Nonfiction Books » History Books » Ancient History (up to 500)

The Best Augustine Books

recommended by Catherine Conybeare

The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions by Catherine Conybeare

The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions
by Catherine Conybeare


Christianity has been profoundly influenced by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), but the fifth-century North African bishop has impacted almost every area of western thought: philosophy, theology, political theory, linguistics, and rhetoric. His Confessions is one of the most recommended titles on Five Books, but is it really the first autobiography? Professor Catherine Conybeare introduces us to the life, thought, and personality of this controversial yet brilliant figure. She picks the best books to learn more about St. Augustine and explores how he has been unfairly maligned.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions by Catherine Conybeare

The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions
by Catherine Conybeare

Buy all books

Before we get to the books, how do we even begin to introduce a figure as complex and as influential as St Augustine of Hippo? What would be your own way into that formidable task?

Well, in light of what I’m working on at the moment, I would take the subversion of Western tradition line. Here is this figure who influenced almost every area of Western humanistic thought: philosophy, theology, political theory, linguistics, rhetoric, you name it. But he’s not actually from Europe. He spent his entire life—bar five years—in North Africa. What do we make of that? We have this really exciting intellectual thinker in this supposedly dominant elite tradition, who is actually African.

In terms of Christian doctrine itself, Augustine is fundamental to the way in which the very concept of orthodoxy is developed. That’s something very hard for most people to get a handle on. There’s this sense in which all this stuff that one takes for granted in the structure of Christianity is actually being fought out in the fourth century. Augustine, in incredibly significant ways, establishes so many of the parameters, above all, on Trinitarian thought. He is really grappling with what it means to believe in a Trinitarian God. He grapples with what it means to develop a fully Christian reading of human history. His lamentable legacy, in my opinion, is the issue of original sin and predestination.

“Here is this figure who influenced almost every area of Western humanistic thought: philosophy, theology, political theory, linguistics, rhetoric, you name it. But he’s not actually from Europe”

But throughout his life, his positions shift and crystallise. Unfortunately, we tend to have inherited only the most rigid version of his doctrines. But one of the reasons to read Augustine himself is that Augustine is always so much more subtle and more sophisticated than his epigones and the digests of his thought that have come down as orthodoxy through the ages. This is one of the reasons I wanted to propose mostly primary sources rather than secondary ones for this project. Yes, Christian theology is more or less unthinkable without Augustine. At the same time, what is often attributed to him is not necessarily his thought.

Picking up that point, your own scholarship has done a lot to challenge myths about Augustine that have sedimented and become persistent, especially about his personality. Can you outline these stereotypes and the sense in which we should resist them?

The stereotype I first addressed in my work was the stereotype that he was obnoxious to women and solely responsible for the lamentable record of the Catholic Church on issues of controlling women’s behaviour, or controlling women’s reproduction etc. All of this is laid at Augustine’s feet. But it’s not true.

The very first material of Augustine’s I published on was his letters to women. I was absolutely fascinated by the way in which he met each woman where she was, as it were. He really listens to these people, however young and unformed they may be. He tries to answer their requests. There’s one particular letter exchange where he’s clearly appealing to a woman for advice and counsel and, indeed, management of an extremely difficult political situation in the church that he’s managed to get himself into.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

In every case, injecting that level of particularity to Augustine as a figure ends up producing a revised version. Of course, stereotypes are just that; they are summary clichés. They have some bearing on reality but of course, they are much simpler than the reality. They take the most extreme facets of a personality, and work with them.

On the question of reproductive issues, one thing I’ve been working on very recently is Augustine’s ideas about life before birth. Now, there’s no hard and fast statement, I think, at any point in his work specifically on the question of when a being becomes a living being. One of the absolutely fascinating things about this is that it’s one of the occasions where he is prepared to say: I don’t know.

