Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Biography Filled with Detail Puts St. Augustine in Perspective

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Biography Filled with Detail Puts St. Augustine in Perspective

Article excerpt



By Robin Lane

Fox Published by Basic Books, $35


Augustine: Conversions to Confessions may be informative to the nth degree, but it's not dense. Robin Lane Fox says he wrote this biography for all readers --even those in a post-Christian age who do not share Augustine's religious beliefs.

A towering figure in Western philosophy St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, came from Thagaste, a small town in North Africa. After a wanton youth but a sterling education, he converted, became a priest, and later bishop. More than 100 books, 240 letters, and 500 sermons are ascribed to him.

Two of them, City of God and his autobiography Confessions, are still widely read more than 1,500 years later. In 1298, Pope Boniface VIII recognized him as a doctor of the church. Evangelical Protestants consider him a theological luminary in the tradition of the Apostle Paul.

Fox suggests that a brilliant mind and a penchant for mysticism drove Augustine's success. A noted historian and an emeritus fellow at New College, Oxford, Fox is co-translator of The Confessions published by Everyman's Library. He considers himself a classicist (he isn't Catholic) and views Augustine as an intellectual giant rather than as a saint.

Fox's narrative moves chronologically, beginning with Augustine's birth. During each phase of Augustine's life, Fox discusses related historical events, religious trends, and philosophical movements, as well as educational and cultural trends.

Fox also explains concepts such as Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheanism, a sect that Augustine joined for nine or so years and later fought.

Although the amount of detail may seem overwhelming, Fox describes everything engagingly He also believes one cannot understand Augustine without knowing this background.

To add perspective, Fox includes descriptions of the lives of two contemporaries --one a pagan and one a Christian --showing how they handled issues that affected Augustine.

Augustine says little about Patricius, his father, in his Confessions, but not because they did not get along, as some biographers suggest. Confessions is about Augustine's relation to God, and since Patricius was a pagan until he was baptized on his deathbed, Fox believes his life was irrelevant. (For the record, Fox believes Augustine inherited his outgoing and warm personality from his father.)

But Augustine's discussions about his mother, whom he considers his source of God's grace, were quite relevant. Augustine writes that he "was being flavored with salt from the very [leaving of] the womb of my mother."

Monnica (Fox's spelling is based on the derivation of her name from the name Ammonica) was an uneducated tribeswoman. Born into a Christian family circa 331-332, she married at the age of 16 and had Augustine a few years later.

Monnica deeply loved her son. That love became a burden as she tried to curb his libertine ways during his early adulthood. Augustine left her, but she soon caught up with him. …

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