August 28 marked the 1587th anniversary of the death of Augustine of Hippo in A.D. 430. One thousand, five hundred and eighty-seven years is a long time, and, more significantly, seems long when viewed in the light of our own insistent and demanding present, dominated by a constant inundation of sensationalized news. That present often makes it difficult to find the time for — or see the point of — pausing to reflect on long-dead figures of the past.
And yet, paradoxically, it is just because of that oppressive present that reflection on the past can be so healthful: One feels as if one can finally breathe for a moment. One might also learn something. Consider this short piece a spur to encourage us to do so today.
Augustine, born in 354, died at age 76, having spent 40 years first as a priest and then as a bishop in the African church. Augustine’s final illness and death came at a moment when the Vandals (whence our word “vandalism”) were overrunning his beloved North Africa. Their conquest was due to a complex set of internal and external political circumstances that heralded what would be the end of Roman imperial rule in the West. Epoch-making changes were afoot and the world as Augustine had known it seemed to be tottering and ready to fall.
But Augustine died neither in despair nor in fear — nor, indeed, in pride over his many and varied accomplishments. His focus in the end was not on current events, nor on a wistful recounting of the highlights of his life, nor on anger at his opponents nor on one final tweet-storm. It was rather on repentance.
Possidius, Augustine’s friend and first biographer, tells us that Augustine “in private conversations frequently told us that even after baptism had been received exemplary Christians and priests ought not depart from this life without fitting and appropriate repentance.” And so he did, instructing “that the shortest penitential Psalms of David should be copied for him, and during the days of his sickness as he lay in bed he would look at these sheets as they hung upon the wall and read them; and he wept freely and constantly.”
What can account for this focus — a focus alien to a culture that has transformed all of life without remainder into either the politics of the present moment or infantilizing entertainment that functions only as a vacuous parody of real reprieve? What accounts for it, I would suggest, is that Augustine had a much more expansive view of the world and time: He could see current events, of course, but he also knew how to see through and beyond them. Augustine, that is, looked on the world not merely in the light of the contemporary news cycle, but in the light of eternity. This fact explains why, as Possidius says, “[u]p to the very moment of his last illness he preached the Word of God in the church incessantly, vigorously and powerfully, with a clear mind and sound judgment”: He saw the vanishing present from the vantage-point of what endures, and he wished his congregation to do so as well.
Augustine’s perspective at the end of his days will not surprise anyone familiar with his magnum opus (or one of them, anyway), the City of God, in which Augustine fleshes out the framework that allows him to view the present from the perspective of eternity. In twenty-two densely argued books, he presents a theological account of history from creation through the fall of man, redemption, and finally consummation and the Last Judgment. The vicissitudes of time were always, for him, to be contemplated and interpreted in terms of what was everlasting and incorruptible.
Such a perspective helps us to think well about the hustle and bustle of daily life, particularly when all around seems to be a chaos that demands our undivided attention. Augustine’s treasure was invested elsewhere. This perhaps explains why, according to Possidius, “[h]e made no will, because as a poor man of God he had nothing from which to make it.”
And yet he was not utterly without resources. Possidius tells us about something that he, or rather his church, did possess: books. Augustine therefore “repeatedly ordered that the library of the church and all the books should be carefully preserved for future generations.” There is an important lesson here. Despite intentionally living a life of material poverty, Augustine actively sought and spread the riches of learning and knowledge. He understood theology as a task to be done in via, “on the way” — that is, he practiced a pilgrim theology. And he knew that the treasury of wisdom contained in the library was in some way more enduring and more significant for future generations of fellow pilgrims than was money, which he did not have because he had given it away.
This library, Possidius notes, contained both Augustine’s own books and those by “other holy men.” Through his writings, “one may find… how great [Augustine] was in the Church and therein the faithful may always find him living.”
Ponder that for a moment: in his books “the faithful may always find him living.” On the occasion of the anniversary of his death, we do well to remember what some of these were. Besides the City of God, Augustine authored the Confessions (now probably his most-read work), but also a number of seminal theological works such as On the Trinity and On Christian Teaching. In addition, there survive hundreds of letters and sermons, not to mention moral works and philosophical dialogues, all of which add up to a staggering number of words and an even more staggering intellectual monument.
As a teacher of classics — of extinct civilizations and dead languages — I am sometimes asked how my subject is relevant to today’s issues; one might wonder why students should take up the study of antiquity when chaos, bloodshed, and fear ravage the globe. As I indicated above, “relevance” ought not to be our primary concern regarding the value of reflection on the past. Such a concern implicitly insists on a disordered presentism — the belief that, for something to be valuable, it must be able to be related immediately to our own circumstances.
Nevertheless, I would not wish to deny that such reflection on the past is in fact illuminating of the present and how we ought to think about it. Thus, we can learn something significant from Augustine, who, when all around him might have seemed destined for unceremonious evanescence, chose to preserve books; he chose to preserve a treasury built of words, which are as material as money is but whose currency can somehow transcend time and place in a way that money cannot.
The result is that, hundreds of years later, we still “find him living” — living through the wisdom he imparts to us through the written word. In other words, from Augustine we learn that there are some things that cannot be reduced to a commodity or a merely material good. Wisdom, whose vehicle is language, is one of these things.
Such an emphasis is of a piece with Augustine’s broader view in City of God, and here too Augustine has something to teach us: There is more to the world than what can be seen; there are invisible and eternal realities that that sit behind and beyond what is before our eyes in our increasingly clamorous present.
It is easy today to become overwhelmed by the never-ending news cycle. Between the shouting on television, the squabbling on the radio, and the sounds of notifications coming from our phones, we are constantly bombarded by news of how the world is worsening, minute by minute, second by second. Augustine reminds us that, yes, sometimes things are bad. One need not pretend otherwise, but likewise one need not succumb to the temptation of thinking that the present is all that there is.
By seeing the dawn of eternity in the dusk of the present, Augustine found hope to write for the future. And by looking to the future city of God, he found strength for the present. Through the medium of the written word, the North African of old can still speak to us today. And so, with this anniversary of his death, let us do as Augustine heard the children chanting to him to do before his famous conversion: tolle, lege, “take up and read.”
Eric Hutchinson is an Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.