St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was Don Quixote, writes James O'Donnell. "An old man, living too much by himself in the country, too much absorbed with his books and the adventures of former times that he has fallen among, takes these stories seriously, as true histories, and goes out to shape his life as if those storise were reasonable models."
Professor O'Donnell, the classicist who edited the three-volume Oxford edition of the Confessions and is now Provost of Georgetown University, thinks the tragedy is that Augustine was taken seriously. He 'invented" the Christianity we know today; "Augustine's fantasy world" has come "eerily to be real". But, he asks, what if instead "we could laught at Augustine? Hasn't anybody ever done that? Not to judge by the vast literature about him."
So it seems that Professor O'Donnell has not read The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien. In any case, the novelist's laughter is less hostile than the judgments in this new biography. One chapter is called "The Augustinian Putsch in Africa". (Who else led a putsch? Ah, yes.) It makes explicit the implications earlier in the book of calling Augustine a "Caecilianist", instead of a "catholic", as distinct from the Donatists of fourth-century North Africa. In 411 Augustine finally triumphed and the Caecilianists took possession of the Donatists' property.
Though Professor O'Donnell explains that he deliberately denies himself the use of the word "catholic", he is not unaware that Augustine thought of himself as a Catholic. He notes that Augustine used the word catholica as a noun, signifying the whole, universal Church. To preach to the "whole world" was not a project begun by Augustine, as the gospel according to Mark attests. And to find Christianity somehow "the same" in Gaul and in Libya was a claim of Irenaeus in the second century.
Professor O'Donnell asserts that the scholar W.H.C. Frend "scandalised readers 50 years ago by arguing that Donatism was the religious expression of the less Romanised parts of Africa, Catholicism of the Romanised cities". O'Donnell goes further by saying that Donatism in Africa was the norm. But this is old hat. It is what Döllinger was writing 150 years ago. Harnack called the Donatists "the African national party". That remained the established opinion in 1917 when Adrian Fortescue published a series of articles her in The Tablet on the Donatists.
O'Donnell's book excludes any clutter of hard foreign names and places and dates. So Optatus of Milevis is banished to one little footnote in the back of the book. This Optatus was the man who appealed to the belief of the orbis terrarum, the whole world, against the local loyalties of the Donatists. Augustine took up the notion in his famus phrase securus iudicat orbis terrarum, which so struck John Henry Newman.
It is impossible, then, to think that Frend scandalised many people merely by that observation about the Donatists. I make the point because Professor O'Donnell's is such a very strange book. He tells us quite a bit about life in North Africa in Augustine's time, but the crux of his approach is not historical but linguistic.
The first big surprise is that he spells "god" with a small g. That is, he says, to "remind readers" of the risk "of assuming that we know just what Augustine meant" by the word. The exercise immediately leads to difficulties, for in English the word God is used as if it were the proper name of God. So it does not take the definite article. We say "the dog is in the yard", but "God is in his temple". In another attempt at refreshing originality, O'Donnell always translates dominus (referring to God) as "master". So he retranslates "I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord" (Psalm 32) as "I shall declare against myself what I have sinned against my master god."
O'Donnell's very focus on language, and his desire to make old things seem new, can be baffling. "The young Augustine in Milan, awash in flop sweat in his stretch limousine en route to praise the emperor or his latest favourite, had made his way in the world as a prize-winning stage performer," he writes.
Professor O'Donnell has a bitter animus against Christians and, if his view of Augustine is correct, he was a deluded monster. Yet we re-read Augustine's words, and he seems warm and humane, a man of piercing intellect, fully of sympathy and emotion. When he writes about the Pslmas or the Trinity, we recognise his insights. If they are a fantasy, Christians today share it (as O'Donnell complains).
In reviewing Serge Lancel's biography of Augustine (The Tablet, 7 June, 2003), P.J. Kavanagh remarked that it "inspires one to try and read the whole of St Augustine". I found Lancel's book in translation too full of Gallicisms, but they were nothing to O'Donnell's distorting lens.
Christopher Howse (assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph)