Issue Date: May 27, 2005
Reviewed by MAUREEN TILLEY
Augustines paean to the truth of God reads: O Beauty ever ancient, ever new. Now what new can be said of this dead man of late antiquity? Readers have had a series of biographies of Augustine (356-430), bishop of Hippo and saint of Western Christianity, beginning with Possidius of Calama, his younger contemporary (died about 440), through the masterful biographies by Peter Brown and Serge Lancel. So why another biography? Is there really anything new?
Yes and no.
In the last half-century, scholars have discovered materials only recently attributed to Augustine. Dr. Brown handled them in an appendix to his second edition of Augustine: A Biography. Dr. Lancel integrated them throughout his text. A respected scholar of Augustine, James J. ODonnell makes use of these new resources throughout his book, so he has at the ready new evidence from which to construct a life of Augustine. Does this create a new biography? At times, these new documents give us more insight into the man Augustine and into his socioreligious and political situation. For erudite scholars of antiquity there are few surprises among the new letters, though some of them make fascinating reading as Augustine provides more grist for his critics who blame him for the sexism of contemporary Christianity. But neither the letters nor Dr. ODonnells handling of them create a new chronology or brand-new emphases for a biography.
So what makes this A New Biography? First, Dr. ODonnell is a prolific reader who absorbs and integrates new knowledge with a speed that makes ones head spin. Thus, the reader of this new biography has at hand what has happened in Augustinian scholarship since Dr. Brown and Dr. Lancels books. Dr. ODonnells footnotes are many, occasionally amusing and always erudite. His frequent provision of background on Roman history and culture makes this a comfortable read.
Second, it is A New Biography in its approach. Dr. ODonnell begins his story of Augustine not as a child or even as a recent convert but as a man in his late 30s about to become a priest in a thriving port town, but not one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. He does so because he found the newly discovered materials about this period to be the most revealing of a new Augustine. Here is where Dr. ODonnells biography is new and -- dare one say -- postmodern. Following Dr. ODonnell, one dips into Augustines biography here and there, seeing Augustine through the eyes of many authors and of Augustine himself at various stages of his own life and writings. We read of Augustine the youthful priest, the monk, the bishop, the theologian and the great failure -- in his battle against Pelagius and his followers.
Third, this biography is about both the historical Augustine and the one who is constantly remade, the Augustine of scholarship. Even as Augustine wrote about his own times and the events of his life, he made and remade himself. More than most biographers, Dr. ODonnell takes advantage of Augustines Retractationes, which he calls the Reconsiderations. Written in his later years, they are a reinterpretation of his own life, in his own hand and within his lifetime. Not only does the author integrate Augustines own latter-day insights into his story as it unwinds, but he shows how Augustine has been portrayed through the ages.
Missing from Dr. ODonnells list of serviceable translations of Augustine is Garry Wills attempt to render Augustines words anew. Dr. Wills, on the other hand, admits that Dr. ODonnells works have inspired him, especially the professors extensive commentary on the Confessions, or Testimonies, as Dr. Wills calls them. If Dr. ODonnell seeks to provide one more, albeit new, biography, Dr. Wills tries to provide one more new translation of Augustines Confessions. His current volume, Augustines Conversion, covers Book VIII of Augustines literary and philosophical masterpiece, the portion that narrates the famous aural epiphany Tolle, lege, here translated Lift! Look!
Dr. Wills, as befits this longtime journalist and historian and now student of Augustine, provides an excellent short introduction to orient the reader to major questions about the nature of the Confessions as literary work, the roles of Monnica (given the old Punic spelling) and Ambrose, and the suddenness of Augustines conversion in the Confessions versus the tell-tale indications that it was a fairly long process. Here Dr. Wills -- based partially on Dr. ODonnell -- is sensitive to the literary aspects of Augustines self-portrait. In this respect, the volume is a long-needed supplement to Book VIII for undergraduate classes dipping into Augustine only here.
Both Drs. ODonnell and Wills try to shake the jaded reader. Dr. ODonnell refers to the divine as god in lower case letters to alert the reader that in Augustines time the Christian Father was one among many divinities one could choose. Following Dr. ODonnell, Dr. Wills refers to Augustines partner of 10 years as his wife rather than the more technical concubine, although in the Roman empire the roles of wife and concubine were considered different right down to inheritance rights. But no need to waylay the reader about womens rights when the subject is the great man. Both have an edgy, casual style that may offend older readers but draw younger, less experienced readers into the perennial project of rewriting Augustine.
Maureen Tilley is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton.
National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2005
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