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Rethinking Augustine's Early TheologyAn Argument for Continuity$

Carol Harrison

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281664

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199281661.001.0001

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The Context

The Context

(p.3) 1 The Context
Rethinking Augustine's Early Theology

Carol Harrison (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the biographical, historical, and theological context of Augustine’s early works (386-96). It outlines the way in which these works have been read in scholarly debates over the last hundred years, demonstrating that they have generally been marginalised as the rather obsolete philosophical investigatons of a new, somewhat naïve, over-optimistic convert, still entrenched in the classical tradition of belief in human free will and perfectibility. These have generally been contrasted with the later, mature works of Augustine — the pessimistic theologian of the Fall, original sin, and human dependence upon divine grace. It considers Peter Brown’s analysis of the revolutionary transformation of the early into the later Augustine following his reading of Paul in the 390s, and sets out the argument of the book: that there is no discontinuity or revolutionary transformation of the early into the later Augustine, but rather a fundamental continuity between the two.

Keywords:   context, classical tradition, Peter Brown, discontinuity, continuity, confessiones

When Augustine's name is mentioned, it is probably his Confessiones which first spring to mind, both to those who know nothing else about him, and also to the Augustine scholar. They stand among the classics of world literature (Clark 1993) and throughout the ages have exercised a wide‐ranging influence, establishing a new literary genre and finding readers well beyond the confines of academic or devotional theology. This is not least because they stand almost alone among the works of late antiquity in revealing the mind of their author, allowing us a startlingly modern insight into the nature of the subconscious mind. Because of this personal quality, and the power of Augustine's insight and language, they are also a very moving, dramatic portrait of intellectual doubt, and ethical wavering and weakness, culminating in one of the most famous conversions in Christian history. In fact, they provide Augustine's only detailed account of his life before conversion, of the stages which led up to it, and of his conversion itself. For these reasons alone, the Confessiones are more often than not taken as the starting point for any study of Augustine. The rationale of this starting point is further endorsed for most scholars by the fact that Augustine began to write this work at a point at which they think they can locate the real beginnings of his mature theology, and at a decisive turning point in his career as a Christian theologian—for the Confessiones were begun in 396, ten years after his conversion in 386, and in the year when he became bishop of Hippo. For many readers and scholars 396 marks the beginning of Augustine's mature work, and the Confessiones represent an excellent starting point to begin to approach them: they summarize his past life, recount his conversion, and above all, embody, by virtue of retrospective reflection over the past ten years, his mature judgement on the theological questions he had tackled during this time (e.g. Fredriksen 1986).

But the fact that the Confessiones were written a full ten years after his conversion in Milan in 386, which Augustine describes in book 8 for the first time, should at least make us pause for thought. How much weight can we attach to an account written after such a long gap of time from the actual events it recounts? We should certainly not attempt to use it to obtain an (p.4) accurate insight into Augustine's thoughts, dilemmas, and decisions at this time or for a blow by blow historical account of what actually happened. We must of course bear in mind that Augustine is writing as a bishop, with contemporary issues and events in mind, as well as what has happened during the past ten years. He has had time to reflect upon his past, to assess its significance, to integrate it into a systematic theology of human sin and divine grace. It is clear to any reader of the Confessiones that the work is as much an intellectual biography as a personal biography: the author has an agenda, a set of issues or questions he wishes to tackle, and these determine and inform what he has to say about his past and how he presents it to us. His past life and experiences are used in order to make sense of the present and to resolve the intellectual, theological, and personal problems he has faced.

It should therefore be clear that if we want to establish what Augustine was actually thinking and doing during the ten years between his conversion and the writing of the Confessiones then it is to the works written during this period that we must turn. Can one appreciate an author's mature thought without examining his earlier, formative years? Are not mature ideas reached on different subjects at different stages and dates, rather than at the same time in one particular work? Moreover, is it desirable to allow the retrospective interpretation of a mature work to overshadow and dictate how a writer's earlier works are read? The problem with Augustine scholarship is that these questions have seemingly been set aside before the towering genius, the seductive prose, and the un‐put‐down‐able excitement of the Confessiones. In this respect Augustine's earliest works have had a rather poor deal and it is one of the aims of this book to reinstate them.

But it is not only the overpowering attraction of the Confessiones that has magnetized the field of scholarship away from the early works. Other, rather more subtle, forces have been at play. For most of the last century Augustine's very earliest works, written during the retreat he took at Cassiciacum during the autumn and winter of 386–7, immediately following his conversion, were indeed at the centre of scholarly attention, but in such a way as to confirm in the minds of many their already doubtful significance for appreciating his mature thought. When certain scholars accused the early Augustine of being no more and no less than a philosopher, and claimed that his conversion in 386 was to Neoplatonism, rather than to Christianity, they set the agenda which was to determine the shape of Augustine scholarship for a long time to come.1 In retrospect the results, as in most battles, hardly justify the energy and effort expended on both sides. Those who set out to prove that the (p.5) Augustine of the early works was indeed a Christian, albeit one who, like many Christian writers before him, chose philosophical terminology and debate as his means of elucidating, expounding, and teaching the Christian faith, won the day. The identity and nature of the Neoplatonism Augustine encountered and its adoption in a Christian context have, as a result, been given inordinate scholarly attention, and the Christian elements of the early works have been exhaustively excavated and displayed as proof. But the debate was really one which should never have happened. That it did, one suspects, is largely due to the distinction of the proponents of the Neoplatonic view, the cogency and apparent credibility with which they argued, and the publicity their views received, not least in the serious and thoroughgoing attempts of those who sought to rebut and refute them. The earliest works of Augustine have emerged from this battle in a somewhat unfavourable light as rather obsolete philosophical investigations by a new, and somewhat naive, over‐optimistic, Christian convert who was unable or unwilling to set aside the tools he had used in his secular career and who only slowly, and falteringly, grasped the fullness of the faith he had embraced. Augustine's early years as a Christian were salvaged, and their genuineness and respectability preserved, but no great weight was attributed to his earliest compositions during this period.

One of the other gravitational fields in scholarship which has drawn attention away from the early works is the off‐putting spectrum of problems one encounters in setting the early works alongside the Confessiones. Any attempt to compare the two inevitably provokes the rather unsettling suspicion that they do not agree—not just in theological views (though the theories of those who hold that Augustine was converted to Neoplatonism, and of those who, as we shall see below, set a chasm between the early works and the Confessiones by adopting theories of a revolution in Augustine's thought in the 390s, contribute greatly to the apparent discrepancy between the two), but also in historical detail. The significant details and emphases one would expect to find in the early works, and which are absolutely central to the Confessiones, such as the account of his conversion in the garden at Milan, are simply not there. Why should Augustine fail to describe such a significant event in any of his earliest works, even in passages where he is alluding to his conversion? The obvious answers are disconcerting ones: either he did not think the garden episode significant enough to mention at this early stage, or his account of his conversion in the Confessiones, which we have already noted is the only full one he gives, is not entirely historical but, at least in part, literary fiction.2 In making the latter suggestion Pierre Courcelle set the cat (p.6) firmly among the pigeons and initiated an interesting debate on the aims, style, and language of the Confessiones, which has led to a greater appreciation of Augustine's preoccupations in writing this work, but has either ignored the early works which gave rise to the problem, or, because they make no mention of Augustine's graced conversion as a result of reading Paul in book 8, has relegated them, once again, to the status of primarily philosophical works which have no real appreciation of the fallenness of humanity or its need for divine grace (Ferrari 1980, 1982, 1984; Fredriksen 1986). At the very least, the Confessiones and the early works sit rather awkwardly together and relations between them are full of tensions. Better, it is usually felt, to play safe and opt for the Confessiones.

A much stronger and more serious pull away from the early works than either the status of the Confessiones and questions of historicity, or doubts cast upon the nature and sincerity of their Christianity, has emerged in the last forty years, in the shape of debates over Augustine's debt to Paul in his early theology. What I am referring to is the so‐called ‘revolution of the 390s’ which has become so defining and characteristic a feature of Augustine scholarship since the 1960s that it is now almost impossible to avoid, even in the shortest article. To understand Augustine, it is now generally agreed that one must appreciate the revolution his thought underwent in the early 390s as a result of his reading and reflection upon the work of Paul, most especially on Romans and Galatians. In a series of works on these Pauline writings, written in the early 390s, it is held, we see Augustine working towards his mature theology of original sin, the Fall, grace, and free will; a mature synthesis which is clearly stated for the first time in the Ad Simplicianum of 396. To maintain that Augustine's reflections on these central ideas began to emerge only in the 390s and that they finally took shape in a form resembling his mature works only in 396 is obviously to marginalize the interest, relevance, and indeed orthodoxy of the earliest works for these central aspects of his theology. In fact, it is questioning the nature and importance of his conversion in 386 in a manner just as radical as those who held that Augustine was converted to Neoplatonism, or those who see two rather different Augustines in the early works and the Confessiones. An early theology in which original sin, the Fall, and grace are absent is a theology not recognizably Augustinian and one the (p.7) scholar can indeed afford to discount and ignore. But is this really the case? The thesis of this book is that the real revolution in Augustine's thought happened not in 396 but in 386, at his conversion, and that the defining features of his mature theology were in place from this moment onwards. I would like to demonstrate that interpretations of Augustine which centre upon the contrast between the Augustine of the early works and the Augustine of the Confessiones, or upon the importance of the 390s for the shaping of his theology, are obscuring and falsifying its real development. If there is a contrast or turning point to be identified, then I will argue that it centres upon his reading of the Neoplatonists and Paul, which precipitated his conversion in 386 and was then the subject of his Christian reflection from this point onwards. In fact, I would like to go further and demonstrate that many of the features which scholars see emerging in the 390s, and most especially in the Letter to Simplicianus, such as an awareness of the Fall, original sin, the flawed will of human beings, and their need for divine grace, are in fact present from the very beginning. In other words I will be attempting to reassess the development of Augustine's theology, to question the sharp contrast which has been made between the early works and the Confessiones and the accuracy of describing the 390s as a revolutionary turning point, and, above all, to demonstrate a fundamental continuity in Augustine's thought from the very beginning.

