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The Historical Vision of St. Augustine by Brad Birzer

The Historical Vision of St. Augustine

by Brad Birzer

Brad Birzer 

One would be hard pressed to find a greater influence on two of the finest Catholic Humanists of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson and Russell Amos Kirk, than St. Augustine. One only has to employ the imagination to jump back sixteen centuries to see the parallels. At midnight, August 24, 410, Alaric and his Gothic warriors entered the gates of Rome and sacked the city, pillaging, raping, and murdering for nearly three solid days. Though the western empire had been crumbling for years due to cultural, political, and economic decadence, the actual event of the breach of Rome’s walls stunned and shattered the western world. Rome, the common thought ran throughout the Occident, was to last forever. It was, after all, as Jupiter had promised Venus in the Aeneid, the eternal city.

And, lest new fears disturb thy happy state, [Jupiter had promised]
Know, I have search’d the mystic rolls of Fate:
Thy son (nor is th’ appointed season far)
In Italy shall wage successful war,
Shall tame fierce nations in the bloody field,
And sov’reign laws impose, and cities build,
Of martial tow’rs the founder shall become,
The people Romans call, the city Rome.
To them no bounds of empire I assign,
Nor term of years to their immortal line.

Whatever the promises of Virgilian Stoic Myth, Germanic reality hit the western empire hard.

Reeling from the onslaught of the barbarians, St. Augustine stood firm in his opposition to the pagans and their challenge that Rome fell because it ignored the old gods. Gracefully, he turned the evil of the destruction of the Germanic tribes into something good. His defense came in the form of one of the most important and influential works of Christianity, The City of God (413-426). It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this work, as it became, for all intents and purposes, the theological, social, cultural, and political handbook for the middle ages. Through the writing of the City of God, St. Augustine also importantly came to realize that though Rome may have fallen, Christianity stood strong. “Though he was a loyal Roman and a scholar who realized the value of Greek thought, he regarded these things as temporary and accidental,” Christopher Dawson explained. “He lived not by the light of Athens and Alexandria, but by a new light that had suddenly dawned on the world from the East only a few centuries earlier.” The essence of Christianity remained, no matter what the accidents appeared as. Truth is eternal, St. Augustine understood, but cities, kingdoms, and civilizations are fleeting. For St. Augustine, Rome represented the City of Man, in its paganism, its decadence, and its earlier torture of Christians; Jerusalem represented the City of God.

As with St. Augustine, Dawson and Kirk looked out over a ruined world: a world on one side controlled by ideologues, and, consequently, a world of the Gulag, the Holocaust camps, the killing fields, and total war—a world that claimed nearly 205 million in state-sanctioned murder alone; on the other: a world of the pleasures of the flesh, Ad-Men, and what C.S. Lewis labeled the democratic “conditioners” to be found, especially, in bureaucracies and in higher institutions of education, almost all of which had forsaken the liberal for the servile arts.  Both East and West had become dogmatically materialist, Dawson and Kirk feared, though after radically different fashions. The West pursued material greed and embraced avarice, while the East made anything spiritual illegal, immoral, and, ultimately, fatal. Each side, Dawson and Kirk believed, mechanized men, making them less than what God or nature had originally desired them to be. In almost every way, the devastation of Dawson’s and Kirk’s twentieth-century world was far greater than that of St. Augustine’s fifth-century world. At least barbarian man believed in something greater than himself. One could confront him as a man, a man who knew who he was and what he believed, however false that belief might be to the Christians. As Chesterton stated in the poetic prophecy of King Alfred, the great Anglo-Saxon king of the late 9th century, describing the intellectuals and ideologues of the twentieth century:

They shall come mild as monkish clerks
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans were still men.

Rooted in nothing, modern and post-modern men, Dawson and Kirk feared, tend to accept readily and, perhaps, insatiably, the false, substitute religions of modernity. If they reject Christianity and the deeper things of the western tradition, Dawson and Kirk argued, they will readily grasp for anything proclaiming truth that comes their way: fascism, National Socialism, or communism.

Fifteen centuries after St. Augustine, Dawson and Kirk believed, the barbarians were again at the gates, and the world faced a similar crisis. There “are moments when the obscurity of history seems to be suddenly illuminated by some sign of divine purpose,” Dawson wrote in 1959 from his newly endowed chair at Harvard. “These are the moments of crisis in the literal sense of the word—times of judgment when the powers of this world are tried and condemned and when the course of history suddenly flows into a new channel. Such was the age of the Hebrew prophets, such was the age of St. Augustine, and such is the age in which we have the privilege and misfortune to live today.” And, like his patron St. Augustine, Dawson wanted to employ his energy and imagination—a freely given gift by the Light of the Logos and by the Holy Spirit, he argued—to bring the world back to right reason and first principles. As Dawson wrote of St. Augustine:
To the materialist, nothing could be more futile than the spectacle of Augustine busying himself with the reunion of the African Church and the refutation of the Pelagians, while civilisation was falling to pieces about his ears. To him the ruin of civilisation and the destruction of the Empire were not very important things. He looked beyond the aimless and bloody chaos of the world to the world of eternal realities from which the world of sense derives all the significance it possesses.
Dawson could have easily been writing about himself and his role in the twentieth century, confronting the newly emerging technological and secularized world ruled by the ideologues of the left and right. Dawson’s body of work, historian of theology Aidan Nichols has recently argued, is itself “best thought of as a latter-day City of God.”

