For more than 20 years James J. O’Donnell has been a leading figure in Augustinian studies. Best known for his three-volume commentary on the Confessions (Oxford 1992), O’Donnell has also pioneered the use of the Internet for humanistic study. A decade ago, while professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, he offered an online seminar on Augustine that attracted hundreds of subscribers worldwide (the archives are still accessible at www.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine). Now provost of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., O’Donnell has returned to the more traditional medium of print publication. But his Augustine: A New Biography is anything but traditional.
Near the end of the book, O’Donnell presents what seems to have been the guiding principle of his work: Augustine comes weighed down with the assumptions, expectations, and conventional narratives of many generations. But he is complex, well documented, and knowable in a way only a handful of other ancient figures are knowable. To reduce him to a familiar story is to do him and ourselves an injustice. Can he be set free? O’Donnell’s liberation of Augustine involves setting him free from all hagiography and even from any appreciation of Augustine’s role in the history of theology. In place of more traditional narratives, O’Donnell substitutes the story of a complex and very flawed human being, and he emphasizes the flaws.
This Augustine will surprise many readers. The following section headings, although taken from a single chapter, characterize the tone that prevails throughout the whole book: Augustine the Self-Promoter, Augustine the Social Climber, Augustine the Troublemaker. O’Donnell’s Augustine never seems to have outgrown his youthful aggressions and ambitions: When writing about his first book in the Confessions, he reproached himself for his worldly ambition, even as, with the Confessions, he was carrying out an ecclesiastical version of the same social climbing. O’Donnell duly documents Augustine’s later associations with powerful Roman generals as evidence of his subject’s lifelong attraction to power.
Accenting the negative in this way does not necessarily lead to bad history. Among the more illuminating pages in the book is O’Donnell’s examination of Augustine’s assiduous letter-writing. He demonstrates decisively how Augustine scattered letters all over the Mediterranean both in order to influence events at a distance and to represent himself as doing so: The coming and going of couriers with letters, the reading and discussion of what they took and brought, and the careful docketing and preservation of the texts were all things that Augustine did to set himself apart. As O’Donnell observes, very few North African clergy had the disposition or training for this type of self-advertisement, but Augustine seems to have relished it.
Augustine’s controversies occupy much of the narrative. The dispute with the Donatists cast a long shadow, and O’Donnell continually returns to the pivotal role that Augustine played in the persecution of this native form of African Christianity. Augustine the Caecilianist is O’Donnell’s way of characterizing the now widely accepted fact that Donatists were the dominant and, in many ways, more authentic brand of Christianity in North Africa. By refusing to grant to Augustine the title catholic (at least until the end of the book), O’Donnell makes the point that Christianity might have been different, and that the difference might not have been a bad thing. He suggests, for example, that the collusion of the Caecilianist (catholic) episcopacy and the Roman Empire so weakened North African Christianity that it became vulnerable to Vandal (and later Islamic) supremacy.
But O’Donnell’s account of Augustine’s vices (and his enemies’ virtues) is often one-sided. He records incidents of Donatist violence, even murder, with the bland observation that their behavior was not unlike that of the stereotypical British football fan of our own day; Augustine’s disapproval of Donatist suicides, by contrast, is characterized as cruel and heartless. Augustine’s relatively benign approach to Jews and Judaism is not spared O’Donnell’s judgment: To be as little positive as Augustine could be was its own contribution to the climate of hatred that would prevail too often in the future. Thus is Augustine held responsible even for what he did not say.
O’Donnell’s account is faulty in other ways. He is too good a historian to make serious errors, but there are some misleading statements. He writes that Christianity at Rome was a Greek-language community until the late fourth century, when the liturgy was finally converted into Latin. But an anonymous Roman biblical commentator, now known as Ambrosiaster, says that already in his day (ca. 380) Christians at Rome could not understand the Greek liturgy: They are delighted by the sound of the words, he writes, but unaware of what they are saying (Commentary on 1 Cor 14:14).
A more serious lapse is O’Donnell’s claim that in the complex evolution of church doctrine and practice, the Bible came last in this process of standardization. While it is true that the complete Christian canon of Scripture was not fully determined until the mid-fourth century, the basic contents of the New Testament were in place by the end of the second century200 years before the major doctrinal debates of Augustine’s day.
Ultimately, however, theology plays only a very small role in O’Donnell’s account of Augustine, and that is the main problem. O’Donnell does not hesitate to make his own judgments about Augustine’s theological positions. He states that the practice of infant baptism reified superstition and fear. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is dismissed as a major failure, elaborated in a community of obsessives. Such judgments might be appropriate in the context of sustained theological analysis and argument, but O’Donnell does not provide these. Even when he speaks positively about Augustine, we do not learn the grounds of his judgments. He tells us, for example, and quite rightly, that Augustine’s views on sex were not really as misguided as most people think, but we are never told why.
One leaves this biography with the impression that O’Donnell stands in awe of Augustine’s accomplishments but does not really like him. Certainly Augustine deserves more.