There are several singers whose songs feel so intimate to me, that I wonder whether I like the singers because the songs seem written about my life, or is it perhaps that I have been shaped by life through my affection for the singers?  Augustine seems a similar case in my life. Certainly, there are many instances in which I come up short in reading Augustine; he says something shocking to me, or reveals a line of thinking that is alien to my mind, or simply passes off as common sense something I think of (and want to write off) now as a feature of late antique opinion, which later eras, like our own, do not share.

But much of the time it is his immediacy and intimacy that is so striking to me: the way that sometimes, in reading his texts, you have a sense that you are talking to a genuine person, still alive, through his words.  It often feels that you are not simply encountering or considering an argument but engaging a personality, and that the personality has the capacity to speak back to you a little bit.  I say to my students that there are some authors who, if you say “so-and-so is a fan of” them, you don’t know much about their personality—I think you can be a happy or gloomy Thomist, a chipper or angry Anselmian, a wry or effusive Hegelian: personality is not where the core of that philosophical position is rooted.  But if you say someone is an Augustinian, that typically suggests some deeper attunement of soul with soul.  At least it does to me.

This has increasingly become a matter of coming to appreciate more than I used to a sense of Augustine’s style of thinking on the page.  This is not so much a matter of his Latin style—I can appreciate that only in the most distant way, and I often fail to understand the resonances and allusions he is seeking—but rather the mode of thinking his writing performs, and seems to invite (or provoke) us to perform alongside him.

I know it may sound strange, but the two writers to whom Augustine’s immediacy most reminds me are Philip Roth on the one hand, with his completely uninhibited style of prose, capable of making the most oblique connections or associations (and often pulling off the stunt of making us see the logic of the association), and Zadie Smith, with her cool and collected sense of command of a scenario, incident, or phenomenon, but always in some way transcendent of the situation, and thus watching herself watching it: as if the object under observation were wrapped in a reflective coating, so by watching the thing you are watching yourself as well.

Call it narcissism if you wish (and I imagine Augustine being more of a soliloquist than a conversation partner, were we to come across him in a coffee shop), but there is something enormously frank and I think accurate about the idea that the self, and the self’s reflexive responses to its peregrinations throughout the world, is always a worthwhile object of attention and analysis.  Alongside other things.