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Jason Byassee

Reverse Hagiography

A new biography of Saint Augustine.

As modern convention has it, we draw a sharp distinction between "theology" and "history." According to this distinction, James O'Donnell is a historian of the first order. His three-volume commentary on Augustine's Confessions will remain the unsurpassed reference for generations. His skills as a classicist make for easy familiarity with the Latin primary sources. His keen critical eye allows him to pose probing new questions and uncover potential embarrassments in our hagiographies that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. In Augustine: A New Biography, he works hard to blaze a trail in Augustinian biography by asking more deeply critical questions of the church father's life, in hopes that he can "wring a real confession or two from him against his will."

As a theologian, alas, O'Donnell's skills are less patently on display. Because he mistrusts Augustine's own accounting of his life—which mistrust marks his skill as a critical historian—he pays either very little or very poor attention to the intellectual content of Augustine's work. A reader of this book will be left wondering how Augustine could have had such wide readership for so many centuries when his ideas are so flimsy. That Augustine comes in for intellectual criticism here is no surprise—scholars for decades now have complained about his inability quite to leave off the dualism of his Manichaean past, his ruthless use of imperial power against his Donatist enemies, and his late-life grumpy and inadequate responses to the intellectually spry Pelagian, Julian of Eclanum. But at every turn in O'Donnell's critique, Augustine is portrayed as dreadfully anxious, intellectually inferior to his enemies, and so inclined to deal with them duplicitously and brutally, and to tell the story subsequently in such a way as to exonerate himself and excoriate their memory.

O'Donnell begins with Confessions, a "triumph of self-absorption" in which Augustine so deftly managed to "dramatically mislead his readers" ...

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