Page 6, 18th April 1986

18th April 1986
Page 6
Page 6, 18th April 1986 — The struggle with hedonism

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The struggle with hedonism

Augustine by Henry Chadwick (OUP, hardback, £9.95, paperback, £2.95).

IT is not difficult to understand why Augustine of Hippo has made, and still makes, so indelible an impression upon modern Christians. Born in North Africa in 354 of a Christian mother and a pagan father, Augustine spanned the cultures of Africa and Europe; he was a Christian whose inherent paganism distilled within him a unique blend of spirituality; he was a pleasure seeker, familiar with the fleshpots of life, who surrendered all for the shattering Beatific Vision.

It is also worth remembering that he became an ascetic whose spiritual thought called into analysis, in De Civitate Dei, the current political doctrines of his time; he was a Manichaean for a decade who then turned and challenged the Manichees, an exemplar of the struggle between hedonism and the persuasion of Christ. Indeed, he was a great father of the Church and, through his humanity, a saint for any age.

Professor Henry Chadwick sets out lucidly Augustine's pivotal position in the synthesis between Christianity and classical theism stemming from Aristotle and Plato. He makes no bones about Augustine's difficulty with the problem of chastity but describes cogently and with sympathy how the African pagan used continence as a bridge to the acceptance of Christianity. Unfairly, perhaps, Augustine has been given a reputation for anti-feminism (in truth a cardinal sin in our present age) but, as the author demonstrates, this great father of the Church maintained that men and women are differentiated in body, not in soul, nor in powers of the mind; he considered them absolutely equal in conjugal rights. Rare thinking for the Carthaginian shore in the fourth century.

The eternal freshness of Augustine derives in great part from his refusal to sidle round problems; he faced head-on the mystery of the Trinity, a fair hurdle for the early Church, considering it as a triad of being, knowing and willing. Professor Chadwick rightly stresses Augustine's rejection of violence, a matter of relevance to both medieval and modern Church history, a remarkable attitude in the context of the strongly apocalyptic nature of North African Christian beliefs.

In a message especially for our time of frenetic western materialism, Professor Chadwick presents the simple expostulation of Augustine to his own community: "We have on earth no continuing city; we. should therefore travel very light." Augustine was indeed convinced that this world was God's world and, because of this, power, honour, wealth and sex could never replace the primary values, nor open a road to happiness either for individuals or for society. This book is stimulating and valuable.

Thomas Moloney

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