Near the end of the past winter quarter, one of the courses I’d been teaching for the classics department was taking its usual, peculiar toll. The course is titled “The World of Augustine.” It’s about St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), the most influential and prolific of the Church Fathers, who wrote during a tumultuous era broadly similar to our own: the dissolute century issuing in the collapse of the western Roman Empire.
In some ways, it’s my favorite course. It draws above-average students who don’t flake out under a heavy reading load: Augustine’s Confessions, the massive City of God, the treatise On Christian Doctrine, and, through most of the quarter, Peter Brown’s chunky biography of Augustine. Each student also has an assigned research project requiring further reading in one or another of Augustine’s many treatises.
Amid all this intense study, the time-honored maxim of good teaching kicks in wonderfully: if you expect a lot, you get a lot. By the third week, I start getting lucid little commentaries and startling insights in the written responses I assign for each day’s reading.
Yet, as I said, the class takes a toll, partly of the sort I had dreaded several years ago when my department chairman asked me to work up the course. I tried my best to get off the hook, but there was no course in Augustine anywhere in the university’s curriculum, and my chairman was eager for the classics department to fill the gap.
“Why me?” I recall asking. My own graduate concentration was in Greek. I had no formal training in patristics, no expertise in late antiquity, mostly zero of the formal qualifications the department would reasonably expect of anyone it might hire from outside to teach the course.
The chairman listened quietly. “Well — yeah, I’m asking a lot,” he said, “but this is still down the road a ways — you’d have two years to prepare the course. Besides, Augustine is like any other topic; it takes a certain … instinct as well as raw knowledge and training.”
I looked at him blankly before he nailed me with his clinching argument: “You’re the only Catholic in the department.”
So I spent the next two years, on a two-hour daily regimen among normal duties, preparing my course on St. Augustine and his times, reading deeper and deeper into a capacious and manly kind of Christianity, with growing dread at the prospect of teaching all this to a class of postmodern, jaded undergraduates.
TRY THIS, FOR EXAMPLE, AS A QUICK taste of the Augustinian worldview: The moral order is absolute, woven into the very fabric of creation. Personal sin, therefore, is never merely a private psychological event; owing to ignorance or stupidity or an idiotized upbringing, the sinner may be subjectively without blame, but the sin itself has objective consequences that claw at the well-being of the sinner and of others around him and of still others yet to be after him.
Imagine juggling such thoughts, day after day, with a class of bright 20-year-olds marinated all their lives in a culture of moral relativism. For most of them, the course seems to be their first encounter with the feebleness of their own culture. They don’t necessarily buy into all of Augustine (predestination, anyone?), but they respect him, and they want to talk about these ideas they had never before heard of.
No doubt I should feel privileged to enjoy their alertness, but the course always takes a peculiar toll, and by the ninth week of a twelve-week quarter, I want it to be over. In the tenth week of this past quarter, I learned why.
Down in the stacks at the main library on campus, I pulled a copy of Jacques Maritain’s memoir The Peasant of the Garonne, a book I hadn’t read in years. Published early in 1966, just a few months after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Maritain’s reflections drew liberal fire in those days for bemoaning the “foolery” already evident in the wake of the Council.
Maritain, who died in 1973 at age 91, was a prominent Neo-Thomist philosopher, one of several Catholic thinkers I had cut my intellectual teeth on during my college years in the 1960s. Paging through the book, I noticed that the due slip in the back recorded a steady stream of check-out dates until 1971. Apparently, no one in the university had looked at this famous book for 32 years.
On a hunch, I looked up a few other Maritain titles. Then I got into it, and spent the next hour combing the stacks and pawing through the library’s huge collection of, to me, familiar Catholic writers: Knox, Guardini, Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Gilson, Pieper, Benson, Dawson, Lunn, Dimnet. With few exceptions (often as not, a date when I myself had checked out the book), the due slips told the same story, again and again: a long series of check-out dates stopping, suddenly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Dazed by this discovery, I sat at a reading table to gather my thoughts. How many thousands of students, I wondered, have passed through this school since 1970? Is it even mathematically probable that these worthy, well-thumbed books would suddenly, at about the same time, stop being read?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?