Augustine's Confessions

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Overview

In this brief and incisive book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills tells the story of the Confessions--what motivated Augustine to dictate it, how it asks to be read, and the many ways it has been misread in the one-and-a-half millennia since it was composed. Following Wills's biography of Augustine and his translation of the Confessions, this is an unparalleled introduction to one of the most important books in the Christian and Western traditions.

Understandably fascinated by the story of Augustine's life, modern readers have largely succumbed to the temptation to read the Confessions as autobiography. But, Wills argues, this is a mistake. The book is not autobiography but rather a long prayer, suffused with the language of Scripture and addressed to God, not man. Augustine tells the story of his life not for its own significance but in order to discern how, as a drama of sin and salvation leading to God, it fits into sacred history. "We have to read Augustine as we do Dante," Wills writes, "alert to rich layer upon layer of Scriptural and theological symbolism." Wills also addresses the long afterlife of the book, from controversy in its own time and relative neglect during the Middle Ages to a renewed prominence beginning in the fourteenth century and persisting to today, when the Confessions has become an object of interest not just for Christians but also historians, philosophers, psychiatrists, and literary critics.

With unmatched clarity and skill, Wills strips away the centuries of misunderstanding that have accumulated around Augustine's spiritual classic.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
Another gem of a little book by Garry Wills. . . . Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles. . . . His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine's strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written.
— Peter Brown
Booklist
Like a biography of a person, this volume takes Augustine's Confessions and traces its birth, growth and decline, and legacy. Since so much of an author's life is connected to his or her work—especially in the case of Confessions—this can't help but include a decent amount of Augustine's own bio. . . . Very readable and highly engaging.
— Wade Osburn
Macleans
[Augustine] and Wills, 76—one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive—make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation. . . . Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever.
— Brian Bethune
Portland Book Review
This is the type of biography you normally don't see. It is not a biography of Augustine, there are enough of those; it is not another translation of his Confessions, there are enough of those as well. What this is, and what it attempts to be, is a biography of Augustine's Confessions.
— Kevin Winter
Sydney Morning Herald
Garry Wills really is a modern-day Renaissance man. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg and then turned his attention to St Augustine, firstly translating Confessions, then writing a biography (St Augustine: A Life) and now offering a 'life' of Confessions from 'The Book's Birth' (the title of the opening chapter) through 'The Book's Conversion' to 'The Book's Baptismal Days' to 'The Book's Afterlife'. And what a story it is.
— Bruce Elder
Metapsychology
This is a short, reliable and well-written introduction to Augustine's Confessions that describes, firstly, how the Confessions came to be written and, secondly, the author's intentions in writing the Confessions these are not quite the same and, thirdly, the subsequent fate of the book. . . . With a deft touch, and in non-technical language, Wills' introductory book not only relays these ideas to the widest possible readership—but also communicates a sensitive understanding of the original context in which the Confessions were written and of Augustine's intentions in writing them.
— Stephen Leach
The Australian
Garry Wills . . . writes about Augustine's Confessions sympathetically but rigorously. He traces its trajectory from first appearance at the end of the 4th century AD until our time, and discusses the ideas contained within it. The result is readable and illuminating, and it sent this reader to Google and Amazon in search of more.
— Miriam Cosic
Catholic Register
Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills' instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine's seminal classic, The Confessions. . . . This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills' book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book.
— Fr. Gilles Mongeau S.J.
Globe and Mail