At some juncture, what is being carried within a woman becomes a person. But he does not claim to know when. And he never does. Even right at the end of his life when he’s battling about original sin with Julian of Eclanum, he still refuses to claim to know. And that’s an incredibly important thing for an authority figure to be able to do. And it’s something of course, that isn’t captured in the tradition. Because no one wants to say, ‘Augustine said he didn’t know about this one.’

One thing I just want to impress upon our readers is just how much of Augustine’s work has survived to this day. I saw one statistic that said we have five million words from Augustine. That must have made your choices here quite difficult.

Extremely difficult. We have five million words—a lot, though not all of which, are extremely significant. I think it would be fair to say that. Augustine was an extremely pugnacious character, and there is a fair amount of repetitive argumentation among those five million words.

I think it was Jim O’Donnell who first calculated that total. It just means ‘big’ to me. There’s an awful lot of it.

Let’s take a look at your Augustine book choices. We begin with Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine. The classicist Robin Lane Fox, one of our other interviewees, has described it as “the outstanding biography of the 20th century.” Tell me why you’ve picked this one. 

This biography is beautifully written. It’s a pleasure to read.

I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as Lane Fox, but it’s very rare that you work in an academic field and there is a secondary work that is just indisputably superior to everything else. An agent once said to me that Brown’s book is known in her field as a “category killer”. No one else dared to write a biography of Augustine, really until the late 1990s. So, for 30 years—for basically a full generation—that was the work on Augustine.

Why do I still feel it is a starting point? Well, one aspect is about humility. This is why I specified that the second edition needed to be the one that was promoted rather than the original biography, which was published in 1967. Thirty years after it was published, Peter Brown went back and he reconsidered everything he had written. And instead of just injecting corrections into the text, he let the original text stand and he wrote what —including notes— is an eighty-page postlude reviewing what he felt he had got wrong and what he felt he should have emphasised differently.

There’s also the remarkable fact that twenty-six new sermons and twenty-nine new letters had been discovered in the period after he had written the original book. So, he takes into account what had been discovered in those. He critiques himself for myopia and points to some of the ways in which Augustine’s thought and life has been set in a much wider context, particularly archaeologically, in the intervening thirty years.

I am in a slightly odd position talking about this book at the moment. Because what I’m currently writing turns out to be in, effect, another biography, I have purposely not been going back to Peter Brown’s book, simply because it’s so discouraging. It’s discouraging because he’s so learned and perceptive; he has such an incredible range of references, even in this older material that he goes on to self-critique. You think, what can I possibly add to this?

This is the power but also the problem with the book. It is such a seamless narrative, and this is the genius of it. It’s very hard to find one’s way in if you want to do something different, if you want to write against the grain of that narrative. It’s so compelling. It’s so convincing. It is just extraordinarily erudite; it tells a beautiful story. And one now feels that it’s perhaps a little too beautiful. Brown slips a little too easily into metaphors of illumination.

In terms of going over your writing, critiquing it, and reflecting about what you disagree with and what you stand by, that’s a very Augustinian thing to do. I mean, in the light of the Retractationes (Reconsiderations), right?

Precisely. And, indeed, the Reconsiderations was one of the primary sources I was tempted to include. If I could propose five books by Augustine for this project, then they would have definitely been there. And it would have been perhaps a perverse choice, but the Reconsiderations is such a fascinating work.

At almost the end of his life, Augustine gathers together his treatises and he reads them through in chronological order, and he reconsiders them and says where he thinks he’s gone wrong. It’s interesting to see Augustine so conscious of his textual legacy. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to do the same thing for his letters and his sermons. He just didn’t get round to it. Now, as far as I remember Peter Brown doesn’t say in so many words that he’s modelling himself on Augustine in this moment, but he has to have been. You couldn’t possibly write an epilogue like that to a book on Augustine and not be aware that you were mimicking the master.

The Roman Empire is incredibly ethnically diverse. Augustine was born in North Africa; his mother was a Berber. Do we know what he would have looked like? I suspect it’s not how he’s been depicted in a lot of Western art, just in the same way that Jesus probably didn’t look like a Swedish tennis player.

