1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

Splendid - but caveat lector, June 14, 2005


C. Coffman (Sydney, Australia) - See all my reviews

This new book on the great Augustine enthralled and puzzled me, sometimes on the same page. I strongly recommend it for readers who have already read Peter Brown's incomparable biography of Augustine, and perhaps also a book on Manicheism--my personal favourite remains the great study by Hans Jonas, although since Nag Hammadi there have been many more recent books based upon the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. For readers who are already familiar with Brown's biography, this is a splendid updating of the facts about Augustine's life. But I would not recommend it for readers just learning about Augustine, for example somebody who has just read THE CONFESSIONS and now wants to learn more about Augustine himself. The best biography (as O'Donnell himself generously acknowledges in a footnote of this book) remains the Peter Brown biography.

One of the key features of this book is the availability of new research, and new material, not available to Peter Brown when he wrote his great book(s) on Augustine and late antiquity. O'Donnell is immersed in seemingly all the scholarship on Augustine and on subjects related to Augustine, and O'Donnell brings a mature and considered judgment to his consideration of Augustine's life and work.

Having said that, I do have the following caveat, which is why I recommend O'Donnell's book as a supplement, but not a substitute, for the Brown biography: O'Donnell's tone veers from learned and ironic and amused to being slightly sardonic, even cynical about Augustine.

I remember reading A.N. Wilson's biographies of Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis and feeling very satisfied when I had finished; over time, however, I realised that Wilson had subtlely diminished his subjects and that I had lost much of my esteem for Tolstoy and Lewis as a result of having read
Wilson's biographies of them. There is an underlying tone in this book which is similar to Wilson's tone, although O' Donnell is not as corrosive. Perhaps a better match to O'Donnell's tone is the biography PAUL: A CRITICAL LIFE by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. Like Murphy-O'Connor, O'Donnell is a real authority on his subject, with a career's worth of reflection to add to his real expertise in the primary and secondary sources--he has read and thought about the gamut of facts and interpretations offered on his subject. But Murphy-O'Connor doesn't share Paul's religious faith--his Christianity is much more attenuated than was that of Paul, and that seems to be the case as well with O'Donnell and Augustine. (A few years after his biography of C.S. Lewis, Wilson publicly declared himself to be an atheist). So be prepared for a certain distance, a certain scepticism and even cynicism in this book.

Having said all that, I really admired O'Donnell's magisterial grasp of his material and his profound, considered take on Augustine, his work, and his world. What I considered the flaws in the tone spring from an interpretation which, while it may not be shared by all readers (I certainly don't share it), will not obscure the many wondrous insights that O'Donnell offers, insights which leave me admiring Augustine all the more.