The belief that all people have the right to pursue
happiness is enshrined by the founders of the United States in the annals of American
history and has been embraced as a way of life by their posterity. But
Americans have no corner on the market of pursuing happiness; the belief is
imprinted on the heart of every human. We all naturally seek our own happiness.
Of course, the ideal of happiness looks very different from
one person’s mind to the next, which explains the wide variety of human
experiences in the world. Some believe they will find happiness in indulgence,
others in restraint; some believe they will find happiness in wealth
accumulation, others in vows of poverty. And there are many shades of thinking
To be sure, the pursuit of happiness is no modern invention.
That is not to deny that cultures have differed over who they believe should have
the right to obtain happiness, but that doesn’t negate the inborn human desire
to obtain it. And long before Thomas Jefferson put the words “life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness” to paper, people like Augustine were reflecting
on what it means to be happy.
Augustine explores what happiness looks like in his book On the Happy Life,* translated by Michael P. Foley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher). This is the second book in the four Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students, friends, and family that took place after Augustine’s conversion but before his baptism. I reviewed the first of these dialogues, Against the Academics*, elsewhere on this blog.
Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.
Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church
of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church.
Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a
series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and
friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after
Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in
the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before
he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional
We rightly remember Augustine as a renowned theologian and intellectual genius. He bequeathed to us a corpus that has shaped the foundations of the Western church. Works like The City of God and On the Trinity underscore his brilliance, and of course, his best-known work, Confessions, has resonated with readers in their personal experience for centuries.
It is also important to recall that this same Augustine was not an ivory-tower theologian or isolated writer disconnected from the day-to-day life of the people in Hippo. He was indeed a churchman, a priest who devoted years of his life to serving those under his care. And Augustine’s Instructing Beginners in the Faith (or De catechizandis rudibus) gives us a picture of this Augustine, a man who cared deeply about people coming to faith and doing the work of instruction that God might use to help bring them to that point. I want to highlight three aspects of the book here: the person of Augustine, his instruction in the art of teaching, and his emphasis on salvation history.
In Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.
A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).