One suspects not. As I’ve said elsewhere, if you work a lot on Augustine you get incredibly, personally engaged with him, because he’s such a powerful and engaging personality. So, I have a personal idea of what he would have looked like. He would almost certainly have been quite small and quite dark. He would have the colouring that one sees in North Africa today. Exactly how dark he was is immaterial—except that it isn’t. One of the weird things when I started working on my book Augustine the African is that people would repeatedly say to me: so was Augustine black? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Not the question of whether he was black but what people think would be conveyed by the answer to that question, why they think it’s so important.

People who are familiar with Augustine already know about the conversion experience in 386 CE, after flirting with Manichaeism and other philosophical systems. I know the biography covers a lot of this. But how much does Augustine’s mature thought change and develop? 

The mature thought, I would say, falls into two categories. One of those is what he develops in his own space, as it were. I would say the Confessions is the start and the work on the Trinity is the other conspicuous example. Oh, and De Genesi ad litteram (‘The Literal Commentary on Genesis’) as well as the commentaries on the Psalms. This is when he is thinking things through for his own satisfaction. Most of his writing, however, and his doctrinal, dogmatic positions, are developed in combat. And that’s a very different type of development. And as we see, at the end of his life, he gets backed into a corner with the whole debate about original sin.

“Christian theology is more or less unthinkable without Augustine”

I think there are two —in theory— incompatible aspects to Augustine’s thought inasmuch as he is both a highly structured thinker and a highly indeterminate thinker. I realise it sounds nonsensical to bring the two into juxtaposition.

I’m again going to use the example of original sin because it’s something I’ve worked on and thought about recently. Augustine gets backed into this position on original sin, into this very hard-line position where everyone is born into sin and can only be saved by the grace bestowed by baptism. The reason he gets backed into this corner is precisely a structural one. He takes seriously the notion that Christ died to save everyone. And his point is, if there is nothing to save in any single person who is born after Christ’s death, then Christ’s death becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by his structural thought: he gets to this point logically, and by thinking structurally about the significance of the notion that Christ died to save everyone. He looks at the logical consequences of that and he follows them through to their extreme end.

But that side of Augustine’s thought—the one that basically comes down to us in common tradition—is held in suspension with the whole side I mentioned earlier: the willingness to say ‘I don’t know’, the appreciation of indeterminacy, of multivocality. You can think of the passage in Confessions 12 when he talks about interpretations of the Bible. He says, Well, one person can say I think this passage means this and one person can say, I think it means that and third person can say I think it means something else. He says: Why can’t they all be right? Why should we think that God is so limited that he’s only put one meaning into this passage of Scripture? It’s this side of his thought that interests me much more. But, of course, it doesn’t do justice to the whole man not to consider the structural aspects of his thought as well.

Let’s look at the Confessions. Despite being written around 400 CE, this is one of our most recommended books on Five Books. Can you tell me why you’ve picked it? 

That’s amazing! But in a way, that helps explain why I’ve picked it. It is an endlessly capacious, inventive, stimulating book. I won’t say it has something for everyone but it has, for its sheer blend of different approaches, a great deal for a great number of people. The fact that the whole thing is presented as a conversation with God, for a start. And Augustine is remarkably self-exposing and self-disclosing. It’s an extraordinary book for someone who’s just been ordained as a bishop to write. The Confessions had to be on this list and it is most people’s way into Augustine. It is this unbelievably pliant and fruitful work. Every time you read it, you notice new things.

There are hints of the circumstances of his life, of what it felt like to grow up in North Africa in the 360s, that I think, for a certain cast of mind, are mesmerising. But then there are the incredibly sophisticated reflections on time, and on memory. These reflections can, on the one hand, help to draw together the work as a retrospective of his life under the sight of God. But they can also stand alone and have become the starting point for so many further reflections on these themes.

