My last bit of summer reading involved a book I should have tackled years ago, but which somehow slipped through the cracks of my doctoral studies. Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is a classic source for studying one of the leading theologians in the history of the Church. It was high time I read it.
Now over 45 years since it was first published, the monograph still packs a punch and clearly represents both dedicated research and reflection. I feel–as I should–that I now understand and appreciate St. Augustine (354-430) in a new way. Amongst some of the things I learned are:
- Augustine in his earlier years lived in a more Christian environment–familial and otherwise–than I had realized. Because his conversion as an adult had come to occupy such an important place in my mind, I think I denigrated the ways in which his life had been connected to the Faith beforehand.
- The central place in Augustine’s earlier life of the Late Antique model of philosopher and rhetorician. I suppose I should have expected at least some of this, but to read it as Brown describes truly helped round out a picture of the man who would become on one of the most influential theologians of all time.
- The role of friendship in Augustine’s life. As Brown writes, “Augustine needed the constant response and reassurance of a circle of friends; both to know that he was loved, and to know that there was someone worth loving” (195).
- While I had previously been acquainted with Augustine the major figure in Christian history via his influence over all of the Western Church, Brown’s work helped me appreciate more about the locality of his ministry–both when it came to the larger issues of North African Christianity and the pastoral work in which he engaged at his post in Hippo Regius.
Brown’s work, while an important one, would nevertheless be a moderately challenging read for those without some background of Church history. It is therefore not recommended as a first plunge into the story of Augustine for the uninitiated. At times it feels that too much may be assumed and which unfamiliar readers will need to be prepared before approaching the work.
As Brown covers the life and especially the thought of Augustine, he tends not to do as much with the cultural/social/political background of the times as I would like. While these things (especially intellectual culture) are not absent from the text, I felt that Brown could have moved slower through his work to help us live in Augustine’s own historical space/context for more time. So too the story of Augustine’s life could be filled out, as there seemed to be lacunae of sorts in Brown’s descriptions. Though I suspect this is because of the paucity of information available on all aspects of the bishop’s life, it nevertheless begs (in my mind) more comment and perhaps educated narrative conjecture.
It may be, of course, that I’m simply asking too much of Brown. I’d be wise to remember that the interests of 21st century historiography were likely not those of the mid-1960s, and that the scholarly consensus of Brown as a top scholar is not one that should easily be questioned. Thanks to him I now know more about Augustine than I ever have, and in that partial knowledge he has encouraged me to go beyond his work and learn more. That alone shows the value of the book for this historian and inheritor of Augustine’s teaching.