Sunday, April 17, 2011

Garry Wills: Augustine's Confessions: A Biography

Garry Wills continues his life-long fascination and scholarship about St. Augustine with the publication of this new book. Wills has already written a brief biography of Augustine of the Penguin Brief Lives edition, and he's translated the Confessions. Thus, Wills is a veteran of the Augustine scene. The fact that he receives accolades from the premiere Augustine biographer Peter Brown and fellow biographer and Augustine scholar James O'Donnell reinforces my belief that Wills knows whereof he speaks when it comes to Augustine (and on most topics he chooses to write about, for that matter).

Augustine is the seminal figure in the development of Western Christianity. From his life in Late Antiquity, except for St. Paul, Augustine probably had the greatest influence on the development of Western Christianity. The Confessions tells the story of Augustine's conversion (very slow in coming) and his attempt to understand the texts of the Bible, especially those of the Creation in Genesis. Wills points out a couple of very interesting thing about Augustine's work that I found unique in this volume:
1. How he wrote. Augustine worked by dictation. As someone who writes by dictation, I have to admire this. My work usually needs extensive revision if the topic is at all complex or lengthy. How you do this with papyrus—well, you don’t. I thought revising with a typewriter was bad. So the work was difficult, yet he wrote a huge amount.
2. Augustine didn’t first learn about silent reading from Ambrose. Silent reading was not a new invention at that time. Another urban legend bites the dust.
3. Now, something important: The Confessions (or Testimony, as Wills prefers to translate the title) is not the first autobiography. Rather, it is an extended prayer. This gives the book a different look and feel when you think of it that way.
4. Wills addresses the reputation of the Confessions since its writing, even into contemporary times. Among those who have written about Augustine, he notes, is Hannah Arendt. I had an intellectual crush on Arendt during my youth. She wrote her dissertation about Augustine and called him “the only true philosopher the Romans ever had”. I wrote a undergraduate paper on Augustine’s concept of community. Thus, I’ve found this conjunction between two of my favorite authors intriguing. Their mutual admiration of Augustine reinforces my own perception of him as a powerful figure in our tradition. Not always right or edifying, but quite a challenging figure. This short book by Wills adds the significant literature on this amazing figure. Highly recommended.

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