“Augustine is always so much more subtle and more sophisticated than the digests of his thought that have come down as orthodoxy through the ages”

Then there’s all the material which is so often ignored, particularly books 12 and 13, on biblical interpretation. And this goes beyond just biblical interpretation. It’s about how to read; how do we find meaning in a text? And then as he writes, he’s illustrating how we weave that text, in this case the Bible, into our own writing.

Now, there are many translations of the Confessions into English. But you’ve specifically picked this one by Maria Boulding. Can you tell me why?

When you’re reading the Confessions in Latin, it’s incredibly hard to know, at times, where Augustine ends and where biblical quotation begins. He has so exquisitely internalised that language, which he tells us he found completely rebarbative when he first encountered it.

I chose Maria Boulding’s translation because I think her translation, out of all the ones out there—and there are some other excellent ones—is the one that best captures this phenomenon of his language.

The Confessions is often cited as the first autobiography. Now, in what sense is that true and in what sense does that require qualification? 

That’s an excellent question. One part of it is just wrong. There’s no way you can call it the first autobiography, whether or not you call it autobiography. If you take autobiography as systematic self-narration, then that is already an established tradition. There are hints of it already in pre-Christian contexts, but I think it really comes to the surface in martyr narratives. People come to trial, they are called to account for being Christian, they are asked if they are Christian, and they say Christianus sum or Christiana sum. And they start to think, ‘Well, what does it actually mean to say I’m a Christian? What are the bits of my life that make that so?’  That’s why I would actually say the first developed autobiography is the one by Perpetua that she wrote in prison when she was waiting to be martyred in 203 CE in Carthage. So, the Confessions is definitely not the first autobiography.

The degree to which it is autobiography ignores the other incredibly important elements to which I’ve already referred. It ignores the hugely important element of prayer and of thought, more generally, about the relation of the self to God. It’s not that that doesn’t necessarily belong in an autobiography, but it’s not generally taken as part of the autobiographical project. That’s taken to be the narration of the events of a life. Those are there in the Confessions. But in some ways, I think you could argue they are the least important elements there, except that they are the elements that keep people fascinated and keep people reading on a first time through. In terms of the intellectual structure of the Confessions, I think you can make a strong argument that all these biographical details, certainly the ones about himself, are there to illuminate the deeper philosophical and theological points in the framework he’s making.

“There’s no way you can call the Confessions the first autobiography, whether or not you call it autobiography”

Why I say the details about himself is because, to this day, it’s not quite clear to me what he’s doing either with the little biography of his mother Monica, before her death, in book nine, or with the little biography of his friend Alypius, which is in book six. I’ve never really understood exactly what purpose those extended vignettes are serving. But when Augustine narrates himself, it’s always at the service of this larger vision.

This is a text you know backwards, having written the Routledge Guidebook to it. Personally, what’s your favourite section? We hear so much about, for example, Augustine’s guilt over his motivation to steal pears in his youth. But what’s the part that speaks most to you and perhaps most demonstrates the subtlety of Augustine’s mind?

Funnily enough, that’s an easy one. And it also explains why I’ve chosen the one piece of secondary literature that I have on this list. It’s the material on time. I just find it mind-blowing. And the way in which he explains the passage of time through the singing of a hymn. I find it endlessly fascinating. Tied in with that is his acknowledgement that his greatest temptation as he tries to live an ascetic life is not food, drink, or sex. It is music.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

I find it so powerful that he worries when he’s in church, listening to the singing, listening to the Psalms, that he’s focusing more on the music than on the words. And I think one needs to read his observations on time in the light of that. There’s this whole notion that all one knows is the present instant. And everything else is either the memory of the past in the present instant, or the anticipation of the future in the present instant. He explains that extraordinarily complex concept with the type of attention —that’s the word he uses, attentio— that you need when you’re singing something from memory. You have the focus on the present moment but, in fact, the entire song is held in your brain. So that’s, that’s my absolutely favourite bit. I just find it so exciting every time I read it.

Let’s move on to The City of God. Tell me about this one.

I hesitated over The City of God, but not because it’s not unbelievably important. If one were to point to a single work of Augustine that has been the most influential, I think it would probably be the City of God rather than the Confessions.

