Augustine and the Problem of Power

Image result for christianity and classical culture cochrane

A recurring argument for a book is “the test of time.”  There are exceptions to the rule, for some really good books vanish from sight and mind while other mediocre books continue to be read.  In the field of academic studies, an abiding book is even more rare.  Continued scholarship, new insights, the chipping away of older interpretations results in scholars being interested in the latest work from the presses.  Certainly, there are problems with this approach, but it has its merits as well.

Almost unimpeachable are the books considered as the fundamental classics in the western world.  Many of us have now spent decades trying to erase the shame of having degrees and supposedly being educated without having to read the great minds from Homer to Augustine, from Aquinas to Dante, from Luther to Kuyper.  But along with the great books and world-changing authors are the books that are built upon, that comment and expound, that interpret and apply the great books.

As a matter of practice, it is better to–especially when playing a decades overdue catch-up–to try to hit the actual sources.  Besides, many of the books about Plato and Aristotle are harder to read than Plato and Aristotle.  Many classic works are really short (excepting Herodotus’ Histories, Aquinas’ Summa, or the Leatherstocking Tales of Cooper).  Many classic authors wrote some selections that are short and readable.  One who cannot wade through Calvin’s Institutes can manage the excerpt from it titled The Golden Book of the Christian Life.  For every classical epic, there are plenty of sonnets.

One indisputable giant in Western Civilization is Augustine of Hippo.  (Of course, he is disputed, all the way down to how to pronounce his name.)  The corpus of his works are daunting to tackle.  The City of God itself is a massive and weighty read, but he can be approached through Confessions and through On Christian Doctrine as well as sermons and shorter selections.  Still there is a need for some, many in fact, to attempt to have a working understanding of The City of God.  I know the challenge, for I have read it a couple of times and have taught large portions of it in a high school class.

While it may not have remained on the best seller lists or on the most popular surveys for 1500 years, it has impacted our civilization and has yet to be a spent force.  City of God is relevant to today and is more relevant than many of the current and trending topics and issues.

Charles Norris Cochrane lived the short happy life of a professor grounded in history and literature.  An Oxford trained Canadian, Cochrane served in World War I and then began his academic career at the University of Toronto.  In 1940–not the best year for publishing a book–his defining work Christianity and Classical Culture came out. The intellectual community praised it.  Jaroslav Pelikan  called it “the most profound book I know on Augustine.”  The poet and literary scholar W. H. Auden said, “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of the importance  to the understanding not only of the epoch of which it is concerned, but also of our own, has increased with each rereading.”

Cochrane was positioned to occupy a major role in scholarship for decades to come and was invited to lecture on Augustine at Yale University.  But a heart attack led to an early death and left the world primarily with only the one book. (Cochrane had previously written a work on the Greek historian Thucydides.)

Yet the man of one book remained a key force for studies related to Roman history, Christianity, the transition to the Middle Ages, philosophy, and theology for decades to come.  Christianity and Classical Culture remains in print to this day having been reprinted by the Liberty Fund.

Now, over seventy years since Cochrane’s book first appeared,  we have the sequel.  Cochrane gave a series of four lectures at Yale on “Augustine and the Problem of Power.”  These lectures can be seen as a distillation or summary of his larger work.  He had also written and spoken on other topics related to Roman culture, Machievelli, and Edward Gibbon.

Augustine and the Problem of Power

Long lost to the academic and book world, these papers were discovered by his granddaughter.  As the scattered writings began to be read and thought about, a decision was made to publish them in book form.  From that unexpected series of events, we now have the book Augustine and the Problem of Power:  The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane.  This work is edited by Professor David Beer, who also wrote a lengthy introduction to the collection.  It was published this past year by Wipf and Stock.

I readily, but cautiously, recommend this book.  Readily because of the reputation of the author and the blessing of having a further work by him.  Cautiously because this is not a “Augustine for Dummies” work.  This book is a slow read.  The title of the book is also the title of the four lectures which make up over a third of the book.  The lectures delve into the Greek and Roman views of society and politics that Augustine was answering and refuting.

Quite simply, the Greeks (and the Romans who followed) believed that a perfect or model or ideal society could be fashioned by the right political order, the right political philosophy, the right legislation.  Man and society were, at least to a large degree, perfectable with the correct philosophical and governmental actions.  In short order and directly, Cochrane labels the Greek and Roman political worldview as idolatry.

The antidote to the idols of that age or this one is the Christian faith.  Cochrane says, “Christian faith rests upon the unshakable conviction that, not withstanding the efforts of secularism to rationalize and justify its pretensions, the order of nature revealed by Christ and the Scripture is, the true order; to acknowledge which must therefore be the starting-point for all genuinely fruitful investigation into the problem of perfection”  (pager 78).

The statement above is not easy to swallow without some serious chewing.  It is not bumper-sticker or sound-bite Christian answers to current questions.  It takes unpacking and thinking.  And that is why this book–Augustine and the Problem of Power–and Cochrane’s previous work–Christianity and Classical Culture–and Augustine’s City of God–are so important today.

I received a review copy of Cochrane’s book and am not obligated to sing its praises, but will do so anyway.

3 thoughts on “Augustine and the Problem of Power

  1. Unfortunately, the portrait you have posted is not Charles Norris Cochrane, despite what Google’s algorithm claims. There are no easily internet-locatable pictures of Cochrane.

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