BMCR 2014.04.02

Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography

, Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xix, 312. ISBN 9780199861590. $29.95.


It was another biography of Augustine of Hippo, published by Peter Brown in 1967, that initiated the now vigorous field of late antiquity. An era previously denigrated in historical literature, the genius of this period was rendered intelligible to historians and philosophers alike by Brown’s magisterial treatment of Augustine. Miles Hollingworth’s account similarly seeks to magnify the mind of late antiquity’s most famous bishop and to demonstrate the fundamental but often unregistered level at which his thought continues to function in the Western world.

Relying primarily on Augustine’s Confessions in order to unearth how the experiences of the young Augustine shaped the theology of the older clergyman, Hollingworth interweaves Augustine’s theological insights with his personal plights in a lively and lyrical manner. In eleven chapters, Hollingworth covers diverse themes in Augustine’s life under headings such as “Augustine’s remarks on his parents” (chapter 3),“Manichaeism” (chapter 7), and “On the singular deportment of death, love, and grief” (chapter 8). Hollingworth’s biography exercises the reader’s historical, philosophical, psychological, and psychoanalytic imagination – it is at turns invigorating, perplexing, and infuriating.

While Brown turned to Augustine to open a window onto an overlooked era, Hollingworth uses Augustine in order to subvert the post-Enlightenment intellectual self-satisfaction of the West. He sets out to uncover roots—the “strange roots” of the European mind—in Africa, that is, in Augustine (184). But in Hollingworth’s subversive aim, we find more of the perplexing and infuriating than the invigorating or the imaginative. In a particularly challenging passage, Hollingworth tells us that “the Freudian slips of Augustine always take us to the African beneath the European” (222). The reader is not given an example of Augustine’s Freudian slips, but there is ample discussion throughout of what Hollingworth has in mind when he refers to “the African beneath the European.” These two signifiers serve as the dual foci around which Hollingworth’s intellectual biography orbits.

Though he seeks to dismantle the assumption that Augustine is a quintessentially European thinker, Hollingworth’s project is conducted according to the binary opposition of “European”/”Western” and “African” (x, xix, 2-4, 6, 10, 31, 51-2, 54, 82, 101, 106, 123, 184, 199, 203, 207, 223). “European” indicates theoretical, universal, and the intellectual, while “African” stands in for flesh and blood, particularity, and the sensual (see 2-4, 184, 210). The influence of Islam on later reception of Augustine’s thought does not figure into his narration of how Augustine, despite himself, came to be categorized as “European”. Hollingworth’s blindness to Islam and the Arab and Jewish intellectual traditions that flourished in the centuries following Augustine’s death accounts for his references to the “Dark Ages” (ix, 5, 33).

Hollingworth opens with a chapter called “Out of Africa” in which he explains the central concerns of Augustine’s theology according to his Africanness. Identifying Africa as “the cradle of man…[who] is flesh and blood” (2), Hollingworth claims that “Augustine is the African thinker who reacquaints the West with this aspect of itself, lost to the flameproof absolutes of theoretical knowledge.” Augustine’s Africanness lies behind Hollingworth’s claim that “it is the sensual meta-narrative of all humanity in Adam and Eve that interests him most” (3). In a footnote to the previous sentence, Hollingworth comments: “Like it did another African thinker, closer to our time – James Baldwin, writing in 1960s America” (261n4). Hollingworth then quotes at length from Baldwin’s discussion of the word “sensual” in the essay “The Fire Next Time”. Baldwin is, however, a distinctively American writer whose novels and plays depict gay black men’s struggle for social acceptance as Americans. To categorize Baldwin as “African” on account of an insightful passage regarding the word “sensual” is appalling. It is inexcusable that neither the author nor the editor of the volume corrected this racialized misidentification.

Such associations are not relegated to the footnotes. In order to expound on one of Augustine’s views, Hollingworth comments that it is “rather neat that it is from a fellow Algerian, Frantz Fanon…that we get one of the most unsentimental descriptions of the modern form of this irony” (183-4). Taking a phrase from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Hollingworth suggests that Augustine and Fanon are looking at the “same ‘strange roots’” of the “European spirit” – that is, “words, different combinations of words, and the tensions springing from the meanings contained in words” (184).1 Hollingworth’s rendition of Augustine touches one end of a fabricated timeline to another, asking his readers to overlook the folds and creases between.

