Saint Augustine is one of the most important early Christian writers, yet serious general readers read him less frequently than his influence justifies. In his own lifetime, Augustine almost single-handedly codified the standards for the priesthood and consecration of bishops. His aggressive attacks against Donatism thwarted a serious challenge to the rights of the Catholic hierarchy to ordain. The early Christian Church included Augustine among its Fathers, a distinction reserved for those whose writings it considered essential in the formulation of Christian doctrine.
In the Middle Ages, Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) became not only the literary model for conversion but for conversion literature, an influence felt in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). The Renaissance ranked Augustine as at least of equal importance to Saint Thomas Aquinas as a Christian philosopher. This period’s manuscript iconography thoroughly Europeanized the African saint. American Puritans such as William Bradford, following John Calvin’s theory of cyclical history, considered Augustine’s conversion voyage to Italy a model of Israelite release from Egypt and, in turn, a parallel to the journey to the Promised Land of America. The twentieth century deconstructed Augustine’s writings to posit what Kenneth Burke calls a “rhetoric of religion” based on Plotinan hierarchies of language that move from the word to The Word.
Readers of Garry Wills’s Saint Augustine will find none of this literary history in his volume. Following the format of the Penguin Life series, Wills sets to one side most of what history has made of his subject and presents instead only what selected secondary sources and some important passages from essential primary material can tell him about Augustine.
For those readers wanting a quick lesson on the saint, this method has its advantages. The biography opens to a broad audience challenging but rewarding works, such as De ordine (386; On Order, 1942), De Trinitate (c. 419; On the Trinity, 1873), and Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis, the Psalms, and the Gospel of Saint John, not to mention the Confessions. Wills has successfully tackled the clearly formidable task of limiting the life and thoughts of any person as complex as Augustine to slightly more than 150 pages, given the restrictions of the series format.
There is nothing utterly wrong in Wills’s treatment, as long as readers keep several things in mind. First, the book is essentially a primer and only that. The biography lacks the subtlety of Peter Brown’s classic study Augustine of Hippo (1967), from which it quotes frequently. Brown’s work is as much an introduction to Augustine as Wills’s, and it is just as accessible to general readers, with the real advantages of detail and unobtrusive documentation. W. H. C. Frend’s The Donatist Church (1952), another study to which Wills often refers, is a fascinating account not only of Donatism but also of daily life in early Christian North Africa. This book also is wonderfully readable and in no way abstruse.
The second caveat is that Wills aims to popularize, running the serious risk of distorting his subject. This objective may have been less a problem in Wills’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), if only because of its greater proximity to the culture and era of most of its readers. Here, though, are several examples of the kind of popularizing that occurs often in Wills’s book. Readers of this essay can judge whether they distort or otherwise interfere with the work.
In discussing Augustine on the nature of memory, a central topic in the Confessions, Wills writes as follows:
Vladimir Nabokov had obviously been reading Augustine when he made Humbert Humbert describe his own self-awareness as “a continual spanning (distentio) of two points, the storable future and the stored past” (Lolita, Section 26).
Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1966) is a confessional autobiography and, on that account, might be compared to Augustine’s Confessions. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) is, on the other hand, a satirical novel. Humbert Humbert, in describing the “spanning of two points,” is thinking of German author Immanuel Kant on the nature of time, die Spanne, not Augustinian distentio. For Augustine, time moves in gyres, coming back upon itself in variation. For Kant, time is a linear series of present events,...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)