This chapter will therefore conclude with two sections mapping out the field we are to explore: a first section on the identity of the works I have been referring to as ‘the early works’ a second on how these works are now generally viewed by Augustine scholars.

The Early Works

We do not possess any works written prior to Augustine's conversion in 386, although in the Confessiones he does describe a piece he no longer possesses, but which he had written in Milan in c.380, on philosophical aesthetics, entitled De pulchro et apto (conf. 4. 13. 20). The works now extant all date from after his conversion, and for the ten‐year period stretching from 386 to 396, they tend to fall into four groups. These groups are generally circumscribed, and given their particular emphases, by the place in which Augustine wrote them and his particular preoccupations at the time: Cassiciacum 386–7; Milan and Rome 387–8; Thagaste 388–91; Hippo 391–6.

(p.8) Cassiciacum 386–387

Almost immediately after his conversion in Milan in 386 Augustine retired from his job as municipal rhetor on the grounds of ill health3 and withdrew to the country estate of a colleague, Verecundus, near Cassiciacum. He was joined by his mother, Monnica, his son Adeodatus, his pupils Licentius (son of his patron, Romanianus) and Trygetius, his uneducated cousins Lartidianus and Rusticus, his brother Nauigius, and his friend Alypius. With Monnica running the household, Augustine (who very much assumes the role of teacher) and his pupils structured their days according to the classical tradition for cultured retreats: they read the classics, discussed philosophical questions, and generally gave their minds and bodies time and space to leave behind everyday concerns in order to find freedom and spiritual nourishment—‘to be at leisure and see that you are God’.4 There is indeed a real sense of unhurried reflection on questions of ultimate importance in these works on the soul and its immortality; the true, the good, the beautiful, and their cultivation and attainment; the ultimate goal of human beings or the happy life. These questions were debated in the classical dialogue form5 familiar to Augustine and his pupils from Plato and, most especially, Cicero,6 and were then written down (presumably in the form of notes which Augustine then edited).7 Although doubt has been cast on their authenticity as debates which actually happened, the rich incidental detail and vivid characterization which brings them to life do suggest either a skilled and deliberate attempt to make the reader believe they did happen, or that they are indeed (p.9) authentic.8 Whatever their status, the reader is given an insight into Augustine's thoughts and feelings at this time which is matched in his works only by the Confessiones. On the one hand we have the skilled teacher, eager that his pupils should be led by questioning and discussion to apprehend the truth of the subject in hand, and through the practice of the disciplines which they had acquired and learnt to exercise in a secular context, be able to move ‘from the corporeal to incorporeal’—from bodily to spiritual truths.9 On the other hand we have the new Christian convert, intent on understanding, defending and expounding the truths of his faith in this thoroughly classical context. For many subsequent readers of the early works Augustine's aim and method do not sit well together. As Augustine himself puts it: ‘they still breathe the spirit of the school of pride, as if they were at the last gasp’ (conf. 9. 4. 7). Secular learning and debate on what appear to be thoroughly philosophical subjects seem far removed from what they would expect of a new Christian who has just undergone a dramatic conversion. The Christian colouring of the works seems to them to be more in the nature of a background wash than of foreground details. The language is not, as in the later Augustine, steeped in scriptural allusion (although this is not entirely absent),10 but is altogether classical, philosophical, more at home in the schools than in a Christian house party.

In order not to be misled by the form and language of Augustine's earliest work we must remember that what might seem inappropriate or alien to us might appear differently to someone whose thought and general culture had been shaped by a late antique education. Augustine, his pupils, and his contemporary readers would all share this formation and, like most Christians before them, would naturally understand, defend, and articulate their Christian faith in this context.11 Christianity had, almost from the beginning, been understood as a philosophy, a method of seeking and attaining the truth. Indeed, it was understood by Christians to be the true philosophy, superseding all others and providing the summation and culmination of whatever truth the others had grasped and taught. Not only was this sort of understanding a necessary apologetic tool in order to defend and promote Christianity in a secular context, it was also an indispensable means for Christians who were formed by, and unavoidably belonged to, this secular culture, to grasp the truths of their faith. Augustine's earliest work therefore stands in a long line of Christian reflection and apologetic, and articulates his own (p.10) coming to terms with his newly embraced faith. The questions which had troubled and motivated him as a non‐Christian—of evil, the soul, the true, good, and beautiful—were also those which directed his Christian reflection and which he found best answered in a Christian context. We must also remember that what had finally reconciled him to Christianity, and enabled him to resolve at least his intellectual doubts, was the revolution (as we shall see in the next chapter) his discovery of Neoplatonic philosophy had worked in his thought. For this reason also it is not at all surprising to find him preoccupied with philosophical questions and using philosophical language and arguments in his first works as a Christian.