Indeed, one of the most neglected topics of the Catholic literary revival of the twentieth century is the role St. Augustine played. Most scholars of Christian Humanism and the literary revival have focused on the importance of Pope Leo’s 1879 encyclical on the necessity of reviving the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aeterni Patris (“On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy”), and the subsequent development of neo-Thomism, led by such powerful intellects and personalities as Jacques Maritain.

Though few scholars have written on Augustinianism in the twentieth century, it would be difficult to overemphasize the saint’s importance. His connection to Dawson has just been explicitly noted; St. Augustine served as Dawson’s patron saint, and friends sent Dawson cards and greetings on August 28th. St. Augustine served as a similar patron to Russell Kirk. Russell Amos Kirk became Russell Amos Augustine Kirk when he formally entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1964. In his autobiography, Kirk wrote, using the third person, “Reading the fathers of the Church, Augustine and Gregory and Ambrose especially, Kirk gave up his previous spiritual individualism.” St. Augustine’s words, especially, made Kirk realize the value of community: “‘The calm judgment of the world is that those men cannot be good who, in any part of the world, cut themselves off from the rest of the world.’ Therefore, the Church had been raised up.” Kirk provides an answer for his own fascination with Augustine in his The Roots of American Order, published ten years after his conversion. Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God “speaks to some twentieth-century minds and consciences with a power that the disasters of our own time augment,” Kirk wrote. St. Augustine “so neglected today, perhaps has more to teach this age than has any other philosopher,” Kirk wrote in the pages of his regular column of National Review in 1967.

Dawson had written something similar nearly a decade earlier:

The only remedy is to be found in that spiritual force by which the humility of God conquers the pride of the evil one. Hence the spiritual reformer cannot expect to have the majority on his side. He must be prepared to stand alone like Ezekiael and Jeremy. He must take as his example St. Augustine besieged by the Vandals at Hippo, or St. Gregory preaching at Rome with the Lombards at the gates. For the true helpers of the world are the poor in spirit, the men who bear the sign of the cross on their foreheads, who refused to be overcome by the triumph of injustice and put their sole trust in the salvation of God.

For Dawson and Kirk, St. Augustine served as both the lodestar in confronting the evils of the world and as a means by which the modern traditionalist should navigate in turbulent ideological waters. As Dawson’s publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote in his own autobiography, St. Augustine should take his place as one of the six most important thinkers in the twentieth-century Catholic literary revival. Sheed’s other five were Dawson, Belloc, Chesterton, C.C. Martindale, and Ronald Knox. “Every man living in the Western world would be a different man if Augustine had not been, or had been different.” He was, in many ways, as Sheed, Dawson, and Kirk believed, a nexus in the world. He not only served as a geographical nexus, bridging Africa with Rome, Europe, and the Holy Land, but he was, more importantly, a nexus between the classical and the medieval worlds. Like Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, he came at the end of a civilization, and he recorded all that he could of what had come before him, allowing a remnant to benefit from such understandings. Certainly, Dawson and Kirk might have seen themselves in the same position, and, as their compatriot across the ocean, C.S. Lewis wrote, they were, in essence, “Old Western Men.” They wrote on the other side of the Great Divide. So, like Augustine, Dawson and Kirk believed they too might have come at the end of an era, and they did what they could to preserve the rest of the western tradition for future generations.

Because time is short, I will only give a brief example of the Augustinianism in their respective philosophies of history. The City of God, Dawson explained, was “a vast synthesis which embraces the history of the whole human race and its destinies in time and eternity.” Larger than a study of mere fact or a laying out of a sequence of names and dates, St. Augustine’s City of God is “metahistory.”

Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change. The historian himself is primarily engaged in the study of the past. He does not ask himself why the past is different from the present or what is the meaning of history as a whole. What he wants to know is what actually happened at a particular time and place and what effect it had on the immediate future.

Unlike history, metahistory posits a truth about philosophy and theology. True metahistory has a sense of poetry to it. “The mastery of” professional historical methods and “techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry.” The metahistorian, will recognize that “something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitation of the particular field of historical study.” The metahistorian, like the poet, then, should be divinely inspired, accepting the creativity offered by the love of the Holy Spirit, the source of all creativity and imagination. So armed, the historian should recognize the Creator and glorify the creation. The professional historian, Dawson claimed, will often fall into the trap of antiquarianism, thus diminishing the profundity of history as a divine instrument.

Kirk agreed. “To seek for truths in history. . . distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness.”

For Kirk, Dawson, and St. Augustine, one cannot readily separate one’s own story from the real story—the story of the Logos. We are after all, each thought, little words made in the Image of the Word. “In Him we move and live and have our being.” It is our job to use the gifts given to each one of us uniquely, and, with the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model, allow our souls to magnify the Lord. In his 1956 work, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, Kirk concluded that the defender of the western tradition must view the world as did St. Augustine. “Yet that a darkness without solace or hope, a darkness of the pit, may not descend upon a society in this century, we need to refresh our memories with the recollection of what already had been lost from our culture and our civil social order,” Kirk wrote, “and we have the high duty of keeping alight amid the Vandal flood, like Augustine of Hippo, the spark of principle and conscience.”


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