Detachment and objectivity are not to be found in the Confessions. Analysis of divine affairs is not only not kept apart from self-analysis, but the two streams are run together in what often appears to first readers to be an uncontrolled and illogical melange. This book’s fascination for modern readers stems in large part from its vivid portrayal of a man in the presence of his God, of God and the self intimately related but still separated by sin, and of a struggle for mastery within the self longing for final peace. It is an extraordinary book, no matter how studied.
The rest of Augustine’s life was spent writing books of a more conventional sort. He would analyze in painstaking detail the inner workings of the Trinity, the whole course of salvation history, and the delicate commerce between God and man in the workings of grace and the will, all in an objective, detached, and impersonal style. What is different about them is that they were written by a man who had already written the Confessions, made his peace with God insofar as that was possible, and drawn from that peace (the forerunner of heavenly rest) the confidence he needed to stand at the altar and preach or to sit in his study dictating works of polemic and instruction for the world to read….
The Confessions are not to be read merely as a look back at Augustine’s spiritual development; rather the text itself is an essential stage in that development, and a work aware both of what had already passed into history and of what lay ahead. No other work of Christian literature does what Augustine accomplishes in this volume; only Dante’s Commedia even rivals it.
No doubt the spiritual and moral standards for the Christian life had relaxed quite a bit since the days of persecution, when even the hint of Christian faith could cost a person his or her life; no doubt some restored tension, some call for a renewal of holiness, was surely needed. But Pelagianism, like many zealous movements of moral and spiritual reform, writes a recipe for profound anxiety. Its original word of encouragement (You can do it!) immediately yields to the self-doubting question: “But am I doing it?” It makes a rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life — as [Peter] Brown points out, “Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” — and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down.
By contrast, Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature — seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity — is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: “Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be.” It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes; but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin, and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God, gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: “Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.”
Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.
— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.