Augustine completed four works during the few months of retreat: Contra Academicos (an attempt to refute the scepticism of the New Academy which Augustine had flirted with on abandoning Manichaeism); De beata uita (on the ultimate good and how it is to be attained); De ordine (on the question of evil and providence); Soliloquia (a dialogue between Augustine and his reason on Christian life and virtue, which has much in common with Confessiones, and a second book on the immortality of the soul). Although the titles and subjects might at first seem wholly philosophical we should also remember that they are generally subjects which were to remain central to Augustine right through to his death; they are the first clear statements of major themes which are to be orchestrated throughout his work.12

When Augustine returned to Milan in 387 it was not to his former co‐religionists, the Manichees, or to his secular ambitions and profession, or even to his arranged marriage, but to enrol as a catechumen for baptism at Easter, having been instructed by Ambrose during the season of Lent.

Milan and Rome 387–388

‘Et baptizati sunt.’ Augustine's only reference to his baptism is in this brief aside in the Confessiones. Despite his evident delight in the music and liturgy at Milan13 he soon headed south to the seaport of Ostia, just outside Rome, from where he planned to return to his home town of Thagaste, to take possession of the family property. It was in Ostia that he shared the famous vision with his mother, and where she died and was buried (conf. 9. 10. 23–11. 28). His plans to sail to Africa were thwarted by a blockade of the Mediterranean by Maximus, who was attempting to wrest power from the (p.11) Emperor Theodosius. As a result, Augustine spent the rest of the year in Rome where he encountered for the first time Egyptian‐type monastic houses, the impact of which is evident in his work De moribus, written during this enforced exile as the first in a long series of works dissociating himself from the sect which had held him for nine years. Other works from this period are the first book of De libero arbitrio (another work against the Manichees, on the question of evil) and two treatises which continue his earlier preoccupation with the nature and capacities of the soul, De immortalitate animae and De quantitate animae. Also dating from this period is a long investigation of metre, rhythm, and order entitled De musica, the first of a projected series of books on the disciplines of the liberal arts, which, as we have seen, he valued above all else as exercising and enabling the mind to move from bodily to spiritual things.14

Augustine cannot but have been sensitive to his Manichaean past now that he was back where others had known him as an enthusiastic, positively evangelical Manichee. His attempts to distance himself from them, to undermine and refute their lifestyle and doctrines, lend a more obvious ‘Christian’ colouring to the works of this period which, as we have noted, his readers and critics have found lacking in the works before this date. The emphasis is, however, attributable more to context and the requirements of polemic, than to any change of interest or belief. Indeed, we will increasingly find that from now on Augustine is less in a position to choose what he writes upon and more and more forced to address various topics because of particular circumstances and needs.15

Thagaste 389–391

When Augustine finally returned to Thagaste, via Carthage, in early 389 he immediately established a mode of common life which looked back to Cassiciacum and forward to the monastic communities in which he was to remain until his death. In this case it was a community which he refers to as the Servants of God (serui dei), a self‐sustaining lay community which identified itself with the local church, which held all in common and lived a life of prayer, fasting, good works, study of Scripture, and general devotion. We are given a fascinating insight into the sort of issues which arose within (p.12) the community and which Augustine sought, when questioned, to give answers to, in the De diuersis quaestionibus which date through to 396, when Augustine left the serui dei/lay monastery in Hippo to establish a clerical monastery in the bishop's house at Hippo. The fact that he had time to think and write in this context is reflected in the three important works written during this time: De Genesi contra Manichaeos, the first of five attempts to comment on the book of Genesis. In this instance, Augustine attempts to demonstrate the desirability of allegorical interpretation in order to avoid the sort of objections, difficulties, and absurdities which arose from the Manichees' thoroughgoing literal and fundamentalist approach to the text. The second work, De magistro, a dialogue with his clever teenage son, Adeodatus, on the nature and function of language in conveying the truth, is a reminder that Augustine has in no way left behind his earlier preoccupation with the disciplines in the service of Christian truth. The third work, entitled De uera religione is almost a short systematic theology aimed to (re)convert Manichee sympathizers, and is a reminder that Augustine's Christian faith in this early period was far from being the naive and somewhat embryonic substance that his critics sometimes maintain, but a mature and reflective grasp of the crucial elements of Christian doctrine. That De magistro and De uera religione date from the same period is a good indicator of the coexistence and complementarity of these two facets of Augustine's early Christianity.

Hippo 391–396

What he might have gone on to write if he had remained a Servant of God we can only guess. The fact that Augustine tells us that he was careful to avoid visiting places where he knew the church had a bishopric vacant suggests he very much wanted to remain one (ep. 355. 2). The seaport of Hippo, which he visited in 391, to talk with a prospective member of the Servants of God, and with a view to setting up a monastery there, seemed a safe enough place, as it already had a bishop, the ageing Greek, Valerius. What Augustine did not know was that Valerius was keen to secure a helper and successor. He was appointed priest at Hippo by popular acclamation, despite his protests, and tears expressing his unworthiness. His works from this point onwards reflect the dramatic change which had taken place in his life.

