An Augustine Biography That Stoops to Gags, Cuteness

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

An Augustine Biography That Stoops to Gags, Cuteness


Byline: Charlotte Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I pity anyone who decides, like James J. O'Donnell, to write a "new" biography of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the North African bishop, saint, and dauntingly prolific theologian. Besides having to digest Augustine's own voluminous works in Latin (about five million words in total), the biographer must wrestle with the shadows cast by Peter Brown, whose magisterial and beautiful "Augustine of Hippo" (1967, updated 2000), set the gold standard for Augustinian biography. Mr. Brown's book combined vast learning in ancient languages and history, meticulous footnoting of sources, an erudite but thoroughly readable style, and the newest findings in psychology, sociology, archaeology, and the history of art in order to recreate in vivid detail not only the fading but still glittering Roman Mediterranean world where Augustine lived but also the imaginative inner world that his mind inhabited.

Mr. Brown had plenty of help from his subject, one of the most complex and interesting figures of the world of late antiquity. In his "Confessions," Augustine left testimony of his journeys both physical and spiritual: from small-town boyhood in Numidia in North Africa to brilliant and worldly philosopher and teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, North Africa's largest city, then in Rome, and finally, in Milan; from practitioner of dualistic Manicheism to Platonist to orthodox Christian who returned to the port city of Hippo Regius in his native Numidia in 397 to spend the rest of his life there as priest and bishop.

The "Confessions" is not really a biography in either the classical or the modern sense. Augustine fails even to provide the names of his parents, Patricius and Monica (or "Monnica," as Augustine's disciple Possidius and Mr. O'Donnell spell it) or of the Carthaginian concubine he loved so dearly that his heart bled, he said, when he felt obliged for social reasons to get rid of her and who became the mother of his son, Adeodatus. The "Confessions" was instead a kind of dramatic monologue, its narrative a stage on which there were only two actors, Augustine and God. Indeed, the book is addressed to a "You" (or "Thou") before whose all-seeing eyes Augustine believed he had no course but brutal honesty as he explored his own failings in detail: failings of the flesh but also of pride and wanton self-regard.

Augustine wrote many other works: his "City of God," in which he pinned his hopes upon the heavenly order as the Vandals swept through North Africa (they conquered Hippo in 431, the year after he died), as well as countless sermons, biblical commentaries, letters, philosophical speculations and polemical tracts against heretics. But it is the "Confessions," oddly modern in its psychology and existential longing, that resonates most with today's readers: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

Peter Brown would be the first to admit (as he did in an essay appended to the 2000 edition of his book) that he did not have the last scholarly word on Augustine. Indeed, a recent discovery of two caches of long-lost sermons and letters by Augustine has led many scholars, including Mr. Brown himself, to question the conventional chronology of his works - and hence, of his career - on which Mr. Brown relied in 1967. So the time is ripe for a fresh look at the bishop of Hippo.

James J. O'Donnell, a longtime professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania who is now provost of Georgetown University, would seem to have the credentials. He has written several other books about Augustine and his contemporaries, he has edited the "Confessions" for Oxford University's Clarendon Press, and he maintains a website at Georgetown devoted to Augustine.

Sad to say, Mr. O'Donnell's book is grossly disappointing on every single level that I can think of. First of all, despite its subtitle, it is not really a biography, "new" or otherwise, as it fails to deliver a coherent chronological narrative of what the author might believe to have been the trajectory of Augustine's life. …

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