Saint Augustine: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies)

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9780143035985: Saint Augustine: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies)

Look out for a new book from Garry Wills, What The Qur'an Meant, coming fall 2017.

Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills brings the same fresh scholarship, lively prose, and critical appreciation that characterize his well-known books on religion and American history to this outstanding biography of one of the most influential Christian philosophers.

 

Saint Augustine follows its subject from his youth in fourth-century Africa to his conversion and subsequent development as a theologian. It challenges the widely held misconceptions about Augustine’s sexual excesses and shows how, in embracing classical philosophy, Augustine managed to enlist “pagan authors” in the defense of Christianity. The result is a biography that makes a spiritual ancestor feel like our contemporary.

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Saint Augustine, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and cultural critic Garry Wills, is a 145-page biography of a saint whose collected works total 13 volumes. Despite its brevity, the book offers a complex and compelling interpretation of Augustine's life and work. Much of Wills's task is demythologizing: Augustine was not a central figure in 4th-century Christianity but was "peripheral in his day, a provincial on the margins of classical culture," who did not know Greek, the intellectual lingua franca of his time. Although Augustine has been portrayed by artists as a bishop "wearing all the episcopal finery of the late Middle Ages," he actually "dressed in the gray clothes of a monk." And far from being a self-righteous pontificator, Augustine was "impatient with all preceding formulations, even his own." He wrote, "Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God." Wills also argues that Augustine's Confessions (which, Wills persuades the reader, is an anachronistic, egoistic translation of the original Latin title, a word Wills more accurately renders as "Testimony") has been misread in a way that suggests Augustine led a debauched sexual life before his conversion. In the Shocking Revelation department, Wills does, however, find more detailed (if elaborately coded) information about Augustine's mistress and about the son they raised together than other biographers have found. Like Wills's masterful Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine accomplishes its revisionist aims completely and yet lightly. Wills makes his arguments without ever forgetting his first job: telling the story of a life. --Michael Joseph Gross

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