SEVENTEEN HUNDRED YEARS ago Augustine of Hippo, North Africa, invented the tell-all book, and in doing so created modern Christianity. He had no way of knowing that he was also heralding the genesis of modern humankind, who would, within a few centuries, come into violent conflict with that new Christianity. No wonder the books he authored, The Confessions and City of God, seem as vital today as they did at the dawn of Christian civilization, and not just to Christians.
Augustine gave Christianity the concept of original sin (or, as one biographer has phrased it, "he invented predestination") and practically designed the model for cooperation between church and society, the merits of which are still being debated in today's op-ed pages. Meanwhile, his vigorous and passionate contemplation made him a beacon for the skeptical and rebellious: German philosopher Karl Jaspers called him "the first modern man." As the novelist Rebecca West pointed out, "He works in the same introspective field as the moderns," by which she meant Proust; other critics have also set him in a league with Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Joyce.
In Saint Augustine, from the new Penguin Lives Series (Proust, Crazy Horse, and Mozart are the other compact biographical volumes so far), Garry Wills compares his subject to a novel set of writers: G.K. Chesterton; D.H. Lawrence; Vladimir Nabokov (or at least the fictional character Humbert Humbert's idea of time as "a shuttling of the future into the past"); and even Philip Roth, whose sexually addled characters recall Augustine's conception of impotence as "the extreme example of inner dividedness." Can any other pre-Renaissance figure claim kinship to both Lolita and Portnoy?
Wills's method here, as in previous biographies, is to remove his subject from a web of historical misconception. In this case, Wills starts with the very title of Augustine's most famous book, asserting that the term that might best cover its range of meanings isn't "confessions" but "testimony." "The thing confessed does not have to be a moral truth," Augustine writes--in other words, his purpose was not so much to confess his misdeeds, but, as Wills contends, "to testify, to speak out what the heart holds true." Regarding The City of God, Wills argues that the book was misunderstood by medieval scholars as "a fixed doctrine of church-state relations...[but] the attitude of Augustine was one of joint endeavor after a truth that is always just beyond us." Wills can do this sort of revisionism standing on his head, a proven talent that makes Saint Augustine a swift and invigorating read.
Yet Wills's critical biography is disappointing when it comes to Augustine's place in modern Christian thought. At times Wills is too apologetic for the great Christian apologist. Case in point: Regarding Augustine's desertion of his concubine Una, the mother of his only known child, Wills writes, "There is no way to excuse Augustine's treatment of Una--as his own later words about his situation show. But can we say that he 'dismissed' her?" Indeed, we can say it, since it appears that is exactly what Augustine did. (Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder agrees: In his 1996 novel That Tame Flower, composed from the concubine's point of view, Una appropriately tells Augustine, "You should be ashamed of yourself.") It would be enough for Wills simply to note that saints are seldom saints when they are young.
The biggest disappointment, however, is Wills's failure to come to grips with Elaine Pagels's groundbreaking 1988 book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, in which Augustine's concept of original sin is rejected as mere political expediency. Wills can hardly be ignorant of Pagels's work, which once again put St. Augustine at the center of Western religious debate, yet he mentions her not at all. Thus the final image Wills's Saint Augustine leaves us with is one of a mirror that gives a clear depiction of the background but fails to illuminate the man standing directly in front of it.