The prolific Wills, already with a short biography of St. Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine, 1999) and two translations of portions of The Confessions (Saint Augustine’s Memory, 2002, etc.), demonstrates anew his formidable powers as cultural commentator—and the devilish difficulties of translation.
Edward Gibbon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Rebecca West criticized Augustine’s rhetorical style, particularly his discussion of sin. Years later, Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988) assailed the bishop for influencing Church notions on sex, the role of women, and the need for governmental authority. Wills, however, has little use for such arguments: “For a man supposedly obsessed with sex, Augustine spent very little time on the sins of the flesh in his sermons.” In analyzing Book Two of The Confessions (or, as he prefers to call it, The Testimony), Wills likens the saint’s theft and destruction of a pear at age 16 to Adam’s fall: both involve a fruit and were committed due to an association (in Adam’s case, with Eve; in Augustine’s, with his youth gang). Adam’s fall, together with Satan’s rebellion against God and Cain’s murder of Abel, form an Augustinian trio of “founding sins” that Wills glosses in his introduction and notes. Wills is never afraid to fly in the face of conventional wisdom—noting, for instance, that contrary to stereotype, Augustine was not particularly dissolute as a youth, staying faithful to one woman in a common-law marriage for about 15 years. As biographer and critic, Wills seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence. But as translator, he’s not as inspired. In an attempt to convey the “continual wordplay, the acoustical effects, (and) the intermeshing verbal arrangements” of Augustine’s “jazzy” style, he sometimes employs rococo flourish more reminiscent of his spurned conservative mentor, William F. Buckley Jr., than of the immortal cleric (e.g., “At the time of my young manhood, when I burned to be engaged with vile things, I boldly foisoned into ramifying and umbrageous loves”).
Despite the ill-advised try at translation, Wills continues to burn brightly in illuminating one of the most profound, if complex, figures in Western civilization.