SAINT AUGUSTINE'S SIN
Garry Wills, . . Viking, $23.95 (103pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03241-9
In his third volume of translations from "Saint Augustine's Confessions," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wills again questions whether this document is really about sexual debauchery. It has long been believed that these "Confessions," written in mid-life by Augustine of Hippo, were really coded admissions of Augustine's sexual excesses. ("Augustine + sin = sex," writes Wills. "That is the equation most people begin with when they first think of Augustine's Testimony.") This grates on Wills, who believes that such a superficial assumption makes it impossible to understand Augustine's deeper concerns about sinning, such as why we willfully turn against God. Yes, Augustine did have a mistress and yes, they did conceive and raise a son together out of wedlock—but this was all within the boundaries of social norms in his era (354–430). In fact, Wills says Augustine wasn't highly concerned by his sexual transgressions, since he considered sins of the flesh less disturbing than sins of the spirit. What really haunted Augustine was the time he joined some hooligans in stealing pears from an orchard—an impulsive but willful act against God. Although many historians assume this to be a cryptic account of sexual corruption, Wills believes it to be one of Augustine's most profound discussions of intentional sin. Wills's introduction takes up almost a third of this slender volume, but it's just as strong as his translation. He admires Augustine's fiery language and has done his best to make the saint's words accessible while maintaining their original depth and vibrancy.
Reviewed on: 09/29/2003