Mark Vessey

title.none: Dyson, The Pilgrim City (Mark Vessey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.023 02.09.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mark Vessey, University of British Columbia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Dyson, R. W. The Pilgrim City: Social and Political Ideas in the Writing of St. Augustine of Hippo. New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2001. Pp. v, 211. 75.00. ISBN: 1-903-15300-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.23

Dyson, R. W. The Pilgrim City: Social and Political Ideas in the Writing of St. Augustine of Hippo. New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2001. Pp. v, 211. 75.00. ISBN: 1-903-15300-x.

Reviewed by:

Mark Vessey
University of British Columbia

The compiler of this useful anthology has already presented Augustine's City of God in a new translation (1998) for the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. A companion volume in that series, edited by E. M. Atkins and R. J. Dodaro, has since appeared as Augustine: Political Writings (2001, reviewed in BMCR 2001.10.32). The difference between that volume and the one now under review is partly declared by their titles, but also arises in part from the division of Dyson's labors. Comparisons are inevitable, in any case.

So far as anyone ever can, Atkins and Dodaro take the City of God as read. There, they remind us, "Augustine lays out on a vast canvas the themes of Christianity and paganism, providence and power, empire and church, and divine and human justice, writing as a learned Christian apologist, an intellectual addressing his peers" (xi). But of couse that is not the whole story. Augustine's political sense -- not to speak too soon of his "political theory" -- was neither formed nor expressed solely in relation to the grand narratives set forth in those twenty-two books of polemic and exegesis. "To discover the everyday political thinking that constituted both the background to and the outworking of the large-scale ideas of his magnum opus," Atkins and Dodaro argue, "we need to turn to the occasional writings of the busy bishop. In other words, we need to read his letters and sermons." So we do. And so we now can, conveniently, in the edition they have provided of some thirty-one letters and five sermons in fresh English translations, grouped under such practical headings as "Christianity and Citizenship," "Bishops and Civil Authorities" or "The Donatist Controversy." Since each of the texts belongs to a particular rhetorical and historical occasion, and is reproduced complete, the reader has the impression both of seeing Augustine's mind in action and of seeing the world act on Augustine's mind. Concise but ample notes supply needed literary, theological, religious, legal, social-historical, geographical and other contexts, and a biographical index puts the bishop's subjects and interlocutors clearly in the picture. "Political writings" are thus exactly what we get from the Cambridge volume: texts caught and wrought in the web of human experience, from the christianizing society of the late Roman Empire. There could hardly be a better -- certainly no more Augustinian -- illustration of the "mixed" existence in historical time of the two ideal and opposing communities theorized in the City of God.

The phrase chosen by Dyson for his title, The Pilgrim City, signals the same mixed condition, with an important difference of emphasis: this is the long, eschatological perspective taken by Augustine in his magnum opus, one which acknowledges the realities of everyday life in society, but does not -- with rare exceptions -- bring them into sharp focus. The destiny of a whole hypothetical population is again the issue, rather than the lives of named individuals or local groups. The more abstract titles of Dyson's chapters tell the familiar story: "Sin and Human History," "The State in a Sinful World," "Social Institutions," "War," "Church and State." These are the "social and political ideas" of Augustine (of Hippo, as it happens), so far as they may be extracted from his writings. And extracts are what we get in this case, varying in length from several pages to a few lines, trimmed to fit the scheme of each chapter, contextualized only by Latin title and section number(s). One way to regard The Pilgrim City would be as a supplement to the City of God. In fact, it is more like a substitute for it, a concise re-presentation of many of its author's leading ideas, shorn of their polemical and exegetical developments, lifted out of the vast and rambling architecture of the original composition, recombined in a more tidy arrangement than Augustine himself seems ever to have hit upon. This kind of thematic anthologizing of Augustine has a distinguished history, beginning with his own Enchiridion and the digests of his writings prepared in the late 420s by Prosper of Aquitaine. Dyson's work is a worthy successor to those initiatives and likely to prove serviceable. Each of his chapters begins with an introductory summary (or "narrative" as he calls it) of the subject matter, keyed closely to the excerpts that follow, with selective reference to modern scholarly discussion. Secondary headings in the main body of texts provide a guiding thread. Otherwise, annotation is minimal, confined essentially to classical and biblical references, which, given the level of abstraction maintained by the texts as excerpted, is all that is needed. A concluding three-page summary and Select Bibliography round out the book. The whole of this synopsis of Augustine's "social and political ideas" could be read comfortably in half a day by a student without any previous knowledge of the subject, who would then be well prepared to relish the more circumstantial delights of the Cambridge anthology, and pass in good company for having read the City of God...

