Saint Augustine

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For centuries, Augustine's writings have moved and fascinated readers. With the eye of a writer whose own intellectual analysis has won him a Pulitzer Prize, Garry Wills examines this famed fourth-century bishop and seminal thinker whose grounding in classical philosophy informed his influential interpretation of the Christian doctrines of mind and body, wisdom and God. Saint Augustine explores both the great ruminator on the human condition and the everyday man who set pen to parchment. It challenges many ...
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Saint Augustine: A Life

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Overview

For centuries, Augustine's writings have moved and fascinated readers. With the eye of a writer whose own intellectual analysis has won him a Pulitzer Prize, Garry Wills examines this famed fourth-century bishop and seminal thinker whose grounding in classical philosophy informed his influential interpretation of the Christian doctrines of mind and body, wisdom and God. Saint Augustine explores both the great ruminator on the human condition and the everyday man who set pen to parchment. It challenges many misconceptions - among them the myth of his early sexual excesses. Garry Wills's Saint Augustine illuminates both the man and the age with the eloquent economy that will introduce to a new generation of readers this once popular genre.
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Editorial Reviews

Allen Barra

Seventeen hundred years ago Augustine of Hippo, North Africa, invented the tell-all book, and in so doing he created modern Christianity. He had no way of knowing that he was also creating the beginnings of the modern thinker who would, within a few centuries, come into violent conflict with this new Christianity. (Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher, called him "the first modern man.") It's no wonder that The Confessions and The City of God seem as vital today as they did at the dawn of Christian civilization, and not just to Christians.

Augustine gave Christianity the concept of original sin (or as one biographer phrased it, "He invented predestination") and practically designed the model for cooperation between church and state, the merits of which are still being debated on our op-ed pages. But his vigorous and passionate introspection also made him a beacon for the skeptical and the rebellious. As Rebecca West pointed out, "He works in the same introspective field as the moderns," by which she meant Proust, but others have cited Shakespeare, Tolstoy and even Joyce.

In Saint Augustine -- the fourth volume from the new Penguin Lives series (Marcel Proust, Crazy Horse and Mozart are the other three) -- Garry Wills trumps them all, finding connections with G.K. Chesterton, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov (Humbert Humbert's conception of time as "a continual spanning of two points, the storable future and the stored past") and even Philip Roth (through Augustine's theory of impotence as "the extreme example of inner dividedness"). How many other pre-Renaissance figures can claim kinship to Humbert and Portnoy?

Wills' method here, as in previous biographies, is to comb his subject free of historical misconceptions. For example, the term that best covers the range of meanings for Augustine's most famous book isn't "confessions" but "testimony": "The thing confessed does not have to be a moral truth." Augustine's purpose was less to confess his misdeeds than, as he put it, "to testify, to speak out what the heart holds true." Regarding The City of God, Wills argues that it was misunderstood by medieval scholars "as a fixed doctrine of church-state relations," when in fact "the attitude of Augustine was one of joint endeavor after a truth that is always just beyond us." In other words, the first great intellectual interpreter of Christian doctrine had a streak of skepticism. Wills goes on to make a convincing case for Augustine the mystic in a formulation that could have come from Chesterton: "Augustine did not delve into his soul to find sin. He went there to find God -- and that is where he did find Him."

Like Chesterton, who performed similar favors for St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, Wills can do this sort of essay-biography standing on his head, and Saint Augustine is a swift and invigorating read. There's something missing, though. For one thing, the author is disappointing when it comes to Augustine's place in modern Christian thought. For another, he apologizes too defensively for the great Christian apologist. Regarding Augustine's desertion of his concubine, Una, the mother of his only known child, Wills writes, "There is no way to excuse Augustine's treatment of Una -- as his own later words about his situation show. But can we say that he 'dismissed' her?" I think we can, since Augustine did. It would be enough for Wills to simply note that saints are seldom saints when they are young.

