By Professor OWEN CHADWICK,
Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown (Faber 70s.).
THIS life of St. Augustine will take its place as the best biography yet written. Not that we have lacked numerous attempts before. Some of those attempts have been good. But much has been done in recent years, and the consequences of this new scholarship cried out for a general verdict. Moreover there are extraordinary difficulties in the way of writing a life of St. Augustine. It is notorious that good men are the hardest to portray successfully. And this good man did the work himself. In the Confessions he described the course of his mind and heart until he became a Christian, with a sensitive moral insight and a beauty of language which raised the book to the first rank of literature, whether Christian or non-Christian; and placed it among a very select group of Christian writings outside the New Testament, like The Imitation of Christ." Any biographer of this early and crucial phase of Augustine's life is bound to feel that he can only do worse what Augustine has done better. Mr. Brown has experienced this feeling. When he comes to the great occasions, to the 'moment' of conversion, or to that tremendous experience of God known as the Vision of Ostia, he withdraws himself, and leaves it to Augustine. There is another difficulty in the enterprise. There are two Augustines. There is a young man, struggling for truth, hesi tant, introspective. dabbling in heresies, seeking to understand. And there is a mature bishop, delivering authority from his cathedra, willing to persecute Donatists, preaching a stern theology, apparently confident, occasionally superstitious. sometimes dry. Unless we are careful we get one Augustine before 400 A.D. and another Augustine after.
Mr. Brown's book is the first successful attempt to show the continuity and the authentic development of the man. He has attained to the true stature of his subject. Though he can often be critical, and calls one group of Augustine's letters "shabby", he never loses his sympathy or his delicate power of penetration.
He sees haw the young philosopher became the bishop, and understands the circumstances, inward and outward, which guided his decision. It is the person in whom he is interested; not the theologian nor mystic except as they disclose the person. This is not a systematic study of Augustine's thought.
There is a good and restrained portrait of St. Monica; and excellent studies of the group of friends who were necessary to Augustine's comfort. Indeed the background is one strength of the book. The reader will feel at the end that he understands better the contribution which Roman culture made to Christianity; aed that he has a less crude idea of what it was like to live in a dying Roman Empire, just at the time when the barbarian invaders broke the western frontiers for ever.