When Augustine of Hippo, the venerable philosopher and bishop, first used religio Christiana in his legendary opus The City of God, he was unhappy with the phrase. It didn’t quite seem to fit. He was made uneasy by its ambiguity, the fact that it might refer both to the worship of God and to “human relationships, affinities and friendships of every kind”—that is, to the kinds of social pieties that structured Roman life. He was right to sense a tension between those relational obligations and the ethical demands of Christianity.
The dawn of the fourth century had just broken over the twilight of the Roman Empire. Augustine, a well-educated rhetorician born in Roman Africa, found himself burdened with the task of comprehending the fall of Rome—for the sake of his Christian flock, and all of posterity. His response to this challenge was decisive in allowing the Roman imagination to recede and a Christian one to arise in its place. Ancient modes of thinking about society and family, temporality and eternity, and justice and wealth were rapidly being overturned by emergent Christian alternatives.
Augustine’s role in this process was something he would pay for dearly in the assessments of modern critics. Since roughly the Enlightenment, the Rome of our fantasies—white-columned, high-minded and noble—has come to occlude the Rome of history, casting the so-called “Middle Ages” as savage and superstitious by contrast. Augustine is often thought of as the last classical and first medieval man; more often than not, he is credited with the demise of much that was good in the ancient world, and the arrival of much that was purportedly dogmatic and grotesque in what followed. “A great deal of what is most ferocious in the medieval church,” Bertrand Russell once wrote, “is traceable to [Augustine’s] gloomy sense of universal guilt.”
This dismal narrative has often obscured Augustine’s contribution to radical changes in the social organization of late antiquity: with the spread of his ideas (along with those of his predecessors and contemporaries) and the rise of the church came novel ways of thinking about money, property and charity. We know this largely thanks to the historian Peter Brown, who has done much to rescue the Christian wisdom regarding wealth and justice that solidified during Augustine’s era. In Brown’s hands, “the fall of Rome” is reimagined as an era not only of turmoil but also of great possibility, a vibrant and exciting transition from one set of norms and institutions to another. Christianity too changed dramatically during this period, evolving from a millenarian doctrine in which the affairs of the world were marginal to an institutionalized religion with a social ethos. Brown’s great achievement has been to recover and tease out the relationship between these two historical developments. Through the Eye of a Needle, Brown’s longest book to date, details the shifting role and theory of wealth in the Latin West during this period of change; The Ransom of the Soul takes up the same questions, but in the realm of theology and spiritual practice, tracing the outlines of the new moral conscience the burgeoning church helped create—in all its surprising radicalism.