Saturday, 20 February 2010

Gibbon vs Augustine

I'm still working my way slowly through my Gibbon audiobook, with the occasional half an hour before I go to sleep or an hour on a train journey. The problem is that now it's Lent, and in Lent I like to read something, rather than actually going through the self-discipline of giving something up. This year it's Augustine on the Psalms, after Cassiodorus on the Psalms last year.

Gibbon is renowned for being anti-Christian, and he got into some trouble for parts of his work. When I listened to these bits my first reaction was that he was being surprisingly polite about Christianity -- imputing folly to misinterpretations rather than to anything intrinsic. I suppose his detractors were not very used to hearing people being rude about Christianity, whereas nowadays there's a constant stream of unpleasant and facile jokes made at our expense. Luckily we Christians, Protestants at least, rather like this, even if it is wearing over time, because of the bits that say "Blessed are you when people revile you" (see Matt 5.10-12) -- it makes us feel a little bit less like the pharisees -- most of the time I at least feel terribly like a pharisee. Anyway, Gibbon pays a lot of lip service to Christianity. The way in which he loses my sympathy is with his constant snide comments, which no doubt he could defend as simple quotations of ancient authors -- you get the impression that he felt himself terribly clever to be so rude while still staying within the bounds of what was politely permissible at the time. That sort of mealy-mouthed politeness with underlying jibes is not very likeable.

Gibbon thinks that Christianity came along and spoilt his lovely Roman empire -- not a view widely held by historians today, but it's true that it's not much use everyone having run off to become a monk if you're trying to raise an army. My contrasting opinion is that the Roman Empire took over and did not do much good to lovely Christianity, by making it all patrician. There's an excellent novel by Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio, which treats this theme very well. (It's also the best novel ever about textual criticism, unless you count Pale Fire.) I also read a very good Peter Brown book about it not long ago.

The last time I read some Augustine it was his On Free Will, in which he writes about this issue in an old-school proper philosophical format, in a dialogue complete with those somewhat odd rather personal exchanges that you come across in the genre. It was very hard work, and several of his logical steps were ones I would have liked to have been the pupil for, and challenged; it really felt like he was making a point as much by the format as by the content. I was reading it at the same time as Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, which it seemed to me tackled something very similar indeed, but from a hugely different angle. You can't help but warm to Julian, with her vision of the little thing the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, and the revelation that this was all that existed, and that it only continued to exist because God loved it. Behind her visions and plain English speech lie a good deal of learning and sophisticated understanding, and Augustine was certainly very influential on her thought. They tackle the question "Why does God allow sin?" with similar points, but such a different tone. Julian conveys distress tempered by faith and hope, Augustine intellectual curiosity.

Augustine on the Psalms is a very different proposition. Last year when I read Cassiodorus over Lent I made myself targets of so much per day; usually three psalms, but four or five if I could manage it, because Psalm 118 is such a monster (really it's 22 short psalms). I pushed myself hard, and spent most of my daily rat-exercising hour on it. I enjoyed his practical attitude. He expressly says it's meant as a shorter and more accessible version of Augustine's work, and he likes telling us things, and occasionally remarking on how excellent this all is. Augustine on the Psalms is so much longer that I was never able to entertain the idea of reading it all in one Lent. But what has surprised me is that I keep finding it rather moving. He wrote it over thirty years, and some Psalms have more than one section on them; some bits were dictated to secretaries as notes for future reference, some were taught to pupils, while others were preached in churches to a mixed audience. It's some of his most personal material, after the Confessions, obviously; we know that Psalms were hugely important to him from his conversion onwards, and on his deathbed he asked to be left alone to pray the penitential psalms. Where Cassiodorus talks about all the things that one can learn from the Psalms, Augustine adds a significant emotional and spiritual dimension. It's very important for him that the Psalms are a way of exercising the emotions; you pray a Psalm and let it direct your emotions towards better places. Also here he does convey real sadness about damage and sin. I haven't always found it easy to like Augustine in the past, and one could argue that his own problems with lust have had a really strong and quite negative effect on the direction of the church. ("Please could the church get over Augustine's dick?" as one feminist theologian plaintively remarked recently.) But in his Enarrationes in Psalmos he comes across as a real human, and one with a remarkable sense of the inner human being. I think I shall read them slowly, one psalm per day, and carefully, and it won't matter if I never finish them all.


  1. 人生的價值以及他的快樂,都在於他有能力看重自己的生存........................................

  2. According to Babelfish, the above statement means:
    "The life value as well as his joy, lies in him to have ability to regard own survival."
    There are many links at the end, mostly with the word "sexy" as part of the URL. Usually I delete spam but today I am in a whimsical mood. This spam has come from a culture so far away that to most of our ancestors it was unimaginably exotic, a journey of years not weeks. And now communication is so cheap and unremarkable that they can send us tons of little messages like dandelion seeds just in case one takes.

    Also maybe I deserve spam for talking about Augustine's dick.

  3. Your comment reminds me of something I read about Matteo Ricci, a 16th/17th C. Jesuit missionary in China. Postal services to Europe were slow and unreliable: Ricci, writing to his family back in Italy, could expect to wait six or seven years for a reply, if one manged to get through at all. After many years without contact he received word through a friend that his father had died. Several more years passed before he heard from someone else that in fact his father was still alive. He rushed off a letter, but by the time it reached Italy two or three years later his father had died.

    I think it's difficult for us really to appreciate the timescales involved in such a story, or just how much slower and less connected life was then. Personally, I struggle to remember how I ever managed without the internet.

    Slightly more on topic, I've never really been satisfied reading books piece by piece, by "the occasional half an hour" (excluding essays/short poetry, etc.). I lose the thread and can't appreciate or properly understand what's being said. (Of course, with audiobooks I find it difficult to concentrate anyway, and on a train I'd just fall asleep---so I'm triply impressed by your efforts with Gibbon!) Isn't that a problem for you? (Or, are you just not all that bothered?)

  4. I read about a similar situation with William Adams (d. 1620) in Japan, where he might as well have been on another planet for all the hope he had of getting home again, or even sending letters.

    There's a lot of material which I couldn't read piecemeal, especially novels, but the great thing about Augustine on the Psalms is that it's split up into such discrete sections. I find it rather relaxing just to read a bit and then let it go. If I listened to too much Gibbon at once I would go crazy -- I recently reread something I've been working on for a bit, and found that I could tell which bits I'd written immediately after listening to Gibbon. But I have had to stop listening to one of my favourite podcasts, The History of Rome, while I've got Gibbon on the go, because I get too confused about Roman history if I try to jump about like that. I'm sure there's bits of Gibbon I'm missing because with an audiobook you can't flick back a few pages to check out which emperor you're on at the moment, but then I enjoy his turn of phrase so much that I don't really mind. I think this relaxed attitude is one of the good things about getting older -- a decade or two ago I would have felt awful about not doing it Properly.

  5. Hello, here's another dandelion seed, or just a random wave across the internet. I have just stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it very much. You seem quite keen on book recommendations (I love the idea of asking university candidates to recommend a book instead of interviewing them), so here's one: I have just finished 'The Little Stranger' by Sarah Water, and found it absolutely chilling (which I consider a good thing).

    As Salinger has it: 'While the consequences are often quite hellish, I am absolutely and perhaps permanently against ignoring books recommended from the heart by very nice people and strangers; it is too risky and inhuman; also the consequences are often painful in a fairly charming way.'

    (Can't work out how to get this to identify me, but I'm at

  6. Nice blog and well written :-)