to prove God. Much better if our feelings and thoughts were somehow able to be the exact counterparts of each other… Actually, didn’t Montaigne once say something like, ‘truth and art don’t – can’t – live for themselves, but for something else outside of them which draws them on’? If he did say that, then you would certainly have to rank him alongside Augustine on this question.
TB: Our world of digital media is arguably transforming how we think and feel. If Augustine were to offer us today a Tweet of salutary advice, what would he say?
MH: I am smiling because Augustine would have loved Twitter, I’m sure. Just imagine him tweeting furiously against the Manichaeans, and Donatists and Pelagians… (#contra)! Actually, for someone who could write to extraordinary lengths in books like City of God, some of his most piercing wisdom was issued in the ‘tweet’ form of <140 characters. There are so many; so I’ll just pick one that really pulled me up sharply:
If the air is withdrawn, the body dies; there can be no question of that. And if God is withdrawn, the soul dies; and there can be even less of a question of that. [In Io. Ev. tr., CI, 6].
Miles Hollingworth is a philosopher, writing on the Western tradition – its key texts and figures. For the last number of years his work has focused on St. Augustine of Hippo. His latest book is Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography.
Todd Breyfogle is Director of Seminars for the Aspen Institute, including the Aspen Executive Seminar on leadership, values and the good society, since 1950 the heart of the Aspen Institute’s neutral forum for enlightened dialogue. His writings range from classical to modern political philosophy, as well as art, music, and literature.