‘Biography … is more than information; it is commentary and key’. So wrote James Orr in reference to Augustine. So what is the premiere commentary we have on Augustine? For many, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1967, revised edition 2000, tops the list. Though I am not qualified to suggest what might be the most helpful biography on Augustine, and I haven’t read O’Donnell’s latest offering, certainly Brown has done us a great service with this revised biography, assisting us (with brief chapters and tonnes of great quotations) to enter into the thought and sitz im leben of Hippo’s most famous citizen.
The book also includes an epilogue dealing with some of Augustine’s unearthed new writings (re)discovered since the first (1967) edition of this work. It is encouraging to see that interest in Augustine continues, perhaps more than ever, not least because the last time Augustine was taken seriously we had a reformation.
‘Not every man lives to see the fundamentals of his life’s work challenged in his old age. Yet this is what happened to Augustine during the Pelagian controversy. At the time that the controversy opened, he had reached a plateau. He was already enmeshed in a reputation that he attempted to disown with characteristic charm: “Cicero, the prince of Roman orators,” he wrote to Marcellinus in 412, “says of someone that ‘He never uttered a word which he would wish to recall.’ High praise indeed! – but more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man . . . If God permit me, I shall gather and point out, in a work specially devoted to this purpose, all the things which justly displease me in my books: then men will see that I am far from being a biased judge in my own case . . . For I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress – by writing.”‘