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La mort chez Saint Augustin: Grandes lignes de l'evolution de sa pensee, telle qu'elle apparait dans ses traites.

Death is one of the few reasonably certain expectations of human life, and since Christianity, like other religions, claims to give it a meaning, apart from the biological fact, and to offer hopes for a better posthumous future, it is not surprising that theologians and pastors have devoted very considerable attention to the topic, among them, inevitably, Augustine. This study seeks to trace the evolution of his thought on physical death, with the author making two important qualifications. First, evolution in the world of thought does not necessarily imply continued enrichment. (Few readers of Augustine will regard the Opus Imperfectum contra Iulianum as his crowning achievement.) Second, the examination does not seek to cover the whole range of Augustine's writings, but confines itself to five groups: the philosophical writings following upon his conversion; the anti-Manichaean treatises; the Pauline commentaries; and the anti-Donatist and anti-Pelagian treatises. Girard deliberately excludes any detailed treatment of the De Genesi ad Litteram, the Confessions, and the De Civitate Dei, together with most of Augustine's sermons and letters. His brief references to the Confessions are concerned with the effects of the deaths of others - the unnamed friend of Thagaste and his mother - upon Augustine. These limitations are understandable, indeed unavoidable, unless the size of the study is to be doubled or trebled; but they mean, as Girard recognizes, that his work deals essentially with Augustine's specifically theological treatment of death. Augustine recognizes its anguish - this is one reason for his argument that it is fundamentally alien to human nature and a product of the Fall - but there is nothing in his treatment as here described to compare with the sombre contemplation of mortality that we find, for example, in John Donne, and any reader of Girard's book who looks for Augustinian eloquence will be disappointed. Instead, we have the sort of argument which is so familiar to readers of Augustine, reaching its wearisome climax in the Opus Imperfectum.

The theme of the work is physical death - the death of the body - though inevitably the discussion leads, on occasion, to consideration of the second death of the soul in damnation. The methodology resembles that of J. Patout Burns in The Development of Augustine's Doctrine of Operative Grace (Paris, 1980): an analysis of what the word `death' meant to Augustine at successive periods of his thinking, that is to say a chronological or historical consideration, as opposed to a synthesis of his thought which is liable, as Girard observes, to result in the creation of an Augustinian `system' which never existed as such (p. 9). This sort of historical approach is characteristic of contemporary Augustinian scholarship, and is the only satisfactory method in dealing with an essentially occasional writer, who composed as controversy demanded, without trying to construct a system. The only danger in such methodology is that it may itself become a system, and assume that Augustine necessarily abandoned a particular way of thinking at a particular moment, thereby imposing precisely that sort of rigidity upon his thought which the method seeks to avoid. Girard is aware of this danger, pointing out that a word like mortalitas, which he sees as a useful indication of Augustine's understanding of the human condition, undergoes changes of meaning according to the context of the particular debate. Writing against the Manichees, it indicates the condition of life of fallen humanity. In the early writings against the Pelagians it means the liability to die. In the later stages of the controversy it takes on a larger meaning, embracing the fallen state of man, where sexuality is inevitably marked by a lack of self-control. `Ce n'est pas par negligence qu'Augustin emploie mortalitas dans un sens moins precis, mais certainement afin d'exploiter l'universalite de la mort pour suggerer l'universalite de la faiblesse et de la culpabilite' (p. 213). In this sentence Girard demonstrates both the need to interpret Augustine's theological statements in their historical context and the futility of trying to create any sort of Augustinian system, such as may be found in a theologian like Thomas Aquinas. It is for this reason that Girard's sub-title: Grandes lignes de l'evolution de sa pensee is entirely appropriate.

Girard, then, traces the evolution of Augustine's thought on death by examining its meaning in successive groups of his writings: the philosophical treatises, including the De Immortalitate Animae and the Soliloquia, of the period 386-387; the anti-Manichaean writings; the Pauline commentaries; the anti-Donatist writings; and the writings against the Pelagians. The dominant mood of the philosophical dialogues is Platonic. The issue is not the fate of the body but the immortality of the soul, in which Augustine had believed even before reading the Neoplatonists, if the statement of Confessions 6,16,26 is to be accepted. `Physical death is important only inasmuch as it may seem to imply the annihilation of a human being.... The body dies. What may be in store for it is a matter of no interest.... The death and resurrection of Christ do not enter at all into the reflexions on death, nor is there any question of the reason for it. Man dies being by definition a mortal animal' (p. 27). In short, although Augustine is not entirely negative at this time with regard to the body and this world, the body is generally regarded as a weight and hindrance on the way to wisdom, and death is a matter of indifference if wisdom may be found with or without the body (pp. 20-25).

In dealing with the Manichees, however, Augustine wrote as a Christian apologist controverting heretical opinions. For the Manichees, matter was evil and the human body a mingling of spirit and matter from which death was, at least in the case of the Elect, a deliverance of the spiritual element from defilement. Against this view Augustine was constrained to vindicate the essential goodness of the body while at the same time explaining how, in the present life, it is liable to suffering, decay, and death. It was in this context that he began to use the word mortalitas to describe the state of humanity in the present world, where man has lost his original perfection as the image of God (p. 37), to which the righteous are being restored through the death and resurrection of Christ (pp. 61-66). In debating with the Manichees, Augustine was forced to consider the tragic condition of humanity, and this meant that he had to take into consideration the fact of physical death as he had not had to do in the philosophical dialogues (pp. 74-75).

