Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.27


This note concludes the e-sendings from BMCR 3.3. There will be a discreet pause while Professor Hamilton goes walking in Scotland and Professor O'Donnell retires to his summer place, a discreet hilltop mansion surrounded by spreading lawns, to lead an NEH seminar for school teachers on Augustine's City of God. We may both be incommunicado (not to mention hors de combat) for a while therefore.

City of God sets me thinking about how we become scholars and what rivers run through our lives, all but invisible to colleagues and students. The circumstances by which I came to spend the fall of 1969 reading substantial excerpts in translation of City of God are convoluted and fraught with coincidence: it could easily not have happened. But it did, and somehow or other that became the book and the experience that defined everything that has happened since. Book 19 of City of God, with his rhapsody on the theme of 'peace', made powerful reading in the time of moratoria and marches on Washington that would culminate a few months later in the paroxysm of reaction to the Cambodian invasion; but that topicality alone cannot explain the power the work had over me. What uncanny resonance could the translated Ciceronian rhythms and Christian doctrines find in a perspiring 19-year old from west Texas who was only just discovering that Latin was a language that could be read and not a code to be disencrypted?

It's not that it was odd that I should like the book -- we all like many books; but what explains why and how this book hit the home run when many others equally famous, equally influential, equally (on average) powerful, had to settle for scratch singles and meek grounders to short? Augustine would say elsewhere 'factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio', and it is one of his most 'modern' and accessible thoughts: questions like that never quite get answered.

The book has lived on with me, through ups and downs. Oddly enough, I've hardly ever taught the text, and I never wrote the book I thought I might write (instead a short chapter in a general reader's book about Augustine, an unpublished general article, and two or three articles I wrote thinking they were preliminary to s omething larger), and eventually the biennial rereading of the whole Latin text gave way to other Augustinian obsessions. Now I come back to spend six weeks with the work with an eery sense of recognition and at the same time a profound sense of the truth about the old one about stepping in the same river twice. I'm curious to see what it will do to me this time, but almost more curious to know what it might do to me in another twenty years time.

I've heard of this sort of benign demonic possession happening to people who read Euripides or Plato or even Propertius, but City of God does not usually have this effect on people. But most readers of this note will know what I mean: it's the book that you read when young that somehow sweeps you up out of your provincial upbringing and convinces you that in the study of stuff like thisthere is a whole world of meaning and adventure. The Irishman Stephen MacKenna1 started as a bank clerk who translated the Imitation of Christ by night, became a dashing foreign correspondent who dabbled in Marcus Aurelius on the side, and then bought Plotinus in St. Petersburg while he was there covering the 1905 revolution. Three years later he decided that translating Plotinus into English was 'really worth a life', and spent the next twenty years driving himself into the grave: 'I doubt if there are agonies', Dodds in the foreword to the translation quotes him as saying, 'this side crime or perhaps cancer, more cruel than that of literary and intellectual effort that will not work out to achievement.' It would be hard in cold prose to defend that kind of self-sacrifice, but you feel the integrity and the necessity of it in the gut, and feel lucky to have gotten off so easily in comparison.

JO'D 28 June 1992


  • [1] E.R. Dodds was a friend and patron of MacKenna and looked after his translation of Plotinus after MacKenna's death and also published a volume of M.'s Journal and Letters. See also Dodds' poignant memoir, Missing Persons. Though there is a better translation now (by A.H. Armstrong in the Loeb Library), MacKenna's remains oddly irresistible, the work not of a scholar but of a devout believer; an abridgement has just been published by Penguin, with an introduction by John Dillon.