Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized

Article excerpt

Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized. By John M. Rist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xx + 334pp. $65.00 (cloth).

Despite the subtitle, this book is not another methodologically naive account of how Augustine took over non-Christian philosophy and "baptized" it with accidents of Christian language while leaving its substance unchanged. Rist focuses on "Augustine's evaluation and transmission" and especially "transformation" of Greco-Roman ideas (pp. 1, 6). "[B]ooks on the history of . . . philosophy. . . are gravely reductionist"; they leave behind contributions of social context, chronology, and style (pp. 21-2), but Rist argues the usefulness of a non-chronological study of Augustinian philosophical themes, meant to gather scattered and interrupted strands of thought that otherwise would not be taken in their totality.

Rist's attention to Augustine's transformations succeeds because of his intimate knowledge of ancient philosophy: he knows a transformation when he sees one. "Words, signs and things" (ch. 1), complete with Stoic, Epicurean, and Platonic background, highlights the Augustinian "transmutation" (p.33) which occurs when ancient theories are put in the context of theological commitments emphasizing the intentionality of signs and the susceptibility of human intentionality to evil. "Certainty, belief and understanding" (ch. 2) features Augustine "undercutting" Platonist "optimism" (p. 48) even as he learns to grant genuine epistemological status to historical realities. Angustine's interest in the self as an "introspective substance" takes him beyond classical philosophers (p. 85), insofar as we always remain irreducibly mysterious even to ourselves, and later this is linked to what Rist calls the impossibility for Augustine of "a complete metaphysics (of the Thomistic sort)." For "we cannot yet know what a man, that is, a perfect man, is like; . . . we have simply recognized the perfect man by faith" (p. 147). Rist relates Augustine's doctrine of grace to Platonic theories of inspiration ("the difference is that grace is unambiguously divine, no mere daimon, but the Holy Spirit," p. 181) and to Aristotelian theories of acrasia (weakness of will), though the will that is weak is a distinctively Augustinian will, a "set of accepted loves. …

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