Saint Augustine (Lives Biographies)Saint Augustine by Garry Wills

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finished this interesting biography on holiday recently and enjoyed it very much.

It was my first dip into the life of Augustine, though had read some of his Confessions earlier.

Roman Catholic prize-winning writer Garry Wills takes a sympathetic, historical and non-hagiographic approach to his subject, one of the most influential figures in the western Christian tradition.

Was interested to learn many details of Augustine's life that were new to me: getting a young woman pregnant at the age of fifteen, co-habiting with her till he was in his thirties, joining a Trinity-denying sect at 19, etc.

Appreciated the writer's ability to paint both the historical and theological context to Augustine's life. Had not focused till now, for instance, on the fact that Augustine was contemporary with Jerome, Ambrose and Pelagius, nor on the fact that he virtually never left Hippo and the surrounding region after his installation as bishop in 395 AD. Also learned more about the Donatists (with whom I have had a vague interest for years) than in anything I had previously read. Augustine's debates and disputes with them are a running theme through the book.

Augustine's power as a writer, scholar and preacher are well-illustrated throughout, and the 145-page book is full of quotable sections both from the subject himself as well as his friends and enemies:

"Augustine thinks in questions" (Karl Jaspers)

"Augustine felt two duties incumbent on him - to expound the whole circle of knowledge in Christian terms, and to refute other schools within Christianity or outside it." (Wills)

Wills' summaries of Augustine's writings are useful as a launch pad into (hopefully) reading them fully in due course. His concise style makes Augustine's profound reflections accessible to the non-specialist , but without being so brief that they appear superficial. Augustine's reflections on the nature of time (there is no such thing as the present) and his formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity in terms of the human soul are both high points in his original writing and in the author's intelligent summary.

Wills takes a rather more sympathetic view of Augustine's approach to the use of coercion in religion than I am comfortable with, though he does so against the backdrop of a contemporary scene that was far harsher than the portrayal of Augustine we are presented with: he opposed the death penalty, torture, and frequently called for clemency in the administration of justice.

A fine introduction to a giant in church history, well-written, and definitely recommended.

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