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Augustine: Now and Forever

1,650 years since his birth, today's debates on waging just war and seeking interior peace are reflections of St. Augustine's continuing legacy.

Fresco of St. Augustine by Ignoto, Convent of Santa Maria


He may have been the first saint to find a home on the Internet.

But his early spot on the World Wide Web is scarcely a measure of St. Augustine's place in today's wide world, 1,650 years after his birth in northern Africa.

The saint who spoke freely of his sins has remained a literary staple of ruminations about the inner life. And, this bishop who saw the Roman Empire crumble has returned as a philosophical force in debates over the outer world of international politics.

In an age when many style themselves as spiritual "seekers," Augustine could be well cast as the original seeker. He wrote about his wandering soul in the most celebrated spiritual autobiography, yet unlike some today, he did not seek merely for the sake of seeking.

'Christian or not, all of us have learned to think about ourselves, and our world, and God, from Augustine.'
Augustine the philosopher also wrote passionately about less ethereal matters, like war and poverty, following cataclysmic attacks on Rome by the barbarians. These reflections have resounded after 9/11, in arguments over Iraq and terrorism.

"All of us in the West, Christian or not, have in some way learned to think about ourselves, and our world, and God, from Augustine," said Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. "One way or another, Augustine's thought is all over the Western tradition."

A striking claim by Cary is reflected in the title of his book, Augustine and the Invention of the Inner Self (Oxford University Press, 2000). He said the very concept of the inner self comes from Augustine.

"He gave us a picture of the self, which is still sometimes haunting us, providing a resource for us," said Cary, referring to the Augustinian notion of a deep inner presence of God. In his spiritual memoir, "The Confessions," Augustine spoke of God as "deeper in me than I am in me," which Cary translates more tightly from the Latin as "more inward than my inmost self."

Unlike some today, Augustine did not seek merely for the sake of seeking.
Augustine of Hippo is remembered most widely for that memoir, described by his biographer, Peter Brown, as a "manifesto of the inner world." The saint revealed his struggles with bodily desire and worldly ambition, and he is still often portrayed as wildly promiscuous during his pre-conversion years. Historians now say much of that has been exaggerated.

He "found" Christianity in his early thirties. Still, Augustine considered himself a lifelong seeker, always on the road to divine truth, never quite getting there in this life.

Today, people who go on a journey of the soul can take along roadmaps that have been drawn up by great or not-so-great spiritual writers. They could visit the Augustine home page created in 1994 by classical studies scholar James J. O'Donnell, who believes it was the first Internet site devoted to a saint.

Augustine himself did not have clear road marks, besides the Bible. The Western genre of spiritual autobiography arguably began with him.

"Here's a man who was really trying to find his way and not saying, 'I've heard of people who are trying to find their way, so I'll find my way, like them,'" O'Donnell said in an interview in his office at Georgetown University in Washington, where he maintains the site and serves as university provost. That originality helps explain Augustine's freshness today. "He's never playing a part. He's kind of inventing this as he goes along," said O'Donnell.

Not even a just war is a good thing, in the Augustinian view.
There have been sociological studies about spiritual seekers in recent years, and one frequent finding is that many of them aren't looking to find much. They shop around the spiritual marketplace, sampling this or that brand of mysticism or magic. But they don't buy into any faith tradition or meaning system.
They seek the thrill of the spiritual hunt, but not necessarily the theological catch. Augustine's way was different.

"For Augustine, there's a definite goal. There's a definite truth that we need to find. It's out there. We didn't create it," explained Cary, noting that the ultimate destination was the Christian God. And, in Augustine's view, those who traveled this inward path needed a lift from outside authorities. They needed the Bible as well as Christian tradition (such as it was in the fourth century).

"A lot of the sociological seekers are folks who I think wouldn't want to find anything that binds them down. And that's not like Augustine," said Cary, who delivered a popular series of lectures on audiotape titled "Augustine: Philosopher and Saint," produced by The Teaching Company, based in Chantilly, Virginia.

Among the truths that Augustine pursued was the morality of warfare under certain conditions. He articulated the classical just-war theory, which holds that legitimate authorities have a right to use deadly force in order to safeguard peace.

Augustine would say, 'Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you.'
These were not simply theoretical thoughts. A proud citizen of the Roman Empire, which stretched into northern Africa's hinterland, Augustine was writing after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. According to some, it was Rome's 9/11.

Recently in this country, hawkish intellectuals of a certain bent have enlisted Augustine in their case for the Iraq war and a mainly military response to global terrorism, although there are also Augustinian doves.

Often overlooked is the tragic and paradoxical quality of his teaching. Not even a just war is a good thing, in the Augustinian view.

The post-9/11 slogan might be, "Fight in good conscience. The terrorists are the bad guys," said Cary. But he added that Augustine would say, "Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you."

These days, many who invoke the saint "are definitely being much more cheerful about the prospect of war than Augustine was," Cary said.

As the just-war debates would show, Augustine did not leave an unambiguous intellectual legacy. But it is testimony enough that people of differing minds are still thinking Augustinian thoughts, still seeking the higher truths that he scoped out—nearly 17 centuries later.

Augustine's years

354: Augustine is born on November 13 in ancient Numidia (modern-day Algeria).
386: Augustine embraces Catholicism after a conversion experience in a garden in Milan.
387: St. Monica, mother of Augustine, dies.
395: Augustine is consecrated Bishop of Hippo Regius (now Annaba, Algeria).
397: Augustine begins writing his "Confessions."
430: Augustine dies, as a band of barbarians encircles Hippo.

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November 15, 2004

WILLIAM BOLE is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Commonweal, and other publications. He is co-author of 'Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace.' A contributing editor of Godspy, he lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

This article was originally published in the 11/14 edition of Our Sunday Visitor, under the title: 'An Ancient Saint Still Influences Modern Culture.'

Copyright 2004, William Bole. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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11.16.04   Godspy says:
1,650 years since his birth, today's debates on waging just war and seeking interior peace are reflections of St. Augustine's continuing legacy.

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