The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading.
— André Alexis

Commonweal
I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn't noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it's also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning.
— Lawrence S Cunningham
American Conservative
[A] brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves. . . . [Wills] is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. . . . Wills clearly loves his subject . . . and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine's critics have gone astray over time.
— Jean Bethke Elshtain
Biography
This is a masterful introductory work, written by someone of real eloquence and theological sensitivity. It is worth every minute spent on a first reading, and I have no doubt I will go back to the underlined passages each time I reread Confessions in the future.
— Kim Paffenroth
Globe & Mail
The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading.
— André Alexis
New York Review of Books - Peter Brown
Another gem of a little book by Garry Wills. . . . Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles. . . . His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine's strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written.
Booklist - Wade Osburn
Like a biography of a person, this volume takes Augustine's Confessions and traces its birth, growth and decline, and legacy. Since so much of an author's life is connected to his or her work—especially in the case of Confessions—this can't help but include a decent amount of Augustine's own bio. . . . Very readable and highly engaging.
Macleans - Brian Bethune
[Augustine] and Wills, 76—one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive—make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation. . . . Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever.
Portland Book Review - Kevin Winter
This is the type of biography you normally don't see. It is not a biography of Augustine, there are enough of those; it is not another translation of his Confessions, there are enough of those as well. What this is, and what it attempts to be, is a biography of Augustine's Confessions.
Sydney Morning Herald - Bruce Elder
Garry Wills really is a modern-day Renaissance man. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg and then turned his attention to St Augustine, firstly translating Confessions, then writing a biography (St Augustine: A Life) and now offering a 'life' of Confessions from 'The Book's Birth' (the title of the opening chapter) through 'The Book's Conversion' to 'The Book's Baptismal Days' to 'The Book's Afterlife'. And what a story it is.
Metapsychology - Stephen Leach
This is a short, reliable and well-written introduction to Augustine's Confessions that describes, firstly, how the Confessions came to be written and, secondly, the author's intentions in writing the Confessions these are not quite the same and, thirdly, the subsequent fate of the book. . . . With a deft touch, and in non-technical language, Wills' introductory book not only relays these ideas to the widest possible readership—but also communicates a sensitive understanding of the original context in which the Confessions were written and of Augustine's intentions in writing them.
The Australian - Miriam Cosic
Garry Wills . . . writes about Augustine's Confessions sympathetically but rigorously. He traces its trajectory from first appearance at the end of the 4th century AD until our time, and discusses the ideas contained within it. The result is readable and illuminating, and it sent this reader to Google and Amazon in search of more.
Father; Catholic Register - Gilles Mongeau S.J.
Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills' instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine's seminal classic, The Confessions. . . . This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills' book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book.
Globe and Mail - Andre Alexis
The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading.
Commonweal - Lawrence S Cunningham
I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn't noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it's also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning.
American Conservative - Jean Bethke Elshtain
[A] brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves. . . . [Wills] is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. . . . Wills clearly loves his subject . . . and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine's critics have gone astray over time.
Biography - Kim Paffenroth
This is a masterful introductory work, written by someone of real eloquence and theological sensitivity. It is worth every minute spent on a first reading, and I have no doubt I will go back to the underlined passages each time I reread Confessions in the future.
Catholic Register - Fr. Gilles Mongeau S.J.
Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills' instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine's seminal classic, The Confessions. . . . This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills' book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book.
Globe and Mail - André Alexis
The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading.
Commonweal - Lawrence S. Cunningham
I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn't noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it's also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning.
From the Publisher

"Another gem of a little book by Garry Wills. . . . Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles. . . . His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine's strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written."--Peter Brown, New York Review of Books

"Wills does for Augustine's Confessions what he did for the Gettysburg Address, which is to take a well-known iconic work and examine it with fresh eyes. He views the Confessions as a book haunted by Genesis, and this perspective allows him to notice things that are overlooked by commentators whose views are preformed by the interpretive tradition. Having translated the Confessions and written a biography of Augustine, Wills is not afraid to go out on a limb, and so even readers who would not agree with his often cheeky interpretations are forced to look at the work afresh. . . . Wills offers an iconoclastic interpretation of a classic work, one that deserves a fresh treatment every few years."--Augustine J. Curley, Library Journal

"Like a biography of a person, this volume takes Augustine's Confessions and traces its birth, growth and decline, and legacy. Since so much of an author's life is connected to his or her work--especially in the case of Confessions--this can't help but include a decent amount of Augustine's own bio. . . . Very readable and highly engaging."--Wade Osburn, Booklist

"[Augustine] and Wills, 76--one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive--make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation. . . . Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever."--Brian Bethune, Macleans

"This is the type of biography you normally don't see. It is not a biography of Augustine, there are enough of those; it is not another translation of his Confessions, there are enough of those as well. What this is, and what it attempts to be, is a biography of Augustine's Confessions."--Kevin Winter, Portland Book Review

"Garry Wills really is a modern-day Renaissance man. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg and then turned his attention to St Augustine, firstly translating Confessions, then writing a biography (St Augustine: A Life) and now offering a 'life' of Confessions from 'The Book's Birth' (the title of the opening chapter) through 'The Book's Conversion' to 'The Book's Baptismal Days' to 'The Book's Afterlife'. And what a story it is."--Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

"This is a short, reliable and well-written introduction to Augustine's Confessions that describes, firstly, how the Confessions came to be written and, secondly, the author's intentions in writing the Confessions these are not quite the same and, thirdly, the subsequent fate of the book. . . . With a deft touch, and in non-technical language, Wills' introductory book not only relays these ideas to the widest possible readership--but also communicates a sensitive understanding of the original context in which the Confessions were written and of Augustine's intentions in writing them."--Stephen Leach, Metapsychology

