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Saint Augustine: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies) Paperback – August 30, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

Saint Augustine, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and cultural critic Garry Wills, is a 145-page biography of a saint whose collected works total 13 volumes. Despite its brevity, the book offers a complex and compelling interpretation of Augustine's life and work. Much of Wills's task is demythologizing: Augustine was not a central figure in 4th-century Christianity but was "peripheral in his day, a provincial on the margins of classical culture," who did not know Greek, the intellectual lingua franca of his time. Although Augustine has been portrayed by artists as a bishop "wearing all the episcopal finery of the late Middle Ages," he actually "dressed in the gray clothes of a monk." And far from being a self-righteous pontificator, Augustine was "impatient with all preceding formulations, even his own." He wrote, "Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God." Wills also argues that Augustine's Confessions (which, Wills persuades the reader, is an anachronistic, egoistic translation of the original Latin title, a word Wills more accurately renders as "Testimony") has been misread in a way that suggests Augustine led a debauched sexual life before his conversion. In the Shocking Revelation department, Wills does, however, find more detailed (if elaborately coded) information about Augustine's mistress and about the son they raised together than other biographers have found. Like Wills's masterful Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine accomplishes its revisionist aims completely and yet lightly. Wills makes his arguments without ever forgetting his first job: telling the story of a life. --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In the West, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is most famous for his teaching on original sin. He believed, and the Catholic Church continues to affirm, that we are all marked from birth with the stain of sin. This sin, he argued, was transmitted to us from our original parentsAAdam and EveAthrough the sexual act. Although this is his most famous legacy, Augustine was also an active bishop who was engaged in sometimes polemical controversies with the Pelagians and the Donatists over matters of doctrine and Church polity. In this brief and easy-to-read biography, Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg) traces the major events in Augustine's life and uses selections from Augustine's writings to narrate the manner in which Augustine arrived at his spiritual maturity. Giving a new reading to Augustine's Confessions, Wills debunks the persistent theory that Augustine's greatest guilt was over his early sexual excesses. Perhaps most interesting about Augustine's early life was his dependence on what he probably would have called pagan teaching. While other Christian writers such as Tertullian denied the power of Greek or Roman classical texts, Augustine embraced these writers, especially Cicero. In a famous passage from the Testimony (as Wills calls the Confessions), Augustine exclaims with great passion how Cicero's Hortensius was the book that "altered my prayers, Lord, to be toward yourself." Wills narrates Augustine's development from his youthful years of pear-stealing to his education in classical and Christian learning, to his mature years as an active bishop preaching and doing his Church's work throughout North Africa. Like the other volumes in the Penguin Lives series, Wills's captivating and accessible biography of Augustine introduces the work of one of the West's most important thinkers to a new generation.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives Biographies
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143035983
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035985
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #620,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, and Saint Augustine's Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

85 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Frank McEvoy on February 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified 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.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Johannes Platonicus on October 19, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified 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 By Tom Gillis on February 16, 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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