BMCR 2003.11.25

Augustine and His Critics. Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner. Paperback reprint of the first edition of 2000

, , , Augustine and his critics : essays in honour of Gerald Bonner. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. xiii, 273 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0415200628 $27.95.

Collections of papers in honour of a renowned scholar have gradually become an almost commonplace form of publishing scholarly work. This widespread custom is also a fearsome rival of the regular journals and reviews, as any editor of these time-honoured periodicals will by now have found out. Consolation can be derived from the fact that not all of these collections reach the same status as a scholarly review, but, on the other hand, not a few enjoy a well-deserved fame, some of their individual contributions being often referred to or indeed quoted from. Generally speaking, however, Festschriften are seldom reprinted. It is therefore remarkable that this one honouring, Gerald Bonner, has been reprinted as a paperback edition.

Of course, the honorand had fully deserved being the addressee of important essays on Augustine. Many have benefited from his scholarly devotion to such studies, and it is only to be welcomed that the editors of his Festschrift chose a truly interesting theme. Throughout the ages Augustine’s writings have been studied with great attention and commitment, often even with admiration. Yet, he has also come in for considerable criticism, from antiquity onwards. The contributors of the volume under review have undertaken “to examine the arguments of certain strident, present-day critics of Augustine” and to respond to these arguments, without trying “to ‘whitewash’ his controversial positions.”

A short biographical sketch of Gerald Bonner and his bibliography precede the articles, twelve in number, which will not surprise readers who are familiar with biblical traditions. Generally speaking, the subjects treated are of a philosophical or theological nature. Philology and history are not entirely absent, but they play second fiddle. The collection is first and foremost concerned with ideas, far less with the everyday reality and the practical and pastoral problems which the bishop of Hippo had to cope with. This choice is understandable and indeed commendable in view of the editors’ programmatic objectives. In a mere seventeen pages (18-34) Drobner presents an “overview of recent research”, which will confirm many readers’ intuition that a large proportion of Augustine’s oeuvre draws only limited attention. In the final pages of this useful survey the author tries to define the characteristics of the various research traditions which make themselves felt in the publications in the five languages mostly used in Augustinian studies: French, German, Italian, English and Spanish. It is absolutely indispensable that these traditions do not shut themselves off from one another and that scholars are aware of the “number of strengths to be shared reciprocally across cultural boundaries.”

Horace’s fears that brevity tends to develop into obscurity ( Ars Poetica 25-26) are belied by Crouse’s contribution on Augustine’s Platonism (37-50). In only seven pages — the other half of the article is allotted to invaluable bibliographic notes — the reader is fully informed about Augustine’s place within the general relationship of Christianity and Platonism. The “anti-Hellenic historians of doctrine” receive due attention as do those who detect inconsistencies and contradictions in Augustine’s thought. Crouse concludes that much remains to be researched in this entire domain. Ayres (51-76) interprets Augustine’s trinitarian theology as a specimen of what he “thought were the most fundamental rules for speech about God, if we are to speak appropriately and run as little risk of speaking unworthily as possible.” We can talk about God in terms of ‘essence’ or ‘substance’, but also by focusing on intertrinitary relationships, which are “essential to being God.” This inspires Ayres to develop a “grammar of simplicity”, which can articulate “a reasoned presentation of the fundamental principles of trinitarian faith.” Language cannot describe the Trinity satisfactorily; it should rather be regarded as a “tool for articulating the basic statements of trinitary belief.” True enough: belief comes first, reflection follows. Milbank (77-102) approaches the same subject from an angle which may surprise many a reader: the threefold social system in the various forms of Indo-European culture as analysed by the French historian and sociologist Dumézil (1898-1986), in whose view this order reflects fundamental structures in nature itself. In spite of many objections Dumézil’s system has also been defended by references to Gallo-Celtic society (Druids, warriors, farmers) and the well-known medieval pattern of the three estates (clerical, military, agricultural) on the one hand and Plato’s exercises in the Politeia on the other. Milbank aims to show how Augustine’s theology of the Trinity breaks through Dumézil’s threefold partition with entirely novel constructions.

