- Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma, Volume 2: Making a “Catholic” Self, 388–401 C.E by Jason David BeDuhn
With this second volume of his exploration of Augustine’s intense relationship with Manichaeism, Jason BeDuhn considers the period between 388 and 401. This time saw Augustine’s ordination as presbyter (390) and consecration as bishop (396); his continued engagement with Manichaeism, for example with Fortunatus; what some have called his “second conversion,” meaning his discovery of the writings of Paul; his development of a hardening Pauline predestinarianism, which first culminated in 396 in his response to a question put to him by Simplicianus, the newly ordained bishop of Milan (Div. quaest. Simpl. 1.2); and the autobiographical narrative of the Confessions.
As in volume one, BeDuhn covers this relatively short period in Augustine’s life on a monumental scale. The 538 pages of the present volume divide into ten chapters, followed by 63 pages of densely written endnotes, 21 pages of bibliography, indices of scriptural references and references of works of Augustine, and a general index.
The period covered by this volume is arguably the most interesting in Augustine’s intellectual development, not least in view of his relationship with Manichaeism. It is when Augustine may have tried hardest to distance himself once and for all from Manichaeism, and also when this became more necessary for him than ever before, since he had become the leader of an orthodox, “Catholic” church. One may think here of works such as De vera religione and De utilitate credendi, in which he puts forward an approach to religion that distinctly differed from that of the Manichaeans. But, as BeDuhn compellingly shows, it was his very engagement with Manichaeism that caused Augustine to let certain Manichaean strands of thought re-enter his own intellectual realm. They may have been transformed, but they were still recognizable as such, so that his later opponents could accuse him of never really having abandoned his Manichaean faith. Above all, these ideas proved effective.
BeDuhn, in his conclusion, describes this complex reality as follows: “It is insufficient simply to compare Augustine’s rhetoric with Manichaean material and note similarities. Beyond that, we must find evidence of an actual ongoing exchange of ideas in Augustine’s own signals of attending to Manicheans and Manichaeism as he creates novel formulations with either a temporary or a lasting place in his discursive repertoire” (404–5).
To illustrate how BeDuhn goes about implementing this principle, let us look at the first chapter, dealing mainly with De vera religione, a work close to this reviewer’s heart. De vera religione is at first glance intellectually and morally highly optimistic, a Platonizing account of the Christian faith, which is called no less than a “discipline” (disciplina), almost as if it were a part of the liberal arts curriculum. It is a religion, as it were, that is a philosophy—philosophy as religion (Ver. rel. 5.8). This text, which is explicitly anti-Manichaean and dedicated [End Page 475] to Augustine’s Manichaean friend Romanianus (with a view to weaning him off that heresy), is as distant from Manichaeism as one can possibly imagine. And yet, according to BeDuhn, already in De vera religione Augustine makes a fundamental concession to Manichaean thinking.
In BeDuhn’s words: “Augustine’s initial anti-Manichaean, ‘optimistic’ stress on the goodness of creation (“all existence as such is good,” Ver. rel. 11.21) and its permeation by divine order (“matter participates in something belonging to the ideal world, otherwise it would not be matter,” ibid.), while remaining technically valid claims in themselves, gradually lost ground in Augustine’s overall discourse to the implications of a creation rooted in nothingness. This darker, less intrinsically ‘optimistic’ vision of the status of the soul in relation to God may at first have been merely a metaphysical technicality serving primarily as an anti-Manichaean corrective; but it gradually cast its shadow on every corner of Augustine’s reflections on the human predicament” (53...