''the cross of the Lord was a mousetrap for the Devil''

Times Newspapers Limited, August 5, 1999

Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Limited  
The Times (London)
August 5, 1999, Thursday

SECTION: Features

LENGTH: 925 words

HEADLINE: Sinner, saint and master of wordplay

BYLINE: Peter Ackroyd

His vivid dialogue and writings were religion expressed as genius but Saint Augustine had an exacting and tortuous life. SAINT AUGUSTINE. By Garry Wills. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 12.99. ISBN 0 297 84281 1. Pounds 10.99 (free p&p) 0870 160 80 80

He was born in North Africa in 354, and the "High God" Jehovah haunted his imagination; more pertinently, perhaps, Augustine grew up within the Roman Empire. His parents spoke only Latin to him, and he seemed destined to a career as an imperial bureaucrat. But if his parents were determined to educate and to mould him, what model would they choose? He was African but, more importantly, he was a Roman. He was influenced by the Donatists and their inflamed fundamental Christianity, but in the forum of his town there were statues to the pagan gods.

His education was classical and literary, with rhetoric at its centre. It marked him deeply, and much of his subsequent writing was designed to integrate pagan or classical learning with Christian revelation and thus to demonstrate how the City of God might exist within the Earthly City.

Before he could become a saint, however, he must be a sinner. In this context Gary Wills's Saint Augustine makes the important point that Augustine's Confessions (which this biography significantly renames The Testimony) is irradiated with allusions to Genesis, so that in relating his autobiography Augustine is rehearsing the original sin and Fall.

That is why the famous journey to Carthage, where he burnt so intensely, revealed his dual nature - an idealist yet apparently an urbane one. He was interested in Christianity but distracted by pagan rationalism as well as being half in love with the mysteries of Manichaeism. For nine years, in fact, he remained a member of that heretical cult obsessed with the evil of the world.

He became a schoolmaster, but his genius kept on breaking through. He travelled to Rome, where he was appointed court orator, and then to Milan where he converted to Christianity. He had become a rhetorician even as he turned towards Christian grace. Formerly he possessed a concubine, but now he was drawn to celibacy. On these and other themes he wrote soliloquia, based upon the form of the Platonic dialogue but one in which he spoke only to himself.

The Confessions is not some 20th-century exercise in psychological exploration, therefore, nor is it a case of Proustian recollection; it is a theological work, based upon a highly complex symbolic numerology. He does not find the inner meaning of his life in terms of such intellectual claptrap as "repression" or "sublimation", but in the context of the eternal struggle between human pride and divine grace.

Although he first wrote dialogues, in which essentially he was talking to himself, there were other interlocutors. He was always part of a community, whether of neo-Platonists or Manichaeans or Christians. This "bond of company" was always part of his character. He was no hermit but one who employed all his rhetorical and polemical skills in order to change the human world.

On his return to Africa, and during his residence in Hippo, he began his ministry. He taught by means of sermons which were, in Wills's words, "vivid and earthy", filled with "puns, wordplays, jingles". He once compared the Cross to a mousetrap, with the body of Christ as a bait to tempt the Devil. His great polemics, however, were directed against the Donatists, an African form of Christianity manifesting a twin obsession with fundamentalist piety and with martyrdom.

He berated them; he ridiculed them; he satirised them. In that sense Augustine is always an exciting writer - a living writer, whom Wills variously compares to Philip Roth, G.K. Chesterton, Jesse Jackson and Matthew Arnold.

At the age of 41 he was ordained a bishop. But after the capture of Rome by Alaric, an apprehension of disorder or disintegration entered Augustine's hitherto settled world. As a result he outlined what Wills calls a "theory of suppression" in order to deal with heretics, and has the unhappy distinction of being regarded in some quarters as the philosopher of the Inquisition.

Yet the fall of Rome brought forth less bitter fruit in The City of God, where Augustine suggested that the pagan world had in the end to be completed and transcended by Christian revelation. Rome must fall in order that Christ might live. Of course this great book cannot be interpreted in quite so simple a fashion. Indeed, the complexity of saints and sinners, living inextricably together in the world, is one of that book's central themes. The historic Church is obliged to live in time while aspiring towards eternity; everything in this life is uncertain.

And so, too, was the life of Augustine himself of which the last 15 years became "a quagmire in which he would thrash about" in an unending struggle with the British heretic Pelagius. He died in Hippo while that city was under siege, itself an apt metaphor for his own exacting and tortuous life in the world.

Saint Augustine is one of a series of short biographies designed in part to counter the tradition of the elephantine volume. It is in that sense an essay, with the added advantage in this case of simplicity and lucidity. Its brevity means that it can only be the first, not the last, word on its subject. It cannot rival Peter Brown's magnificent Augustine of Hippo, published 32 years ago, but as an introduction to a complicated and inspiring subject it is a thorough success.

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