Hollingworth also refers in passing to Tertullian, Cyprian, and Lactantius as early Christian African theologians (2, 52); he further mentions the second-century Apuleius as “the great African writer” (89) and turns to him for a characterization of Carthage (111). The Donatists are included as a movement that Augustine will “have to face down” (41), recipients of some of Augustine’s letters (50, 114), those “preoccup[ied] with purity” (60), and a heresy “whose terrorism and violence encouraged the return of coercion and all the questions of Christian conduct that that brought” (299n80). Yet, he neglects to provide a compelling case for his characterization of what it might mean to be “African” in the fourth and fifth centuries CE by showing, for example, shared, distinctive features among the Roman North African thinkers he names. He seems instead to impute his own notions of “Africanness” onto Augustine as well as authors of our own time with whom he wants to associate Augustine. For instance, Hollingworth writes: “Augustine’s ‘African’ way is to assume that single human lives are themselves the proper frameworks of God’s surprising music” (210).

In considering Augustine’s parentage, Hollingworth discusses Augustine’s ethnicity: “Scholars mostly agree that Augustine and his family were of indigenous African stock – Berber – though very much Romanized and speaking only Latin at home as a matter of some pride and dignity” (51-2). Finding the word “stock” used in reference to Augustine’s ethnicity is a disturbing reminder of a time when ethnic classification functioned like breed classification; it should not appear in a recently published text and further indicates editorial negligence. The scholarship on which Hollingworth relies, though, was published four decades ago and more. The studies of Henri I. Marrou, Vernon J. Bourke, and Gilbert Charles-Picard are concerned with Augustine’s lineage and location within Roman North African society – not with extrapolating characteristics from his ethnicity as hermeneutical devices for reading his theology and interpreting his influence. It is worth noting that Hollingworth’s thoroughgoing insistence on Augustine’s African identity seems to be an attempt to correct claims that, though Augustine’s mother and son had Berber names (Monnica and Adeodatus), “he came into the world as a Roman citizen and that is what he remained. He belongs to the West European cultural sphere [ sic ].”2 Hollingworth does not, however, situate his volume in relation to such literature.

In his second chapter, entitled “Augustine’s intellectual milieu”, Hollingworth says “we are looking to fit Augustine into the general human spirit of enquiry as it came down to him” (15). The chapter presents this “general human spirit of enquiry” in four subheadings: 1) first philosophers, 2) the effect of Socrates, 3) Plato and Platonism, and 4) Stoicism and the idea of a universal natural order. The “first philosophers” (i.e., pre-Socratics) are somewhat confusingly expounded through quotes from the twentieth-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell (16), the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (16), and the twentieth-century Irish aeronautical engineer J. W. Dunne (17). Plato and Platonism are understood with the assistance of the nineteenth-century Irish historian and political theorist W. E. H. Lecky (24) and late nineteenth/early twentieth-century German theologian Ernst Troeltsch (26). The result is claims such as this: “We have established that the sentiment of the Platonist philosopher who would not only apprehend wisdom but actually apply it to do good in the world is for something static and inflexible” [ sic ] (26). Stoicism and Epicureanism are expounded with the aid of Gilbert Murray (29), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1908 to 1936, and St Paul (31-32). As a historian of ideas, Hollingworth demonstrates the enormous range of his intellectual scope. Hollingworth’s exegesis could be improved with an account of any of these philosophers as Augustine was trained to understand them.

