James O’Donnell’s Augustine A New Biography (2005)

Receiving a copy of this book as a welcome birthday present from a good friend led me to read it in depth for the first time, and what a book it is. Augustine has traditionally been approached within a category of ‘Ecclesiastical History’ or ‘Patristics’, as is the case with the massive work of Serge Lancel, although different emphases have been emerging. An extremely powerful one has been that of Peter Brown, whose study of 1967 approached Augustine from the perspective of a social historian with limited interest in theological concerns (‘I have found myself…far below the heights of his speculations on the Trinity.’) O’Donnell goes much further outside the box, to the point of referring to the Judeo-Christian deity as ‘god’. The lower-case letter certainly constitutes an eye-catching piece of iconoclasm, although I wonder whether it really works, for the being of whom the word has traditionally been used with a capital letter has not only been seen as a member of the class of gods but a particular person who can be addressed by it, in which case the capital G is fitting. I am reminded of the Islamic assertion rendered into English as ‘There is no god but God’, which perfectly catches the senses in which lower- and upper-case letters are appropriate. But whatever their own convictions, hagiography has never been far from most of those writing about Augustine.  O’Donnell, on the other hand, sees him as a lonely and ambitious man, some of whose teaching is billingsgate. Indeed, what he interprets as the obsessions of a solitary eccentric living in a rural area puts O’Donnell in mind of Don Quixote.

But some of what the book says is exceptionally illuminating. In particular, O’Donnell confronts us with the possibility of narrating Augustine’s early life without reference to his Confessions. It is striking how modern accounts of his early years as a Christian accept Augustine’s telling of them in the Confessions at face value. But not long before setting to work on this account he had received a series of questions from a priest in Milan, Simplicianus, that had forced him to wrestle in a way he never had before with the epistles of St Paul, leading him to adopt positions that emphasised the grace of God rather than human free will, and were contrary to the more sunny views expressed in early works written shortly after he became a Christian. Much modern scholarship tacitly accepts Augustine’s own evaluation of his early views as something that he was going to grow out of; O’Donnell forces us to take them seriously.

Similar issues recurred later in his life, when Augustine encountered the teaching of Pelagius that seemed to deny the importance of God’s grace, leading him into what Brown memorably describes as ‘the more windswept promontories of his thought on grace, freewill and predestination’. O’Donnell points out that the gentlemanly Christianity Pelagius represented was precisely that of the young Augustine before his encounter with St Paul!  In a development O’Donnell sees as Augustine’s great failure, he describes the aging Augustine reacting not just against Pelagius and his cohorts but also against the person he had once been.

These are valuable insights that force a reconsideration of Augustine. O’Donnell’s other assertions do not carry as much conviction; I remain unconvinced that the Donatists were the dominant church in Africa. And more fundamentally, one gains little sense from this study of Augustine having been possibly the most intelligent person ever to have written in Latin, and the proponent of ideas that still repay close engagement. By modern standards some of his ideas are weird, but this need not stop us from grappling with them and appropriating the insights they continue to throw on all kinds of issues.

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