Posted: February 7, 2014
A nephew of Thomas Jefferson once asked his famous uncle for advice on how to become a model public servant. Jefferson counseled his young relation to cultivate first of all the genteel pastimes of resting, recreating, and reading. Regarding the last of these, Jefferson set before his nephew a list of authors, mainly classical, whom every educated gentleman should know. For ancient history, he prescribed Herodotus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Justin; for moral instruction, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus; and for poetry, Homer, Sophocles, Horace, and Virgil. Turning his attention to modern writers, Jefferson endorsed William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edward Gibbon.
Despite its encyclopedic sweep of history, Jefferson's list remains conspicuous for the 1,300-year gap that opens at its center. No work written between the 3rd-century death of Justin and the 16th-century birth of Shakespeare draws Jefferson's attention, much less his recommendation. Thus he overlooks the patristic writings of Jerome, Bede, and Boethius; the medieval texts of Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great, and Bonaventure; and the early Renaissance literature of Dante, Chaucer, and Boccaccio. Jefferson also passes over the two authors whose towering genius defines this entire period: Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.
Fortunately, not all American political thinkers have shared Jefferson's aversion to patristic and medieval authors. The late Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example, who taught political ethics at the University of Chicago and was an occasional contributor to the Claremont Review of Books, discovered in the writings of Augustine a treasure trove of human and political wisdom. In her book Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1995), Elshtain describes how as a college student, heeding the summons of Albert Camus to shake off modernity's "reign of quantity," she turned from thinkers like Descartes and Kant to seek deeper wells of human wisdom in the works of earlier authors.
I took an intensive crash course on Kant, and then another, but I emerged not only unconvinced but unmoved. The air seemed awfully thin up there. And the Cartesian cogito made no sense to me at all. Having had polio as a child and given birth to my own first child at age nineteen, bodies loomed larger in my scheme of things.
The young Elshtain met a lifelong intellectual companion in a paperback edition of Augustine's autobiographical Confessions. The 5th-century bishop helped her to articulate what she already suspected, that man is more than his intellect. Likewise, Augustine helped Elshtain explain to her students that man, the political animal, is not in essence a cool calculator of rights but rather a warm-blooded creature in whom mind, will, and passion conspire in often imperfect pursuits of the good.
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Two recent publications share Elshtain's appreciation for pre-modern articulations of human genius: Miles Hollingworth's Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography and Denys Turner's Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. Neither work is for the beginner. Novices to Augustinian and Thomistic studies should read first the works of Peter Brown and Jean-Pierre Torrell. Hollingworth and Turner write for a more specialized audience, namely their colleagues in the academy who, like Jefferson, underappreciate the Christian fathers and scholastics.
Saint Augustine of Hippo is Hollingworth's second book on the revered Christian saint. His first, The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and His Innovation in Political Thought (2010), earned the young South African scholar critical acclaim. Both works reveal Hollingworth's keen intellect, as well as his sure grasp of the history of Western thought, a subject he continues to pursue as a research fellow at Durham University's St. John's College.
In his intellectual biography, Hollingworth presents Augustine as a novelist, a master storyteller who strives to perceive in each individual life traces of the one meta-narrative that shapes all lives. This meta-narrative is the "story of how, as high-born creatures of intellect and volition, we battle the indignities of flesh and earth." Hollingworth explains that "Augustine knew especially well that each human story is a narrative poised, and tight, between the animal and the sublime." At its foundation, however, the universal human narrative is not a war story but a tragic love story. "It is the sensual meta-narrative of all humanity in Adam and Eve." Hollingworth observes that
Augustine was obsessed with the idea that the writing out, and speaking out, of reality—Confession—was the only way that we could grasp something. All autobiography, all history, was to prove identical to him on this point. HisConfessiones speak for themselves in this regard; but it is not so well known that his historical masterpiece, his City of God, was conceived on this same obsession—that the smallest circumstantial grit in any human history can be worked over until it becomes the pearl that shows how all human stories together write the one single story of Adam and Eve.
The Confessions supplies Hollingworth the template for his biography. Accordingly, he maps his history of Augustine's intellectual development over Augustine's own account of his spiritual maturation. For Hollingworth, therefore, theConfessions itself makes known the degree to which Augustine had developed his intellectual powers. Augustine reveals his genius in the retelling, scene by scene, of his unwitting performance of the ur-drama of Adam and Eve.
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Hollingworth addresses three points of concern in Saint Augustine of Hippo. First, he wants to depict Augustine as an intellectual for all times. Troubled by oversimplified portrayals of the saint as a partisan of 5th-century internecine Christian debates, Hollingworth underscores the virtuosity of Augustine's mind, and the manner in which he carried over into his Christian conversion a sustained meditation on the questions first raised by his study of Greek and Roman philosophy. As he confesses his personal story before God, Augustine also brings to the Almighty the concerns that touch every human mind and heart. The bishop of Hippo expresses every man's wonder over creation, time, goodness, evil, freedom, history, language, memory, beauty, shame, suffering, and death. Augustine's conversion and episcopal ministry augmented rather than diminished his philosophical genius.
Second, Hollingworth is careful to contrast Augustine's "African" cast of mind with the worldview of his contemporary "European" readers. Augustine's writing bears the intellectual marks of his homeland, the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, where man is conceived not only as mind but also as "flesh and blood." Though Hollingworth admits that such views are as native to Europe as they are to Africa, he argues that "Augustine is the African thinker who reacquaints the West with this aspect of itself, lost to the flameproof absolutes of theoretical knowledge." Modern theoreticians may find Augustine's thought disorienting, Hollingworth observes, for it emerges from a soul that does not sail on the "winds of thecogito ergo sum."
Lastly, Hollingworth builds on his African/European distinction to indicate the contours of Augustine's "Augustinianism." "This is Augustinianism," he writes, to "know that the whole of human life on earth is a passionate affair carried on with the wrong City—and in full view of the tragedy of this fact. In flagrante." Here, Hollingworth showcases Augustine's distress over how man allows his preoccupation with the flourishing of the earthly City to eclipse his pursuit of the heavenly City. Case in point, Hollingworth focuses on the overreaching claims of contemporary linguistics.
Language is not the key to how we are wired; it is the proof that we are inconsolable lovers. The animals have never spoken because they have never been like this. We speak and write because we blush and are self-conscious. Instinct packs close in around the animals and leaves them no such space, and freedom. The philosophical veneration of language can make it out to be the deepest deep. But the deepest deep is not our skeletal construction from syntax. The deepest deep is that we can be so passionately unfaithful to God.
Though this biography of Augustine is learned and well documented, it is not without its weaknesses. One downside to the work is Hollingworth's choice to draw almost solely from the Confessions, which Augustine completed while he was still relatively young. The bishop of Hippo lived for another 30 years, during which time he completed most of his writing, including The City of God. Are we to assume that after finishing the Confessions Augustine's thought ceased to develop? Of course not, Hollingworth would undoubtedly respond. Just as Augustine's early confrontations with Manichaeism (a dualist religion that believed the cosmos to emanate from two coequal principles of goodness and evil) left their mark on the Confessions, so did his post-conversion wranglings with Pelagianism (which denied original sin and man's need of divine grace for salvation) and Donatism (which tied the efficacy of the sacraments to the moral purity of their ministers) inform his mature writings. Hollingworth's decision to leave these latter controversies out of an intellectual biography of Augustine is surprising.
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Unlike Augustine, Thomas Aquinas veiled his personal history from his readers' eyes. Consequently, the medieval teacher's vast corpus provides scarce source material for the biographer. Undeterred by this challenge, Denys Turner aims not to write a biography of Aquinas but rather to draw his portrait, or what Turner calls a "caricature," a "profile sketched out in thin strokes of the pen." To find the proper outlines for his caricature, the Yale professor of historical theology searches through the pages Aquinas penned in search of hidden expressions of the scholar's interior life. Overall, Turner wields his own pen with great finesse, achieving thin strokes that convey in fine detail interesting facets of the saint's life and thought, including his piety and religious devotion.
