St. Augustine and the Great Transition
Catholic and Protestant authorities vie in proclaiming their incalculable debt to St. Augustine, the man "who laid the foundation of Western culture" (Seeberg), "who stands between the ancient world and the Middle Ages as the first great constructive thinker of the Western Church, and the father of medieval Catholicism" (Raby), "dominating like a pyramid antiquity and succeeding ages—among theologians he is undeniably the first, and such has been his influence that none of the Fathers, Scholastics or Reformers has surpassed it" (Schaff), "the greatest doctor of the Church" (Lot), "the true creator of Western theology" (Grabmann), "in whom, in a very real sense . . . medieval thought begins and ends" (Coulton). "His philosophic-historical work remains one of the most imposing creations of all time; it posits a capacity and originality of mind which none other possessed either in his own day or for a thousand years after," wrote Eduard Norden.
Far be it from us to pass judgment on such a man or his works: we shall consider not how St. Augustine acquitted himself in his great task, but only what that task was. From what we have already quoted, it would seem that St. Augustine's great significance lies in the final fixing of a new orientation for the Church. "It was to him more than to any other single man," says McGiffert, "that the spirit of classical antiquity gave way to the spirit of the Middle Ages."1 "The Christian theology and philosophy of the Middle Ages," according to Grabmann, perhaps the foremost authority on that subject, "is in form and content almost exclusively Augustinian until late in the 13th century," and even then "the world-historical achievement of St. Thomas was the synthesis of Augustine and Aristotle."2 For the medievalist Coulton, Augustine is "the man who closes ancient thought and begins medieval thought."3 "It is he," writes Ferdinand Lot, "who set the Church irresistibly on the course which she has followed to the modern era."4 "Upon Augustine, Petrarch and the great masters of the Renascence [sic] formed themselves," says Harnack, "and without him Luther is not to be understood. Augustine, the founder of Roman Catholicism, is at the same time the only Father of the Church from whom Luther received any effective teaching, or whom the humanists honoured as a hero."5 Many have called St. Augustine the first man of the modern world; the historian Troeltsch calls him the last man of the ancient.
Apparently Augustine is to be respected before all things as that rarest of all humans, a founder and creator. Grabmann says he was "the true creator of the theology of the West, just as Origen was the founder of the speculative theology of the Orient."6 Troeltsch also describes Augustine as continuing the work that Clement of Alexandria and Origen had undertaken two centuries before.7 The names of Origen and Augustine are often linked together, and with good reason. For each devoted his life to the same project, namely, the working out of a Christian theology which he personally could accept. We have already talked about Origen's allegiance to the schools and how it conditioned and inspired his whole effort to develop a theology that would be intellectually respectable. St. Augustine was, if anything, even more a child of the schools than Origen, who was a far more austere and independent character. For twenty years Augustine absolutely refused to accept the Christianity learned at his mother's knee, however powerful his sentimental attachments to it, because, as he explains at great length in the Confessions, it simply could not stand up to the arguments of the schoolmen. He tells us how in his youth, after reading Cicero, he would laugh at the prophets,8 and how from the very first the pagan schools had taught him to abhor any suggestion that God might have a body—it was instruction like that, he says, that convinced him that the Christians could not possibly be right.9 And this is the significant point: Augustine never changed the ideas and attitudes he acquired in the schools. He did not turn away from them back to Christianity; rather he built them firmly and finally into the structure of Christianity before he would accept it. He never came around to accepting on the one hand the naive beliefs with which he charged the Christians, nor on the other hand did he ever swerve in his allegiance to the Platonists. According to Professor Grabmann, the whole explanation of Augustine's "tremendous influence on the scholasticism and mysticism of the Middle Ages" lay in the single fact of his being "the greatest Christian Neoplatonist," whose life's work was "the christianizing of Neoplatonism."10
Augustine has described as few others could the tension and agony of a twenty-year deadlock, "a struggle within his breast," Grabmann calls it, between the teachings of the schools and the teachings of the Christians. In the end something had to give way—and it was the church. It was Augustine, in Lot's words, who "set the Church irresistibly on the course" which she was to follow for the future: it was not the Church that drew Augustine into her orbit. Or rather let us say this is the classic problem of three bodies, in which the orbit of each alters and is altered by each and both of the others. Augustine, as our experts have declared, brought forth a new Christian theology when he solved the problem of which should prevail, the prophets or the philosophers, by deferring to both—uniting them into a new and wonderful synthesis which has been the object of endless scholarly panegyrics. "Augustine," wrote Reinhold Seeberg, "laid the foundation of Western culture when he fused Antique civilization and Christianity together once for all in a single mighty mold."11 Reitzenstein declares that Augustine's life-work was "the program of a reconciliation of Antique civilization and Christianity, whose synthesis still determines our culture." 12
This fusion of the classical and Christian heritages was the culmination of a long process. "All the Christian writers from Justin to Gregory of Nazianzus and from Minucius Felix to Jerome used the classics to explain, to enrich, and to defend Christianity," wrote Father Combès in his valuable study of Augustine's education, and this fusion of classic and Christian "attained its perfection in the work of St. Augustine."13 Note that the trend begins with Justin and Minucius Felix, Christian converts who had been thoroughly indoctrinated by the schools before ever joining the Church, and who remained fiercely and unshakably loyal to the schools to the end of their lives, regarding themselves as the real or esoteric Christians and pooh-poohing the others as an uneducated and uncritical rabble. We have noted already how these men thought their fine heathen educations would be a great boon to the Church. This is the group to which Augustine belongs; Father Eggersdorfer has shown how he remained up to the end of his life completely a child of the schools. 14 Augustine himself calls the adoption of pagan education "spoiling the Egyptians," and in his famous de doctrina Christiana, written at the end of his life, he presents his program for sending the Church to school with the rhetoricians and philosophers.
