Discerning the Good in the Letters & Sermons of Augustine

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Joseph Clair
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What’s the best way to get to know Augustine of Hippo? Given the exigencies of the liberal arts tradition and the availability of affordable texts, many of us first meet Augustine in his Confessions. Some, arguably the unfortunate ones, might begin with snippets of the City of God in a political theory course. It is even possible, though less likely, that a few students first stumble upon one of his other works, ranging from the early Cassiciacum dialogues to On Christian Teaching and The Trinity. Least common is to be introduced to Augustine through the letters he wrote or the sermons he preached to his North African congregation in late antiquity.

But what are we missing when we begin with the masterworks alone? In recent decades, scholars have begun to give pride of place to the neglected texts in Augustine’s oeuvre. Think here of the work of Robert Dodaro or Anthony Dupont. As its title implies, Joseph Clair’s Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine joins the chorus calling for greater attention to the epistolary and homiletic aspects of the Augustinian corpus.

Clair’s monograph focuses on what the epistles and homilies tell us about Augustine’s approach to “the good.” At first, this may sound strange. Isn’t “the good” one of those spookily Platonic abstractions, best suited to abstruse tomes of speculative theology? For Clair, though, that kind of concern misses the point. On his reading, Augustine’s approach to the good is more practical than theoretical. As he writes, “While most studies have focused on his structural accounts of love, sin, and goodness, mine demonstrates Augustine’s practical resolution to real moral problems of his time and thereby clarifies the abstract ontological foundation his answers rest on” (2). Looking to the letters and sermons, then, allows Clair to give us a glimpse of Augustine practically pointing his fellow Christians toward the good—not via speculation alone, but rather through concrete actions.

Economically sized, Clair’s volume is divided up efficiently into five main chapters, with one brief “interlude”. The first chapter outlines the hierarchy of goods in Augustine, which turns out to be merely the starting point for analysis (37-38). Ranking goods will always prove insufficient, argues Clair, provided that we fail to differentiate the realms of goods. The middle three chapters then proceed to name these realms: household goods, public goods, and private goods. Only in the final chapter do we come to the question of how this practical orientation relates not only to temporal goods, but even to eternal goods which subsist beyond time itself.

The interlude, which comes between the first and second chapters, clarifies Clair’s application of the Greek term oikeōsis to Augustine’s ethics. As Clair tells it, the term “refers to the natural drive for self-preservation and recognition of what properly ‘belongs’ …within the sphere of one’s self-regard, as well as a corresponding moral imperative to extend this natural affinity to ever widening circles of acquaintance” (39). Although use of oikeōsis could feel like an extraneous imposition, Clair finds comfort in the fact that he is standing on the shoulders of Oliver O’Donovan here. Oikeōsis has stoic, peripatetic, and eclectic roots, but Clair reminds us that two conduits of this concept—Varro and Cicero—proved decisive in shaping Augustine’s practical philosophy (42-43). Ultimately, Clair frames Augustine’s apologetic appropriation in terms reminiscent of John Rist: “Augustine’s baptism of the ancient philosophical concept of oikeōsis is the key to understanding his social ethics” (46).

One of the strengths of Clair’s approach is that the specificity of his examples mimics the concreteness of Augustine’s advice. Rather than merely generalizing on the basis of one or two phrases, Clair includes numerous direct citations drawn from Augustine’s correspondence and sermonizing. The result is a series of vivid exemplars, ranging from the wealthy Proba’s concerns about what a “decent” lifestyle is (52-65) to the militaristic Boniface’s attempts to reconcile Christian ethics with state power (87-93). Such specificity serves to remind us of Clair’s central claim that Augustine approached the good by engaging with the particular situations he encountered in his political and pastoral duties.

Some readers might worry that all this talk of goods has sidestepped the issue of the good. Of what use are these temporal concerns if we never quite get to the threshold of eternity? Yet the fifth chapter of Clair’s book recalls for us that Augustine’s discussion of eternal goods is not entirely detached from his practical ethics. For every passage that apophatically alludes to an unimaginable Good-in-Itself, we can find another where Augustine is happy to analogize between temporal and eternal honor, glory, and so on (130-35).

A more constructive criticism might ask, where’s grace in all this? The word grace itself is used but a few times over the course of the monograph (56, 72, 167). Perhaps this results from the time-honored tradition of muffling difficult doctrine in public settings. When someone comes to you asking for help, in other words, it’s not always best to lecture them on the arcane logic of predestination. All the same, it is difficult to imagine an Augustinian ethics where grace takes a back seat. Even if we must draw some borderline between speculative theory and pastoral practice, that boundary should stay somewhat permeable. Promisingly, Clair does briefly mention “the continuity of Augustine’s teaching on grace, gifts, and the virtue of humility in the Pelagian controversy and in his earlier writings” (72). Much work remains to be done at this intersection of grace and ethics.

Taken as a whole, Clair’s research constitutes a helpful contribution to scholarship on Augustine’s epistolary and homiletic output. When set alongside the work of Dodaro and Dupont, it does not feel out of place. As scholars continue to deepen our appreciation of the Augustinian canon beyond the masterpieces, Clair’s book should see a long afterlife—even if it must remain a temporal rather than an eternal good, properly speaking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Hannan is assistant professor in the Humanities department at MacEwan University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Clair is Director of the William Penn Honors Program and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University.



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