There was no period of being let in gently. Having moved the Thagaste community to a house in the grounds of the basilica at Hippo, Augustine was looked to very much as a sort of co‐adjutor bishop (a position Valerius later—uncanonically—confirmed in order not to lose him). He was expected (again, contrary to church custom) to preach, to address the clergy in council, to take (p.13) up the fight against the entrenched African schismatics, the Donatists, and to take a full role in the onerous administration of the Church and its properties (a burden vastly increased since the Church gained autonomy and civil rights under Constantine). He was, as it were, thrown in at the deep end. The works of this period show that he had no time to tread water but was immediately plunged headlong into the exhausting marathon of priestly/episcopal duties. He began his Enarrationes in Psalmos, continued his attack on the Manichees in De utilitate credendi, engaged in public debate with them in Contra Fortunatum, initiated a sustained attack on the Donatists with a popular song (Psalmus contra partem Donati), corresponded with a wide variety of people (Alypius, Nebridius, Paulinus, Jerome, the Donatists…) and addressed the General Council of Africa on the creed (De fide et symbolo). His acute sense of his responsibilities and inadequacies as a new priest, and his desire to improve his knowledge of Scripture, so that he might be in a position to do all that he could to assist the salvation of those in his charge, is articulated in a letter sent to Valerius at his ordination, requesting free time to study the Scriptures (ep. 21), and is subsequently evidenced in a series of commentaries and sermons on various parts of Scripture which he began at this time: the second of his attempts to interpret Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber), his commentary De sermone Domini in monte, a commentary on Galatians (Expositio Epistulae ad Galatas), and two works on Romans (Expositio quarundam propositionum ex epistula Apostoli ad Romanos; Epistulae ad Romanos inchoata expositio).

We must again be aware that the change in subject, tone, and emphasis in these works is more indicative of specific circumstances and practical necessity than of any transformation in Augustine's faith. He tells Valerius in ep. 21 that ‘I know and hold with firm faith all that is necessary for my own salvation,’ but then asks ‘But, how am I to make use of this for the salvation of others?’ At this point, as we have just noted, the answer seemed to lie in extending his knowledge of the Scriptures. His faith would, of course, continue to grow in understanding and in maturity, especially as he was able to read and study more of them, and as his experience of life in the Church developed, but this should not be used as a reason to write off the works before 391 as the overly philosophical ponderings of an as yet immature, over‐optimistic, Christian convert. Even the Confessiones are in large part determined by the specific circumstances in which Augustine the bishop found himself from 396 onwards, and the new necessities—self‐exoneration and self‐justification, a statement of mature theology against heretics, etc.16—which he faced.

(p.14) ‘The Lost Future’

When Peter Brown published his Augustine of Hippo: A Biography in 1967 the world of Augustine scholarship was never to be the same again. It had been immeasurably enriched by a portrayal of Augustine which was to attract generations of scholars to study him (the present author included), which inspired countless other monographs, and still provides an almost definitive account of his life and work. No one reading Augustine can afford to ignore this book if they are either to understand Augustine himself or Augustine scholarship since it was published. As James O'Donnell has aptly observed ‘Our Augustine is Brown's’.17 Given how much we Augustine scholars owe to Professor Brown it seems rather ungrateful to mention his magisterial book in a context in which one is simply going to disagree with part of it. Let me first emphasize then, that it is necessary to make such a direct criticism only because it is the single most important book on Augustine of the last century, and the one which has done most to influence how he has been read and interpreted. In almost every respect, this influence has been an enormously positive and fruitful one. With regards to the early works and the 390s, however, I think it has led subsequent scholars astray.

In a brief chapter entitled ‘The Lost Future’ Peter Brown gave a first, fateful presentation, of the theory that in the 390s Augustine's thought underwent a revolution which left behind his earlier works and established the features now regarded as characteristic of his mature theology. In part this revolution was a personal one; Augustine was reaching middle age, no longer a vigorous young man, optimistic for the future, ardently and confidently seeking the wisdom and perfection which philosophy—Christian philosophy—had seemed to promise, but was rather someone who, through ‘hard thought and bitter experience’18 had come to terms with the loss of his mother and young son, with the disillusionment of realizing that perfection was beyond his reach, that the attainment of truth and the life of perfect virtue had eluded him, and that he was to spend the rest of his life fighting a losing battle against the forces of habit and temptation, the clouds of ignorance, and the vitiated will which now seemed an inevitable and unavoidable feature of what it was to be a human being:

Augustine, indeed, had decided that he would never reach the fulfillment that he first thought was promised to him by a Christian Platonism: he would never impose a victory of mind over body in himself, he would never achieve the wrapt contemplation of the ideal philosopher. It is the most drastic change that a man may have to (p.15) accept: it involved nothing less than the surrender of the bright future he thought he had gained at Cassiciacum.19

This indeed makes moving and dramatic reading—Augustine the rationalist and perfectionist transformed into Augustine the Romantic; a wanderer, longing, yearning, groaning for a fulfilment which he can never achieve in this life—but it is a caricature of the early Augustine which can only result in a gross distortion of his subsequent development.