The City of God has so many of Augustine’s ideas that are so influential, whether you’re talking about the exposition of just war theory, for example, or the rereading of human history in an eschatological framework. You don’t often see it described this way but you have the rereading of the Hebrew scriptures in a way that is so integrated with that eschatological framework. At the same time, I hesitated over choosing The City of God because it is almost too capacious and so digressive. In the end, I thought, yes, I will put it on the list anyway because it seems to me perfectly legitimate to read it in sections. It excerpts very well. It can be read in this massive arc. There’s no doubt that Augustine hoped that at least some people would read it that way, because he, unusually for him, includes a lot of internal pointers as to how one section looks back to another or how the whole should hang together.

I partly picked it for its capaciousness —for its significance in so many intellectual traditions.  So much of what we know about Augustine, like it or not, goes back to the City of God. I find the sheer ambition of it magnificent. It is absolutely extraordinary that he undertakes this project, to tell the history of the Romans, from the foundation of Rome, back to a Roman audience. And let’s not forget, he is North African. Better still, he was educated in Carthage, the proverbial enemy of Rome. But he starts by telling Roman history back to the Romans in a completely counterintuitive way. And then he tells Christian history to the Christians in the latter twelve books, in this incredibly ambitious, overarching, visionary way, bringing it right up to the present.

“If one were to point to a single work of Augustine that has been the most influential, I think it would probably be the City of God

To think that this complicated historical project, which is so magnificent, should have been prompted by the fall of Rome in 410 CE is again the most extraordinary thought. He seems to have started writing it two or three years later. We have earlier works of his, including some sermons, that respond more immediately to the fall of Rome. And so, we can see his thought processes on this one. We can see him beginning to work out what it means to defend a Christian dispensation, and a Christian interpretation of history, which of course, is part of what he’s doing. But we can also see him thinking through what it means to be a civitas Dei.

We translate that phrase as ‘city of God’ and civitas does mean ‘city’ in late antiquity. But what it means in origin is a group of citizens. It’s the abstract noun formed from the word for citizen. So it’s the essence of citizenness, if you like. We can actually see that part of Augustine’s preparatory thought for the City of God is thinking, well, what does it mean to be a civitas? What does it mean to be a civitas Dei, a group of citizens belonging to God? And what does it mean to be a group of citizens or community on earth, a civitas terrena? These are the two fundamental, but not mutually exclusive, divisions to the work.

There’s a line of interpretation about the City of God that sees it as an explicit Christian response to something like Plato’s Republic. Do you agree with that? Or do you think it’s more a matter of what questions the fall of Rome should provoke on a spiritual level?

I think that’s a really important way of formulating it. It’s about the questions that the fall of Rome provokes on both the spiritual level and an earthly level. You have the pragmatic level about how to meet objections, as well as the theological level. I find it hard to go with the notion that it’s a response to Plato’s Republic, for the very simple reason that I’m one of the people who thinks that Augustine’s Greek just isn’t good enough to take the Republic on board, though there were translated bits of it around. Much more important is the fact that it is undoubtedly a response to Cicero’s De Republica. That’s quite explicit, particularly in book nineteen of the City of God which is my favourite book. But with Augustine, I don’t think he has one single mode of approach.

One interesting point about the Goths sacking Rome in 410 is that they’re Christians too…

Yes, that’s an excellent point. But of course, they are a different sort of Christian—they are Arians, and don’t believe in the fully divine nature of Christ or, therefore, the Trinitarian God of Christian orthodoxy.

I don’t think Augustine necessarily takes on much directly about how this impacted the sack of Rome in 410, except inasmuch as he depicts these invaders behaving unusually courteously for invaders, describing them in Book 1 escorting people to asylum in churches, and so on and so forth. The point seems to be—okay, they’re sacking Rome, but as Christians they’re sacking it very decently. Now I don’t think this is the most clear-headed bit of the City of God. And then he leaves it behind as a theme.