Most noticeably absent from Hollingworth’s account of Augustine’s “intellectual” milieu are the “African” thinkers, particularly Apuleius, whom Hollingworth has previously identified and to whom Augustine refers frequently (e.g., City of God, sermons). Perhaps Hollingworth does not bring them into the picture in light of what he says near the end of this chapter: “We have been explaining Augustine’s intellectual milieu as the story of Western philosophy and science. Of its analytical sensibility. [ sic ] It had in the end to make a rapprochement with Christianity; but we have shown that it only had to do this after social and political realisms had gone ahead of it to carve the ‘God-shaped hole’” (33). It is difficult to ascertain in what voice Hollingworth is writing. At times, he seems to believe in Augustine’s God and, quite against the grain of Augustine’s own thought, seems to be writing a triumphalistic narrative of the dominance that God achieved over the “European mind” through Augustine’s writings (2).

Yet when he comes in chapter 10 to identify “Augustinianism”, he seeks to do so by extrapolating major themes from Augustine’s writings rather than tracing appropriations of Augustine by later thinkers in order to demonstrate his reception. In his book Descartes and Augustine, Stephen Menn writes: “the history of Augustinianism is the history of the many revivals of Augustine by different thinkers, who have each discovered some new aspect of Augustine’s thought, and seen in it a way to answer the philosophical or theological challenges of their own times.”3 Hollingworth’s idiosyncratic use of the term results in infelicitous personifications: “Augustinianism says you cannot first write and then after that have ideas” (222) and “by animating all writing in this way and leaving ink for what it is, Augustinianism says finally (and most precociously of all) that there is no originality that is humanly possible” (225).

The style is simultaneously conversational and grandiloquent. The latter fits the scope of Hollingworth’s thesis. The former gives the reader the sense that she is at a pub, enjoying a few pints while energetically discussing controversial interpretations of Augustine and his legacy. It also results in sentence fragments throughout that, in their frequency, become tedious on the page (e.g., “But we have just seen how old Augustine had grown already in his awareness and analysis of his own ontogenesis. Older even than many of his professors” (136)). At times, circuitous syntax and unexpected metaphors obscure central ideas (e.g., “Understanding becomes the pen that is writing the book it is reading in ever more inanimate inks of the summaries of its ideas” (233)). Some turns of phrase seem to be typos (e.g., “everything that is real is possible of doing this to us” (p. 71); “pride contributes [to?] the myopia” (111)). Other typos, although prevalent, are minor.

At the outset Hollingworth provides a five-page “Chronology of the main events in Augustine’s life covered in this book”, which includes engaging details such as “seasoned with salt as he leaves the womb” (xv) and “under a tree, Augustine steps across to God” (xvii). It orients the reader to the central events discussed in the volume and also reflects Hollingworth’s reliance on Confessiones (rather than letters and sermons) as the guide to Augustine’s life. Footnotes would have been far preferable to endnotes, as Hollingworth draws on an expanse of literature in his engagement with Augustine and frequently quotes at length from Augustine’s writings without indicating in the main text which work he is quoting. The Notes would have been more navigable had the page ranges been indicated in the header. Though a chart of abbreviations of Augustine’s writings is provided before the Notes, there is not a Works Cited section. The index seeks to offset this omission by including entries on various writers who are quoted, such as Sigmund Freud, Michel de Montaigne, Karl Popper, and Victor Serge; there is even an entry for “ Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine ”, which Hollingworth mentions by title on page 82. Subjects such as “kudos”, “original sin” and “religion” are also included; separate indices would have been fitting.

The subtitle indicates that this is “An Intellectual Biography”, yet it functions as such not in regard to Augustine but to “the European mind” (2, 4, 24, 29, 31, 207, 223) – for which Augustine is, in one of Hollingworth’s unexpected metaphors, the Higgs Boson (203). As with the Higgs Boson, what preceded Augustine is not clear. As a result, this volume will likely frustrate historians and classicists; philosophers and theologians may appreciate Hollingworth’s synthesis of Augustine’s ideas but the repeated, uncontextualized insistence on Augustine’s Africanness calls into question the reliability of Hollingworth’s re-presentation.


1. Quote from Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 253.

2. Johannes van Oort, Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine’s City of God and the Sources of His Doctrine of the Two Cities (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 19.

3. Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ix. Eric Gregory aligns himself with Menn’s insight, and states that his book, Politics and the Order of Love, turns to Augustine in “an effort to find ‘a way out’ of the impasse of my contemporaries.” Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 8.