Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography

Christopher Kelly on a new biography of St Augustine, whose ideas were central to the development of Christianity

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Reviewed by: Christopher Kelly
Author: Miles Hollingworth
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum
Price (RRP): £20

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Whatever the intentions of its founder, Jesus Christ, Christianity owes much of its success as an institutional religion with a sophisticated theology to two other men: Saint Paul (and his correspondence with fledgling faith communities in Asia Minor in the first century AD) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (bishop of a thriving seaport on the north African coast in the late fourth century). It was Augustine who crystallised Christian thought on sin, sexuality and human imperfection. For him, to be human was to sin: it was to repeat a pattern established by Adam and Eve (and the apple and the serpent) in the Garden of Eden, a pattern imprinted indelibly – like a genetic code – on all humanity. This ‘original sin’ was most visible in the temptations of sexual desire. It was a mark of holiness to resist. But no human could go it alone without the help of God: only then could the righteous hope to complete a course of lifelong spiritual rehabilitation.

The delight of Miles Hollingworth’s new intellectual biography of St Augustine is to make this often complex theology accessible, and to use it to interrogate one of the Christian Roman empire’s most sophisticated and innovative minds. Thanks to diligent copyists in medieval monasteries, more of Augustine survives than any other writer from the ancient world (and his output is staggering: in modern terms, roughly two substantial academic books a year for 40 years). Not only is Augustine – rightly – credited with developing key Christian ideas, he also wrote a revolutionary autobiography (The Confessions) that might fairly claim to be the first introspective account by an individual of his psychological and spiritual development. Its interior monologue makes it a strikingly modern book, and quite unlike anything else to have survived from antiquity.

Hollingworth’s strength lies in his presentation of Augustine’s ideas, imaginatively explored from infancy to old age. This is a rewarding book, to be most enjoyed by those interested in intellectual history. Hollingworth takes the time to explain Augustine’s debt to classical philosophy (especially to Plato, whose insights were then already nearly a millennium old) and to Christian teaching. Most interestingly of all, he frequently pushes further to link these lines of thought to modern philosophical discussions of language, reality and experience.

What’s missing is any equally pressing sense of the history of the Roman empire in the late fourth century AD. To be sure, there are significant gains in concentrating on understanding Augustine as a thinker, but there is also a risk of discounting too quickly the impact on Augustine’s thought of an empire in decline and fall, fracturing under the heavy pressure of barbarian invasions. Too often the reader has the impression of overhearing Augustine and Hollingworth in their own interior dialogue. In that sense, reading this intellectual biography is like admiring the best of Chinese watercolours: a detailed and beautifully delineated figure stands out sharply against an indistinct and misty landscape.

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Christopher Kelly is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge