It may be dated in parts, but Peter Brown’s 1967 classic biography of Augustine remains the greatest biography to date on the bishop of Hippo. Brown gives his reader a human portrait of a complex figure in the history of Western Christianity. Such an engrossing read!
Despite the highly unpleasant teachings in Augustine’s writings against Julian of Eclanum, I feel that the “Augustinian pessimism” is actually quite comforting. Our imperfections, our pride, our lust for power – they are all-too-human. And while we should all aim to overcome our weaknesses, we have to learn to love ourselves and our neighbor despite them.
“Whoever does not want to fear, let him probe his inmost self. Do not just touch the surface; go down into yourself; reach into the farthest corner of your heart. Examine it then with care: see there, whether a poisoned vein of the wasting love of the world still does not pulse, whether you are not moved by some physical desires, and are not caught in some law of the senses; whether you are never elated with empty boasting, never depressed by some vain anxiety: then only can you dare to announce that you are pure and crystal clear, when you have sifted everything in the deepest recesses of your inner being” (432) .
While Augustine certainly does not sanction sin he is more likely to excuse it than many of his contemporaries.
Augustine’s weaknesses are not overlooked by the author. Brown shows us an Augustine who encourages the use of force to suppress the Donatist and Pelagian heresies. Brown may claim that Augustine was no inquisitor, but his tactics are not always the most virtuous. One wonders what Augustine would have done if he had been given more freedom (a concept Augustine has a lot to say about). He does not criticize the atrocities committed by Christian generals, although he asks his fellow monks to refrain from gossip and to live frugally.
Augustine’s last years are a testament to the evolution of his character. As a young man he had illusions of living as a perfect man in a Christian community apart from the world. As Bishop of Hippo, Augustine puts aside these illusions and chooses to remain in North Africa and face the barbarian invasions with his “flock”. He never renounces his ascetic practices, but he does not expect everyone to be a servus dei.
Augustine’s life and writings have had a huge influence on the West. His commentaries on the human condition in The Confessions have withstood the test of time and have influenced countless philosophers and theologians, both secular and religious (Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Marcel Proust, Wittgenstein, etc.). It is perhaps for this reason that Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine should appeal to a wide audience.