The Intertwined Minds of Pope Benedict XVI and St. Augustine

A.N. Whitehead famously said that all Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.” In the same way, as Benedict says, the history of Western psychological understanding and insight comes directly from Augustine.

It is a measure of the late pope’s universality that (while he was still the professor of theology Joseph Ratzinger) Karl Barth, the most renowned Protestant of the 20th century, told his students: “Read him!”

Benedict was so voluminous that I could have picked from a hundred of his works to illustrate his intellectual acumen and his spiritual depth. Here’s one: his marvelous lectures on St. Augustine. Here the minds of pope and saint are so intertwined that I am surprised, given Benedict’s intense and lifelong admiration of Augustine, he did not choose that name for his adopted title when he was elected to the See of Rome. So close is Benedict’s thought to Augustine’s that I often had to look and look again to be sure as to which man’s words I was reading.

Pope Benedict called St. Augustine “The greatest Father of the Latin Church.” He explains just why:

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He left a very deep mark on the cultural life of the West. It could be said that all the roads of Latin Christian literature led to Hippo, the place in North Africa where he was Bishop from AD 395 until his death in 430.  

Benedict reminded us of Augustine’s prolific output—the Church Father who left the greatest number of works, each one a philosophical, theological, and literary masterpiece. Pope Benedict was himself a gifted psychologist—not in the secular sense, but as a man with profound insight into people’s interiority, their inner spiritual workings, their souls. This he derived, to a large extent, from Augustine.

He said, 

Augustine’s Confessions are his extraordinary spiritual autobiography written in praise of God. This is his most famous work and rightly so, since their focus on interiority and psychology constitutes a unique model in western culture, even for non-religious, modern times. His attention to the spiritual life, to the mystery of the I and to the mystery of God who is concealed in the I is something quite extraordinary, without precedent and which remains forever a spiritual peak.

A.N. Whitehead famously said that all Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.” In the same way, as Benedict says, the history of Western psychological understanding and insight comes directly from Augustine. If Descartes had properly understood the relationship between the I and the God who created it and who is eternally present within it, he would not have made the mistake of starting where he did: with his I think, therefore I am which makes individual consciousness the center of philosophical reference. Pope Benedict, like Pope John Paul before him, was fascinated by Augustine not least because he recognized in him the antidote to the Enlightenment, which foolishly made man the measure of all things.

Pope Benedict felt very close to Augustine as an old man. He tells how Augustine addressed his disciples when he was not long for this world: “In old age ailments proliferate: coughs, catarrh, bleary eyes, anxiety and exhaustion. Yet, if the world grows old, Christ is perpetually young, so do not refuse to be rejuvenated by being united with Christ.”

Benedict, like Augustine, all his life followed the intellectual calling. And he believed that God is accessible to human reason because, as he said in his Regensburg Lecture, God is Himself the origin of the rational principle in the Logos, the Word who is revealed in the first fourteen verses of St. John’s Gospel. But Augustine was not a cold-blooded academic, construing abstractly the existence of God. As the Confessions show on every page, he was passionate; and it is Augustine who is truly the origin of that sense expressed by Pascal when he said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.”

Benedict comments, “These two dimensions, faith and reason, should not be separated or placed in opposition. They must always go hand in hand, for they are, as Augustine says, the two forces that lead us to knowledge.”

Augustine said that we both believe the better to understand and that we understand in order to believe more firmly. This is exactly the balance that Benedict constantly maintained in his own spiritual journey: his intellectual grasp of the faith, second to none, went hand in hand with his passionate devotion to Christ. This combination is quintessentially Augustinian.

The great mistake in modern rationalism is that you can start to reason, as it were, from the void. You cannot. Something has to be basic. These are things which Collingwood called absolute presuppositions and which, after St. Paul, Augustine called faith. We do not achieve faith by means of rational understanding; we achieve understanding by first believing—that is, by faith—which is an absolute presupposition. 

Pope Benedict said: 

God’s presence in man is profound and at the same time mysterious, but we can recognise and discover it deep down inside ourselves. “Do not go outside,” St. Augustine says, “but return to within yourself; truth dwells in the inner man. And if you find that your nature is changeable, transcend yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, you are transcending a soul that reasons.”

This is an insight which has led to methods and schemes of thought as diverse and as modern as Existentialism and psychoanalysis—though it would be a mistake to blame Augustine for all the versions and perversions of those intellectual fashions. But the fact that even such modern outlooks as these trace their beginning to the thought of St. Augustine is yet another example of what Benedict meant when he said that Augustine’s influence has penetrated into every nook and corner of Western thought—and into realms which are not even specifically Christian. 

Benedict claimed Augustine as a saint particularly pertinent to modern times when he said, “It seems to me that the hope of finding the truth must be restored to humankind.” For in Augustine’s day, as in ours, there were plenty of people saying that the only truth is that there is no truth. Compare the contemporary and destructively influential French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s saying: “Texts do not have meanings.”

What then Monsieur Derrida? Does your text have a meaning? The hallmark of the modern era is there is no such thing as truth, and any fool opinion is as good as any other. But, throughout his sermons and his other writings, Benedict proclaimed that, by the grace of God and the power of our God-given rationality, ultimate truth is available to us. This is the gospel which our post-modern, pessimistic, and even nihilistic age needs most to hear. There is not your truth and my truth but only the truth, which is guaranteed by God in His Word, Jesus Christ.

At the end of one of his lectures on St. Augustine, after telling us how the aged, enfeebled saint lay on his deathbed and asked for prayers and psalms to be pasted up on the walls where he could read them even as he lay dying, Benedict quotes this beautiful passage from his hero, which brilliantly reveals the I-Thou bond between Creator and creature:

You were with me, yet I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you—though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried aloud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent. You put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours alone. 

In these lectures, Benedict has triumphed quite astonishingly. He has succeeded in presenting—not to scholars, but to audiences of pilgrims—both the mind and passion of St. Augustine. Miraculously, there is no dumbing down. Augustine’s penetrating intelligence and his exquisite tenderness are offered all apiece—as if Benedict were holding out his hands and giving them to us.

Thank you, and now rest in peace.

[Photo: Pope Benedict XVI with the bones of St. Augustine.]

  • Rev Dr Peter Mullen

    The Rev Dr Peter Mullen has served as an Anglican priest for 50 years. His most recent cure of souls was as Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill in the City of London. He has published more than forty books of theology and philosophy, and has written for many publications including the Wall Street Journal.

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