Saint Augustine By Garry Wills


This is a gem of a little book. I believe I first read it for a church history class taught by Michael Haykin, though it was so long ago, I can't quite remember. Garry Wills is a brilliant writer and it made reading this book a sheer delight. Wills, a translator of Augustine's Confessions, (what he calls in this book The Testimony), certainly knows his subject. He shows a confident mastery of both first and secondary sources. The beauty of the book is that it doesn't get bogged down in technical details and reads almost like a novel. Wills is also a master of Latin, which would lead him to make some interesting interpretive decisions on key Augustinian texts -- most notably the way he reads Augustine's foray into university, Carthage's hissing cauldron of lust. I also appreciate the way he filled in details like the likely ongoing relationship Augustine had with his concubine (whom Wills names Una), in light of Augustine's continued silence about her after she was forced away from him.
The book does assume some prior knowledge of Augustine's life, so it might be difficult for first-time readers. But I thoroughly enjoyed this. History, Nonfiction This was a good introduction to the life of St. Augustine.

Granted it only touches on certain aspects of his life, it can be used as a stepping stone to understand what religious life was like 345 C.E. and onwards.

It has me interested in learning more about the schism in Christian belief during St. Augustine’s lifetime. History, Nonfiction A very sympathetic, clear, and brief introduction to the life of St. Augustine. It covers a lot of the same material as the same author's short introduction to the Confessions--in fact it uses many of the same examples and quotes. The footnotes and citations were sometimes sloppy and inaccurate, though. Wills does most of his own translating from the Latin, and he always goes for the most vivid and emotionally charged English word. This keeps things interesting, but it isn't always accurate. An example: tristis is a fairly ordinary word meaning sad or gloomy. Wills translates it anguished. History, Nonfiction A young African man with a taste for sex and a highly developed sense of both religion and mission travels across the Mediterranean. He decides to sail. Once in Italy, he communes with the rich and powerful and then, some years later, makes the return journey via the same means of transport, and thereby completes the sum total of his life’s travels.

We know a lot about the man, not only from his own writings which are both extensive and preserved, but also from the accounts of many of those contemporaries who met him, engaged in intellectual and theological debates with him, or merely reported.

The Roman Empire had only recently espoused Christianity. It was an era when the young faith was divided by schism. A strength of this biography of Augustine is that it brings home the passion that characterised these differences. A weakness, however, is tat the different variants of fourth century Christianity are not clearly delineated. This would, perhaps, be too much to ask in a short account of a life, but there are times when understanding of the text is compromised because of this omission. What does come alive, however, is how recent were the memories of persecution under Diocletian. It was a difference in attitude to some of those who succumbed to denial of their faith under that persecution that created one major schism.

Donatists refused to re-admit those who had renounced their faith under threat and were the main expression of Christianity in North Africa. Our young African man chose to ally himself with the Roman church, thus placing himself in a local minority.

Pelagius who was around at the time denied the concept of original sin. Quite often it seems that he didn’t, then he did, and then he didn’t again. It was a heresy, needless to say. But, and I feel it might be an attractive concept even today, the idea that the Church was not full of sinners had its adherents.

Arians stressed the humanity, not the divinity of Jesus Christ. This allowed them to avoid at least some of the problematic concept of three deities in one, a holy trinity. The concept has been a confusion and for many outside of Christianity it appears to be a wholly unnecessary complication. Arian thought, however, Gary Mills points out, is only reported by those who opposed them, so an accurate representation of their philosophy is difficult to establish.

Manicheans, unlike Christians, saw the universe in black and white, a competition between good and evil. There were aspects of light and dark in everything and everyone, but it was the interplay between the two that determined where an individual might be placed in the overall scheme of things. Manichaeism has largely disappeared from world religion, its only remaining bastion being Hollywood, where it provides the basis of most films aimed at the popular audience.

All of these ideas, heresies and religions were themselves in competition in the homeland of Augustine of Hippo. And through Gary Wells’ book we gain an insight into how an individual thinker and philosopher grappled with the contradictions and tried to make sense of what he regarded as the correct line. The book is a window on Augustine’s thoughts , thoughts that often deal with the base as well as the obviously spiritual. Gary Wills provides real insights into Augustine’s charm, the magnetism of his rhetoric and the logical processes of his thought. And he manages to this in just 150 pages, pages that also include significant and poignant quotes from Augustine’s work.

The stained glass analogy on religion applies. If you look at windows from outside, they are merely sold grey. On the inside, they reveal full and splendid colour. There might be many a modern reader who would be confused as to why it matters that a concept is associated with this or that belief. But for a Christian and certainly for someone who sees the windows in full colour it clearly does matter. Gary Wills’s book brings the debates and issues alive even for the general reader, though it has to be said that sometimes the detail of the theological debate is less than penetrable. This is a book of many surprises.

Philip Spires is author of Mission and A Fool's Knot, African novels set in Kenya
History, Nonfiction History And Spirit

I read and reviewed Garry Wills' Saint Augustine in 2001 and thought about Wills' study after reading Augustine scholar Peter Brown's review of Susan Ruden's new translation of Augustine's Confessions. (New York Review of Books, October 26, 2017) As I read Brown's review, Ruden's translation attempts to bring the reader closer to the Augustine of his own day, and to the feeling of God as a Master, rather than to read Augustine in the light of modern liberal theology, as Wills tends to do. I learned from Brown's review and hope to have the opportunity to read Ruden's translation. Brown made me think about my 2001 reading of Wills and about other ways of understanding Augustine. The remainder of this review consists of an edited version of my 2001 review of Wills' book.

