Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 99 (January 2000): 46-50.
Saint Augustine. By Garry Wills. Penguin Books. 152 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by John Peter Kenney
Augustinophobia, the fear and loathing of Augustine, is a long–standing malady. The condition has never been confined only to the secular despisers of Christianity. Indeed, in this century, symptoms have been observed among theologians as well as anti–theologians. This is not really surprising. Having been the universal template of Latin Christian theology down through the centuries, it was inevitable that Augustine would become a touchstone of opprobrium as theological and cultural fashions shifted. In many respects it has been modern theologians who have been hardest on him, projecting him as the grim Patriarch of Latin Christendom, pathologically obsessed with sex, championing an ascetical dualism rooted in misogyny, and consigning unbaptized infants to eternal perdition.
To write on Augustine with any balance, or even sympathy, requires considerable independence. Peter Brown did so thirty years ago in his famous biography, although that effort succeeded splendidly in part because Brown used Augustine to paint a pointillistic image of his age. But the Augustine who emerged was more a late antique figure, and less a theologian. Even so, Brown was able to recover a vivid actor on the stage of late Roman life, whose insolent genius as a rhetorician brought him from the edge of the Sahara to the height of the Imperial Court. For such a finely wrought story, many were willing to leave aside the dreary struggle over Augustine’s theological positions.
Garry Wills is very much in the Brown tradition. And we should be grateful to him for supplying in this short "Penguin Life" a delightful and insightful introduction to Augustine. As in Brown, the great spaces and dazzling light of Roman North Africa emerge, along with the agonized ambition of this provincial prodigy, whose relentless rise to conspicuous success ends with his momentous conversion. And what a perplexing event that is. Born of a pagan father and Catholic mother, in an area heavily populated by members of the Donatist sect, Augustine spent most of his early adulthood as a devotee of Manicheism, a Christian heresy. This phase ended when he discovered the most powerful intellectual tradition of late antiquity, pagan Platonism. Yet in forsaking Manicheism, he became, not a pagan Platonist, but a Catholic Christian. And not just a comfortable lay member—as his mother and family entourage expected—for he insisted on rejecting the easy path of marriage to a Catholic heiress in favor of a life of asceticism.
To make sense of this trajectory across so remote a cultural landscape requires great insight into time and place and character. Wills offers much to his reader, bringing some impressive detective work to bear on many of the puzzling details of Augustine’s story. He is especially concerned to refute some of the charges against Augustine, especially in reference to his sexual adventures, which, in Wills’ recounting, emerge as far less bizarre and lurid than in some of the more imaginative accounts. The two mistresses and the love child are still there, but against the context of Roman sexual mores, Augustine’s story is more ethically intelligible. This is the great strength of the book: its author’s consistent effort to probe, contextualize, and judiciously assess.
That said, there are two shortcomings that bear mention: one minor, the other more serious. The misdemeanor is the sometimes eccentric revisionism that Wills brings to the names and players in this story. Never content to use the standard tags, Wills transposes and, when it seems necessary, invents. Thus Adeodatus, Augustine’s son, becomes "Godsend," Romanianus is now "Romanian," an unnamed friend whose death Augustine mourned becomes "Amicus," the sole mistress of much of his early life is called "Una," etc. Nor are the standard titles safe: Soliloquies is now Dialogue with Myself, while Confessions becomes The Testimony. Admittedly Wills often has a valid caveat to record, yet the undergraduate instructor in me dreads the inevitable confusion all this will cause the introductory readers for whom this volume is designed.
A larger issue is signaled by the transition from Confessions to The Testimony. Wills wants to remove any sense of either criminal confessing or penitential admission of sins, preferring to view Augustine as underscoring his witness to God through the title. Fair enough. But the promise of this revision goes unfulfilled, in large measure because Wills persists in underplaying the theological ideas that drive Augustine’s inventive act of autobiographical witness.
However translated, Augustine’s story is not just a personal testimony, but a performative act of self–abnegation. Augustine contrasts very sharply the presumption of the pagan Platonist sages, who are assured that salvation can be achieved by personal initiative, with the Christian admission that no salvation is possible except through divine mediation. That is the act of confessio which Augustine uses to explain his need to become an orthodox Christian, and then to write about it for all to hear. This act is thus the rooting out of superbia, the pride that occasioned the soul’s fall. It is the initial remedy for original sin. Unlike the pagan Platonists, who presumed to reverse the soul’s captivity in the body by the practice of philosophy, Augustine saw that only a continual oblation of the soul’s self–love, under the influence of grace, would bring about its restoration. "Testimony" is too thin a conception to grasp the central theological force of Augustine’s title.
This is a microcosm of the larger issue in Wills’ book—its lack of attention to the motive force of theological ideas. The dogmas of a now quiet past may seem remote, but they must be made to reverberate again with the katabatic forces that drove Augustine’s soul across the religious landscape of late antiquity. This Wills simply fails to do. Manicheism, that strange dualism of Persian origin, is hardly explained. And Platonism, the key to Augustine’s stunning shift from Manichean materialism to Christian mysticism, is largely ig nored. But Augustine without theology is like Mozart without the music. Granted that Wills takes us through the main biographical twists and turns with skill. But the theological ideas are never fully engaged, nor are the awesome stakes—as Augustine understood them—explored.
We are left, then, with a tale that fails to offend, and may even engage the reader who is intrigued by this late Roman witness to the Empire’s collapse. Wills has succeeded in making it difficult for the contemporary reader to hold Augustine’s iniquities against him. But he has also, in his neglect of theology, foreclosed any real opportunity to comprehend those visionary insights into the divine and the eternal that mattered most to Augustine, and stamped Western Christendom with his intense transcendentalist cast.
John Peter Kenney is Dean of the College and Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Michael’s College, Vermont.