by Garry Wills
Lipper/Viking, 152 pp., $19.95
The Works of Saint Augustine III/11: Newly Discovered Sermons
translated by Edmund Hill
New City Press, 452 pp., $39.00
Saint Augustine: Letters VI (1*-29*)
translated by Robert B Eno
Catholic University of America Press, 208 pp., $31.95
Not often, but every now and then, a truly gifted film director takes up well-known material—a famous short story, a novel, a biography—and turns a subject with which we thought we were thoroughly familiar into something once again strange and challenging. To do this, he must exercise a dictatorial power over the material. It is he who now decides what to cut and what to retain, when the camera should linger in a gripping close-up and when it should slide quickly to another scene, and, above all, exactly when and in what manner characters already well known to the audience should make their first entry. Garry Wills’s Saint Augustine has done this, in a little under 150 pages. Seldom has a long-familiar figure, whose works fill thirteen double-columned volumes in the standard edition, and whose life and thought have been debated for sixteen hundred years, emerged so fresh and challenging, from under so masterful a “director’s” hand. For a scholar such as myself, who has spent much time in the company of the bishop of Hippo, it is a rare pleasure to watch, in this compact account, a deft and ingenious expositor set to work upon a great thinker.
Augustine, as we all know, came from Roman North Africa. He made his career as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage and Milan, where he converted, dramatically, to the life style of a celibate Catholic in 386. He soon returned to Africa, and, from 395 to his death in 430, he was Catholic bishop of Hippo, modern Bône/Annaba, still a busy seaport on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Algeria. We have found it easy to think of him “wearing all the episcopal finery of the late Middle Ages—miter, crozier, gloves, ring.” Yet, Wills reminds us, we thought wrong: “He dressed in the gray clothes of a monk, and celebrated the rites of his church in that everyday garb.” We know that he is regarded as a founder of the Middle Ages, indeed, as a figure whose thought dominated Western Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike, until recent times. Yet a younger contemporary of his, a well-bred Italian bishop, dismissed him as “a guru of the outback,” “what passes for a philosopher with Africans.” Ignorant of Greek, Augustine was “a provincial on the margins of classical culture.” Already, in his first two pages, Wills has let us know that he intends to tell the story his way and that we should sit up and take notice. We do.
We also know that Augustine is most famous for the book in which he described his own life from his birth in 354 to his conversion in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. Written around 397, when he had become a bishop, the book has traditionally been called in English the Confessions. But we have been wrong to do so. “Confessiones, transliterated rather than translated into English Confessions, misses the complexity of [the …