St. Augustine: The Restless Flame

In 430, as the Vandals laid siege to his city and to his people, Augustine lay dying. “In his last illness, he himself acted in this way. He had the penitential psalms of David written down and fixed to the wall, so that though in bed sick he could see and read them, while weeping all the time warm tears,” so recorded his close friend and biographer Possidius.

Hippo was one of the few cities of North Africa defended by a wall.  In this his 75th year (35th as bishop) Augustine for weeks had been playing host to a large circle of refugees which surrounded him.  It is from these displaced visitors that Augustine probably caught the fever which ended his life, three months into the siege.  After his death, Augustine’s friends guarded his writings as one of the city’s great treasures.  Everyone in Hippo understood well the value of those books.  Even during Augustine’s life his words were read across the crumbling Empire.  From a cave in Bethlehem, for instance, Jerome would call this son of Africa “the second founder of the faith.”  After Hippo lost their Shepherd the city held out for only a few more months; once inside, the Vandals destroyed the city by fire, though the Basilica and its library were saved.

Born of a Christian mother and a pagan father, Augustine lived and died between two worlds and two ages, between pagan antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages.  His oeuvre comprises treatises, letters, sermons, Biblical commentaries, even a political song, and is the most extensive record of any writer in antiquity totaling some five million printed words.  Yet, of all his literary achievements, the Confessions continues to excite like few other works of spiritual theology.

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The argument of the Confessions is announced in its opening lines. Magnus es domine, et laudabilis valde. “You are great Lord and worthy to be praised.” The supreme good is also the one object most worthy of our affection. Into this scale, from Creator to creatures, has been inserted man, homo. Man is unique because he bears the capacity to know and to mirror in himself, through the structure of his own affections, the right ordering of creation. Et laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae. “And man desires to praise you, a little portion of your creation.”  To discover this task is to know our greatest work; to complete it is to achieve our deepest satisfaction. Augustine held this vocation to be common to all people. But this call can be frustrated.

The location of man between animal and divinity is a theme common enough within ancient literature.  Being bodily, we share in the likeness to beasts and the rest of the material world; being rational, we are like the angels: in rendering praise to the Creator, men and women first lift themselves, and then everything else, back to God. Philosophy in the ancient world was as much a way of life as an academic discipline.  It outlined a set of practices as much as a method of debate, a form of community practiced alongside and sometimes in competition with religion.  Augustine has such honest seekers in mind.  In these opening lines of the Confessions, Augustine articulates how he thinks Christianity supersedes even the ancient wisdom.  The Church tells more truthfully the cause of our misery; she offers a more certain remedy for its cure.

First, the problem: homo circumferens testimonium peccati sui. “Man carries the testimony of his own sin.” Centuries earlier the Apostle Paul had interpreted death as a consequence of sin. Augustine accepts this account. The human mode of being is radically circumscribed. Neither scientific discovery, nor healthy living, nor psychological stability can revoke our slide into the grave. From conception we hurtle toward that destiny by an irresistible force. In Augustine’s view God’s punishment is severe; but it is also just. Moderns often do not sympathize with the Augustinian account of sin and divine punishment. We find it difficult to comprehend why a benevolent Deity should wish us harm. Certainly there have been some renderings of Augustine that speak of reward and punishment as something extrinsic, almost as though these were imputed entirely from the outside. But in Augustine’s own view death is not arbitrary. Rather, as a consequence of sin, death is the logical, necessary, and indeed proportionate effect of human perversion.

The Confessions invite us think of our predicament in this way.  Since God is good, nothing in his creation can be absolutely evil.  Evil is not a thing.  It is the negation of goodness, a turning away from the supreme good toward lesser goods. To sin therefore is not to choose something in itself bad.  It is, rather, to choose something good at the wrong time, or with the wrong intensity, or with the wrong intention.  It is to prefer some creature over God, a counterfeit over the original, your cell-phone chime to a live symphony.  As the Confessions carry on Augustine illustrates how the moral life consists in regaining the habit for reality.  If we are ever to return to our true home we must learn how to desire once again genuine beauty over its cheap imitators.  Augustine’s claim is that when we refuse the joy of God’s presence goodness itself becomes painful for us. Even a sick man has no taste for bread.

More interesting still, Augustine assigns a name for our psychological condition.  Carnal men suffer from a distinct type of sadness, which he calls inquietus.  Literally rendered, inquietus means restlessness or agitation. The Latin describes a mental state somewhere between anxiety and frustration, between fear without knowledge of its object and anger in the face of opposition.  In the opening lines of his autobiography St. Augustine calls the heart restless both because it knows that it wants happiness and yet often knows not what happiness would be.

Nearer to our own time the English metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593–1632) comes close to capturing this sensation in his poem, The Pulley. Here we read that at the beginning of time God lavishes upon humankind every gift but rest.

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span . . .
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

Let him be rich and weary.  God’s gamble: at least if goodness should fail, yet weariness may toss him to my breast. Rest, in other words, is the one gift even the Lord of creation cannot impart to us creatures without cooperation.  For world-weary travelers, then, a restless heart is God’s letter of invitation to leave the City of Man and return home.

Of all Augustine’s writings, the Confessions attract both because of its compelling argument and the delightful way that its story is told. But like a river from its current, in Augustine’s telling one cannot separate the two: narrative and argument combine into one form. From the opening lines, the reader finds himself swiftly caught up in a tale that is at once Augustine’s and the reader’s own. All that Augustine expects from us, his readers, is curiosity mixed with a natural interest in our own happiness. From there Augustine catches us by maneuvering seamlessly between his particular life—the events, the feelings, the frustrations unique to Augustine of Hippo—and the universal aspirations that all people suffer and, since Christ, can hope to fulfill.

His prose, I think, offers one lesson in apostolic courtesy.  This restless flame knew what it was like to be tossed by seething passion; he understood the darkness that enveloped a mind captive to hallow philosophy.  And so he began where everyman begins.  As we face our own neighbors who are skeptical of truth and cynical of goodness, sometimes we too should begin our account of the good news where everyman begins: with the story of desire.  Everyman longs for joy.  The saint adds reason to hope.  For, as Augustine might have said: no saint is without a past, and no sinner is without a future.

This essay is an adapted extract from Dr. Topping’s work in the Continuum Library of Educational Thought, St. Augustine (London, 2010).


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