EVEN for sceptics, Saint Augustine provides the most readily understood model of spiritual salvation: that of the fleshy and venal man who renounces material interests and pleasures and accepts enlightenment. Abasement, struggle, redemption; ambition, humility, even greater glory: two dramatic curves that buttress one of the great personal testaments in Western literature, unparalleled in naked self-examination until the Romantic period. Even for believers, though, the Confessions offers more questions than answers.
Everyone thinks they know one line of Augustine. "Please God, make me good, but not just yet" is the familiar shorthand version, but recast it as James J O'Donnell does, in a more accurate, historical and rhetorically contextualised form, and what seemed like a sincere but faintly flippant plea becomes rather more mannered and ironic. It changes the nature of the speaker, too, from a modern-sounding Everyman, l'homme moyen sensuel, into a figure from a distant, different past, addressing a very different conception of divine authority. "Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate - but not yet!"
Those words do appear - as da mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo - in book eight, chapter seven of Augustine's Confessions but, as O'Donnell explains, so expressed as to parody "his commonplace adolescent dithering between libido and restraint". Not for nothing does O'Donnell preface one chapter with a passage from Mark Twain, who we sometimes like to pretend invented the unreliable narrator. It is as well to remember when reading the Confessions that we are in the hands of an Augustine who spent 10 years as professor of rhetoric in Milan. Almost every aspect of the story - its geography, its terminology ("bishop", "Christian", "God"), its purpose - are open to question.
The bare bones of the story are relatively clear. Augustine was born in Tagaste, Numidia, now Souk Aghras, Algeria, in 354AD. He was raised not so much on the wrong side of the tracks, as on the wrong side of the imperial Mediterranean. Though again, the modern terminology is more misleading than helpful, he was the product of a "mixed" marriage. His pagan father was a minor landowner; his mother, Monnica, a devout Christian. He studied in Carthage, became involved in the Manichean heresy (which sees all matter as the expression of evil), and in 383AD went to teach first in Rome, then Milan. He returned to Africa and in 396AD was made bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) where he defended the minority Caecilian orthodoxy against a phalanx of heretical schools: Donatist, Pelagian and his own former friends, the Manicheans. His book, The Confessions, was finished around 400AD; his monumental The City Of God occupied him between 412AD and 427AD; Augustine died in 430AD, just as the Vandals stood ready to sweep over his corner of the Roman empire and of Christendom.
Because we have no image of him and because the terms "bishop", "Christian", "confession", "God/Master" have a shifting currency in Latin Church history, we have tended to see Augustine in Europeanised, anachronistic form . To a degree, that picture is accurate, but for the wrong reasons. As O'Donnell says in his epilogue, the greatest intellectual legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity was "the exhilarating discovery that the inner self, standing ironically apart from the public man, knows itself better than anyone else can know". Which does not, of course, mean that Augustine is the final authority on Augustine, or that the pages of the Confessions are as transparent as panes of glass.
Where the Platonic philosopher could use a clear, learnable method to make contact with the eternal unity, the Christian knows he is fallen - Augustine was a staunch defender of predestination - and seeks to hide his shame from the eyes of God. In the pretence of revelation and absolute honesty, he also knows that he practises concealment. It is only in understanding this complex psychological and rhetorical game that we can understand Augustine.
By the same token, what did Augustine understand by God? Should it be lower-case to allow for the many different understandings of divinity that still persisted? Does the use of "Master" offer a reminder that this was a highly stratified society with little or no visible cultural specialisation, just a basic split between slaves and freemen? Augustine's first wife (her name is unknown, though their son was Adeodatus) may have been a slave woman; in 385AD, he sent her back to Africa from Italy in order to make a better marriage, as was his right. The bid for social advancement failed, though, and it's tempting to wonder whether the spiritual crisis of the following year, leading to his baptism in March 387AD, was the cause or a symptom of his failure.
Augustine emerges as a more complex figure than usually thought, his internal "struggle" as carefully stage-managed as a politician's about-turn on policy. I never believed that Augustine entirely abandoned his Manicheanism and O'Donnell seems to confirm that, not least by showing how carefully he paraded his errors and how subtly he and his followers moved sex to the foreground - always a useful distraction . O'Donnell confronts the same problem that afflicts biographers of Plato or Shakespeare, having little but the subject's own writing to go on. He benefits from serious recent scholarship by Pierre-Marie Hombert, François Dolbeau and others on the dating and provenance of Augustine's sermons and other writings, important evidence for the actual context of his great works.
O'Donnell is sometimes tripped up by his own rhetoric. The direct address and supportive pace of Augustine, Sinner & Saint hints at an origin in a college lecture series - O'Donnell teaches classics at Georgetown University - but also suggests that it may be spin-off work from a magnum opus on the final ruin of the Roman empire. That said, it is a fascinating and engaging book that radically repositions one of the major figures of Western culture. I can only apply to it Augustine's own advice: tolle, lege, tolle, lege … pick up and read, pick up and read.