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Historia Ecclesiastica

Learning to Listen

On writing a biography of Saint Augustine.


In 1962 I began in earnest to write a biography of Saint Augustine of Hippo, which occupied me full-time until the spring of 1966. It was published by Faber and Faber in the summer of 1967.

One would have thought that a biography of the great bishop of Hippo was a natural subject for any scholar interested in the history of the Roman Empire and of Latin Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Here was a figure where history and autobiography intersected, and whose career summed up the stormy passage of an age. In 397 Augustine wrote the Confessions, a work generally acclaimed as the first autobiography in Western literature. In 413 he began the City of God, which was a deeply meditated comment on the nature of history, provoked by the Gothic sack of Rome in 410. As we have seen, his controversy with the Donatists determined all future thought on the relation between Church and society in western Europe. In his old age, Augustine’s opposition to the ideas of Pelagius, on grace and free will, left an indelible mark on Latin Christianity up to the time of the Reformation and beyond. What could be more challenging than to attempt to bring all these great moments together by writing a complete Life of this singular man?

Yet this had not been done. The rich and humane sketch of Augustine as a preacher and pastor by Frits Van der Meer in his Augustine the Bishop dealt only with his activities as bishop of Hippo. The admirably learned and fair-minded book of my friend Gerald Bonner—Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies—was only a study of the theological controversies in which Augustine had been engaged. As far as I was concerned, here was a mountain still waiting to be climbed.

To move Augustine to center stage by writing his biography was a new sort of history writing for me. I would find myself in the company of a solitary giant—a religious genius, whose thoughts still ran, for good or ill, in the bloodstream of all western European Christians (Catholics and Protestants alike); the most prodigious author in the entire history of Latin literature; and—behind all this, it seemed to me as I came to know him in the course of those years—a person of magnetic charm and riveting originality, whose quality of mind was unmistakable even in his smallest turn of phrase and most routine writing.

I had to learn to listen to a single voice. I was no longer involved in an ongoing historical controversy. Nor was I out to prove a single point or push through a single agenda for the study of Augustine. I was there to listen. I had to learn to hear Augustine clearly as he spoke the unfamiliar language of an ancient Christian from a millennium and a half ago, and then to pass on what I heard to modern readers. In brief: I had to stretch my heart in order to read Augustine’s heart. That was the greatest challenge, and the greatest joy, of those five years.

The first part of the business was easy. It involved the crucial link between All Souls and the wider world through its London fellows. The London fellows did not remain in Oxford as academics; but they retained their membership of the college and would often appear at weekends. Charles Monteith was one such fellow. He was an editor at Faber and Faber in London. In December 1959 I discussed with him, over a drink before dinner, the possibility of a biography of Augustine. I then sent him a full proposal. As one fellow of All Souls to another, he agreed that Faber’s would consider a biography of Augustine whenever I chose to hand in the manuscript. It was as simple as that. With his characteristic, wry view of the English academic scene, Arnaldo Momigliano was amused: “Does Monteith allot bits of ancient history to every fellow?”

At that time, I barely realized that I was enjoying an incomparable privilege. I did not have to look for a publisher. The gentleman’s agreement with Charles Monteith set my mind at rest. I may have been wrong to be so confident: in reality, Faber’s had their own system of screening manuscripts that was as discreet and prompt, and as exacting, as that of any university press. In the meantime, however, my constant contact with Monteith, through his weekend visits to All Souls, spared me much anxiety. I felt confident that I could write what I wished as long as it passed muster at the end of the day. So how did I set about it?

First and foremost, these were years of deep reading. I would sit in a large armchair with a board across the arms and read my way through the folio volumes of the works of Augustine published by the Benedictine scholars of Saint Maur between 1679 and 1700. I would work my way down those generous pages noting on a piece of paper the page, the letter on the margin of each vertical column, and the position, within each letter, of the passages that interested me (so that “11r D mbm” would be page eleven, right-hand column, division D, middle-to-bottom-middle). Then, having read through the entire text, I would return to copy into my notes those passages that I had marked. This method of taking notes had a direct effect on the way in which I absorbed the works of Augustine. I hardly ever made a précis of what Augustine wrote. Instead, I went out of my way to copy by hand every passage in the original Latin. By doing this, I aimed to capture, through citations, not only what Augustine said, but, quite as much, how he said it. By taking notes in this way, I found myself catching his tone of voice.

What struck me most about Augustine was the care that he took to make his ideas intelligible to his readers. Here was someone who had grappled, throughout his life, to express himself—to drag his thoughts into the open, “through the narrow lanes of speech.” Augustine once wrote in 399 (when he was at the height of his powers as an author) to console a deacon who was anxious about his catechism classes. The young man should not worry: “For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me . . . I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.” I found that, as a young author, I could identify my own ache to communicate with Augustine’s constant awareness of the hiatus between himself and the outside world. I knew instinctively that I myself would grow as a communicator (as well as in many other ways) by keeping close to such a person.