And not altogether unfairly, since he or she will in fact have swallowed sizable gobbets of the magnum opus (at least of Books 1-3, 5, 12, 14-15, 19). Roughly half of Dyson's excerpted text comes from the City of God and for three out of his five chapters the proportion is nearer three-quarters. In large measure, then, this book does double duty with his own translation of the complete work in the Cambridge series, though for copyright reasons the English text of the City of God in this volume from the Boydell Press is taken from the translation by Marcus Dods, originally published in 1872. The supplementary material here is drawn mainly from the sources also favored by Atkins and Dodaro, that is, letters and sermons (including numerous excerpts from the Enarrationes in psalmos, whose close thematic relationship to parts of the City of God makes it a natural partner). Few other works are represented by more than one or two, usually short, extracts. If this distribution is even approximately reflective of the overall pattern of Augustine's writing on what we now define as social and political themes, then it would seem to underline the conjunction already marked by Atkins and Dodaro between the bishop's pastoral activities, as manifested in the literary genres of letter and sermon, and one dimension of that generically most elusive work, the City of God. All such questions of genre, audience and occasion are, however, excluded in principle by Dyson's approach, which is designed to capture another mythical beast, "the genesis of a characteristically Christian political thought" (x).

Dyson is fully conscious of his parti pris and the distortions it may create. "[R]econstructing Augustine's political, social and historical thought," he suggests, "is like putting together the fragments of a pot retrieved from an archaeological site" (xi, citing his own introduction to the City of God), except that we cannot be sure that there was ever a pot in the first place. The idea that Augustine's social and political thought can be considered "as a whole... is something of a fiction, but... a benign one," and in any case indispensable from "the point of view of the student of intellectual history" (viii). Augustine "is not a systematic political theorist" (xi). "So much of what [he] says about politics is said incidentally, during discussions of other subjects," "his concerns are not 'theoretical' [but] immediate and practical" (180). The issues of historiographical theory and method, and of disciplinarity, raised by these repeated concessions would be worth exploring in another place. That Dyson feels the need to evoke them as often as he does, even as he presses Augustine's thought into a systematic grid, could leave a reader feeling uncomfortable. Yet the rationale for such a proceeding -- or at least some version of such a proceeding -- may be stronger than it initially appears. Not until the introduction to chapter 5 of The Pilgrim City, devoted to "Church and State," are we given any solid reason for believing that the "fiction" of an Augustinian political theory could serve any real purpose, and when we are it takes the form of a brief demonstration of how powerfully misleading in practice such fictions could be. In a few brief paragraphs, Dyson evokes the use made of selected Augustinian texts by "medieval papalist authors" interested in asserting the temporal sovereignty of the Church. "How far do the writings of Augustine actually lend themselves to such conclusions?" he asks (180), then begins to investigate the process by which Augustine's thought was co-opted. For just a moment, we encounter an aspect of the history of Augustine's works that is of particular interest to Dyson, and which ultimately justifies the inclusion of the City of God in a series such as Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. There are well marked cues for similar digressions on the difference between Augustinian and later views of private property (105, n. 5) and on the "pernicious" influence of certain of his opinions on military service (137). The "student of intellectual history" is free to take up these hints of the complex, fascinating and still poorly understood history of the appropriation of Augustinian materials by the founders, jurists and publicists of later polities, from medieval Europe to colonial America and beyond. Dyson's volume would have been stronger, and an even more useful complement to that of Atkins and Dodaro, had its purchase on this later history of Augustinian reception and systematization been clearer. One of the services rendered by the kind of false theoretical whole that The Pilgrim City provides should be to orientate our study towards the practical, purposive and truly political misprisions of partes pro toto effected by readers of Augustine before ourselves, many of which remain quite immediate.

Odd archaisms aside, Dyson's book is clearly and attractively written and produced. Its one serious defect, practically speaking, is to have left untranslated all the titles of works by Augustine cited in the text, and given no indication, apart from a general reference to the Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, of where translations of those other than the City of God are to be found. That, and an index that prevents one seeing at a glance which books or sections of the major works have been laid under contribution.