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Augustine: A New Biography (2005)

by James J. O'Donnell

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304662,905 (3.25)8
Augustine, sinner and saint, the theologian who served as bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E., is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the western world. During his post-Confessions years he became prominent as a churchman, politician, and writer, and O'Donnell looks back at the events in the Confessions from this period in Augustine's life. Much of Augustine's writing consists of sermons and letters about the events of his time: prosperous men converting to Christianity to get ahead, priests covering up sexual and financial peccadilloes, generals playing coldly calculated games of Roman geopolitics--these are the figures who stand out in Augustine's world and who populate O'Donnell's portrait, set against a background of the battle over the future of Christianity.--From publisher description.… (more)

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I picked this up because I was impressed with the author's Ruin of the Roman Empire and was hoping that this book could enlighten me in similar ways about Roman North Africa. While it did help with that, there was much more about Augustine and his place in modern Christianity and modern Western thought than there was about the contemporary (to Augustine) situation in North Africa. The author got me interested enough to read the book all the way through, though I ended up with some quibbles. Before I get to those, I'll try to tell you whether you'd be interested in this book.

Do You Want to Read It?

This is a revisionist biography of Augustine. The author wants you to see Augustine from a 4th century view, not from the views of him that have been handed down over the course of the last 1600 years. He also assumes that you already know quite a bit about Augustine and have read at least The Confessions. So, if you know Augustine well, like him, and don't want your views revised, you can skip this, unless you want to argue with it. If you know Augustine well, but are unsure what you think about him, you'll find food for thought in this book. If you know some things about Augustine, but are not vitally interested in him, like me, you may find yourself drawn into the book, but wondering why much of this matters in this day and age, a question the author himself asks at the end of the book. If you're not interested in Augustine, or are only just starting to find out about him, this is not the place to start. Finally folks interested in writing alternate histories should see my section on North African history below.

My Quibbles

- There is a lot of redundancy in this book. I found the same thing in Ruin of the Roman Empire and assumed O'Donnell had introduced it so that people could read separate chapters without needing to read the whole book. However, he clearly intends that people read all of Augustine. I have decided the repetition is due to the author not writing in a linear way. He probably writes up chapters out of order and puts whatever he thinks of in that chapter. Then he doesn't go back and weed out the redundancies and decide where the information should best be placed. Nor, evidently, does he have an editor to do it for him.

- His bibliography consists only of the major books by and on Augustine. Other books are listed in the end notes. Since my main interest was really a side issue in the book, I had to follow the notes very closely to pick out books that might be more germane to my area of interest.

- At one point (pp. 207-208), he contends that one of Augustine's major contributions to modern Western thought is the idea of a supervening narrative, a story about why we're right and everyone else is wrong. He says, that while many would no longer agree with Augustine's narrative, "the most rigorous historians of human history, the most objective and dispassionate scientists, the most versatile wizards of the truth of what has actually happened in history" continue to have some kind of supervening narrative.

I would argue that at least scientists do not have "a" supervening narrative. They have methodologies for accumulating facts and placing those facts in a narrative that explains the facts. These narratives are supervening only by being the best explanations of as many facts as possible. When another narrative is proposed that explains the facts better, the old narrative is replaced. So all narratives are temporary until replaced by others that explain the facts better. This is not at all how Augustine viewed his narrative. It was supervening for all time. There is a big difference between a narrative that cannot be changed and one that is acknowledged to be only temporary.

So What about North African History?

I suspect that this book did as good a job as it could in contextualizing Augustine within the 4th century Roman North African setting. Unfortunately, the largest body of documents we have about North Africa at that time are Augustine's own writings. So what he's not interested in simply isn't well documented. The author really tried to fill in the gaps, but I really wished there was more information to be had.

However, if you are interested in alternate histories of North Africa or alternate Christianities, this book provides a lot of excellent ideas. O'Donnell constantly speculates on what would have happened if Augustine had made a different decision at various points in his life. His importance is such that it often results in a fairly big change in history. ( )
  aulsmith | Jan 1, 2011 |
This was good, but not great. It really is carried by the fact that Augustine himeself was a fascinating figure. It tends to really repeat itself in some aspects and doesn't quite have a clear line of development. If you can stick with it though, you will learn alot about not only the man himself but the evolution of Christianity.
  trinibaby9 | Nov 24, 2009 |
1963 Augustine, by James J. O'Donnell (read 1 Dec 1985) Augustine was born in what is now Souk Abras, Algeria, and died in Hippo (modern Annaba) in 430. Five million of his words survive. Jansen claimed he read the entire body of his works ten times and his works on grace and freedom thirty times. I should read Jaroslav J. Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, which is a multi-volume work published by the University of Chicago Press. [But I never have.] The "lucid, universally acclaimed biography of Augustine" is Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown (1967). [I haven't read that, either.] This was a good book, but I read it too hurriedly. ( )
  Schmerguls | Aug 18, 2008 |
I'll need to read it again to do a longer review. But for now, this was such a disappointment. O'Donnell comes off as a scholar who knows more than anyone else about Augustine and his story is replete with "I told you so" moments usually designed to shock the modern Augustine audience. He can't get away from his assertion that Augustine was more motivated by sex throughout his life than previously examined so he likes to end paragraphs with something about Augustine's sexual hangups. Its Freudian nonsense at its worst. And most damning he seems totally unwilling to grant Augustine any theological depth. He doesn't wrestle with Augustine's theology at all. Rather he dismisses it as surface level clutter while attempting to "get behind the man."

This was academic dribble dressed up like a needed revist to Augustine. Not recommended at all. ( )
2 vote guamo | Jul 21, 2007 |
Links to a dozen or more reviews of this book, via JO'D's homepage:

http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
1 vote | chrisbrooke | Sep 17, 2006 |
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James J. O'Donnell has written two different books titled Augustine, these being Augustine (1985) in the Twayne's World Authors series, and Augustine: A New Biography aka Augustine: Sinner and Saint (2005).
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Augustine, sinner and saint, the theologian who served as bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E., is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the western world. During his post-Confessions years he became prominent as a churchman, politician, and writer, and O'Donnell looks back at the events in the Confessions from this period in Augustine's life. Much of Augustine's writing consists of sermons and letters about the events of his time: prosperous men converting to Christianity to get ahead, priests covering up sexual and financial peccadilloes, generals playing coldly calculated games of Roman geopolitics--these are the figures who stand out in Augustine's world and who populate O'Donnell's portrait, set against a background of the battle over the future of Christianity.--From publisher description.

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