In making his perfect fusion of Christian and classic knowledge to produce a doctrinal system which he and his intellectual friends could accept, Augustine, to quote Combès, "uses the ancient theodicy, metaphysics, morality, and politics. . . He often seems to reproach himself for doing this, to be sure; but the protests of his heart are silenced before the implacable dictates of his intellect. It is his desire to endow the Church with a doctrine so solidly constructed that she will never again have anything to fear from her enemies."15 That is a remarkably revealing statement which deserves some examination. From the first quotation of Combès we learned that the idea of reconciling Christian with pagan ideas was one that had been current among the intellectuals of the Church for a long time—it was anything but the blinding flash of inspiration that some would make it out to be: it was in fact a creeping sickness in the Church. The idea of a super-synthesis had become an obsession in the schools, where work on encyclopedic summas of all knowledge had long since brought all original research to a complete halt. In his pre-Christian days Augustine had displayed a passion for this kind of activity, and it never left him. Next we learn from Combès that Augustine was not at all happy about what he was doing to the Church: "He often seems to reproach himself for this." Why should he reproach himself unless he knew there was something fundamentally wrong about his program?
Monsignor Duchesne opens the third volume of his Early History of the Christian Church with the remark: "In uniting itself closely to the State, the Church under Theodosius was not making a good match: it was wedding a sick man, soon to become a dying one."16 We might paraphrase the sentence to read: "In uniting itself closely to the learning of the state schools, the Church under Augustine was not making a good match: it was wedding a sick man, soon to become a dying one." The two "weddings" are actually phases of the same movement, for Theodosius' work of consolidation and Augustine's were going on at exactly the same time. Classical learning was a very sick man in Augustine's day, and he knew it. Many authorities have remarked how the saint constantly denounces the arts of the schools while constantly practicing them.17 This fatal inconsistency has been immortalized in the story of St. Jerome, St. Augustine's great contemporary (they died but ten years apart), who in a dream was chastised by an angel with the awful accusation, "You are not a Christian, but a Ciceronian!" And after he awoke, Jerome went right on being a good Ciceronian, as did Augustine to the end of his days. In a recent study Marrou has shown Augustine's own education to be that of a decadent age, and has pointed out that the only change St. Augustine made in introducing pagan education into the church officially was to make the courses even more simple, superficial, and streamlined than they had been, thus contributing to "that lowering of the general level of civilization which already, all around Augustine, announces the coming age of the barbarians." 18
Well might Augustine reproach himself for what he was doing; but he had no choice: "The protests of his heart are silenced before the implacable dictates of his intellect." What are the implacable dictates that thus override desire? Combès continues, "to endow the Church with a doctrine so solidly constructed that she will never again have anything to fear from her enemies." Never again? To be sure: in the past the philosophers could pick Christian doctrine to pieces—they could show you in black and white that God could never have a son, or that, since he was "the totally other," nothing could possibly be in his image, etc. As Peter remarks in the Clementine Recognitions, Simon Magus could always give him a bad time and usually win the argument—but that didn't worry him. The ancient saints were not impressed by the pompous schoolmen, because they had their testimonies. It was because revelation had ceased that Augustine was driven to come to an understanding with the philosophers, who were now feared and respected as possessing the only available key to knowledge. Whence this new attitude, yielding to "the implacable dictates of the intellect"?