The first three books of the City of God are qualitatively very different from the rest. I would say that their tenor is one of anger and of urgency. They read as if he wanted to get some sort of response out fast. Then he draws back, and he hits his stride. I think it’s only at that point that the much larger arc of the work becomes apparent to him, that this is not just a polemical response. Whenever I read or teach the beginning of the City of God, it feels like someone in an argument taking someone else by the lapels, and just shouting at them. And that’s not the tenor of the work as a whole at all. It becomes much more confident and measured as the work goes on.

And Augustine lived to see the Vandals besieging Hippo in 430—another set of Christian invaders. 

Not only did the Vandals espouse a recognised, albeit heterodox, form of Christianity (Arianism again), but there’s been really interesting work  done lately on the ways in which Vandal culture perpetuated Roman culture in North Africa. Vandal culture is not an oxymoron. They really left a great deal untouched from the best of the Roman traditions, including aspects of the education system. Things did not instantly collapse and corrode. There was a lot of continuity and indeed, bizarrely, generations later, there was still attention to Romanness as a touchstone for culture.

As you’ve mentioned, this is an enormously long work. Are there any other particular chapters that you think are just unmissable?

Again, because of my particular focus of interest, the one that jumps out as unmissable is the one that Hannah Arendt took as a touchstone for The Human Condition, City of God 12.21: “in order to make a beginning, man was created.”

The reason I’m hesitating a bit about the translation ‘man’ is he uses the gender nonspecific homo, not vir. The details of how Augustine reads that specific part of Genesis are just so fertile. I admire Arendt’s Human Condition hugely. So, that seems incredibly important.

In total contrast, there are really playful bits of Augustine too. He teases and he tweaks and he jokes, particularly in the earlier books. I particularly like the bit where he talks about the whole grand myth on which Virgil’s Aeneid is based, of the gods of Troy—who of course have been taken from Troy to found the new Rome—getting dissatisfied and wanting to move on. Augustine takes these absolutely sacred (in the pre-Christian sense) points of Roman self-mythologisation and he just tweaks them. I love those little passages. I think Augustine would have been an amazing person just to sit and talk with. I think the humour and the quickness of mind that is a little frozen in his texts would have been such fun to encounter. But he would also have been terrifying; he would have been so intense.

On that point, then, let’s go to the Letters and the picture of Augustine as a person that we get from them. 

That’s a really nice segue. Because that’s precisely why they’re on the list.

While most people come to Augustine through the Confessions, I came to him through his Letters. When I was in graduate school, working on a different figure with whom Augustine exchanged letters, I had a baby. And in the first months when I was at home with him, I sat down with the volumes of letters in CSEL (the Corpus of Ecclesiastical Latin Writers). And I read all of Augustine’s letters from beginning to end. And that’s actually how I got to know him. It was adaptable: when the baby went to sleep, I could sit down and read for a bit.

And that’s partly why I see such an undogmatic Augustine because, right from the beginning, how I got to know him was through reading these letters and seeing him adapting to his audience and having very different conversations with different people. Sometimes, of course, in his letters he is dogmatic or embattled or dictatorial. But sometimes he’s also incredibly attentive to the recipient. Sometimes he’s even playful. The playful Augustine is not one that, again, most people would talk about, or think of first. And so, in selecting the letters, I wanted to give this more variegated impression of him.

The letters are sometimes rather official proclamations, but they are very often truly written ad hominem, writing to a specific person to a specific occasion. And you can see on display the pliancy of Augustine’s mind and his  attentiveness to other people. You see his attentiveness to their specific situations, predicament, questions, whatever it is exactly that they’ve engaged him about. And just occasionally again, you see these leaps of joy or of playfulness, that that can be hard to come by elsewhere in the works.

You mentioned earlier about Augustine’s beliefs being developed in combat. I’m thinking of the various theological controversies he was involved in, such as those involving Donatism and Pelagianism. Can you introduce us to these controversies? Do these letters provide much insight about them?

