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85 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Anyone who is familiar with Garry Wills over the past 30 years is familiar with his interest in Saint Augustine. As he put it when he was in college and the seminary he learned much about Saint Thomas Aquinas, but relatively little about Saint Augustine. Once he had been out in the world for bit he realized that he was returning over and over where Saint Augustine while Saint Thomas Aquinas stayed on as bookshelf.
Wills does two corrections right off the bat that helped to avoid a lot of confusion and made the human drama in Africa more alive. First, he renamed the Confessions the Testimony, since "confessions" in this case doesn't mean going into a box or getting the third degree. "Confessions" means this is what Saint Augustine believed, pure and simple.
Second, he names Saint Augustine's mistress, because Augustine never does. Wills gives her the name Una, meaning one, for she was the one. Wills makes the good point that Saint Augustine may have had a love life that was torrid, but compared to our century, he and Una were like the college couple next door. Saint Augustine, all through his life, was never promiscuous. Augustine and Una had one son from their association, whose name Wills translates as Godsend (from Adeodatus). Augustine was not pleased with the birth, though Godsend became a constant companion until his birth after Augustine returned to Africa.
Augustine founded a monastic order that exists to this day. Two American colleges (Villanova and Merrimack) are Augustinian schools. He wrote and expounded on a wide range of topics. His meditation on the Trinity is still compelling: The Father created the Son, and the love between the two formed the Holy Spirit. In an earlier work, Wills said that the first two verses of St. John's Gospel have a sense of turning, as the Father beheld (and turned) on the Concept (logos).
Still another idea was that of original sin, the sin of Adam or the shortcomings we all have for being human. St. Augustine worked that out, and many give their assent to the notion. Wills, in another work, said that he thought original sin said that the human race had a past, as people once talked of women having pasts. Thomas Merton rings in by saying original sin was self-centeredness, and few would deny that an infant is totally self-centered. And G. K. Chesterton wrote that original sin explained why, on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, two young children would decide to torture the cat.
For a book so short, it contains a mine of ideas and information. I'm a fan of Wills, and I've read many of his books. I've been waiting for this book for some years now, and this book did not disappoint me.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Any biography on Augustine will always linger in the shadow of the great Peter Brown's work, which is a classic treatment of the philosopher/bishop without rival in the English speaking world. Therefore, anyone desiring a complete portrait of St Augustine must first behold the masterpiece found in the pages of Brown's Augustine of Hippo. This being done, Wills book can be fully appreciated. Some notable aspects of this compact but wholesome biography are (1) his ability to bring into focus some of the more obscure details of Augustine's early life, as they are found spilled out on the pages of the Confessions. (2) Wills cleverly renders "confessions" into "the testimony," thereby greatly enhancing the meaning of the entire text of Augustine's Confessions. (3) The author also does a fine job discussing the various individuals who impacted his life: in particular, his overview of Augustine's relationship with his concubine, who Wills craftily names Una, is fantastic, just as it is with his son Adeodatus and others who were close to him. (4) The authors' brief but profound discourses on the key revolutions in Augustine's intellectual and spiritual odyssey, and on his literary and ecclesiastical exploits, will also be welcomed by the reader for all their insight and terseness.(5) Wills also makes some rather innovative--but stunning--assertions such as the down-playing of the role of St Monica and St Ambrose on Augustine's conversion. (6) Possibly the best aspect of Wills work, is the revelation of the optimistic, pastoral and compassionate side of Augustine--a characteristic that most scholars don't care to spend too much time cultivating. Overall it would be safe to say that this is not a good introductory work, however it will be very stimulating to anyone who has previously read Brown's classic or a lot of Augustine's writings first-hand.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I wanted very much to like this book, and I did by the time I finished and reflected on it. Publication of a short biography of Augustine, an influential but little-known (to modern Americans) figure in Western history, was a great idea, and I'm pleased that Penguin took on the project.
Writing a biography of someone like Augustine is difficult -- little information is available other than Augustine's surviving writings. The successful biographer needs to ground the available information, and a critical rereading of previous biographies, in our current understanding of the state of society at that time. Garry Wills has pulled that off nicely.
Augustine lived in interesting times: Church doctrine was evolving while identifying heretical docrines (e.g., Donatists); the Roman Empire was effectively split in two, with the Western capital moved from Rome to Ravenna; and (mainly) Christianized "barbarian" groups were taking over large sections of the Western Empire (Alaric's Goths captured Rome during Augustine's lifetime, and Augustine died near the end of the Vandal conquest of Roman Africa). Wills successfully places Augustine's life in context of these important events.
