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Issue Date:  May 27, 2005

By James J. O’Donnell
Ecco-HarperCollins, 396 pages, $26.95

By Garry Wills
Viking, 144 pages, $23.95
Revealing the remade Augustine


Augustine’s 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. O’Donnell 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. O’Donnell’s handling of them create a new chronology or brand-new emphases for a biography.

So what makes this A New Biography? First, Dr. O’Donnell is a prolific reader who absorbs and integrates new knowledge with a speed that makes one’s head spin. Thus, the reader of this new biography has at hand what has happened in Augustinian scholarship since Dr. Brown and Dr. Lancel’s books. Dr. O’Donnell’s 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. O’Donnell 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. O’Donnell’s biography is new and -- dare one say -- postmodern. Following Dr. O’Donnell, one dips into Augustine’s 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. O’Donnell takes advantage of Augustine’s 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 Augustine’s own latter-day insights into his story as it unwinds, but he shows how Augustine has been portrayed through the ages.

Missing from Dr. O’Donnell’s list of serviceable translations of Augustine is Garry Wills’ attempt to render Augustine’s words anew. Dr. Wills, on the other hand, admits that Dr. O’Donnell’s works have inspired him, especially the professor’s extensive commentary on the Confessions, or Testimonies, as Dr. Wills calls them. If Dr. O’Donnell seeks to provide one more, albeit new, biography, Dr. Wills tries to provide one more new translation of Augustine’s Confessions. His current volume, Augustine’s Conversion, covers Book VIII of Augustine’s 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 Augustine’s conversion in the Confessions versus the tell-tale indications that it was a fairly long process. Here Dr. Wills -- based partially on Dr. O’Donnell -- is sensitive to the literary aspects of Augustine’s 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. O’Donnell and Wills try to shake the jaded reader. Dr. O’Donnell refers to the divine as god in lower case letters to alert the reader that in Augustine’s time the Christian Father was one among many divinities one could choose. Following Dr. O’Donnell, Dr. Wills refers to Augustine’s 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 women’s 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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