Absolutely, yes. There’s a lot on Donatism in the Letters, though they are not the most exciting letters to read. Donatism is what emerged as the distinctively North African branch of Christianity. It emerged from a dispute about how different branches of the Church had reacted to persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. And the problem, once it became apparent that this was in some ways at odds with the Roman Christianity into which Augustine had been baptised, was that there was no real doctrinal difference between the Churches.

The argument against Donatism as an alternative church and against individual Donatists turns on the stories they tell about this moment of persecution. And the whole question is: who handed over the sacred texts under threat of persecution? And who underwent torture or death, rather than hand them over? And then, the question is: who was baptised or ordained by that person who handed over the texts? And so, you can see how the whole controversy is ultimately just about a tracing of lineage. And the stories are repeated again and again.

What is interesting is that Augustine repeatedly calls Donatists forth to public debate. So he urges them to debate him and it’s clear that this was a form of entertainment; you go to the forum, you go to the market square and you watch someone having a staged debate with an opponent. Unsurprisingly, the Donatists generally sidestep the invitation. This is, after all, the man who had been the official rhetorician for the imperial court.

“Most of Augustine’s doctrinal, dogmatic positions are developed in combat”

Pelagianism plays out in the Letters too. We have letters surviving from Pelagius himself and from Augustine to the mother of a young woman who Augustine feels is being too seduced by the notion of Pelagianism. In its extreme articulation, this is the doctrine that you can be saved by your own good works and you don’t need God’s grace. Augustine is extremely concerned that this young woman thinks that her own personal achievements in asceticism will suffice to save her and she is ignoring the importance of God’s grace in salvation. This another example of Augustine’s systematising thought—it’s all connected again with the theological rationale about why Christ’s death is justified.

Last on your list of books about Augustine is M. B. Pranger’s Eternity’s Ennui: Temporality, Perseverance and Voice in Augustine and Western Literature. You’ve mentioned to me that we shouldn’t be intimidated by the title.

We shouldn’t be put off because it has ‘ennui’ in the title. But we should, however, in some ways be intimidated by the book. In its capaciousness, it is a modern City of God. But it’s not an aleatory choice on my part. You suggested that I might choose something from the philosophical or  theological tradition of writing about Augustine. One of the things I find remarkable about this book is it is engaged with both the philosophy and the theology of Augustine’s thought, without being beholden to either discipline, as such, in its modern instantiation.

What the book is doing is taking the notion of the punctum temporis seriously: the notion of this instantaneous point in time, that is all we can ever know. That is the object of our specific attention, while all around it is flux and indeterminacy. And it says, ‘Okay, what does that mean for conversion?’ Pranger contends that Augustine shows that it is meaningful for conversion inasmuch as it conveys a conversion that is only ever instantaneous and provisional. It’s only at an instant; it’s never just done and finished. I think this is a very important thing about Augustine’s thought.

The book also asks what this view of time has to do with narrative. If this is your view of time, how can you even tell a story? It asks this, as I say, in a way that’s attentive to philosophy and theology but beholden to neither, but also attentive to language. Pranger talks about the opulence of Augustine’s language. And I think that’s a beautiful description of it; it expresses this sheer semiotic range across which he works. It’s also attentive to rhetoric—to the way in which Augustine’s thoughts are necessarily expressed, to some degree, within the conventions of rhetorical structures.

It’s an incredibly cultivated, capacious book. One of the problems with a lot of secondary work on Augustine is that, as we said already, there are five million words to grapple with. And then, goodness knows how much secondary material there is to grapple with. My doctoral advisor used to say that people vanish down the Augustinian rabbit hole. There’s just so much and they forget to read anything else or think about anything else. And then it becomes a completely hermetic conversation.