Other Amazon reviewers have noted that this is not a good introductory volume. I disagree, as long as the reader has some knowledge of the historical period. Even in that case, however, the early sections of the book can drag -- e.g., with lengthy reinterpretations of specific Augustinian phrases. But how can one complain about an Augustine biography that (in the final pages, anyhow) manages to incorporate discussions of both Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Chesterton's "Secrets of Father Brown"?
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is not an introduction to Augustine. So people who don't know anything about him should go to their local library, do some research and then buy this book. Wills knowledge of that period is amazing. He not only knows his political history, but also the cultural history of the time. Overall, a good read.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Penguin Lives presumes the reader has scant familiarity with the subject. Unfortunately, Mr. Wills assumes that the reader does know a great deal about Augustine and figures such as Mani, Origen, Pelagius, Jerome, et al. Mr. Wills needed to explain more about what these persons believed. As a reader who had some limited knowledge of these, I could not always see how their views conflicted with Augustine's. A minor complaint: there should have been a one page map showing Augustine's travels. The most serious problem with the book is that it does not show why this man, dead 1500 years, is still influential. Mr. Wills's work recounts Augustine's life and beliefs thoroughly. And his modern literary references do show that Augustine has some tangential influence. But nothing like Augustine actually exerts in Christian's views on sex, predestination, and the roles of secular v. religious leaders. Suggestion for Penguin Lives: biography of Mani.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
To borrow an image often used of St. Augustine's own efforts to explain the Trinity, the effort of trying to delimit so oceanic a writer as Augustine into the water-pail of a 176-page "Brief Life" seems absurd, but Wills has definitely pulled it off. Where his interpretations go against received wisdom, he argues brilliantly; and where he agrees with the tradition he does so more pithily than any other writer, Brown included. And finally, his translations are remarkably vivid -- so suitable to Augustine's own Latin! Here is a book that deserves not just five stars but five Bravo's!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Wills's book offers balanced and judicious insight into Augustine's gifts to western thought and civilization as well as to his mistakes. One gains a new respect for the man's contributions as well as for his weaknesses as a human being. The book is clearly organized, eloquently written, and rich in references to sources ancient and modern. Augustine's understanding of God's actions in creation and of the nature of the human will in reference to time and memory is clearly distinguished from his Neoplatonic disintegration of human sexuality from the wholeness of human identity and experience. The author makes clear that Augustine's contemporaries and later major theologicans, as well as likely our own generation, have often made hash of his insights and misapplied them to the human condition and our understanding of God.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I really loved this book for Wills' powerful refutations of the Augustine I learned about in college-- an intolerant, negative person totally obsessed with sex. Wills presents a much more humane and spritually uplifting view of Augustine. Wills thus spends much of the book refuting earlier, seemingly erroneous interpretations of Augustine. For this reason, it seems important that one have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Augustine to fully appreciate Wills' approach. Though primarily focused on Augustine's theological development, Wills does a fairly good job of helping us to understand Augustine the person. It is in this area that I which Wills had delved deeper, for the information and insights here were most interesting. All in all, an inspiring and thought-provoking read.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I wanted very much to like this book, and I did by the time Ifinished and reflected on it. A short biography of Augustine, aninfluential but little-known (to modern Americans) figure in Western history, was a great idea. Writing a biography of someone like Augustine is difficult -- little information is available other than Augustine's surviving writings. The successful biographer needs to ground the available information, and a critical rereading of previous biographies, in our current understanding of the state of society at that time. Garry Wills has pulled that off nicely.
Augustine lived in interesting times: Church doctrine was evolving and identifying heretical docrines (e.g., Donatists); the Roman Empire was effectively split in two, with the Western capital moved from Rome to Ravenna; and (mainly) Christianized "barbarian" groups were taking over large sections of the Western Empire (Alaric's Goths captured Rome during Augustine's lifetime, and Augustine died near the end of the Vandal conquest of Roman Africa). Wills successfully places Augustine's life in context of these important events.
Other Amazon reviewers have noted that this is not a good introductory volume. I disagree, as long as the reader has some knowledge of the historical period. Even in that case, however, the early sections of the book can drag -- e.g., with lengthy reinterpretations of specific Augustinian phrases. But how can one complain about an Augustine biography that (in the final pages, anyhow) manages to incorporate discussions of both Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Chesterton's "Secrets of Father Brown"?
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Wills sets forth an amazing review of the life and work of Augustine of Hippo in this intentionally brief work. Because it is brief by design, it may not be the best starting point for a review of Augustine; some familiarity with the subject is required. Nevertheless, this book presents so many significant insights that I believe it will become an essential reference on its subject.
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