It was lonely work. In many ways, I was the wrong person to be doing a biography of Augustine. I was not a clergyman—though, a little later, I was often amused to receive letters addressed (on the strength of my known acquaintance with Augustine) to “Monsieur l’Abbé.” Nor was I a theologian or a classical scholar. These were the people most usually engaged with the study of the Fathers of the Church. I lacked the abstract cast of mind of the one, and the training in handling difficult texts of the other. I was an out-of-place medievalist, whose Latin (fortunately) was up to the job. The best I could do was sit and read.

As far as reading went, I realize that I was doubly spoiled. I was able to carry the magnificent pages of the Maurist edition of the complete works of Augustine, one by one, out of the basement of the Codrington Library of All Souls where they had been stored. But I was also able to make my way up to the upper gallery of the Codrington, to mount a ladder so as to take from a high shelf, poised vertiginously a good twenty feet above the marble floor below, the thirteenth volume of the Mémoires Écclésiastiques of Louis Sébastien le Nain de Tillemont.

Tillemont was a Jansenist scholar, connected with Port-Royal, who continued his work on his family estate after Port-Royal had been destroyed by Louis XIV in 1679. The thirteenth volume of his Mémoires contained a complete Life of Augustine put together with unfailing accuracy, and in strict chronological order. It was published in 1702, a few years after Tillemont’s death. I would not begin to write on any incident or embark on any chapter of my book until I had established its chronology and the place in his life through a careful reading of the relevant pages of that tenacious Jansenist scholar.

I realized, with something of a thrill, that in doing this I was following in the footsteps of Edward Gibbon. Gibbon would always refer, with gratitude, in his Decline and Fall, to “the indefatigable Tillemont”: he was “the sure-footed mule” whose patient work on the chronology of the later empire as a whole (not only of the life of Augustine) enabled Gibbon to unroll, with majestic certainty, his narrative of the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome.

So I had all the books I needed—on my own doorstep, as it were—but how to write the Life? When it came to listening to Augustine, I could not have wished for a more readily accessible subject. Augustine wrote prodigiously on innumerable topics and in many different genres. From the time of his writing the Confessions, in 397, to his death in 430, he wrote over a million and a half words: I am glad that I did not know of this statistic when I began my reading! More important yet, we also know exactly when, and even why, he wrote almost everything that he wrote. This was because he went out of his way to complete what might be called, in modern terms, his own C.V. At the very end of his life, in 426–427, he put together his Retractationes—his “Rereading” of his own works. He placed all of his ninety-two formal works in chronological order—each with a small comment on why it was written. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this fact, which we all too easily take for granted. Here was a figure who had already laid out the chronological framework of his life for future historians.

This huge advantage was well known to every scholar who studied Augustine. What I did not realize fully at the time was that there was an important part of Augustine’s works that he had not put into chronological order in this way—his abundant letters and his sermons. As a result, many of these still pose serious problems of dating and context. They remain loose cannons. But they have also proved to be one of the growth points of modern Augustinian scholarship.

Partly because of the great advances in computer digitalization in recent years, we have become more aware of the fact that letters and groups of sermons by Augustine may still linger, as yet unrecognized, in medieval collections, hidden beneath the cramped Gothic script of unprepossessing late medieval manuscripts. In the last few decades alone, entire groups of letters and sermons, of which we knew nothing in the 1960s, have surfaced. One of the joys of writing an epilogue to my Augustine of Hippo (which I did in 2000) was the opportunity to hail some of these discoveries. We now have twenty-nine further letters from Augustine’s old age, which were discovered by Johannes Divjak and first published in 1981. Furthermore, a group of sermons, preached in the years when Augustine was writing the Confessions and beginning his career as a bishop, were discovered by François Dolbeau and published in 1996.

Although these new letters and sermons contain no spectacular revelations, they have brought Augustine, once again, into vivid focus as a preacher and as a conscientious bishop. We often see him from unexpected angles. This was not the ethereal figure that we imagine the author of the Confessions to have been. He is a bishop with mud on his boots, battling injustice in the harsh world of late Roman Africa. In one of the most remarkable of the letters discovered by Divjak, we find Augustine, at the age of seventy-three (only three years before his death), interviewing a terrified country girl who described how her farm had been raided by slave-traders. The poor child could not even speak Latin—only Punic. Her older brother translated for her. This was part of a dogged attempt by Augustine and his congregation to break a ring of slave-traders who operated (with the full protection of local bigwigs) out of the port of Hippo.

On a lighter note, in an unexpected aside in one of his newly discovered sermons, we hear Augustine (in 403) telling his congregation, with total sans gêne, how, as young students in Carthage, he and his friends would attempt to pick up girls at the heady festivals that took place at the tomb of Saint Cyprian. What I could have done with these nuggets in 1962!

It is precisely in this undergrowth of sermons and letters that we have been able to discover, against all expectations, further, vivid traits in our portrait of Augustine. In the moving image of Dolbeau, we meet him again, in such sermons, “with the emotion that one feels when a tape-recording brings back the voice of a long-dead friend.” I must confess that, every time, in the past fifty years, when a new sermon of Augustine is identified, when a new letter is discovered or an old one re-dated and set in a new context, I suffer a twinge of regret. I wish that it had been to hand in the 1960s, to add a touch of yet further life to a figure who slowly, as I read him, had begun to come alive.

This essay is extracted from Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, published in June by Princeton University Press.

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Peter Brown is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History.