A Review on Augustine for Armchair Theologians

Written / Friday, March 4th, 2016

Augustine for Armchair Theologians is a book about St. Augustine’s life. He embarks on a religious journey to discover, evaluate and define his self. The book discusses his personal experiences, errors and sins over the course of his life.

Augustine for Armchair Theologians
By. Stephen A. Cooper, illustrations by Ron Hill
Published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2002
Louisville, Kentucky

Through evil and sin, Stephen A. Cooper illustrates the progression of St. Augustine’s life as well as his religious journey and evaluation of the self in his book, Augustine for Armchair Theologians. Cooper goes into depth analyzing Augustine’s autobiography, The Confessions, by assessing the soul and life itself. He enlightens the reader about these concepts by discussing Augustine’s personal experiences, his errors, and sins over the course of his life and provides the reader with an in depth understanding of Augustine’s journey to god.

Augustine analyzes and defines the self by discussing his own personnel life over time. He reflects on his early experiences and tries to comprehend the soul and the concept of life before birth. He realizes that human institutions do not cultivate socialization or provide general adequate information that is necessary in everyday life. Emotions, such as love, pleasure, pain, and sadness, are developed even before an individual is able to speak and are not acquired through comprehensive knowledge. In turn, Augustine reflects on the previous evil acts he has committed and brings to light his sins from his teenage years. Comparing his emotions and ambitions to a “frying pan of lusts,” (Cooper, 60) Augustine questions his previous life choices by discussing his addiction to sex and how he was in love with the concept of “love” but has never actually experienced the feeling itself. Although Augustine continued to be drawn in by lust, he still took part in finding himself and sets out on a journey to understand his beliefs. By leaving his hometown, he is able to explore and learn about other religions in great depth. After much thought, he becomes a Manichean where he studies the dualistic cosmetology, which is the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Through his studies, he starts to question his religious teachings due to the fact that the Manichean view failed to show how the church was able to offer reliable facts and truth to Augustine’s academic studies. Eventually, he starts to question whether religion or the theories of previous philosophers are accurate sources of information. After much thought, Augustine completely rejects the Manichean view and draws the conclusion that the perspective is completely inaccurate. Augustine continues on his journey and becomes a catechumen in the Catholic Church where he studies scripture, sin, and the nature of evil. As he starts to realize the purpose of life and the self, he makes a slow departure from the world by resigning from his job and becoming a priest. Augustine comes to understand that the “human self by itself is incomplete” and that “individuals are irrevocably drawn into a relationship with God” due to “the lack of unity” (Cooper, 217) in the human self. As a result, confession emerges as an “activity essential to being a self” (Cooper, 217) and guides the individual by helping them realize their faults and analyze themselves as a whole. As Augustine transitions from priest to bishop, he preaches his teachings and life journey to the people of the world. With his knowledge and wisdom, Augustine, draws parallels to sin, evil, and the self by enlightening the reader through his own personal experiences and his journey in finding himself.

The book focuses on Augustine’s thoughts and experiences as he explores religion and academics throughout his life. Although, the book provides the reader with detailed information of Augustine, I noticed that it elaborated on his life and did not bring Augustine and his other famous works, such as The City of God, to justice. The book was only centered around Augustine’s autobiography, The Confessions, and mainly focused on describing his early years up until he became a bishop in the Catholic Church. Cooper was able to proved in depth detailed information on Augustine’s thoughts as well as further my understanding of his life. However, Cooper failed to mention that Augustine was so much more than a philosopher. He was a thinker and writer who took pride in his academic studies and profound works. I would have liked to see Cooper elaborate on some of Augustine’s other works and philosophical ideas. Overall, I thought that the book was an easy read about Augustine’s life and explained in further depth his views over the course of his life.

Focusing on the concept of Evil, Augustine draws a parallel to Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings. In the book, The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, Bassham discusses the nature of evil along with the Manichean view, the battle between good and evil. In The Lord of the Rings, “those who bear the ring appear to be struggling only with themselves when they are tempted to put it on but, at other times, they are influenced by an external force” (Bassham, 100) known as evil. As Cooper explains in Augustine for Armchair Theologians, the battle of the forces of good and evil “are part of a never-ending struggle between God and the devil” (Bassham 67). Augustine gives an example of the forces of evil impacting and influencing his life through “The story of a theft of forbidden fruit” which emphasizes how “Augustine and his friends, unmotivated for any need for food, robbed a neighbor’s pear tree” (Bassham 45). Augustine elaborates on the fact that peer pressure caused him to commit a sin, an act of evil. Just like Augustine, Frodo is influenced by temptation as well as “the dark side” to wear the ring and commit acts out of evil as well. Not abiding by the golden rule of Altruism, both Augustine and Frodo are influenced by outside forces to commit acts out of evil which in turn, affects and impacts others as well as world around them.

In the book, Cooper provides the reader with an understanding by discussing Augustine’s thoughts and views on the self, evil, and sin by referencing Augustine’s famous work, The Confessions. In terms of religion, the book has relevance today and will enlighten and increase the reader’s knowledge on important concepts such as baptism, the trinity, and confession within the Catholic Church. By reading this book, audiences will learn about Augustine’s progression of views and be able to incorporate their newfound knowledge into their everyday lives.


By Dana Webb
James Madison University