Augustine's commentaries on St Paul, culminating in the Ad Simplicianum of 397, represent a decisive step in his theology, and in particular in his view of death. In them he came to understand physical death as a consequence of sin, a penalty merited by every human being and to be understood as penal suffering. Besides this physical death, however, which is experienced by all humanity, there is also the spiritual death suffered by the reprobate. Christ suffered physical death, not because he deserved it, but by reason of the human nature which he had willed to assume in order to destroy spiritual death and to bring about the resurrection of the body.

The dispute with Donatism caused Augustine to pay particular attention to the circumstances of death. As against Donatist veneration of martyrdom, he sought to insist upon the motives which inspired a Christian to die. Death is a decisive event; but it is to be sought for reasons of justice and charity, and not for its own sake.

It is, however, in his discussion of the debates of the Pelagian controversy that Girard's discussion of Augustine's views on death seems to the reviewer to be most fruitful. He recognizes the importance of Rufinus the Syrian (so often a neglected thinker) as an indirect challenge to Augustine. For Rufinus, death is not, in itself, an evil, and he attacks the pessimistic view of the human condition of which death is the symbol. In common with Augustine - and, it may be added, with Theodore of Mopsuestia and Julian of Eclanum - Rufinus held that Adam and Eve, although created mortal, would not have experienced death if they had obeyed God's command (De Fide 29). Celestius went beyond this. According to the charges brought against him at Carthage, he held that Adam would have died, whether he sinned or not, and that his sin hurt only its author and not the human race, which neither dies as a whole in Adam nor rises as a whole in Christ. In these charges a direct link was established between original sin and physical death. Girard suggests that there may have been discussions of death at Rome between 400 and 410 (a time, it will be recalled, of intense interest in Pauline theology) in the course of argument about original sin, but that until 410 one does not find any demonstration of original sin apart from the fact of the universality of physical death (p. 140). `Il semblerait donc que le probleme de la mort soit entre dans la querelle pelagienne par Rufin. Repris momentanament par Celestius qui le pousse a une formulation outranciere' (p. 142).

Augustine's initial intervention in the controversy was directed against the doctrine of Rufinus, as developed by Celestius. In the De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione he sees death as a punishment for sin, which is transmitted, together with original sin, from Adam; but while original sin is remitted in baptism, physical death remains to preserve human beings from an attachment to this world and to direct their hopes to the next (p. 153). Hence the Pauline phrase corpus huius mortis defines the situation of humanity even after the remission of sins in baptism, since concupiscence remains in the body (p. 155). This attitude was challenged by Julian of Eclanum. For him, corpus huius mortis refers not to mortality, but to the habit of sin; and beyond this is a radical divergence in his theological outlook from that of Augustine. For Augustine, Adam, even though he was created mortal, was designed for immortality; for Julian, Adam was intended to be mortal - hence the institution of marriage - and immortality was something to be added to the happiness of paradise. Accordingly, while death was the consequence of Adam's sin, it was the consequence of personal sin and resulted in his own spiritual death (p. 175). Augustine, on the other hand, because of his belief that man was designed to be immortal, understood mortality not simply as physical death but as the general condition of sinful humanity in this world. Such an understanding led to an increased emphasis by Augustine on concupiscence - the disobedience of the dying body - which plays so large a part in the latter stages of the debate with Julian (p. 184). Thus, Augustine's conception of mortalitas became a description of our present life, a life marked by weakness and misery (p. 197) and, worst of all, by the uncertainty of salvation at its end (p. 205).

Girard has written a work of great interest, both as a study of a particular term in the thought of Augustine and as a contribution to the understanding of the theologies of the various disputants involved in the Pelagian controversy, an understanding which demonstrates how rewarding the examination of a particular word in Augustine's vocabulary can be for the elucidation of his thought as a whole. Particularly valuable is Girard's practical demonstration of the truth of the cliche that Augustine is not a systematic thinker, in the usual sense of the word, but an occasional writer, addressing his arguments to particular controversies. This does not, of course, mean that Augustine is necessarily generally inconsistent, or that we cannot trace major themes repeating themselves in his compositions in the course of his life; but it does mean that we need to be careful about taking any particular observation by Augustine as representing an unvarying judgement. Augustine's thought evolved, as he admitted in the Retractations, and any particular declaration needs to be considered in relation to the circumstances in which it was made, before it is accepted as typical of his theology.

Finally, we need to bear in mind Girard's own warning that he does not claim to have covered the whole range of Augustine's works in his examination. In this context, it is possible to wonder about the significance of what would seem to be Augustine's last words on physical death, spoken during the siege of Hippo and recorded by Possidius in the Vita Augustini (27): `He will not be great who thinks it a great matter that wood and stones fall and mortals die.' Augustine was quoting Plotinus (Enn.I.4.7), but the sentiments expressed might have been uttered by many people in Greco-Roman antiquity. What did these words mean for Augustine? Were they no more than an apt quotation or did they express that indifference to the present world which he strove to commend in so many of his writings? Despite Augustine's willingness to talk about himself, there are occasions when he remains silent in the face of our questioning.
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Author:Bonner, Gerald
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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