Saint Augustine is one of the most intriguing figures in the two-thousand-year history of Christianity. He represents misspent youth, passionate romance, a deep conversion, and ultimately a profound, compelling Christian faith. It’s a hard story not to fall in love with. If he were alive today we might imagine him (at least in his later life) as one of the media titans among our Catholic bishops (think Bishop Barron or Fulton Sheen).
Something about Augustine is timelessly attractive, and for good reason. But what was it exactly that attracted the man, himself?
In “Confessions,” Augustine famously writes of “Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” He laments that he loved this Beauty only late in life. It was with him, but he did not know it, and he took it for granted. Beauty, nevertheless, worked tirelessly to touch his hard heart, and now at the end of his life he “burned” for its peace.
It’s not hard to see that God is this Beauty. But Augustine’s description of God’s qualities and actions appear, to us, especially unique and unfamiliar. God, the “Beauty, ever ancient, ever new,” is an idea that doesn’t fit easily within our normal categories of thought. Here, Augustine doesn’t describe God as “the Creator” or “the Redeemer” or even as “the Lover.” Beauty is a special sort of thing, since it relies on aspects of all these other things (and more), and is therefore a much more complicated notion.
Before he was a Christian, Augustine was (among other things) a neoplatonist. Following the philosopher Plotinus, neoplatonism envisioned the universe in terms of “emanation” from a single, supreme principle—“the One.” According to the neoplatonists, the first emanation from the One was nous—roughly “mind” or “intelligence.” Nous acted on matter to give it form or “soul.” The relationship between these various levels of being (called hypostases) was another principle, called logos.
Neoplatonism was a complex philosophical system, but its goal was simple: to come up with an explanation for why things in the world made sense, even though they were obviously imperfect. Plotinus’ solution relies on a powerful impersonal source of all being that not only causes and sustains existence, but toward which all “lower” beings are eventually drawn back.
As a Christian, Augustine understood that Christ was the eternal Logos that connected God’s divine simplicity with the created world. He was the “vehicle” for creation, and for creation’s return to the Father through redemption.
Thus, Augustine’s “Beauty” was not something abstract for man to behold; it was a personal being (actually three Persons) who also beheld men, whom the triune God created, loved, and redeemed.
Augustine as a Model for Today
Augustine is a worthy icon for Christians today. The same Beauty that attracted Augustine almost two thousand years ago still draws us to itself. It draws us through figures like Augustine, whose lives—eventually, slowly, and mysteriously—conformed to reflect its brilliance. It draws us through the frustrations of material existence, pain, weakness, and suffering. And it hints to us of its eternal desire for “return” through the redemption of all creation through Jesus Christ, the uncreated Logos, who is Beauty incarnate.
Cover Image: Attributed to Gerard Seghers [Public domain]