On Creativity, Liberty, Love and the Beauty of the Law

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Todd R. Breyfogle
Reading Augustine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2017.
     168 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501314049.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the title of this volume suggests, Todd Breyfogle takes the reader on a journey with Augustine–a journey that includes many ports and destinations but never dwells in one place for too long. The author describes the book as a “meditation” that “does not take the form of an academic monograph” (3). It is not meant to serve as a guide or an introduction to any particular work of Augustine’s or to his thought as a whole. Neither is it a specialized study. A book like this is sui generis, and it will provide a breath of fresh air to the readers for whom it is aimed. While there are many who will benefit from reading this volume, it is especially aimed at readers who have a basic familiarity with Augustine’s ideas yet find themselves struggling to grasp a comprehensive Augustinian vision of human existence.

The book excels at making connections between the disparate components of Augustine’s theology. The writing is rich and poetic, yet there are moments of lucid simplicity, for example, when Breyfogle writes, “[t]o say that human beings are the pinnacle [of creation] is not to make a statement of superiority, but of complexity” (23). Observations like these are gathered together and then assembled into a mosaic so the reader can catch a glimpse of Augustine’s comprehensive vision.

Each chapter focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on a single text from Augustine. Chapter 1 (“Echoes of Creation”), for example, draws heavily on Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Chapter 6 (“The Music of the Word”) begins with insights from Confessionsbut then draws upon On Music (on oft-neglected work in Augustine scholarship) to develop a framework for understanding our lives–and the story of the cosmos itself–as narrative journeys. These Augustinian texts serve as helpful anchors for each chapter, but Breyfogle is not bound by them. He drifts between Augustine’s writings and ideas with impressive ease.

Chapters 4 (“Imagined Communities”), 5 (“The Arc of Justice and the Arrow of Beauty”), and 7 (“The Law of Liberty and the Law of Love”) are the strongest and most compelling. Drawing upon the two cities motif in The City of God, Breyfogle manages to synthesize a wide variety of theological, moral, and legal concepts. He accomplishes this through a reading of The City of God that is sensitive to the role of both cities. “It is tempting to read the two cities as gnostic competitors,” he writes, “and that is often how the motif is understood” (73). Yet “Augustine wishes to emphasize the two ways of being in social life – living as a pilgrim and as an exile. But we are all both, at the same time, pilgrims and exiles in the journey of this life” (73). This perspective lends itself to an understanding of politics and law as exercises in aesthetic judgment: “[t]he law of liberty is the law of love when the judgments of taste proceed from the reasons of the heart” (144). Unlike many other authors, Breyfogle manages to bring Augustine into the 21st century without having to pretend that Augustine was a proto-modern living in the 4th and 5th centuries.

This contribution to the massive domain of Augustinian studies is a welcome one. Augustine novices will want to begin with the primary texts and perhaps some introductory-level secondary sources. Other readers, from the intermediate to the seasoned scholar, will find much to ponder in this volume. The text’s appearance is deceptively simple: secondary literature is referred to sparingly, and there are total of two footnotes in the entire book. It would be incorrect to classify this book as either “academic” or “devotional.” Instead, Breyfogle follows Augustine’s example in his attempt to unite the head and the heart. While the writing is not overly cerebral or abstruse, the prospective reader should be warned: this work is intellectually demanding. It is indeed a “meditation,” as the author describes it, but it is the kind of meditation that demands sustained attention and an active memory. Breyfogle has written a book that rewards multiple readings, and it is a gift to readers of Augustine. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stewart Clem is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd Breyfogle is Director of Seminars for the Aspen Institute, USA, where he oversees open-enrollment executive leadership seminars. He previously was a Fellow and Program Officer at Liberty Fund and directed the University Honors Program at the University of Denver, USA. In 2012, Breyfogle was elected to the Senate of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He serves on several non-profit boards and is editor emeritus of The American Oxonian, the quarterly publication of the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. Breyfogle is editor of Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene (1999) and has authored a number of articles ranging from Augustine to J. S. Bach to contemporary political theory. In 2015, he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to the Order of St. John, an 11th century Order of Chivalry of the British Crown

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