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Augustine's Confessions: A Biography

by Garry Wills Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 176 pages
AU$44.99 NZ$46.95
Product Status: Available in Approx 14 days
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In this brief and incisive book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills tells the story of the Confessions - what motivated Augustine to dictate it, how it asks to be read, and the many ways it has been misread in the one-and-a-half millennia since it was composed. Following Wills's biography of Augustine and his translation of the Confessions, this is an unparalleled introduction to one of the most important books in the Christian and Western traditions. Understandably fascinated by the story of Augustine's life, modern readers have largely succumbed to the temptation to read the Confessions as autobiography. But, Wills argues, this is a mistake. The book is not autobiography but rather a long prayer, suffused with the language of Scripture and addressed to God, not man. Augustine tells the story of his life not for its own significance but in order to discern how, as a drama of sin and salvation leading to God, it fits into sacred history. 'We have to read Augustine as we do Dante,' Wills writes, 'alert to rich layer upon layer of Scriptural and theological symbolism.' Wills also addresses the long afterlife of the book, from controversy in its own time and relative neglect during the Middle Ages to a renewed prominence beginning in the fourteenth century and persisting to today, when the Confessions has become an object of interest not just for Christians but also historians, philosophers, psychiatrists, and literary critics. With unmatched clarity and skill, Wills strips away the centuries of misunderstanding that have accumulated around Augustine's spiritual classic.

A Note on the Translation vii

Chapter 1: The Book's Birth 1

Chapter 2 :The Book's Genre 17

Chapter 3: The Book's African Days 26

Chapter 4: The Book's Ambrose 41

Chapter 5: The Book's "Conversion" 58

Chapter 6: The Book's Baptismal Days 78

Chapter 7: The Book's Hinge 98

Chapter 8: The Book's Culmination 112

Chapter 9: The Book's Afterlife: Early

Reception, Later Neglect 133

Notes 149

Basic Readings 155

Index 157

Wills does for Augustine's Confessions what he did for the Gettysburg Address, which is to take a well-known iconic work and examine it with fresh eyes. He views the Confessions as a book haunted by Genesis, and this perspective allows him to notice things that are overlooked by commentators whose views are preformed by the interpretive tradition. Having translated the Confessions and written a biography of Augustine, Wills is not afraid to go out on a limb, and so even readers who would not agree with his often cheeky interpretations are forced to look at the work afresh. . . . Wills offers an iconoclastic interpretation of a classic work, one that deserves a fresh treatment every few years. -- Augustine J. Curley, Library Journal Like a biography of a person, this volume takes Augustine's Confessions and traces its birth, growth and decline, and legacy. Since so much of an author's life is connected to his or her work--especially in the case of Confessions--this can't help but include a decent amount of Augustine's own bio. . . . Very readable and highly engaging. -- Wade Osburn, Booklist and Wills, 76--one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive--make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation. . . . Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever. -- Brian Bethune, Macleans This is the type of biography you normally don't see. It is not a biography of Augustine, there are enough of those; it is not another translation of his Confessions, there are enough of those as well. What this is, and what it attempts to be, is a biography of Augustine's Confessions. -- Kevin Winter, Portland Book Review
Garry Wills is the best-selling author of many books on religion and American history, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Lincoln at Gettysburg' (Simon and Schuster). His recent books include 'St. Augustine: A Life' (Viking) and a translation of 'Augustine's Confessions' (Penguin Classics).