Miles Hollingworth’s Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography is an odd intellectual biography. He includes many generous quotations from Augustine, but Hollingworth sprinkles in references to Frantz Fanon, Whitehead, Cecil Day Lewis, C.S. Lewis and many other modern writers along the way. He certainly doesn’t feel the need to confine himself to the fourth and fifth centuries. The book is more an essay than an intellectual biography. The anachronisms are intended to illuminate; I found them distracting in the main, not quite sure if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of “a gesture older than history” really does illuminate Augustine’s sense of a fallen humanity (92).
The unorthodox style arises in part from Hollingworth’s premise that Augustine resembles “the world’s great novelist’s” (ix). He elaborates:
“What did interest [Augustine] was what has always interested the great novelists. This is the single story that is contained within every human story. The story of how, as high-born creatures of intellect and volition, we battle the indignities of flesh and death. And how out of that battle we keep a foot in either camp, a little in heaven, a little in hell . . . . It is this overcoming aspect of the human race that Augustine so persistently identified as the tension - as even the fragility - of beauty and truth whenever we touch these things in writing and art” (ix).
Whether that is a fair description of the interests of great novelists I leave to the side. But let me register my doubt that this is specific enough - specifically Christian enough - to count as a summary of what interested Augustine.
Hollingworth’s approach does bring out some illuminating connections on Augustine’s thought. Putting Augustine in conversation with Freud about early infancy is intriguing, as is the link Hollingworth draws between his meditations on infancy and his critique of Donatist purism (60-1). The claim that “Augustine’s approach to infancy, and the question of what gets underway at birth, prompted him to develop advanced interests in ‘time’” (66) is fairly obvious once stated; after all, the Confessions that begins with Augustine’s infancy ends with extended musings on temporality. But Hollingworth makes the connection unexpectedly fertile. And then he enriches the discussion further by suggesting that “Augustine may be the first Western thinker to launch this idea that time is what the infant breaks out into as into its first language of meaning” (72), which he follows with a treatment of Augustine’s discussion of language. At this points, one feels that Hollingworth is feeling along the contours of Augustine’s thought in fresh ways.
Several times he gives quick, arresting summaries of Augustine’s project. “Augustine was obsessed with the idea that the writing out, and the speaking out, of reality . . . was the only way we could grasp something” (5). Augustine works to unify “three sets of traditionally ‘kept-apart’ ideas. Man and woman; the natural and the supernatural; and self-consciousness and what we might call naive realism” (246). Best of all: “Augustinianism is Augustine’s utter contempt of idols. Not so much the giant efforts in wood and stone that we can titter or gawp at, but the untold idols of the mind . . . . Obedience to idols is how we become also most perplexing to ourselves, and estranged from ourselves” (207). That is pitch-perfect: “Contempt” is just right, the dogged pursuit of intellectual idolatry, the self-alienation of idolatry. That feels like Augustine.
Yet the book leaves me dissatisfied. When Hollingworth examines “Augustine’s intellectual milieu, he reaches back to Socrates and Plato, discusses Platonism and the Stoa. Hollingworth knows that Augustine was a Christian thinker, but he makes it appear that Augustine’s intellectual formation was, to put it too starkly, philosophical rather than biblical. That minimalization of the intellectual centrality of Christian concerns runs through the whole book. Hollingworth cites de Trinitate , but doesn’t say much about how Trinitarian meditations might have shaped Augustine’s patterns of thought more generally. In his brief discussion of Christology, he says that “Christ proves that we are not cattle, contentedly grazing, but human lives, beyond despair” (192) and that “What Christ proves is that mankind needs to be proving God’s Will. We need to love and be loved at the highest level of the Song of Songs if our own efforts to love are to have any grounding” (193). But Augustine would never have considered Christ as proof of something else. To make Christ the minor premise of a larger argument is precisely the kind of idolatry that Augustine held in contempt.
The book left me wondering about Hollingworth’s premise: Is it Augustine, or Hollingworth, whose deepest interests are those of the world’s great novelists?