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Augustine: A New Biography
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Augustine: A New Biography

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by James J. O'Donnell

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Saint Augustine -- the celebrated theologian who served as Bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E. -- is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the Western world. His autobiography, Confessions, remains among the most important religious writings in the Christian tradition. In this


Saint Augustine -- the celebrated theologian who served as Bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E. -- is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the Western world. His autobiography, Confessions, remains among the most important religious writings in the Christian tradition. In this eye-opening and eminently readable biography, renowned historical scholar James J. O’Donnell picks up where Augustine himself left off to offer a fascinating, in-depth portrait of an unparalleled politician, writer, and churchman in a time of uncertainty and religious turmoil.

Augustine is a triumphant chronicle of an extraordinary life that is certain to surprise and enlighten even those who believed they knew the complex and remarkable man of God.

Editorial Reviews

G. W. Bowersock
O'Donnell has undertaken to do what needed to be done. He has done it with brio and erudition, although a little less brio and a little more erudition would have been welcome. His long commitment to Augustine's life and works is reflected not only in his commentary on the ''Confessions'' and in this new biography but equally in a well-maintained Web site, which he claims was the first home page for any saint on the World Wide Web. His biography by no means replaces Peter Brown's masterpiece, even for a new generation of readers, but it is the work of an impressive Augustinian, eager to promote his subject.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Outstanding Augustine scholar O'Donnell (classics, Georgetown Univ.) here provides a contemporary understanding of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose influence on Western Christianity has been enormous. O'Donnell, who previously edited a three-volume definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, has written numerous academic books, and maintains a web site. Born out of a series of lectures, this biography is not an easy read and presupposes some knowledge of the saint. Over 200 biographies of Augustine have been written in English, but O'Donnell's is unique in that it asks the reader to rethink Augustine's life, times, and writings in light of more recent scholarship. (Not all of Augustine's voluminous writings have survived, but in the latter part of the 20th century, a collection of letters and another of his sermons were discovered.) In a thoroughly documented text that interweaves the religious, historical, and political contexts of Augustine's time, O'Donnell leads the reader to unfamiliar but articulately expressed speculations. Recommended as an important addition to the Augustinian corpus, especially for academic and religious collections.-Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a lyrical, multilayered biography, a Georgetown classics scholar creates this generation's Augustine. O'Donnell's study of Augustine's life, work and influence would be worth the price of entry if it consisted only of the first 86 pages, which offer one of the most nuanced and sensitive readings ever of the Confessions (including an evenhanded investigation of why Augustine was so obsessed with chastity). O'Donnell reads the Confessions generously, but he also makes clear that the great autobiography is a literary work, not an unmediated picture of Augustine's life. Throughout, O'Donnell draws on cutting-edge scholarship-including the hypothesis, based on Pierre-Marie Hombert's 2000 study "New Investigations in Augustinian Chronology," that Augustine may have risen to prominence later than scholars previously thought. There are no hints of hagiography here: indeed, O'Donnell likes to laugh a little at the great saint, and in a chapter entitled "Augustine Unvarnished," he lays bear the African bishop's ambition and social-climbing. O'Donnell's rendering of the historical context is as important as his exegesis of Augustine. He limns fourth-century Christianity in order to show both how revolutionary some of Augustine's own theological doctrines were, and how much those doctrines had to be "tamed" before they were embraced by the church. Along the way, he explains how Augustine literally wrote (he dictated, mainly) and explores "Augustine's tongue" (that is, late antique Latin). And O'Donnell shows how Augustine remains germane to our world-"the idea that wisdom . . . lies in the pages of a book" is owed to Augustine, and, even more important, his idea of God still powerfully influenceshow Christians, Jews and Muslims understand the deity. Finally, this magisterial work is distinguished not only by its innovative scholarship, but also by O'Donnell's elegant style-even the prose in the appendix on "Pursuing Augustine Further" is lovely (recommending Augustine's sermons, the author writes that "Another place to lie in wait for him is in his church on Sunday morning.")A landmark achievement.

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A New Biography

Chapter One

The View From Africa

Hippo and Beyond

Augustine's Hippo Regius was the center of the universe for some who lived there and the back of beyond for many who visited. A port city on the Mediterranean coast of Africa, where the river Seybouse came down from the mountains to the sea, it stood a distant second to Carthage in commerce and prestige. Augustine hadn't lived there all his life.

