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Augustine: A New Biography Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (April 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060535377
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060535377
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.7 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,744,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In a compelling new biography of the great north African bishop, O'Donnell sets out to read between the lines of the Confessiones, a book he knows superlatively well, since he edited the definitive edition. His interest here isn't in what Augustine reveals in that autobiographical classic but in what he did not mention, either because it would have been obvious to his readers or because he wished to distract attention from it. Among the obviousnesses are the conflicting Christianities of the period--Donatist, Arian, and Caecilian, which became Catholicism--of which Augustine's own, Caecilian, was a distinctly minority version helped into prominence by Augustine himself. And Augustine's language: although we may think nothing of his writing in Latin, his use of that language and his dialect of it spoke volumes to his typically polylingual readers. Augustine's contemporaries read him differently than we read him, and O'Donnell provides the theological, historical, and linguistic context in which those earlier readers functioned. As to what Augustine wishes us to not notice, O'Donnell is less expansive, looking for the "darker thread" in the great man's psychology but curiously not addressing such lapses as Augustine's failing to mention how his only son died. Despite such brevity on the personal front, this will become a classic on its subject. Patricia Monaghan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

O'Donnell's "Augustine" is a mean book by an author without capacity.
California Smith
If the reader wants to know Augustine read his Confessions and forget this book.
My sense is that "modernity" or "post-modernity" are not the bad guys here.
Alcofribas Nasier

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

140 of 147 people found the following review helpful By Christopher W. Coffman on June 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This new book on the great Augustine enthralled and puzzled me, sometimes on the same page. I strongly recommend it for readers who have already read Peter Brown's incomparable biography of Augustine, and perhaps also a book on Manicheism--my personal favourite remains the great study by Hans Jonas, although since Nag Hammadi there have been many more recent books based upon the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. For readers who are already familiar with Brown's biography, this is a splendid updating of the facts about Augustine's life. But I would not recommend it for readers just learning about Augustine, for example somebody who has just read THE CONFESSIONS and now wants to learn more about Augustine himself. The best biography (as O'Donnell himself generously acknowledges in a footnote of this book) remains the Peter Brown biography.

One of the key features of this book is the availability of new research, and new material, not available to Peter Brown when he wrote his great book(s) on Augustine and late antiquity. O'Donnell is immersed in seemingly all the scholarship on Augustine and on subjects related to Augustine, and O'Donnell brings a mature and considered judgment to his consideration of Augustine's life and work.

Having said that, I do have the following caveat, which is why I recommend O'Donnell's book as a supplement, but not a substitute, for the Brown biography: O'Donnell's tone veers from learned and ironic and amused to being slightly sardonic, even cynical about Augustine.

I remember reading A.N. Wilson's biographies of Tolstoy and C.S.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Alcofribas Nasier on July 31, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Back in the days of vinyl records the pianist Keith Jarrett put out a 10-record set of "improvised" performances called "The Sun Bear Concerts." A lot of what was on those sides was just Jarrett blurbling at the keyboard while his audience waited for the music to go somewhere. I remember that a great jazz pianist said about it, "We all do stuff like that. We just don't publish it!" Something like this is true of scholars and teachers also.

I'm reading this book now, or trying to, and have read all the customer and editorial reviews here with real pleasure and interest. My sense is that "modernity" or "post-modernity" are not the bad guys here. I don't think this book is an attack on Augustine, and even if it were, we don't really need to worry that one biographer will damage the cultural impact of the greatest of Christian theologians. So what if Augustine was ambivalent about sexual pleasure? So what if he may have been motivated by personal ambition? The body of writing and the history in which it participated are not going to change.

The problem I think most of these reviews is trying to work through is the way the book is written. For whom is it written? Certainly not for students or scholars. But I don't see people carrying this book into the gym for a treadmill workout either. There is something unsettling about the way the author handles his subject matter, and I think it makes reading the book just feel wrong. Personally, I'm suspicious whenever a scholar "supposes" what the subject of a scholarly inquiry is thinking: "In this nothing town, the sun of the Maghreb outside the hall is relentless, but the shade between stone columns within is cool. Men stand on one side, women on the other, all hushed in concentration on the deliberate gestures of one man.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful By E. P. Pepka on March 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
T. van Bavel once compiled a bibliography of all the books and articles published about St. Augustine from 1950 to 1960. It is at least twice the size of O'Donnell's book. And this is a just a list of bibliographical info plus brief descriptions of content. Imagine how thick all those books and articles must have been! Let's see: mutliply all that by 4 and 1/2, and you get a rough estimate of how erudite you have to be now to write an adequate biography of the greatest Christian thinker after St. Paul. If an author on St. Augustine ends up playing the role of one of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant, he has a lot of company.

This much I can grant to anyone who tries to present all about St. Augustine in fewer than 400 pages. What I am more reluctant to concede is a treatment of the man and his thought that recasts him and it as a practitioner of cheap journalism might do to a leading public figure today. Augustine comes out of this book stripped of his own garments--exposed, as they say today, or cheapened, as I say. He's even worse than naked: he is reclothed in contemporary undress--just enough on to make him lurid.

As other reviewers here, I do not recommend this book for Augustine beginners. Try not Peter Brown but the third edition of Gerald Bonner's "St. Augustine of Hippo". And when you feel ready for a recent and really erudite, not sensationalist, study, read Serge Lancel's "St. Augustine".
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113 of 136 people found the following review helpful By California Smith on January 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Modernism" gets a bad name from "Augustine" by James O'Donnell. Subtitled "A New Biography," it has little new but for oppressing the reader with the prejudices, peeves and contemptuousness of the anti-religious "modern."

The book's undertaking is ambitious: drag Christianity's most prominent thinker into the trash of modernism; tear down the Bishop of Hippo with sniffy skepticism; mock the model for centuries of penitents; make fools of those inspired by Saint Augustine's fusion of Platonic and Jewish traditions that became the philosophical foundation of the Western religious culture.

The author of this book, O'Donnell, would seem to have the credentials: he wrote volume upon volume of annotations, largely unnoticed, about Saint Augustine's "Confessions." The chapter titles and subtitles of O'Donnell's book taunt the great doctor of Catholicism: "Augustine the Self-Promoter," Augustine the Social Climber," "Augustine and the Invention of Christianity."

O'Donnell's book is the self-proclaimed "modern" understanding of Augustine, as in "modern attitudes," "moderns commonly say of Augustine," and "the dawn of the twentieth century's psychological age" (whatever that is).

O'Donnell's modernism has its own definitions and perspectives, which he claims can explain history "with ideas of rigor, objectivity and truth." But that claim highlights the book's lack of credibility, because O'Donnell's "Augustine" is so obviously the subjective, downright kooky ruminations of O'Donnell, not just on Saint Augustine, but upon all of Christianity and even all of history.
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