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A New Augustine

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] word.” Augustine, rather, wished to “confess” in the ancient meaning of the word: he wrote to give testimony to the majesty and beauty of God. Hence Wills calls the book Testimony (abbreviated in the references as T) so as to keep in mind the double theme of assertion of human frailty balanced by warm tribute to God which runs through the work. “Better a shock of the new than indulging old associations that mislead.” This, again, is Wills the director at work, delivering us briskly from tired stereotypes that had linked the Confessions only with the recitation of Augustine’s former sins.

From 371 to 385, as a student and young professor, Augustine lived with a concubine. Again, Wills warns us to rein in an ever-active modern imagination: “His actual sexual activity was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint.” What matters is that this relationship was enduring and entirely monogamous. “I lived with only one woman, unam habebam.” “To avoid clumsy titles” (here the director intervenes) “I shall call this woman Una.” We might call her, simply, “The One and Only.” What matters is that Wills, again, is right. We have come a long way, in a few more pages, from the common stereotype of Augustine the profligate youth of Carthage turned by middle age, to our lasting regret, into the sex-obsessed Catholic bishop. Truth is established and, as is usually the case with Augustine, it is a lot stranger than modern fiction.

A son was soon born to the young couple. The staid among us know him by his Latin name, Adeodatus. But, as Wills points out, a deo datus, given by God, means, in plain English, the little Godsend; and Godsend he remains throughout the book. As for Monnica (spelled with two “n”s, for the name was taken from an old-style Libyan goddess) she is not allowed on the screen until the eve of her own death, overshadowed at Ostia by the presence of God. In most accounts, Monnica hovers over the entire boyhood and youth of Augustine—tragically or balefully, dependent on whether we are of sentimental or of psychoanalytic disposition. Not so for Wills, and rightly so: “Too much is often made of her role in Augustine’s life.”

What we do get is no mama’s boy and certainly no profligate, but a budding intellectual with all the sharp edges we might expect. At Carthage, though engaged in high-minded study of the classics, our hero moved along the fringes of the urbane and risqué Manichees and admired, from a safe distance, the punk rage of the “Subversives” (another chillingly exact translation of a group we have been used to calling the Eversores). These are not the jeunesse dorée of a late Roman Brideshead Revisited. Wills, rather, hints at something closer to A Clockwork Orange. He may well be right. Late Roman Carthage was not necessarily a nice place, and Augustine, I suspect, improved greatly with old age.

On this well-known material Wills has used his director’s prerogative firmly but in no arbitrary manner. Truths easily obscured by false familiarity are brought into sharp focus once again. And we are under fifty pages into the book. For what is truly remarkable about Wills’s Saint Augustine is that, having brought Augustine up to and beyond the well-known years of his youth and conversion, the book moves on with the same vividness and certainty of touch to follow the development of Augustine’s thought into the very different, long years of his episcopate, up to his death in 430. Once most of the vivid characters long known to us from the pages of the Confessions have receded, swallowed up by death and distance, the sure hand of the director now falls on far more intractable material: the story of Augustine’s ever-fertile mind.

For the further Augustine appeared to drift away from the bright centers of late Roman life, to lose himself in the dreary routines of a provincial bishopric, the more his mind bubbled over. Already at Cassiciacum, in 386, when he appeared to have dropped out of Milanese society, forced into early retirement by a stress-induced illness, his mind was “on a roll”: he “wrote four dialogues in as many months, and planned an ambitious series on the whole circle of learning.” Seemingly caught forever in seedy Hippo, as yet one more African bishop among hundreds, “there was an implosion of his mind, down into himself, back into his past.” As a result, between 397 and 409, the Confessions (forgive me, I mean, of course, the Testimony) was written, and great works on The Trinity, On Christian Culture, and on First Meanings in Genesis (the De Genesi ad Litteram) set under way. After “this magical decade-and-a-little-more,” nothing could be quite the same again in Western thought on the self, the will, the nature of time, and the relation of body and soul.

The next decade, up to 417, was a hard one, dominated by “power relations” with a well-established and authentic local rival, the Donatist church of Africa, whose bishops were protected by formidable strong men, the circum-celliones, “hut people” drawn from the rural slums that clustered on the edge of the great estates of Numidia. Yet throughout this unsavory period, where death was in the air and the raw force of Roman law and order mobilized with little scruple by both sides, Augustine thought through the role of the state in local society and, within three years of the chilling news of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, had begun the mighty labor of The City of God. With this book, he taught an entire Christian society to contemplate post-Roman times: he wrote “to dethrone the idea of Rome from its place in people’s minds.”

Last of all, challenged now by the austere perfectionism of Pelagius, Augustine grappled for the rest of his life with a fellow bishop, Julian of Eclanum—in his opinion, a supercilious young Italian, while to Julian he was a “wheezing old geezer,” the patronus asinorum, “the braying spokesman of all donkeys”—over the heavy themes of sin, sex, and death. When Augustine died, in 430, he had written ninety-three books, over a million and a half words of uniquely expressive Latin, alternately bewitching, questioning, and intransigent. And he left them in perfect order. A few years earlier, he had arranged them all in a chronological list entitled Reconsiderations (Retractationes), adding sharp little notes to each, correcting the occasional mistake and reminding the reader, at times, of how he had changed his mind on certain topics.

All this Wills tells us in under 150 pages. There is no need for a reviewer to linger on so dense and vigorous an exposition of the principal themes of Augustine’s thought. It is enough to urge the reader to do so. It is, rather, the tone of voice of Wills the expositor that needs to be stressed. He does not hold Augustine at a safe distance. He does not sit in judgment on him, asking what elements of his thought support or clash with modern agendas. Least of all does he talk down to the reader. He holds Augustine in gripping close-up, and demands only that we take this distant man, whose thoughts have a disquieting tendency still to pulse in our veins, seriously and, for a moment, on his own terms. His translations are characteristic of that enterprise. They are sizzling. They are meant to bring Augustine straight into our own minds; and they succeed. Well-known passages, over which my own eyes have often glazed, spring to life again from Wills’s pages, as poetry in prose. Altogether, Wills has done for Augustine what Augustine the bishop, writing to a hesitant young preacher, said could be done: “The more, by the bond of love, we enter into each other’s mind, the more even old things become new for us again.”

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