Reviewed by Douglas KRIES , Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
Not least among the many striking differences between ancient and modern moral thought is the much greater emphasis of the ancients on friendship. One is hard pressed to find in modern thinkers the profound discussions of the topic that are present in Plato's Lysis, Books VIII and IX of Aristotle's Ethics, or Cicero's De amicitia, to name only a few of the more prominent examples. Given Augustine's extensive study of the works of Latin Antiquity, it is not surprising that he reconsidered the problem of friendship in the new context provided by the emergence of the Christian faith. Donald Burt's new book has the merit of attempting to introduce readers to the basic themes of Augustine's moral thought by examining them through the prism of the African's reflections on friendship.
Burt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Villanova, devoted an earlier book (Augustine's World: An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy, University Press of America, 1996) to an introductory articulation of the speculative side of Augustine's thought. The present work is intended as a supplement on the practical side. The audience it targets is non-professional and the annotations are therefore principally to scholarship written in English. After introductory chapters on the Fall, the history of humanity after that unfortunate event, and an overview of the basic questions of ethics, Burt explains to his readers Augustine's understanding of the love of friendship and uses friendship as the model for explaining Augustine's analysis of the family and the "state." With respect to the vexing question of whether Augustine viewed the origin of the state as natural or as the unfortunate result of the Fall, Burt comes down on the side of the former. His interpretation of Augustine's political philosophy is thus not simply "Augustinian pessimism"; nevertheless, his chapter on the origin of political society is followed by chapters on the suppression of violence, on war, and on crime and punishment. Needless to say, in these chapters the theme of friendship falls away and Augustine's view of the darker side of human nature comes to the fore. The book's concluding chapter has the very general and perhaps somewhat misleading title of "Church and State," but it contains an intriguing discussion of Augustine's differing attitudes toward the use of coercive measures against Donatists, pagans, Jews, and Manicheans. Burt's analysis in this last chapter reveals the African bishop to be dominated by prudential and pastoral considerations rather than inflexible theoretical distinctions.
Any attempt to reduce Augustine's thought--and especially his ethical and political thought--to a systematic unity is an ambitious undertaking. More than most writers, Augustine addresses very different audiences in very different genres, and his copious works therefore differ greatly both in intention and style. In attempting an introductory overview of Augustine's thought in a single volume, Burt has relatively little space for analyzing the works of the corpus individually and in their unique contexts. He attempts to overcome this problem by drawing on a wide variety of Augustine's works; he is obviously familiar not only with the major commentaries and polemical tracts, but also the Sermons and the Letters, and he seems to have an affinity for the less well-known Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians.
Since Burt is not addressing himself to specialists, he also devotes little space to situating his interpretation within the spectrum of Augustine scholarship. In the chapter on the origin of political society, however, he does take issue with the influential interpretation of R.A. Markus. He is hardly the first to do so, though, and in general Burt does not attempt novel interpretations so much as he seeks to lay down the outline or basic structure of the African's practical thought.
In addition to explicating a great author's work, successful introductory volumes also point beyond themselves, inviting the reader to pursue further the author they treat. They are therefore exhortatory as well as expository. Augustine says that as a young man he himself was inspired to pursue the intellectual life by a reading of Cicero's Hortensius. It would be unreasonable to measure Burt's volume by such a high standard, but Augustine clearly hoped that his own works would be useful to posterity, and it is thus not unreasonable to hope that Burt's efforts might inspire the uninitiated to grapple with the fundamental and enduring questions that Augustine confronted so honestly and openly.