I read Garry Wills' short biography Saint Augustine after reading E.L. Doctorow's novel, City of God, a book I loved, with the allusion in its title to Augustine's great work. I wanted to learn more about Augustine and to think further about the importance of Augustine to Doctorow's novel. I needed a short book such as Wills' that would expand my limited understanding.

Wills's book presents in a clear, accessible way something of the nature of this complex person, thinker, and theologian. But the book is no mere introduction. It in many ways takes issue with other accounts of Augustine and presents him in a manner that shows why he is worthy of the attention of the modern reader, as he has been of readers throughout the ages.

Wills spends a great deal of space arguing that the title Confessions for Augustine's most famous work is inappropriate and retitles the book Testimony. Wills's point has been made many times before, but in the process Wills does teach the reader something important about Augustine's book. The work is not primarily a confession or an autobiography but a record of a spiritual search. Wills argues that Augustine was not a sexual libertine in his youth and, more importantly for the modern reader, that Augustine was not anti-sexual in his old age. He presents a Christianity that does not despise the body (making the simple point that in Christianity God came to the earth in a body) and that Christianity teaches its adherents to use the body for God's purpose in humility and love. In fact, Wills presents Augustine as correcting the anti-physical bias of pagan ascetics of his day.

In addition to discussing the Confessions, Wills has valuable things to say about Augustine's City of God. Wills argues against an other-worldly interpretation of the City of God and finds Augustine willing to bring the City to earth in a world believers share with nonbelievers through an early form of toleration, through love, and through common purpose. Wills' interpretation reminded me of Doctorow's picture in his own City of God of a secular, diverse, and vibrant contemporary New York City. Thus Wills' book helped me with Augustine and helped me as well in understanding Doctorow's novel.

There is a good, if necessarily brief, description in the book of the closing days of the Roman Empire. This history is in itself worth reading and I had known little about it.

I think somebody coming to Augustine for the first time could benefit from the book and be encouraged to think and learn more. I found it useful. Penguin is to be commended for its biographical series, making important lives accessible to modern readers in brief, but not superficial books.

Robin Friedman History, Nonfiction

Well as usual, I wanted to finish this on Christmas Day/Night, but unfortunately as usual.... I didn't, so I finished it this morning.

This was a good look at Augustine's life, but not quite what I was expecting. I was expecting far more of a biography and a history of Augustine, and instead got kind of a break-down of some parts of his life, some thoughts on his writings, and a scholarly look at why Garry Wills version of Augustine thoughts is different (and since he's writing this, better - in his opinion) than those of previous scholars of Augustine. Its a short book, only about 150 pages, but its a slow read due to the writing style, and how the quotes are presented. Long - page long paragraphs that always tend to end in quotes also makes it harder to read and stop since it all kind of runs together, and with no clear chapters (only pauses for location changes, when Augustine moved from Thagaste to Carthage to Rome, to Hippo, etc.) it also makes it harder to read and go like at work or at home with children running around. History, Nonfiction As with Karen Armstrong's Buddha (review:, I can't do justice to Garry Wills' biography of Augustine of Hippo because I listened to it via audio cassette as I drove to and from work.

I will say this, despite its brevity (less than 200 pages in print), Wills' manages to present a surprisingly complex and insightful portrait of the man and his thought. He actually managed to turn the saint into a sympathetic figure. I've never liked Augustine much as a person but the author's interpretation made me sympathize with the decisions Augustine made in his life (like sending his long-time concubine and mother of his son away).

Highly recommended, print or audio (in fact, I should read the print version because I know I missed a lot just listening to it). Garry Wills is a brilliant writer and anything he authors is worth the effort to read. History, Nonfiction Loved this quick look at the meaning of Augustine's life and works. Especially appreciated the ways Wills puts the writer and theologian into context for a modern reader. Carried this book with me all through Florence, and in our neighborhood church, the Chiesa di Ognissanti, saw the original Bottichelli fresco of Saint Augustine in his Study, a reproduction of which graces the cover of my copy of this book. History, Nonfiction This is research for a poem I am writing.

After all, what's a greater crowd-pleaser than a Saint Augustine poem? History, Nonfiction I really enjoyed this sharp little biography of Augustine. It was really valuable to read an account by someone who is specifically a writer, not a historian or philosopher or religious scholar. Wills does a good job of evoking life in late antiquity and gearing his approach towards the layman rather than the academic--Peter Brown's biography of Augustine is much more in-depth, but a bit harder to read, as Brown delves more closely into religious theory. The strength of Wills's work is that it's written clearly and gives the reader a good understanding of what Augustine was all about in under 200 pages. The book is an excellent introduction to Augustine's life and works; Wills discusses the works themselves but also strives to put those works in the context of Augustine's life, his place in the world, and the world events (like the fall of Rome) that influenced them. Recommended! History, Nonfiction

Garry Wills ✓ 7 Free read

Look out for a new book from Garry Wills, What The Qur'an Meant , coming fall 2017.

Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills brings the same fresh scholarship, lively prose, and critical appreciation that characterize his well-known books on religion and American history to this outstanding biography of one of the most influential Christian philosophers.   Saint Augustine follows its subject from his youth in fourth-century Africa to his conversion and subsequent development as a theologian. It challenges the widely held misconceptions about Augustine’s sexual excesses and shows how, in embracing classical philosophy, Augustine managed to enlist “pagan authors” in the defense of Christianity. The result is a biography that makes a spiritual ancestor feel like our contemporary. Saint Augustine