In a lyrical, multilayered biography, a Georgetown classics scholar creates this generation’s Augustine.
O’Donnell’s study of Augustine’s life, work and influence would be worth the price of entry if it consisted only of the first 86 pages, which offer one of the most nuanced and sensitive readings ever of the Confessions (including an evenhanded investigation of why Augustine was so obsessed with chastity). O’Donnell reads the Confessions generously, but he also makes clear that the great autobiography is a literary work, not an unmediated picture of Augustine’s life. Throughout, O’Donnell draws on cutting-edge scholarship—including the hypothesis, based on Pierre-Marie Hombert’s 2000 study “New Investigations in Augustinian Chronology,” that Augustine may have risen to prominence later than scholars previously thought. There are no hints of hagiography here: indeed, O’Donnell likes to laugh a little at the great saint, and in a chapter entitled “Augustine Unvarnished,” he lays bear the African bishop’s ambition and social-climbing. O’Donnell’s rendering of the historical context is as important as his exegesis of Augustine. He limns fourth-century Christianity in order to show both how revolutionary some of Augustine’s own theological doctrines were, and how much those doctrines had to be “tamed” before they were embraced by the church. Along the way, he explains how Augustine literally wrote (he dictated, mainly) and explores “Augustine’s tongue” (that is, late antique Latin). And O’Donnell shows how Augustine remains germane to our world—“the idea that wisdom . . . lies in the pages of a book” is owed to Augustine, and, even more important, his idea of God still powerfully influences how Christians, Jews and Muslims understand the deity. Finally, this magisterial work is distinguished not only by its innovative scholarship, but also by O’Donnell’s elegant style—even the prose in the appendix on “Pursuing Augustine Further” is lovely (recommending Augustine’s sermons, the author writes that “Another place to lie in wait for him is in his church on Sunday morning.”)
A landmark achievement.