He had grown up between two Africas: the more Romanized coastal land with its port cities and settled society, and the up-country olive- and breadbasket of Numidia, a society less consciously dignified and Romeoriented. Even at this date, the mid-350s, Numidia felt a little like western Canada before World War II.

Augustine never saw the sea as a child. He tells of imagining what it was like from a glass of water, and then is enthralled by its colors, but he's afraid to go out upon it again after his one trip to Italy and back, and he never saw the other sea to the south, the Sahara. He was born in a green valley in the mountains, in the market town of Tagaste (the modern Souk Ahras), in a landscape reminiscent of Tuscany, his horizons bounded within a couple of miles on each side by hill crests and forests. As a boy, he headed farther inland, to Madauros, climbing up out of his valley to find the beginnings of the broad expanse of high plain that lies between the coast and the desert of North Africa. From a closed-in valley, he entered vertiginous open spaces, where grasslands stretched to the horizons, interrupted only by the well-cultivated olive groves that brought this land its prosperity.

He was a nobody, the son of a minor landowner in a third-rate town, with no money to speak of and few connections. For such nobodies, proximity to power was the first step to eminence. A precise sense of the wealth and standing of his father, Patricius, eludes us, but the things we know are: (1) he belonged to the curial class, that is, the "senate" of landowners of Tagaste who were responsible for the community's governance, including collective responsibility for civic works (not surprisingly, membership on those councils was an honor many would just as soon avoid, and many, like Augustine, did so by joining the clergy); (2) he owned a "few little acres" (pauci agelluli); and (3) he relied on the friendship and support of Romanianus, a much richer landowner in the same town, to provide the financial resources to send Augustine off to university in Carthage (then the greatest port city of Africa). Augustine's important luck was in continuing to have Romanianus support him through his Milan days. (The patron fell in with Augustine's philosophical and religious enthusiasms up to a point, but in the end, he reverted to type, taking baptism only at death's door, recovering, and taking up in widowhood with mistresses. Augustine is last seen writing to Romanianus to rebuke him.)

Augustine succeeded three times in the public eye when still very young. It was an achievement when he was a young man that he got to teach in Carthage; an achievement again when he was crowned there by the proconsul Vindicianus, the man who lived in the palace on a hill, as winner in an oratorial contest (a very familiar and very "pagan" public scene in the old city); and an achievement again when he went to Italy and won appointment to Milan as imperial professor of rhetoric through well-placed friends. When Augustine went to Milan, his family's ambitions pursuing him, he had hopes he later reconstructed this way: "We have our powerful friends, and if nothing else (I say this in a rush), at least a governorship could come our way, and I could marry a wife with money (so she wouldn't be a burden on our outgoings) -- that's the limit of my desires." Many provincials from backwaters like Tagaste would have shared this ambition, but it was remarkably within reach for Augustine. If he was not yet a "friend of the emperor," he was closing in on that status during his time in Milan.

Yet his worldly career came to an end, as we shall soon see, and when it did, he did as most others would do: he went home to make the best of things. Even with a worldly career of the sort we have just imagined, it's likely that he would still have ended, sooner or later, back where he started. In 388, he settled on his family property and lived there without visible hopes or plans for three years. Here is how his first biographer, Possidius, described his intention:

And it pleased him, after he had been baptized, to take his friends and neighbors who had joined him in serving god, and go back to Africa, to his own house and lands. When he got there and settled down, for about three years he put aside worldly cares and with those who stayed with him he lived for god, with fasting, prayer, and good works, meditating on the law of god day and night. And whatever god revealed to him as he thought and prayed, he taught to others; with conversation and with books he taught one and all, near and far.

Many writers have spoken of the Augustine of 388–91 as a monk, or at least a monk-in-all-but-name. That is an anachronism. His retirement to the family property was entirely in character and entirely typical. That he chose philosophy over philandering would have puzzled only a few of his neighbors or relatives. In Tagaste, after his time in Italy, he was an oddity, to be sure. No one we can see in Africa of that time at all resembles the gentlemanly Augustine.

A New Biography
. Copyright © by James O'Donnell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

James J. O'donnell is a classicist who served for ten years as Provost of Georgetown University and is now University Librarian at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books including Augustine, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Avatars of the Word. He is the former president of the American Philological Association, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies. He is seen here at an ancient monastery on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, in Syria.

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