Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Augustine vs. Ambrose

I taught an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions in January, so I read a bunch about Augustine. As part of that, I read through Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which is still (and deservedly so) a standard text in the field.

Here is an interesting tidbit wherein Brown compares Augustine and Ambrose. I offer it because Augustine often gets described as an austere, unapproachable figure, off by himself reading and writing with precious little human contact. Indeed, this lack of contact is supposed to be the source of his less than desirable views on human sexuality (more on that in another post). The truth is quite the opposite, as we glimpse in the below.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 411-12.
To an African clergyman…Augustine was not the writer whose thought had aroused admiration and concern around the Mediterranean: he was, above all, a bishop who had practiced what he preached. The Christian bishop was now an important figure throughout the Roman world: visits to his residence had become a normal part of the social life of most towns. Augustine sensed this change: he was particularly concerned with the ‘image’ that a bishop should present to the outside world. His own hero was Ambrose. At a time when he himself felt in need of reassurance after the misbehavior of one of his protégés, he urged a Milanese deacon, Paulinus, to write a life of Ambrose. Ambrose had been dead for twenty-five years; and seen at that distance by a man such as Paulinus, he appeared very different from the Ambrose that we meet in Augustine’s Confessions. The Ambrose of Paulinus is a man of action, who had cut a furrow through his contemporaries: no less than six people suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in his way or for criticizing him, among them quite ordinary African clergymen. Paulinus plainly felt that, at the Last Judgement, men would still be divided between those who admired Ambrose, and those who heartily disliked him. When Augustine’s friend, Possidius, came to write his Life of Augustine, the picture was very different. Possidius will dwell, rather, on the life that Augustine had created for himself and others in his bishop’s house: on how he had written verses on the table to prohibit malicious gossip; on how anyone who swore would forfeit his glass of wine; on how they ate with silver spoons, but off simple crockery, ‘not because they were too poor, but on purpose’.

The focus of Augustine’s ideal had been the common life of absolute poverty lived by himself and his clergy in the bishop’s house. The citizens of Hippo could well be proud of this.

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