Revisiting your young scholarship as an older scholar, learning what matters

I spent a good part of the summer reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. My edition came from 2000; I see there is a more recent edition out. It’s a long haul of a book, buoyed most by Brown’s marvelous prose, and I was lead there, by Brown’s spectacular recent book, Through the Eye of A Needle, which I had read last year.

This is my little reading chart.

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The book was originally published 45 years ago, and my edition includes two afterwards: New Evidence and New Directions. The first discusses the exciting new evidence about Augustine that has been found since the book was published: the Divjak letters and the Dolbeau sermons. These new items, in addition to the formal corpus of Augustinian output (enormous), had Brown rethinking his young man’s views on Augustine at multiple phases in his life. It’s important not to get too sentimental: with his suppression of the Donatists*, Augustine cemented, if not laid, the intellectual foundation of forced conversion that in the hands of less moderate men would immiserate many.

Nonetheless, the sermons illustrated just how much of a fight Augustine had on his hands in north Africa at the time; bishops then were not the just stuff of silks and fancy hats. They had hostile and vigilante landowners, corrupt administrators, and others who abused power all around them, as well as a populace that remembered, all too well, the fun of pagan rituals, circuses, and celebrations relative to the austere language of sacrifice and personal redemption the Christians were peddling. The threats that may have seemed to a young biographer as minor were not: Brown admits throughout the addenda that he was, at times, too hard on his subject, too ready to ascribe to Augustine an unbending adherence to his authority of office rather than what, in retrospect, seems to Brown as Augustine simply trying to develop and use his authority to stem the worst abuses by a landed elite, his fellow bishops, and a greedy colonial administration. Augustine, as Brown notes, lived long enough to see all his hard-won victories in Africa fall apart around him after all was written and done. It is a sad ending for the man, if not for his lingering influence on Catholic theology.

As an older scholar, Brown recognizes also his willingness as a young man to write off Augustine as an old duffer who simply tried to sink Julian of Eclanum’s more reasoned positions about sex and human nature. Instead, the letters show Augustine a decent man who, in his old age–where he was highly venerated as a scholar and bishop–takes time for the smallest acts of teaching and ministering (largely the same things in my head):

It is, above all, the Divjak letters that have made me change my mind. In them we are bought up against a very different, more attractive, because so poignantly painstaking, side of the old man. Not only do they show Augustine acting always, if with a constant sigh of resignation, as the loyal colleague of his fellow bishops, when they struggled with endless cases of violence and the abuse of power among the clergy, land owners, and Imperial administrators. His letters are marked by an inspired fussiness and by a heroic lack of measure when it came to the care of endangered souls. There is nothing ‘burnt out’ in the seventy-year-old man who would spend the time to interview a young man terrorized by slave-traders** and who would go out of his way (as part of an effort to encourage the father to accept Christian baptism) to ask to see the school exercises, the rhetorical dictiones, of a teenage boy.*** The letters make plain that the old Augustine was prepared to give his unstinting attention to any problem that might trouble the faithful, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how ill-framed the problem seemed to be, and no matter how remote from Hippo,o show eccentric its proponents were.

The beginning of a new school year always has me thinking about the question of time and painstakingness. Research and teaching are really two jobs if you do them with the passion that I do, and in a place like USC, you are always encouraged to put research first. That’s where the painstakingness is meant to apply. And then there is my animal rescue work, which takes time and emotional resources, and where life-and-death decisions have to made; painstakingness, too, is required. The mistake of a day; the wrong medical choice; a failure to notice a limp, or a certain behavior, can result in tragedy.

How do you carve out a life when you have so many demands? Parents scoff at me, naturally: you have to when children in the picture, or if you don’t, you soon regret not doing so.

But this little bit at the end of Augustine reminds me that taking time for the small things, the small nudges to goodness and betterment that the old teach the young, matters in ways we ourselves do not often see. Taking time to visit and be present, and taking time and care over a student’s work…those distinguish scholars from those who merely wish to be stars.

*My auto-correct will keep making Donatists into Denists. I feel somewhat badly for the Donatists, though they certainly seemed to have been able to dish it out, but dentists deserve everything that is coming to them. (JK)

**Ep 10

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