The theory of a dramatic turning point or revolution in the 390s rests, however, not so much on personal experiences as on the theological insights which confirmed and interpreted them. It was in the early 390s, as we have seen above, that Augustine began to comment upon St Paul, and to grapple with his theology of the Fall, original sin, free will, grace, and predestination, as set forth in Galatians and Romans. Peter Brown suggests that it was in coming to terms with Pauline theology that Augustine first elaborated his mature understanding of these matters. The Ad Simplicianum, in which the doctrines of original sin and the need for grace are set forth uncompromisingly for the first time, is therefore seen as the dramatic conclusion of the earthquake which had precipitated a landslide in Augustine's thought from ideals of perfection to a conviction of universal human sinfulness and the complete inability of human beings to will or to do the good—to even begin to believe—without divine grace: ‘Now, he will see in Paul nothing but a single, unresolved tension between “flesh” and “spirit”…Only after this life would tension be resolved… It is a flattened landscape: and in it, the hope of spiritual progress comes increasingly to depend, for Augustine, on the unfathomable will of God.’20

‘Two Augustines’

Where does this leave the early works and how are they now generally regarded as a result of this theory? We should note, first of all, that the theory of a revolution in Augustine's thought in the 390s in working out a doctrine of original sin and grace is now almost universally accepted. It is not, I think, an understatement to say that it has become almost canonical in Augustine scholarship. What this means is that the early works have been read as representing an altogether different Augustine from the author of the Ad Simplicianum and the Confessiones, or from the mature Christian who was consecrated bishop in 396. In a sense, the spectre of the old debate concerning (p.16) Augustine's debt to Neoplatonism and the nature of his conversion has been revived in what has been dubbed ‘The “two Augustines” controversy’,21 but in this context the young Augustine is seen as an optimistic devotee of a Christian philosophy which promises the attainment of perfection, moral purity and tranquility, and the contemplation of wisdom. He is regarded as ‘more Pelagian than Pelagius’,22 upholding the absolute freedom of the will, confident in human beings' powers of self‐determination, so that nothing can ultimately overcome them. He reads Paul with Platonic spectacles as a proponent of spiritual ascent and renewal towards perfection, and has absolute confidence in the powers of human reason to attain the truth, without any need for the will to be motivated by its pleasing or delightful appearance.

I have singled out Peter Brown as the main proponent of this reading of the early works simply because his book, and especially the chapter entitled ‘The Lost Future’, has probably been the single, most influential work in giving this reading its almost canonical status in recent scholarship. It is, in fact, much easier to single out the detractors from this view than to provide a list of those who agree with, and follow Brown, in this respect, for the theory has won almost universal acceptance.23

In the second edition of his biography, however, in what amounts to a very Augustinian retractatio, entitled ‘New Directions’, Peter Brown reflects on his desire, at the time of writing his biography in the early 1960s, to focus on what then seemed a new and exciting way of viewing history: from the inside, from the perspective of the individual and his or her changing thoughts and feelings, rather than simply in terms of ‘events’. He writes, ‘A sense of human movement in a figure usually identified with all that was most rigid and unmoving in Catholic dogma was what my biography strove to convey.’ However, he proceeds to observe that

Such an emphasis on the changes in Augustine's thought and outlook can be challenged. Central elements in Augustine's thought have been shown to be remarkably stable. They seem to bear little trace of discontinuity. Augustine's intellectual life as a (p.17) bishop cannot be said to have been lived out entirely in the shadow of a “Lost Future”, as I had suggested in the chapter of my book which bears that title. In the same manner, the later decades of Augustine's thought on grace, free will and predestination cannot be lightly dismissed as the departure of a tired old man from the views of an earlier, “better” self. As a thinker, Augustine was, perhaps, more a man aus einem Guss, all of a piece, and less riven by fateful discontinuities than I had thought.24

The following book really amounts to an acceptance of Brown's generous invitation to begin to question the interpretation of the development of Augustine's thought which his work has made almost canonical in Augustine scholarship, to see Augustine ‘all of a piece’, and to identify those continuities at which he tantalizingly hints.

