The Many Biographies of Augustine

I’ve been asked a few times about the many biographies on Augustine and which ones are the best for research. I know it makes for boring blogging (probably no more boring than usual), but I thought I’d answer those questions here.
I could actually stop after mentioning Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo because it is so complete; Peter Brown didn’t leave anything out, and no other biography of Augustine contains more information. This was published in the 60’s and updated by Brown himself in 2000, and it has been the standard biography for this historical figure ever since.

When Brown (who reads in fifteen languages) began this project, there was no proper biography for Augustine.   While still in his 30’s, he took upon himself the monumental task off synthesizing the great multitude of Augustinian literature into a single story – it has been used by every serious Augustinian historian ever since.  Most impressive is that after many decades it still remains an accurate and dependable biography (the recent updates to the book only discuss newly discovered writings and don’t make any adjustments to the narrative – nothing has changed in our historical understanding of Augustine). The only downside is its size; it’s 500+ pages. Not everyone has that kind of time, but it’s a must for the serious student of church history.

Gary Wills’ Saint Augustine is a good book that anyone could read. I got through it in an afternoon and found it very pleasant and interesting. It’s not a book that would be very difficult to read for those who don’t normally study this material, and it tells Augustine’s story in a straight-forward chronological manner that is simple and very effective. I like it, a lot, and I turn to it’s chapters when I need to quickly refresh my memory about something in Augustine’s life. An excellent choice for anyone interested in the subject and it’s widely available.   Highly recommended.

This is where things change. James O’Donnell wrote Augustine: A New Biography with the notion that maybe Augustine was not sincerely a believer in Christ. Maybe, Augustine just pretended so he could be an important successful person in the politics of late antique Rome. If that were true, this would be his story, not that nonsense Peter Brown wrote about a devout Christian leader.

I have a hard time with this one. It’s interesting to see things this way, but it’s clear (to me) that Augustine lived out what he preached and had a sincere passion for his faith. Not everyone has to agree with Augustine’s view, but his tireless work to help the church is, in my opinion, evidence that Augustine did hold to the convictions he described. (Of course, O’Donnell is an important leader in Augustinian studies – particularly concern the Confessions – so, perhaps, I should be more hesitant to criticize such a giant in the field.)

Unfortunately, I haven’t read this one (yet), but I have no trouble recommending Augustine of Hippo: A Life by Henry Chadwick based on recommendations from my colleagues and his own reputation. His translation of the Confessions has become a standard in college classrooms, and his knowledge of late antique customs and writings is absolutely astonishing.

It is another good read that is said to be very complete, but not terribly long or difficult, so it should be of use to the Augustinian scholar and to the more casual reader. It’s certainly on my reading list.

3 thoughts on “The Many Biographies of Augustine

  1. Adam, you have made at least one reader's day exciting! I pick a great Christian of old every year or so, and read a couple of their works, as well as a couple historical works about them. I've actually been thinking about picking up Augustine this year, and one of the troubles I had been having was finding the right biography. The main trouble was that there seems to be such a paucity of them, and I wasn't sure I was looking in the right places.

    So, thanks! Peter Brown, here I come.

  2. That's good to know. Brown's biography, I'm told, was an important book in the development of biographies. After his book came out everyone tried to write in that style because it's so darned good. You will emerge from that reading more intelligent, and more humbled at the genius of the book.

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