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Greatest of the Greats
on February 1, 2000
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.