The world of St. Augustine's day was willing enough to become Christian, since the emperor's approval and compulsion had made such a course both safe and popular. But the new Christian world community was not willing to fulfill the conditions necessary to receiving revelation—not by a long shot. We can best describe the situation by another quotation from Monsignor Duchesne: "Long distances separated them [the Christians of St. Augustine's time] from the spiritual enthusiasm of the early Church. . . . Now everyone was Christian, or nearly everyone; and this implied that the profession involved but little sacrifice. . . . The mass of the community was Christian in the only way in which the mass could be, superficially and in name; the water of baptism had touched it, but the spirit of the Gospel had not penetrated its heart. Upon their entry into the Church, the faithful invariably renounced the pomps of Satan; but neither the theatres nor the games were deserted: it was a subject on which preachers uttered their most eloquent protests, and all to no purpose [Augustine himself has much to say on this theme]. . . . Was it really the Church which was overcoming the world? Was it not rather the world which was overcoming the Church?"19 Whoever was winning, in Augustine's day the people of the church no longer had testimonies: from now on they insisted that the gospel be proved to them by intellectual arguments and clever demonstrations. Augustine himself says he wanted to be as sure of its truth as he was sure that four and three make seven; like Origen, he wanted to put the doctrine of the Church on an intellectual basis, which was the nearest thing to certainty that he could ever get. He was, says Arnold Lunn, the well-known English Catholic, "the first of the Fathers to realise fully the necessity for a rational foundation of the faith."20 And Professor Grabmann reminds us that in his theological explorations, Augustine "had almost no predecessors, and for the most part was the very first man to experience the intellectual difficulties of these questions."21 For four hundred years, during which the philosophers constantly made fun of them, the Christians had failed to realize that their faith should be founded on reason and speak the language of philosophy! Whence this astounding oversight? Why must Augustine be the first to see the light? Obviously, as we have often pointed out on other evidence, the early Christians had a revealed faith and were not interested in things reasoned out by man.
Augustine wanted to endow the church with a solidly constructed doctrine, says Father Combès. Hadn't Christ and the Apostles already done that? It was certainly not their intention to work out a system that would please the schoolmen. Just before he was put to death, the Lord told his disciples not to be afraid, because he had overcome the world. That was as far as the ancient saints would go: they made no attempt to win popularity with those who would not accept the gospel as it stood. The Apostles were instructed when the people would not accept their teachings, simply to depart and go to others—not to change those teachings under any circumstances into something the world would accept. But that is precisely what St. Augustine did. He, and not the Lord or the Apostles, is, in Grabmann's words, "the true creator of the theology of the West."
What a comedown from the days of revelation! Let us summarize what Father Combès has told us: (1) Augustine found the Church without a solid doctrinal foundation; (2) he took it upon himself to steady the ark—but who gave him the necessary knowledge or authority to do it? Where did he go for his information? Combès tells us that (3) he went to the pagan schools—he took their theodicy, metaphysics, moral teachings, and politics and worked them into his system. Is that the proper source for Christian doctrine? (4) That question worried Augustine too, but (5) he had to go ahead with his project because the times required it urgently. And what was the world clamoring for? A theology that would appeal on rational grounds alone to a Christian world which was, as Duchesne puts it, Christian in name only, and which had forgotten the meaning of a testimony. The wedding of the sickly philosophy of the fourth century to Christian doctrine could take place only after Christianity had been once for all definitely divorced from the gift of prophecy and revelation. St. Augustine fully deserves his title of the man who changed the whole course of world history and of church history. He found himself in an intolerable situation, and he made the best of it. It is the situation, not the man, that teaches us what hard necessity and fateful decisions faced the Church once the gifts of revelation and prophecy were withdrawn.
1. Arthur McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Scribner's, 1932—33), 2:124.
2. Martin Grabmann, Mittelalterliches Geistesleben (Munich: Max Hüber, 1936), 2:46, who quotes many authorities in praise of St. Augustine. (Translation by the author.)
3. George Coulton, Studies in Medieval Thought (London: Nelson, 1940), 24.
4. Ferdinand Lot, La fin du monde antique et le début du moyen âge (Paris: A. Michel, 1927/1951), 181 =The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages (London: K. Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1931), 158.
5. Adolf Harnack, Monasticism: Its Ideals and History, and the Confessions of St. Augustine (London: Williams & Norgate, 1901), 125.
6. Grabmann, 2:45.
7. Ernst Troeltsch, Augustin: Die christliche Antike und das Mittelalter, Historische Bibliothek 36 (Munich: Oldenburg, 1915; reprinted New York: Arno, 1979), 50.
8. Augustine, Confessions III, 10, in PL 32:691.
9. Ibid., VII, 1, in PL 32:733, and passim.
10. Grabmann, 2:3—4.
11. Quoted in Ibid., 2:1.
12. Ibid., 2:13, citing Richard Reitzenstein.
13. Gustave Combès, Saint Augustin et la culture classique (Paris: Plon, 1927), 87.
14. Franz Eggersdorfer, Der heilige Augustinus als Pädogoge und seine Bedeutung für die Geschichte der Bildung (Freiburg i/B:Herder, 1907).
15. Combès, 127—28.
16. Louis Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church From Its Foundation to the End of the Fifth Century, 3 vols., translated from the 4th French edition by C. Jenkins (London: J. Murray, 1909—24), 3:1.
17. Eduard Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa (Leipzig: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1898), 2:623; Combès, 75; Frederick Raby, A History of Christian-Latin Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), 7.
18. Henri Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (Paris: Boccard, 1938), 275, 517—18.
19. Duchesne, 3:3—4.
20. Arnold Lunn, The Flight From Reason (New York: Dial Press, 1931), 25.
21. Grabmann, 2:44.