Daily Herald

Augustine won arguments because he was more than a controversialist


The saint is known for defeating errors - but he knew that goodness is more fundamental than sin

Augustine is often remembered for being against things.

He was against the Manichaeans, after having been one, because they denied the goodness of the created world. He was against the Donatists because they thought the sacraments depended on the holiness of the priest, rather than the holiness of Christ communicated in the sacrament.

He was against Pelagius because he saw in him a denial of dependence on God’s grace hidden in his errant theological claims. He wrote The City of God Against the Pagans. Contra paganos, contra mundum. Augustine was a controversialist.

As one of Rome’s greatest imperial Rhetors, he understood that persuasion was the art of knowing how to move the soul. He understood the soul as rational, but also passionate, made for movement. In a time when people saw rhetorical speaking as a kind of entertainment, he was a rockstar.

He frequently won his audience, however, not because he was contra mundum, though he was, but because he went deep enough into their thought to bring out the internal contradictions and expose them to the light. That is, he recognized that his listeners and readers had immortal souls which could be moved. He examined the contradictions of polytheism in order to move Romans towards monotheism. He praised their most virtuous men in order to ask them what made men virtuous. He recounted the great glory of Rome in order to ask them “to what end?”

Augustine was always against sin and error, he was always against that which blocked the movement of the immortal soul to what is virtuous and true, indeed which could remove the obstacles, the knots, which prevent the soul from seeing the highest good. As he noted in his discussion of free will, sins can only be named as privations of a prior good. That is to say that sin is not the fundamental thing — goodness is. Likewise, when he took a stand contra mundum it was because he was fundamentally taking a stand for what is right and just.

Augustine stands today like a mountain towering above the Western political imagination. He lived in a time like ours — a time of great instability, and existential crisis. Like Rome, America’s crisis is also one of identity. Would Augustine have written against America? I bet he would write against those things which are causing the country’s slide down a moral and metaphysical scale. But he was against things in order to be for people. I feel that way about the current disputes between conservatives who each are fighting against that which prevents us from seeing the reality of the person in the womb. If we cannot work towards this end together, by means which are right and just, then none of our other disputes matter because they don’t move us towards the real substantial goods which are prior to all the political things which tie us up in knots.

Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for us.