The main detractor from Brown's views, and the one whom Brown singles out in a note appended to the quotation we have just cited,25 is Goulven Madec, who has long argued for continuity in Augustine's thought, and for the integrity and full orthodoxy of his Christian faith (measured against his later works), from the very moment of his conversion.26 He was also the first, so far as I am aware, to express disquiet at theories of a dramatic ‘revolution’ in the 390s. In two works from 1996,27 one of which is a revision of lectures he gave twenty‐five years earlier, but which he makes clear he has not needed to change in any substantial detail, he suggests that ‘The Lost Future’ owes more to the frustrations of a biographer who no longer has the rich material of the Confessiones to keep his readers' interest, than to any real revolution in Augustine's own thought. He observes that in studying Romans, as Augustine himself makes clear in the Retractationes, Augustine was forced to admit defeat in his battle to retain the free decision of the human will and to submit instead to the absolute primacy of God's grace (Laboratum est quidem pro libero arbitrio uoluntatis humanae, sed uincit gratia Dei),28 but Madec regards this as no more than an important ‘prise de conscience’, and certainly not an overturning and revolution of his entire doctrine, which had been identifiably Pauline from the very beginning. Rather, he cites Gilson on this subject, writing in 1929: ‘Saint Augustine underwent a psychological evolution; (p.18) there were indeed many variations in detail… But we have never been able to find the least change, philosophically speaking, in any of his major ideas. Saint Augustine's central ideas were fixed from the moment of his conversion, even, we would maintain, so far as grace is concerned, and he never relinquished them once established.’29 Madec supports what we have suggested above in examining the works Augustine composed from 386 to 391—that any differences in subject, style, or language, to the works written after this date should be explained by the dramatic changes in his circumstances and audiences during this time, and the demands they laid upon him, rather than to any great upheaval in this theology.30

Is ‘The Lost Future’ then an accurate portrayal of the development of Augustine's theology? Are there, in fact, two very different Augustines: the Augustine of the early works and the Augustine of the Ad Simplicianum and the Confessiones? It is the thesis of this book that they are one and the same person. Only a careful reading of the early works themselves, the circumstances in which they were written, and the needs they were addressing, will substantiate this.

In Part One of this book we will therefore attempt to lay to rest the debate which, like a many‐headed Hydra, has plagued Augustinian scholarship for over a century, and despite valiant attempts to kill off many of its manifestations, has refused to go away. Although the claim that Augustine was converted to Neoplatonism rather than Christianity has been well and truly dispatched, it has effectively returned in the more multifaceted claims of those who persist in identifying two very different Augustines: on the one hand, the Augustine of the early works, the young devotee of Christian philosophy, naive, optimistic, confident of the power of reason to grasp the truth, and of the powers of the will to attain perfection in this life; on the other, the Augustine of 396, the mature, devout clergyman, whose only certainty is an acute awareness of the Fall, original sin, and humanity's complete dependence upon divine grace to know, will, or do the good.

In the following chapter we will argue that Augustine's conversion in 386 is not a radically different conversion from the one he recounts in Confessiones 8, and that if one is to speak of a ‘revolution’ in his thought it is not to be found in his reading of Paul in the 390s, but in his reading of the Platonists and the discovery of God's transcendence which freed him from the materialistic philosophies which had hitherto made it impossible for him to embrace the Christian faith to which he had always sought to be reconciled. In Chs. 3 and 4 we will demonstrate that this ‘revolution’ led to two seemingly antithetical emphases in his earliest works: a philosophical emphasis on the (p.19) immutable, eternal, incorruptible God who must be sought by moving away from bodily, temporal, mutable reality, on the one hand, and on the other, a thoroughly Christian emphasis on the Creator God who has drawn human beings from nothing and upon their absolute contingency upon him. We will argue that Augustine's early thought can only be rightly understood when it is seen within the creative tension set up by these two apparently polarized ideas, and that it is here that his characteristic theology of a transcendent Creator and of fallen humanity's complete and absolute dependence upon him emerges. We will demonstrate that what has been described as Augustine's early ‘Christian philosophy’ was never less than fully integrated into his faith in a Trinitarian God, who forms human beings from nothing, reforms them through the incarnation, and inspires in them love and delight through the Holy Spirit: that he never shared the classical ideal of human autonomy and self‐determination to attain perfection, but that he was always acutely conscious of human beings' created dependence upon God's grace.

It is against this background that we will argue in Ch. 5 that Augustine's attempts at interpreting Paul, and especially Romans, in the mid‐390s, culminating in the Ad Simplicianum, must not be read as representing a dramatic break with earlier ideas of human autonomy and the ability of the will freely to choose the good without divine help, but as affirming what he had always held: fallen humanity's complete and utter dependence upon God's grace to know, will, and do the good.

Part Two will take each of the specific emphases of Augustine's theology, which scholars have identified as emerging in a mature synthesis only in 396, in the Ad Simplicianum—the Fall and original sin (Ch. 6), the inability of the will to do the good without divine aid (Ch. 7), and the necessity for divine grace to move the will (Ch. 8)—and will attempt to demonstrate that they are all characteristic features of his earliest theology: that Augustine the convert at Cassiciacum in 386 is not a radically different, alien figure to Augustine the bishop, who sat down to write the Confessiones in 396, but one and the same.


(1) See ACW 12. 19–23; BA 13. 55–84; Kevane 1964: 347–60; and especially Madec 1994: 51–69, for a good concise summary and discussion of the history of this debate.

(2) Courcelle 1968: 188–202. Courcelle is supported by Ferrari who has argued in a series of works (1980, 1982, 1984) that, since the central text of Augustine's conversion account in conf. 8. 12. 29–30—Rom. 13: 13—is not cited or alluded to in any earlier works, and Augustine begins to concentrate on Paul's conversion only in the period he wrote the Confessiones, the account is likely to be largely fictional. See Ferrari 1982: 154 n. 13 for further bibliography on this question, though beware his arbitrary rearrangement of chronology to suit his argument. Cf. BA 13. 55–84; 14. 546–9; Fredriksen 1988: 102–3; O'Donnell 1992: iii. 59–69; Delaroche 1996: 89–90.