Augustine’s well-known Neoplatonic view of evil ( amissio boni in De civitate Dei 11.9) is a central tenet in his philosophy and theology. Rowan Williams, now the archbishop of Canterbury, deals with critical judgments of this concept (105-123). The negative definition of evil is not a stratagem to downplay its destructive potential, which makes itself felt in a sometimes appalling misreading of creation. Evil can descend to terrible depths, but Augustine refuses to allow evil a place of its own and he defends “the integrity of personal agency from a mythological conception of something outside that agency displacing the person’s own responsibility.” This can also be expressed from a different angle: “there is no incarnation of evil.” There is, however, a transcendental standard for creaturely good, even if this cannot be met completely and purely, as the Donatists and the Pelagianists thought. Here we enter the minefield of free will in relation to predestination. This subject is obligatory on the agenda of Augustinian studies, the more so since the honorand regards the doctrine of predestination as untenable. Yet, as Wetzel rightly notes in his contribution (124-141), without this doctrine “there is no Augustinian theology of grace.” Wetzel does not deny the ‘dark’ aspects of Augustine’s thoughts, but he also shows how sin is a force that destroys the human soul, making it lose “the substance of divine love” and causing it to wander into, and even become, the regio egestatis of Confessiones 2.10.18. God’s love, however, precludes its ultimate destruction. This is not a humiliating experience that enslaves the free will, for “God is not a supreme person among other lesser persons, but a wholly other kind of reality.”

Lawless deals with asceticism (142-163). He pays ample attention to the “moderate tenor of north African asceticism” and the “Greco-Roman ethical heritage” as the framework of Augustine’s ideas, whose personal stamp consists in the firm decision “to eschew elitism and self-sufficiency”, which brings out the need of typically Christian humility as the contrast of pride, a basic condition for true ascetic ideals. In spite of his traditional conviction that “women were meant, by the order of creation, to be subordinate to men”, women played a significant part in Augustine’s life. His mother and his concubine testify to this, as do a number of female correspondents in the collection of his letters. Moreover, women saints had shown they could behave viriliter. In fact, such a concession stresses the traditional hierarchy of the sexes, and feminist scholars blame Augustine’s hidden misogyny. Matter (164-175) provides an instructive overview and finally expresses her sympathy for Kim Power’s relevant study of 1996, in which “the relegation of women to the private sphere” is seen as keeping them in “state that is in itself inherently sinful.” Here Augustine’s view of sexuality comes in, and Lamberigts surveys the misunderstandings and the misinformation in this field (176-192). He argues that concupiscentia carnis does not simply refer to “sexuality in se“, but to the sinful desire of the disordered soul. This is not to deny the negative evaluation of sexuality outside legal marriage for the purpose of procreation. However, Augustine never deviated from the conviction that marriage is a God-willed institution, and, as to sexuality as such, Lamberigts brings out the fundamental difference between Augustine on the one hand and Ambrose and Jerome on the other. For the latter two Church Fathers it was unthinkable that sexuality belonged to the original essence of man. The older Augustine came to a diametrically opposed conclusion.

The so-called tempora Christiana are the subject of a brief but instructive essay by Markus (201-213), who replies to Madec’s critical judgment of the second chapter of his Saeculum (Cambridge 1970, 1988 2). Markus argues that the sermons in the Mainz collection show that between 400 and 405 Augustine was quite near a triumphalistic Christian euphoria. This was to change drastically afterwards: the Theodosian age was then no longer a firm closure in the story of Christianity, and Augustine developed a “radical agnosticism about God’s purpose in human history.” Christianity was engaged in a protracted struggle with an unconverted world. Rhetoric is the subject of Carol Harrison’s chapter (214-230), in which book 4 of De doctrina Christiana plays a prime part. An important principle is the subordination of eloquence to truth. This involves a problematic role for the traditional orator’s task of delectare, which as such cannot claim the same status as docere or probare. Such a problem does not exist for movere, the third of the orator’s tasks. This is needed to make people act as they should according to the preacher’s teaching of the truth. Harrison rightly draws attention to Augustine’s christianized form of “literary aesthetic”, although it is perhaps not felicitous to picture delight “as an end in itself” in classical rhetorical theory and practice. Persuasion always remained the ultimate goal. The final essay (231-259), written by Dodaro, deals with what can be best defined as “political culture”. Augustine’s correspondence with Nectarius ( epp. 90, 91, 103 and 104, to be dated in 408-409) looms large in these pages. These letters are an instructive example of the “debate over philosophical and religious sources for civic virtue.” As might be expected, Augustine manifests himself as a radical reformer of Roman ideals of self-perfection. Over against this the recognition of sin should prevail and in its wake the removal of autonomy. Social reconciliation can only be reached along that road.

When the reader is working through this Festschrift, he will gradually understand why it was published a second time. It functions as a handbook on crucial themes and aspects of Augustine’s thought which, time and again, have inspired critical reflection and even rejection of a number of ideas and their consequences. The various authors of this collection have done justice both to the critics and to the bishop of Hippo. Gerald Bonner can be congratulated on such a token of honour.