So another reason I love this book is it is the product of a truly wide ranging and cultivated mind. Pranger is bringing Augustine into conversation with Proust, into conversation with Samuel Beckett, into conversation with a particular favourite of his, Henry James. And he also comes back to music. Every now and then he engages the most unbelievably revealing metaphor from music. And the single best one I can describe is when he talks about this punctum temporis, he likens it to watching a conductor conducting an orchestra at a specific moment. He says the conductor, as it were, hits the note. And that’s the punctum temporis. But it’s all part of the continuous motion of the baton. And you could not describe which point it is—you can only hear the results.

Now, obviously, music was produced in very different ways in Augustine’s time. But I think if Augustine were here watching an orchestra, he would say, Yes, that’s it. That’s what I was trying to express. And particularly given the contrast between the attentio (the focus) and the distentio animi (the drawing apart of the mind) that Augustine ultimately says is the nature of time.

“Augustine’s greatest temptation as he tries to live an ascetic life is not food, drink, or sex. It is music”

I hesitated over choosing this book, precisely because it’s a very difficult book. And there’s a very long chapter in the middle of it that takes predestination and its problems and its paradoxes really seriously. It really stares them down. I won’t even attempt to give a summary of what’s going on there. In the end, I decided I did want to propose it for two reasons. One is precisely because it draws on so many different disciplines. I didn’t want to just choose a work of philosophy, or, you know, something that was beholden to the philosophical discipline or theological discipline. I wanted a work that was attentive to Augustine as a literary presence too. The other reason is because the author himself legitimates reading it piecemeal. He has a preface called ‘Rambling’. Obviously, he wants people to read the book from beginning to end, but he says that a perfectly legitimate way to read it is to cherry-pick and to focus on specific sections. I think that’s an important thing to know for readers who might be daunted by it.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Augustine’s reflections on time have been hugely influential in philosophy. I mean, even in the phenomenological tradition, with Heidegger and Sartre, they’re acknowledging their debts to Augustine. In terms of his influence on Western literature, is this book saying that these writers like Proust and James and Beckett have been directly influenced by grappling with Augustine? Or is it rather that it sees these authors as sensitive to an Augustinian understanding of time?

The latter, exactly. He’s not making an argument for direct influence. Now, there are people who are incredibly significant, including I think, literarily significant, who have formed their thoughts through reading Augustine. I’ve already mentioned Hannah Arendt.  Another work I pondered choosing was Derrida’s Circumfession. I think Derrida is one of the best readers of Augustine there has ever been. And it’s partly again from this very explicit North African perspective, but also again from this incredibly creative and transgressive mind. But the argument of Eternity’s Ennui is not that they are directly influenced by Augustine but that they are sensitive to the same problems, and grapple with them in ways that both resonate with and illuminate what Augustine does.

Finally, you’ve captured a lot of this already but I just want to ask: if you were to take the person on the street and explain to them why they should be interested in Augustine, what would you say? 

It has changed at different moments according to which works of Augustine I’m reading and what I’m thinking about. Right now, it is precisely about the African angle. It is so important to know that this towering intellectual figure actually came from North Africa, because it genuinely does shake up a lot of people’s assumptions about who’s important, and where’s important. And a lot of people hearing this find it incredibly encouraging that this immense figure is not from a dominant part of the world. Of course, Carthage actually was quite dominant in late antiquity. But nonetheless, North Africa was in many ways peripheral to the Roman Empire.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

March 5, 2021

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Catherine Conybeare

Catherine Conybeare

Catherine Conybeare is the Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities as well as Professor of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr.  Her research centres on late antiquity, and especially the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Her work includes The Irrational Augustine, The Laughter of Sarah: Biblical Interpretation, Contemporary Feminism, and the Concept of Delight, and The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions. In 2019, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition of her forthcoming monograph Augustine the African.

Catherine Conybeare

Catherine Conybeare

Catherine Conybeare is the Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities as well as Professor of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr.  Her research centres on late antiquity, and especially the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Her work includes The Irrational Augustine, The Laughter of Sarah: Biblical Interpretation, Contemporary Feminism, and the Concept of Delight, and The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions. In 2019, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition of her forthcoming monograph Augustine the African.