Augustine of Hippo: A Life by Henry Chadwick - review by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Man of Spirit

Augustine of Hippo: A Life


Oxford University Press 177pp £12.99

This is something very exciting: a complete book, hitherto unknown, from the desk drawer of the late Henry Chadwick, doyen of church historians, musician, academic grandee, and serene and generous human being. Written a quarter-century ago, it is Chadwick at the height of his powers, distilling a life’s reflection on the rise of Christianity into a warm and elegant miniature portrait of the most influential theologian of the Western Church. There was one way in which Chadwick was the wrong person to write a life of Augustine of Hippo. I heard that mischievously expressed by his elder brother Owen, another giant of historical scholarship, as he delivered a biographical eulogy last year at Henry’s funeral in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (a grand and celebratory occasion, resounding with Henry’s beloved music from Bach to Michael Tippett). Arriving at the moment in Henry’s career where he had become Head of House in a certain Oxbridge college, the former vice-chancellor of Cambridge paused before observing casually, ‘of course, the great thing about Henry was that he could never quarrel with anyone, however great pains they were.’ In this respect, Augustine was emphatically unlike Henry Chadwick. His career thrived on conflict; his arduous journey towards the divine was propelled by the quarrels in which he found himself embroiled, as the Roman empire fell apart around him and he watched the world he loved disintegrate. 

Augustine’s origins mirrored those of so many who sustained Rome’s might, the real secret of its extraordinary ability to survive the centuries: he was a boy from the colonial backwoods, fascinated not simply by the political power of the empire but by the cultural riches which it promised

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