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In the initial chapters, Turner highlights what he takes to be the two defining features of Aquinas's scholarly persona. The first is his vocation as a Dominican priest. Turner is right to begin here. Too many devotees of Aquinas immerse themselves in his thought without appreciating the religious consecration and ministry that inspired it. By contrast, Turner describes the consequences involved in the young Thomas's choice to abandon the plans of his parents—that he scale the ecclesiastical ladder as a Benedictine monk—and instead join the new and little known Order of Preachers. At times, Turner draws his comparisons between the Benedictine and Dominican traditions too facilely. For example, he adopts a cliché when he contrasts Benedictine silence to Dominican preaching. Nevertheless, Turner communicates the truth that Aquinas's holiness and erudition flowed fully from his choice to live, pray, and study as a spiritual son of Saint Dominic.
The second characteristic Turner highlights is what he calls Aquinas's "materialism." With this term Turner wishes to stress Thomas's appreciation for the integrity of the material world, the material origins of human knowledge, and the fundamental animality of human nature. Turner's purpose here is apologetic. He compares positively Aquinas's trust in the intelligibility of the material world against the less confident idealism that characterizes Augustinian and Cartesian epistemology. While applauding the point, some might nevertheless wince at Turner's use of the term "materialism" to describe Aquinas's Aristotelian and biblically-inspired realism. Despite Turner's best aims, it may be too early to reclaim this term from secular materialists who still rally under its banner.
In the succeeding chapters, the author highlights the major features of Aquinas's principal work, the Summa Theologiae. Classical Thomists will find much to like in Turner's analysis. For example, against the critiques of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, Turner defends the classical ordering of Aquinas's discussion of God, which reckons examination of the single divine nature as prerequisite to study of the trinity of divine persons. Turner defends also the logic inherent to Aquinas's proofs for God's existence, which has suffered reductionist Kantian readings by many contemporary scholars, including Anthony Kenny. When treating Thomas's moral theory, Turner summarizes nicely Aquinas's doctrine of grace and free will, his view of happiness as the goal of human life, the place he affords friendship in the moral life, and finally his treatment of prayer as the lifeblood of the human creature's friendship with God. Turner also explains adeptly Aquinas's understanding of the relation of law and virtue. Once again Turner's apologia for Thomas is manifest. Similar to Hollingworth's account of Augustine's thought sailing free of the Cartesian cogito, Turner explains how Thomas's moral doctrine anticipates and thus avoids the shoals of David Hume's fact-value distinction.
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Unfortunately, the weakest chapter of Thomas Aquinas is the last, which treats the saint's doctrine of the Eucharist. Here Turner turns too quickly from Aquinas's "materialist" treatment of the Eucharistic species to speculate over the meaning he may have gleaned from the sacrament's ritual. As a result, Turner leaves aside key elements of Aquinas's Eucharistic theology to ponder instead what the Mass might teach us about human eating. Turner raises interesting anthropological questions, but he misses the mark in presenting Aquinas's Eucharistic doctrine as a medieval forerunner to Leon Kass's The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (1994). A more accurate portrayal of Thomas's Eucharistic theology would describe how Catholic teaching on the Eucharist prompted Aquinas to revolutionize Aristotle's metaphysics of substance and accident, and how the Mass's sacrificial character drew him to attend to its celebration twice daily. The Eucharist's revelation of Calvary, and not its pertinence to the dinner table, is what forms the heart of Aquinas's Eucharistic theology and devotion.
No biography, however well written, can substitute for the writings themselves of Augustine and Aquinas. Their texts should be read and carefully studied. Like Mr. Jefferson, not all who engage these texts will assent to the Judeo-Christian revelation that inspired their authors. Even so, believer and unbeliever alike should follow Augustine and Aquinas in keeping the lessons of Genesis close at hand. As the works of Hollingworth, Turner, and Elshtain demonstrate, the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve continues to provide fertile soil for human genius. Compared to the ad hoc myths of Hobbes's state of nature, Rousseau's noble savage, and Nietzsche's superman, Genesis's paradise yields a lush harvest of philosophical and political wisdom.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.