Saint Augustine

by Garry Wills

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1891

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.

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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, without past or future. Just as bothersome as this error is Wills’s citation of Lolita, a novel of sexual obsession, to illuminate Augustine’s Confessions. He writes in his introduction:

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People feel, for instance, that they understand intuitively Augustine’s testimony to his own sexual sins. In fact, they are convinced that Augustine was a libertine before his conversion, and was so obsessed with sex after his conversion that they place many unnamed sins to his account—though his actual sexual activity was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint.

Having implied that a fault of previous critical analysis on Augustine has been its excessive reliance on psychoanalysis and sensationalism, Wills proceeds to inaccurately cite Nabokov, not his autobiography but his controversial popular novel Lolita. This seems very close to the approach he implies at the outset that he is not going to follow.

Then, there is the less problematic question of names. In the final analysis, it is of no special consequence if one refers to Augustine’s son by the name he actually bore, Adeodatus (“Gift of God”) or uses Wills’s breezy alternate “Godsend.” It may not matter to most readers if the mysterious, intentionally anonymous consort to whom Augustine was exclusively faithful suddenly has a name, “Una,” to symbolize this exclusivity. It may not matter that Wills has renamed Augustine’s Confessions as The Testimony, supposedly to circumvent the implications true confessions have for modern readers. Even so, the conventional title, derived from the Latin confessiones, conveys a dual meaning: bearing witness and explaining. Wills’s altered title eliminates possible sensational implications but signifies only a theological or legal process.

Typology and symbol are important for Augustine. For example, Augustine devotes more than half of Confessions 2 to an evocative recollection of the nighttime raid he and some of his teenage friends staged on a pear orchard. Having stolen pears much less tasty than those he could have had without stealing, he throws the uneaten fruit to swine. Wills avoids discussing the awakening sexuality often assigned to the episode, though he does note its Edenic imagery.

The pear theft is just one of several garden episodes in the Confessions. Others include Augustine’s conversion in the garden at Milan, Italy, his last conversation on the nature of eternity with his mother Monnica at Ostia, the port of Rome, and his exegesis on the Tree of Knowledge and rebirth in the Lord with which the Confessions concludes. Each of these episodes resets the garden motif of the pear theft episode to highlight some greater degree of self-knowledge. Augustine places them so carefully into various contexts of Confessions that they assume the value of incremental metaphor tracing a heightened awareness of linguistic signification that corresponds to increasing spirituality. It is this textual complexity, largely overlooked in Wills’s study, that makes Augustine such a fascinating writer. His texts make free use of the symbolism already familiar to early Christians and foreshadow the systematic use of typology that becomes medieval allegory.

Wills provides a good overview of Augustine’s early schooling, a model based on the old Roman system that was even then degenerating. It is likely that Augustine received an even more conservative education in provincial Numidia than he would have obtained in Rome itself at the time. His education was strongly grounded in rhetoric, memorization, and grammatical analysis of texts. The Confessions reports the acclaim that Augustine received for his declamation of Juno’s speech from Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). This training predisposed Augustine to his career as rhetorician, just as it led him to privilege the value of language and memory as avenues for understanding one’s relationship to creation and to creation’s source. Wills makes a good connection in this regard with Augustine’s De ordine, for Augustine consistently explains the spiritual in aesthetic terms. It is, Augustine argues, as if one perceived only one tile of a mosaic, beautiful in itself but of itself conveying nothing of the whole.

Developing an aesthetic sense leads Augustine to the spiritual, just as one tile leads the eye to a larger mosaic. This aesthetic sense parallels Augustine’s deepening sensuality, a negative aspect of his life that Augustine believes is his greatest obstacle to spirituality. The Confessions depicts this conflict vividly in its Carthage episodes. Augustine plays on the words Carthago and sartago (“cauldron,” which Wills translates as “frying pan”). The point of the wordplay is that Carthage brought the young Augustine’s sensuality to its boiling point. Theater spectacles, with their bawdy comedy and lewd mimes, led Augustine to misdirect his aesthetic as much as his moral sense. Here again is an episode that parallels the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Augustine was a Manichean initiate, both while a teenager at Thagaste and later when a student at Carthage. As Confessions 4.17 notes, he found the Manicheans attracted intellectual young people much like himself and considered this a compelling reason to join their number. The Manicheans, who took their name from the mid-third century Persian sage Mani, held a dualistic cosmology in which good and evil are roughly equal forces always in contention. The doctrine of self-control and personal discipline that they preached had definite appeal for the young Augustine. He no doubt considered personal discipline his own greatest challenge, and his long association with the Manicheans, coupled with the fact that he never rose above the level of initiate, is one indication of how great the challenge was for him. To rise above initiate required a vow of celibacy, which would have been awkward considering Augustine’s long association with the unnamed woman of the Confessions.

A telling moment of the Confessions concerns Augustine’s disillusionment with Faustus, the Manichean teacher he had anticipated meeting. Not long after determining that Faustus’s learning was neither broad nor deep, Augustine decides to take the voyage that brings him, like his boyhood hero Aeneas, to Italy. Here again is a small inaccuracy. Aeneas was not, as Wills writes, “steering for Rome,” nor could Augustine view “the Rome he had come to love in Virgil,” since the city that Romulus would found in 753 b.c.e. exists only as its Etruscan antecedent Pallanteum in Aeneid 8. The events of the Aeneid take place after 1184 b.c.e. The more important affinity, which Wills misses, is that fate drives Aeneas to Italy so that four hundred years afterward, Romulus can found the fledgling city of Rome upon an amalgam of Etruscan, native Italic, and Trojan blood. Fate impels Augustine to Italy so that he may hear the preaching of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, experience conversion to Christianity, and complete the circular journey of life that allows him to become bishop of Hippo. In both the Aeneid and the Confessions, personal duty elevates the life of the community. For Augustine, this spiritual and temporal community of Christians will be his City of God.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (June 1, 1999): 1748.

Christianity Today 43 (October 4, 1999): 91.

The Economist 353 (November 13, 1999): 10.

Library Journal 124 (May 1, 1999): 85.

The New York Review of Books 46 (June 24, 1999): 45.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (July 25, 1999): 9.

Publishers Weekly 246 (May 17, 1999): 70.

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