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Great Minds - Augustine

Augustine was born in Thagaste (present-day Algeria) in Roman North Africa in 354 to an unbeliever father, Patricius, and a Christian mother, Monnica. His mother did her best to inculcate the Christian faith into her son, but the early life of Augustine was anything but a moral shipwreck. To add to his mother's pain, Augustine joined the Gnostic sect. In desperation over his wayward behaviour, Monnica turned to a Catholic bishop, pleading with him to reason with Augustine. The bishop refused. "Only prayer, not arguments, will bring your son to Christ." In retrospect, the words seem prescient, if not prophetic. Soon after Augustine came across a preacher called Ambrose, bishop of Milan, whose eloquent preaching captivated him, prompting a spiritual crisis in Augustine's life and setting him on a path of Christianity. Ambrose baptised him, and not long after that, he was ordained assistant bishop of Hippo to Valerius. When Valerius died five years later, Augustine became the bishop of Hippo, a position he filled until his own death in 430.

Scholars in the humanities have recently turned to Augustine to query the nature of ethics, truth and politics. While his importance for medieval political theory would be difficult to overstate, creative thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Alasdair MacIntyre, Eric Gregory, and John Milbank returned to Augustine in the twentieth century with great profit. John Milbank turns to Augustine to overcome postmodernist tendencies. Milbank garners Augustine as an anti-capitalist in which radical Christian theology can potentially outstrip secular market-centred politics. On the other hand, Eric Gregory draws on Augustine to revitalize liberalism by reinstating civic values predicated on love.

Augustine matters to Christians and non-Christians alike, primarily because of what he criticised about Rome in his masterpiece The City of God and because Rome has so many things in common with the modern West. The Romans (Cicero and Plutarch) believed in the power of humans to master themselves, to be able to control nature and devise their own happiness and perfection. Wealth was associated with inner virtue for them and showing it off was deemed honourable. Augustine detested this attitude. He proposed that all humans are fundamentally broken, and our imperfect nature gives rise to the merciless way we treat others and the world around us. He believed we fall short of our love and care for others because our ego and pride constantly undermine us. Augustine concluded his polemic against Rome by rejecting those who "have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts." (City of God). True happiness and perfection are impossible because of the sinful condition we find ourselves in. Today we do not like being told that our lives are awry with no fault of our own. It does not sound very optimistic, but Augustine had Roman pride in mind when he penned those sentiments. Augustine invites us to consider the imperfect nature of everything we do and are.

Secondly, the Romans organised society with robust meritocratic features. The greatness of the Roman Empire was a sign of the collective merits of the Romans. They believed they deserved to rule large parts of the earth. The empire was simply the reward for their virtue. Perhaps, it is not too difficult to discern an echo of this view today for those who see their great prosperity and power as just rewards for merit. For Augustine, these were arrogant and boastful claims. Wealth is not a blessing from God, nor is poverty condemnation. There is no justice in Rome, responded Augustine. True justice only exists "in that republic whose founder and governor is Christ" (City of God). In other words, it only exists in our communion and commitment to the love of God. For Augustine, the construction of a community based on the teachings of Christ is distinctly different from that of Roman civic life.

Augustine's thinking is highly generous towards failure, loss, and hardship, a reason why social theorists turn to his philosophy. Whatever the world might claim, earthly failure is no indication of being an inherently bad person. Similarly, our earthly triumphs cannot mean anything too profound, either.

We do not need to be Christians to appreciate Augustine. To paraphrase John Milbank, Augustine's philosophy is Christianity's universal gift to society and human psychology. He is a permanent reminder of the dangers of believing that life can be perfect or that poverty and wealth are reliable measures of human character.

*First Published in Touchstone May 2023

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