July 31, 2005

Augustine for the New Age


ST. AUGUSTINE, in late antiquity the bishop of Hippo in Africa (modern Annaba, Algeria), is a colossus in early Christianity. The immensity of his productivity is matched by his reputation. He acquired a fame far beyond the church through the elegance, candor and passion of his ''Confessions,'' which remain a classic of Western literature. In that autobiographical work, addressed to God, he recounted his spiritual and physical odyssey from heresy and debauchery to the serenity of the Catholic Church. His assaults as a theologian on such primal issues as original sin and predestination made him arguably the most important interpreter of the teachings of Jesus since St. Paul. He was neither the most learned nor the most politically influential of the Christians of his time, but after his death in the middle of the fifth century he ultimately eclipsed them all.

Scholarship on Augustine is also immense; by now it is more than a growth industry. Toward the end of the 20th century, two sensational discoveries fueled new research on both sides of the Atlantic. Johannes Divjak of Vienna found in Marseilles a treasure of hitherto unknown letters written by the saint in the obscure final decades of his life, and Francois Dolbeau of Paris recognized in the municipal library at Mainz, Germany, a cache of sermons that had escaped detection through the centuries. These manuscripts suddenly opened up direct access to the great man; Dolbeau compared them to a tape recording of the voice of a long-dead friend. They clearly called for a reconsideration of Augustine's entire career and intellectual evolution. Academic conferences proliferated.

When this was happening, the single most comprehensive and authoritative portrait of Augustine was undoubtedly Peter Brown's enthralling biography of 1967, a work that launched the career of that superb historian. But as Brown moved on to other studies in the period, more scholars quickly moved into the crowded Augustinian field. The new letters and sermons gave an unexpected impetus to the kind of revisionism that inevitably spreads in the wake of a book so fundamental as Brown's. Serge Lancel published a new biography in Paris in 1999, and a few years ago Garry Wills drew from his personal experience of Catholicism to sketch a new portrait of Augustine, as well as to undertake a translation of various books of the ''Confessions,'' a work he insisted -- without the slightest hope of persuading anyone -- on renaming ''Testimony.''

Meanwhile, James J. O'Donnell, now the provost of Georgetown University, brought out a lively three-volume commentary on the ''Confessions.'' To this he has now added a biography of Augustine that is explicitly addressed to a new age of readers (he refers to the ''readers of the last generation'' as nurtured on Brown's biography). O'Donnell clearly wants to give us an Augustine who is very much a creature of his time and place. The smothering provinciality of the North African village where Augustine grew up and the predominance in the Christian community there of the followers of Donatus (known to history as Donatists), who opposed the Catholic minority, drove the future saint into the arms of the Manichaeans, another Christian sect then branded as heretics. Yet once this ambitious young man escaped to the sophistication of northern Italy and the teachings of the powerful Ambrose, bishop of Milan, he experienced a great conversion in a garden where he heard children's voices advising him to read a book of Scripture -- the Epistles of St. Paul.

O'Donnell clearly enjoys surprising his new-generation readers with insouciant and catchy phrases that in an earlier age would have seemed highly inappropriate for a saint. He introduces us to ''Augustine the self-promoter,'' ''Augustine the social climber,'' and ''Augustine the troublemaker.'' The ''Confessions'' were, we are told, ''dramatically meant to mislead his readers.'' He even provides a startlingly colloquial rendering of the solemn opening of the work so that he can conjure up a traditionalist voice to object: ''This is Saint Augustine, for crying out loud, and he's talking to God, right?'' O'Donnell's jaunty manner is clearly meant to shake up his readers. The perky style makes his biography fun to read, and yet the insouciance and irreverence begin to sound hollow after a while. This is not an assault on Augustine's reputation, but a deliberately jolting way of affirming it.

After all, no one ever imagined that the man was a paragon of good behavior. He was the first to admit his many shortcomings, most notoriously in the great chapter about his youthful arrival in Carthage, where he found himself in a caldron of sex and loved nothing more than to be loved. O'Donnell's ''frying pan'' for caldron is a silly effort to be different, rather like his decision to spell the name of Augustine's birthplace Tagaste, instead of Thagaste, and his mother's name Monnica, instead of Monica. The real force of the Latin word sartago, normally rendered caldron, is that it is a smart pun on the name of the city, Carthago.

O'Donnell makes ample use of the new letters and sermons, but curiously not so often as one would expect or like. This is where today's readers need guidance. O'Donnell acknowledges respectfully a major study by Pierre-Marie Hombert of the chronology of Augustine's career with reference to the new material, but he chooses to ignore it. Hombert's work seriously challenged the interpretation of Augustine's episcopal debut in Carthage in 397. So O'Donnell declares, ''I will go on now to write the chapters I intend and want to write, but I write them, and you should read them, with a sense of suspended confidence.'' We should demand more than that from a major Augustinian scholar.

In fact we get much more from Peter Brown himself, who wrote a searching reappraisal of his own ''Augustine of Hippo'' in a new edition published in 2000. Brown added an epilogue in two substantial parts to take detailed account of the new discoveries and to ponder their implications for the narrative he had written more than 30 years before. He recognized that the quotidian chores of the bishop in his North African context emerge much more clearly now and serve to mitigate the authoritarian character of Augustine in his contacts with a sometimes unruly flock, with Donatists and with pagans. ''Precisely because the new evidence consists of sermons and letters,'' Brown wrote, ''it has tipped the balance, in my mind, towards a consideration of the more humdrum, the less successful and the more gentle, painstaking aspects of Augustine's life as a bishop in North Africa.'' As a consequence, in speculating on the book he would write if he were to start all over again, he observed, ''Augustine can now be placed against a richer and more variegated landscape than was the case in the 1960's.''

O'Donnell has undertaken to do what needed to be done. He has done it with brio and erudition, although a little less brio and a little more erudition would have been welcome. His long commitment to Augustine's life and works is reflected not only in his commentary on the ''Confessions'' and in this new biography but equally in a well-maintained Web site, which he claims was the first home page for any saint on the World Wide Web. His biography by no means replaces Peter Brown's masterpiece, even for a new generation of readers, but it is the work of an impressive Augustinian, eager to promote his subject. It vigorously depicts the teeming world of late antique North Africa and Augustine's responses to its many uncertainties and tumults. We can watch the bishop toiling in a particularly untidy and unlovely vineyard of the Lord. O'Donnell cannot be faulted for assuming that this makes Augustine's achievement even more astonishing.

G. W. Bowersock is a professor of ancient history in the Institute for Advanced Studies. Among his many books are ''Julian the Apostate'' and ''Martyrdom and Rome.''