The biggest disappointment, though, is Wills' failure to come to grips with Elaine Pagels' groundbreaking 1988 book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, in which Augustine's concept of original sin is written off to political expediency. Wills can hardly be ignorant of Pagels' work, which has once again put Augustine at the center of much religious debate, yet he doesn't mention it at all. His Saint Augustine is like a strange mirror that gives a clear picture of the background but fails to reflect what is standing directly in front of it.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the West, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is most famous for his teaching on original sin. He believed, and the Catholic Church continues to affirm, that we are all marked from birth with the stain of sin. This sin, he argued, was transmitted to us from our original parents--Adam and Eve--through the sexual act. Although this is his most famous legacy, Augustine was also an active bishop who was engaged in sometimes polemical controversies with the Pelagians and the Donatists over matters of doctrine and Church polity. In this brief and easy-to-read biography, Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg) traces the major events in Augustine's life and uses selections from Augustine's writings to narrate the manner in which Augustine arrived at his spiritual maturity. Giving a new reading to Augustine's Confessions, Wills debunks the persistent theory that Augustine's greatest guilt was over his early sexual excesses. Perhaps most interesting about Augustine's early life was his dependence on what he probably would have called pagan teaching. While other Christian writers such as Tertullian denied the power of Greek or Roman classical texts, Augustine embraced these writers, especially Cicero. In a famous passage from the Testimony (as Wills calls the Confessions), Augustine exclaims with great passion how Cicero's Hortensius was the book that "altered my prayers, Lord, to be toward yourself." Wills narrates Augustine's development from his youthful years of pear-stealing to his education in classical and Christian learning, to his mature years as an active bishop preaching and doing his Church's work throughout North Africa. Like the other volumes in the Penguin Lives series, Wills's captivating and accessible biography of Augustine introduces the work of one of the West's most important thinkers to a new generation. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Wills, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg LJ 5/1/92, makes a marvelous contribution to St. Augustine studies but one best used in conjunction with a more standard biography such as Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo 1967. Wills reviews and explains events he thinks were crucial to Augustine's personal and theological development. His particular strength, however, is to offer an intriguing challenge to the traditional scholarship on Augustine. For example, Wills does not believe that Augustine was a sexual libertine before his conversion: "He lived with one woman for fifteen years `and with her alone, since I kept faith with her bed.'... This kind of legal concubine was recognized in Roman law." Wills also considers the title of Augustine's biography, Confessions, to be a mistranslation, opting instead for "Testimony" and arguing that Augustine is giving testimony to the presence of the Spirit rather than confessing sins. Wills offers insight after creative insight into the society, law, philosophy, and church of Augustine's fourth-century world. A three-page Bibliographical Guide and a two-page list of works by and about Augustine are included. Highly recommended as a supplementary work on Augustine.--David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jaroslav Pelikan
Garry Wills's little book on Augustine deserves to be taken seriously, in part because it takes Augustine so seriously. Wills considers Augustine not only "warts and all," but also theology and all....If it was the ambition of Wills's book to stand on the shelf alongside [the writings of Newman and Chesterton], it has succeeded to a remarkable degree.
The New Republic
John T. Noonan, Jr.
This brilliant biography, this excellent small book, presents with brio the life of a person who still stirs us, throws us off, speaks to us, heart to heart....He presents his subject with candor and with empathy, avoiding the two great vices of biographers, hero-worshiping and hero-patronizing. His Augustine we would like to meet....A seeker, struggling for eternal salvation while enmeshed in a secular system, Augustine commands our attention and, as Wills so winningly shows, our affection.
The New York Times Book Review
Douglas Brouwer
For those who are curious about Christians who have thought deeply about the faith, and who have shaped much of what today we would call Christian orthodoxy, Wills's Saint Augustine is a terrific and accessible place to begin.
—Christianity Today
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780736648226
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/1999
  • Format: Cassette

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine’s Childhood, Saint Augustine’s Memory, and Saint Augustine’s Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

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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

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