cover image Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine

Garry Wills. Viking Books, $19.95 (152pp) ISBN 978-0-670-88610-4

In the West, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is most famous for his teaching on original sin. He believed, and the Catholic Church continues to affirm, that we are all marked from birth with the stain of sin. This sin, he argued, was transmitted to us from our original parents--Adam and Eve--through the sexual act. Although this is his most famous legacy, Augustine was also an active bishop who was engaged in sometimes polemical controversies with the Pelagians and the Donatists over matters of doctrine and Church polity. In this brief and easy-to-read biography, Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg) traces the major events in Augustine's life and uses selections from Augustine's writings to narrate the manner in which Augustine arrived at his spiritual maturity. Giving a new reading to Augustine's Confessions, Wills debunks the persistent theory that Augustine's greatest guilt was over his early sexual excesses. Perhaps most interesting about Augustine's early life was his dependence on what he probably would have called pagan teaching. While other Christian writers such as Tertullian denied the power of Greek or Roman classical texts, Augustine embraced these writers, especially Cicero. In a famous passage from the Testimony (as Wills calls the Confessions), Augustine exclaims with great passion how Cicero's Hortensius was the book that ""altered my prayers, Lord, to be toward yourself."" Wills narrates Augustine's development from his youthful years of pear-stealing to his education in classical and Christian learning, to his mature years as an active bishop preaching and doing his Church's work throughout North Africa. Like the other volumes in the Penguin Lives series, Wills's captivating and accessible biography of Augustine introduces the work of one of the West's most important thinkers to a new generation. (June)