Book Review: Augustine For Armchair Theologians

Augustine For Armchair Theologians, by Stephen A Cooper, with illustrations by Ron Hill

Don’t let the illustrations of this book fool you, this is a short book of just over 200 pages that has some serious scholarly ambitions.  I am not familiar with the author or with his perspective, but while he is honest about acknowledging some of the aspects of Augustine’s life and thought that are a bit cringe-worthy [1], it is clear that he has a lot of admiration for Augustine.  This book reminded me that in many ways Augustine was a very Nathanish character, in both good and bad ways, and it is somewhat odd to me that I should find myself so eccentric and unusual in the world in which I live and yet have so many people not too different from me if I look at the world of books and the people who write them.  Augustine is portrayed here with a fair amount of extracts from his own writings–especially the Confessions–and with a fair degree of sensitivity, although the author certainly knows a great deal about Augustine and his thought and is quick to correct misconceptions about him that have resulted from the differences in his time and our own about how people portrayed their own life and their own thoughts.

The book is based on Augustine’s Confessions, so much so that about 80-90% of the book is based on the structure and organization of that book–even going into detail about Augustine’s thoughts about creation and his concern to be accurate to the knowledge of late Roman science.  A great deal of time is spent on Augustine’s youth, his extreme intelligence and the willingness he was led astray by his longings for intimacy–which he satisfied in a longtime common-law relationship with an unnamed woman who gave birth to a son but was of too low a status for him to marry–as well as by his considerable pride in his intellect and the inability he had of being answered by the religious leadership of backwater North Africa.  He is portrayed as a human being throughout, fond of controversy and even willing in his thirties to enter into a marriage with a girl (!) although not willing to wait for her to come of age.  The author points out his struggles with grief and his loyalty to his friends and to the way that he sought to be a philosopher but was compelled against his will to become a priest soon upon his baptism in Italy and his return to his native North Africa.

There is a great deal of value here in this book, in the way that the author endorses the philosophical approach that Augustine brought with his beliefs.  Augustine was certainly a Hellenistic Christian who was openly attracted to Neoplatonism and clearly sought a synthesis between Greek philosophy (at least as it was understood in the Latin of his day) and a Roman Catholicism growing in power and influence over the decaying Western Roman Empire that was falling apart over the course of his lifetime.  It is perhaps a sign of marked wisdom that he chose the church rather than continuing to seek political advancement in a world where the rapid and serious changes in rulers and their policies as Rome collapsed could have easily led him to fall victim to purges and shifts in policy.  Whether or not he was wise or just fortunate to find a place where he could live comfortably enough to write at length as he was wont to do, the rest of us have a lot of writings, some of which this book hints at, that have dramatically influenced all of us, regardless of our feelings about Augustine or the church that he loyally, if belatedly, served.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: Augustine For Armchair Theologians

  1. Pingback: Book Review: What The Tortoise Taught Us | Edge Induced Cohesion

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