Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Book Review: "Trilogy on Faith and Happiness"

Augustine of Hippo, Trilogy on Faith and Happiness, New City, 2010, 141pp, £10.95

The three works under review here are only a few thousand words of the more than five million that Augustine penned. They are from the young Augustine, written before or shortly after priestly ordination. By the time of writing he had already broken with Manichaeism and was becoming acquainted with the neo-Platonists. Thanks to their influence he was able to think about God as a non-corporeal substance. Up to that time Augustine agreed with the prevalent Stoic corporealism which thought that whatever is not a body is not real.

The central theme which unites the three works is that of happiness, and the relation which faith has to the search for happiness. Augustine will say, in essence, that it is impossible to be happy without a relationship with the incarnate Jesus. They are an interesting introduction to the main body of his work.

The first part of the trilogy is entitled, The Happy Life. The format is a meal followed by a conversation on the topic. The meal continues over the course of three days. Present at the table are his mother Monica, his son Adeodatus and friends Alypius, Trygetius, Navigius, and Licentius.

Happiness is a central concern to the thought of Augustine. It will turn up throughout his works. The whole point of philosophical thought, theological reflection and divine worship is happiness. One of the aspects of the discussion was about who has God. Monica will contribute that everyone has God, but the one who seeks God with a clean heart has God as friend. The one who seeks God with an unclean heart has God as enemy. They pursue the topic over the three days and conclude, again helped by Monica, that the happy life is lived in solid faith, lively hope and burning love.

The second part is entitled Faith in the Unseen. In this reflection Augustine will establish that it is not a contradiction to believe in things unseen. He will take as an example that we do not see the love and good will which a friend has for us, yet we believe in that love, aided by the works of love which the beloved bestows upon us. This is a work of apologetics which also has elements of exhortation.

The final part of the trilogy is called The Advantage of Believing. This is his first publication since priestly ordination in 391. He wrote it to try to retrieve a friend Honoratus from Manichaeism. Augustine addresses two issues: one is the method of appropriating truth and the other is the valid method of interpreting texts. For Augustine, the way to come to knowledge of truth is by believing even that which reason cannot grasp, to purify oneself morally and to subject oneself to authentic authority. Further on Augustine expounds four methods of exegesis of a text. He says that historical exegesis wants to ascertain the content of a text. The second method is the etiological which seeks to throw light the basis of an event or saying. The third is analogical which establishes the agreement between the two Testaments. The last is the allegorical which looks for the figurative meaning of a text.

This is a very interesting book for those interested in the history of dogma and in patrology. It also has relevance when one reflects that the present Pope is an Augustinian in his theology and spirituality and the reader can glimpse certain passages which may have helped to influence the young Ratzinger.

Frank Regan

September 2011

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