"Garry Wills . . . writes about Augustine's Confessions sympathetically but rigorously. He traces its trajectory from first appearance at the end of the 4th century AD until our time, and discusses the ideas contained within it. The result is readable and illuminating, and it sent this reader to Google and Amazon in search of more."--Miriam Cosic, The Australian

"Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills' instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine's seminal classic, The Confessions. . . . This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills' book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book."--Fr. Gilles Mongeau S.J., Catholic Register

"The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading."--André Alexis, Globe and Mail
"I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn't noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it's also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning."--Lawrence S Cunningham, Commonweal

"[A] brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves. . . . [Wills] is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. . . . Wills clearly loves his subject . . . and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine's critics have gone astray over time."--Jean Bethke Elshtain, American Conservative

"This is a masterful introductory work, written by someone of real eloquence and theological sensitivity. It is worth every minute spent on a first reading, and I have no doubt I will go back to the underlined passages each time I reread Confessions in the future."--Kim Paffenroth, Biography

Library Journal
Wills (history, emeritus, Northwestern Univ.; Lincoln at Gettysburg) does for Augustine's Confessions what he did for the Gettysburg Address, which is to take a well-known iconic work and examine it with fresh eyes. He views the Confessions as a book haunted by Genesis, and this perspective allows him to notice things that are overlooked by commentators whose views are preformed by the interpretive tradition. Having translated the Confessions and written a biography of Augustine, Wills is not afraid to go out on a limb, and so even readers who would not agree with his often cheeky interpretations are forced to look at the work afresh. After considering the text itself, Wills considers its influence over the years and the various interpretations (e.g., psychological, postmodern) of the work. VERDICT James J. O'Donnell's Augustine: A New Biography is a similarly cheeky book that rebels against much of the received wisdom about Augustine's life. Wills offers an iconoclastic interpretation of a classic work, one that deserves a fresh treatment every few years.—Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691143576
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/21/2011
  • Series: Lives of Great Religious Books Series
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 608,741
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

Garry Wills is the best-selling author of many books on religion and American history, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (Simon & Schuster). His recent books include "St. Augustine: A Life" (Viking) and a translation of "Augustine's Confessions" (Penguin Classics).

Biography

Born in Atlanta in 1934 and raised in the Midwest, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and distinguished religion writer Garry Wills entered the Jesuit seminary after high school graduation, but left after six years of training. He received a B.A. from St. Louis University (1957), an M.A. from Xavier University of Cincinnati (1958), and his Ph.D. in classics from Yale (1961).

After graduating from Xavier, Wills was hired to work as the drama critic for National Review magazine, where he became a close personal friend and protégé of founding editor William F. Buckley. But as the winds of change blew across the 1960s, Wills got caught up in the cross-currents. A staunch Catholic anti-Communist in his youth, he began to drift away from political conservatism, galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam debate. He parted ways with National Review and began writing for more liberal-leaning publications like Esquire and the New York Review of Books, a defection that left him slightly estranged from Buckley for many years. (They reconciled before Buckley's death in 2008.)

In 1961, while he was still in grad school, Wills's first book, Chesterton: Man and Mask was published. [It was revised and reissued in 2001 with a new author's introduction.] Since then, the prolific Wills has gone on to pen critically acclaimed nonfiction that roams across history, politics, and religion. He expanded one of his Esquire articles into Nixon Agonistes (1970), a probing profile John Leonard said "...reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus." (The book landed Wills on the famous Nixon's Enemies List.) He has also written penetrating studies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Saint Paul; he has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards; and his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Something of a rara avis, Wills is a Catholic intellectual who has produced thoughtful, scholarly books on religion in America. His translations of St. Augustine have received glowing reviews, and he has acted both as an outspoken critic of the Church (Papal Sin) and as an ardent advocate for his own faith Why I Am a Catholic). Proof of his accessibility can be found in the fact that several of his religion books have become bestsellers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Table of Contents


A Note on the Translation vii
Chapter 1: The Book's Birth 1
Chapter 2 :The Book's Genre 17
Chapter 3: The Book's African Days 26
Chapter 4: The Book's Ambrose 41
Chapter 5: The Book's "Conversion" 58
Chapter 6: The Book's Baptismal Days 78
Chapter 7: The Book's Hinge 98
Chapter 8: The Book's Culmination 112
Chapter 9: The Book's Afterlife: Early
Reception, Later Neglect 133
Notes 149
Basic Readings 155
Index 157
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