(3) conf. 9. 2. 4.

(4) Ibid. quoting Ps. 45: 11.

(5) De Plinval 1950: 308, 311, comments on Augustine's use of this classical form, ‘With Saint Augustine the traditional classical dialogue genre came close to rediscovering the native qualities of spontaneity, versatility and aesthetic value with which it had been originally endowed by Plato…Augustine's dialogues are the swansong of a genre which, throughout the whole of classical literature, was the mode of expression par excellence for erudite literary or philosophical doctrines.’ Cf. Hoffmann 1966 who concurs with this judgement; Conybeare 2005b, part one, who suggests that Augustine exploits the open‐ended, flexible, theatrical nature of the dialogue genre—hovering between fiction and reality—as a vehicle to express uncertainty and indeterminacy, and most especially his own—still ‘liminal’—state at Cassiciacum.

(6) The influence of Cicero on the Cassiciacum dialogues has been somewhat overlooked and eclipsed by the question of the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine's thought at this time. It is not, however, inconsiderable: Cicero has a significant impact not only on the literary form of the dialogues but also on their philosophical content—see Foley 1999.

(7) The evidence for this is uncertain and has been one of the main features in the debate against the historicity of the dialogues. We must remember, however, that such a procedure was commonplace and was regularly used by public speakers or preachers who employed secretaries or amanuenses for the purpose.

(8) See ACW 12. 23–33; Madec 1996; O'Donnell 1992: iii. 86–7; Conybeare 2005, part one, for the debated question of the historicity of the dialogues.

(9) Solignac 1958, for possible sources beyond Neoplatonism, esp. Nichomachus of Gerasa.

(10) Cooper 1996.

(11) See Marrou 1949; 1955; Kaster 1988; C. Harrison 2000: 46–78.

(12) On the text, date, chronology, historicity, literary background, and questions raised by these works see Doignon 1989; Matthews 1980: 40–1; McWilliam 1990; O'Daly, Lexicon I (1992), 771–81; introductions and notes to the BA editions.

(13) conf. 9. 6. 14.

(14) De dialectica, which was rediscovered last century, is also now thought to date from this period.

(15) See ep. 101 to Memorius, where Augustine observes in relation to mus. that he intended to write another six books on melody, but that the burden of church duties made this impossible. Note that he does not say that it was because of a change of interest at this stage.

(16) One of the more interesting suggestions is that of R. Lane Fox, who likened them (in conversation) to the work of a scholar who suddenly learns he is to become dean of a faculty; they are a last, desperate, and eloquent swansong of feeling and scholarship before the duties of administration take over completely.

(17) O'Donnell 1999: 215.

(18) Brown 1967: 147–8.

(19) Ibid. 147.

(20) Ibid. 151–2

(21) O'Connell (1994) refers to it as ‘one of those nettling problems in Augustinian scholarship which never seem to go away’. Cf. Cooper (1996). (I am grateful to David Hunter for bringing this article to my attention.)

(22) Brown 1967: 148.

(23) For examples of how it has been adopted see Flasch (1980) who makes the Ad Simplicianum the watershed between Augustine's early and later thought, so that the former is simply written off as ‘early’. More recently see Lettieri (2001) who argues that the early Augustine (pre‐Simplicianus) is a different, alien Augustine (The L'altro Agostino of the title) to the mature, later bishop. Cf. Ferrari (e.g.1984) who, as we have already seen, argues that the conversion account of conf. 8 is a literary fiction modelled on Paul's conversion and that its absence in the early works is an indication of how different Augustine's early theological understanding was from that found in conf. Fredriksen (1986) rehearses a similar argument and sees Augustine's early theology as a ‘progress in philosophy’ rather than one based on the Fall and grace.

(24) Brown 1967 (new edn. 2000): 490.

(25) Ibid. 516 n. 40, writes: ‘Madec, La Patrie et la Voie, esp. pp.18–19, is a cogent statement of a view different from my own.’

(26) The work of Nello Cipriani, which we will often have occasion to cite, should also be mentioned in this context. And odd though it seems to place O'Connell and Madec in the same context, the article of the former just cited (1994) does offer a short but pregnant argument for elucidating the Christian elements of the early works by ‘de‐coding’ Augustine's philosophical language and classical references to reveal a secure grasp of the Christian faith. It is to be regretted that he was not able to pursue the insights he sets forth here.

(27) Madec 1994: 85–9; 1996a: 69–70; 1996b: 137–46.

(28) retr. 2. 27. 1. ‘I, indeed, laboured on behalf of the free choice of the human will; but the grace of God conquered.’ See Ch. 7 below on the will.

(29) Gilson 1929: 310–11 cited in Madec 1996: 69–70.

(30) Ibid. 70.