Friday, January 1, 2016

Augustine

Reviewing a new biography of Augustine Sameer Rahim writes "Lane Fox is informative and learned, but his book is, I must confess, a bit of a slog." Nevertheless Rahim on Augustine:
.... We know more about him than any other figure from the ancient world, and his personality and intelligence shine more brightly than his contemporaries.

Confessions is not strictly speaking an autobiography; it is a prayer addressed to God. But, as Augustine says, God knows it all already and so he can speak freely about his own sins – most notoriously, his sex life. ....

To Augustine, premarital sex was a false vision: “I was not yet in love but I was 'in love with love’.” As he came to reject sex, so he rejected Manichaeism. Their religion’s founder, the prophet Mani, claimed the world was divided into equally powerful forces for evil and for good, darkness and light.

Augustine knew, though, that he did not have a divided soul; instead it sometimes inclined to right and sometimes to wrong. Evil was part of human nature – which is why he came to popularise the doctrine of “original sin”.

Augustine learnt this from reading the Bible, but also from personal experience. As a teenager, he and a gang of friends stole pears from an orchard (echoes of Genesis again). Augustine had been led astray by something that initially seemed worthwhile: friendship.

Later, in Carthage, he joined a student club called “the Overturners” – the Bullingdon Club of its era – whose members went around harassing other students. He joined because he was lonely. He slept around for the same reason.

He came to realise that far from being cleanly divided into light and dark, our vices are often misdirected virtues. The combination of brilliant dramatic set pieces and close emotional self-scrutiny makes Augustine’s Confessions read like the work of a great novelist or poet. .... [more]