An exacting—and exciting—new translation and discussion of the first book of Augustine’s Confessiones by an accomplished and prolific stylist and classicist (Venice: Lion City, below, etc.).
It’s hard to claim too much for Augustine’s Confessiones, the first great work of spiritual introspection. At once the crown of antiquity and the foundation of the Middle Ages, Augustine and his “Testimony” (as Wills prefers to translate it) have profoundly shaped the way we understand ourselves, whether or not we live inside the Christian story from which his self-understanding grew. Wills, whose brief biography of Saint Augustine (not reviewed) was published by Viking in 1999, has provided a translation of the first book of the Confessiones, to be followed by translations of three more of the thirteen total. The themes of this deceptively slender volume are various and fascinating: the dialectic of grace and sin in the growing soul; the stages of development from infancy to childhood; the acquisition of speech; the nature of language; the philosophy of education. It’s a rich repast, and, with the guidance Wills supplies through a rhythmically vibrant translation, always sensitive to the nuances of the original Latin, notes on important passages, and a full commentary that grapples with everything from Latin rhetoric and Trinitarian theology to Chomskyan linguistics and Wittgensteinian philosophy, a nourishing one. As an added treat, Wills appends a translation of Augustine’s charming and epistemologically significant dialogue “De Magistro” (“The Teacher”). Wills brings new light to the Latinless and conveys the structural beauty of Augustine’s long sentences (often broken up by translators) as never before. If there is sometimes a price to pay (in the famous first chapter of Book I, for example, where the traditional rendering, “our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” becomes “our heart is unstable until stabilized in you”), the gains far outweigh the losses.
One can only hope that Wills will expand his project and give us the Testimony whole.