The Personalist Project

In 1986, I took a summer course with Alice von Hildebrand on the Confessions of St. Augustine, so that his thought and mode were bound up with my philosophical awakening.

A few years ago, when Jules and I were in Rome, we learned that someone we love was undergoing a terrible crisis. In an agony of pain for her, I practically ran to St. Augustine's Basilica—where he and his mother are buried, and which happened to be right around the corner from our apartment—to pour out my grief and beg for their help and intercession. 

Ever since, they have felt like personal friends.

Just now, I saw that Mike Potemra links an article about these two great saints of antiquity (whose feasts we celebrate today and tomorrow), which makes me love them even more. The author, an English Catholic priest, begins by showing that Augustine was the original personalist:

Augustine was not the first to write about himself, but he is the first to develop an authorial voice that is personal. Julius Caesar wrote about his achievements in the Gallic War, but throughout refers to himself in the third person. For Caesar, the interesting events are those he witnessed; but with Augustine, the interesting events are those that took place not in his field of vision, but within his heart.

The second paragraph is even better:

This is one of the reasons why we owe so much to Augustine: he illustrates for us, articulating the discovery of those before him, that religion is a matter of the heart. Roman religion, by and large, was a state cult. It was something you did, a series of hoops through which you jumped, a sequence of sacrifices of propitiation that you made; but with Augustine it is clear that religion is now faith, a personal adherence, an act of love: not action but passion.

A little later, he deepens the point:

In fact the “self” is the great Christian invention. 

St. Augustine didn't invent the self: its centrality is given in the mysteries of our Faith. But he was the first great thinker to articulate it, and to philosophize and theologize from from its standpoint. Which reminds me of a favorite passage from Ratzinger's memoir, Milestones:

We then found the philosophy of personalism reiterated with renewed conviction in the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber. This encounter with personalism was for me a spiritual experience that left an essential mark, especially since I spontaneously associated such personalism with the thought of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions had struck me with the power of all his human passion and depth. By contrast, I had difficulties in penetrating the thought of Thomas Aquinas, whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.

The author of the article also describes Monica as an alcoholic and the patron saint of alcoholics—another reason, in this age of addiction, to thank God for her help and example.

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