"Saint Augustine"

The newest title in the Penguin Lives series is swift, invigorating and disappointing.

Published June 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Seventeen hundred years ago Augustine of Hippo, North Africa, invented the tell-all book, and in so doing he created modern Christianity. He had no way of knowing that he was also creating the beginnings of the modern thinker who would, within a few centuries, come into violent conflict with this new Christianity. (Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher, called him "the first modern man.") It's no wonder that "The Confessions" and "The City of God" seem as vital today as they did at the dawn of Christian civilization, and not just to Christians.

Augustine gave Christianity the concept of original sin (or as one biographer phrased it, "He invented predestination") and practically designed the model for cooperation between church and state, the merits of which are still being debated on our op-ed pages. But his vigorous and passionate introspection also made him a beacon for the skeptical and the rebellious. As Rebecca West pointed out, "He works in the same introspective field as the moderns," by which she meant Proust, but others have cited Shakespeare, Tolstoy and even Joyce.

In "Saint Augustine" -- the fourth volume from the new Penguin Lives series ("Marcel Proust," "Crazy Horse" and "Mozart" are the other three) -- Garry Wills trumps them all, finding connections with G.K. Chesterton, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov (Humbert Humbert's conception of time as "a continual spanning of two points, the storable future and the stored past") and even Philip Roth (through Augustine's theory of impotence as "the extreme example of inner dividedness"). How many other pre-Renaissance figures can claim kinship to Humbert and Portnoy?

Wills' method here, as in previous biographies, is to comb his subject free of historical misconceptions. For example, the term that best covers the range of meanings for Augustine's most famous book isn't "confessions" but "testimony": "The thing confessed does not have to be a moral truth." Augustine's purpose was less to confess his misdeeds than, as he put it, "to testify, to speak out what the heart holds true." Regarding "The City of God," Wills argues that it was misunderstood by medieval scholars "as a fixed doctrine of church-state relations," when in fact "the attitude of Augustine was one of joint endeavor after a truth that is always just beyond us." In other words, the first great intellectual interpreter of Christian doctrine had a streak of skepticism. Wills goes on to make a convincing case for Augustine the mystic in a formulation that could have come from Chesterton: "Augustine did not delve into his soul to find sin. He went there to find God -- and that is where he did find Him."

Like Chesterton, who performed similar favors for St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, Wills can do this sort of essay-biography standing on his head, and "Saint Augustine" is a swift and invigorating read. There's something missing, though. For one thing, the author is disappointing when it comes to Augustine's place in modern Christian thought. For another, he apologizes too defensively for the great Christian apologist. Regarding Augustine's desertion of his concubine, Una, the mother of his only known child, Wills writes, "There is no way to excuse Augustine's treatment of Una -- as his own later words about his situation show. But can we say that he 'dismissed' her?" I think we can, since Augustine did. It would be enough for Wills to simply note that saints are seldom saints when they are young.

The biggest disappointment, though, is Wills' failure to come to grips with Elaine Pagels' groundbreaking 1988 book, "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent," in which Augustine's concept of original sin is written off to political expediency. Wills can hardly be ignorant of Pagels' work, which has once again put Augustine at the center of much religious debate, yet he doesn't mention it at all. His "Saint Augustine" is like a strange mirror that gives a clear picture of the background but fails to reflect what is standing directly in front of it.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

MORE FROM Allen Barra

Related Topics ------------------------------------------