Augustine: Sinner and Saint:

a new biography by James O'Donnell

The saint with a bee in his bonnet

By Murrough O'Brien

I can't help wondering, after reading James O'Donnell's brilliant but frustrating biography of St Augustine, whether a biographer who has researched his subject assiduously for many years has the right to claim a greater knowledge of his subject than the subject possessed himself. O'Donnell protects the notion of postmodern hindsight's absolute authority with a defensiveness worthy of Augustine himself. This is a shame, as it pollutes an otherwise penetrating study of the man who in many respects refounded western Christianity in his own image.

Alone among the early fathers of the church, Augustine of Hippo was unabashed about speaking in the first person. He laid the foundations for the notion of original sin; his emphasis on the doctrine of predestination effectively anticipated Luther; and if this author is to be believed, he invented the notion of the soul as we now understand it. His notoriety, however, rests on the popular belief that he imposed sexual angst on Christendom. O'Donnell argues that this is simplistic: Augustine was obsessed with the body in all its functions, and that this was a legacy of his early Manicheism, an early Christian cult that solved the problem of pain by proclaiming that this world was not the work of the true God. A member of the petty aristocracy, he had something of the obsessive dilettante about him. Though a member of the Manichean sect, he seems never to have been a true initiate. He put away his common-law wife when she became spiritually and socially inconvenient. He yearned, above all, for a Christianity that was like him: passionate but philosophical. He found his mentor in Ambrose, bishop of Milan, like him a man of the world, but also a man with a mission. O'Donnell dismisses much of the sexual self-reproach in the Confessions: Augustine was, if anything, more restrained in that respect than his contemporaries.

As the author demonstrates, Augustine created Christian doctrine almost by default: in taking on the Pelagians he dealt a body blow to the notion of free will, yet as a younger man he would have had no serious quarrel with Pelagius. The Manicheans would have been a footnote but for Augustine. The Donatists might never have been remembered at all. Again and again, we see him picking divisive and unnecessary fights with former friends, intellectual allies, such as St Jerome, and harmless, moribund fads.

Apart from unhappy lapses into American academic patois, O'Donnell's style is clear and fluent, and his translations are extraordinarily vivid. The famous line about Carthage is here rendered as: "To Carthage I came and there crackled around me on all sides the sizzling frying pan of sinful loves." O'Donnell's great gift lies in taking what are essentially commonplaces about Augustine and showing their true radicalism. That we should not take Augustine altogether at his word in the Confessions is not the most original of propositions, but the author uses it to explore the various Augustines: the intense, yearning Manichee, the scratchy polemicist, the stirring and passionate orator, the calculating protector of his class interests. Similarly, that Augustine remained a Manichee at heart is hardly shaking news, but the author convincingly shows how it was also his first great love, and that orthodox Christianity represented a staid and comfortable marriage by comparison.

Sadly, O'Donnell rarely evinces the remotest sympathy for his subject's spiritual aspirations. In fact, he just doesn't seem to like him much. The title "saint and sinner" seems to hint that the "saint" is going to get very little airtime. Augustine is seen as invariably self-serving. It can't be as simple as that.

This biography raises one disquieting question, however. The history of western Christianity is scored by individuals who, having bees in their bonnets, released them to sting everyone else. St Paul, Augustine, Luther, all deeply intense people, turned the solutions they found to their private agonies into spiritual laws for people who did not share those agonies. Are those who call themselves shepherds merely mad sheep, leading their less complicated brethren over a cliff and into the sea?