Two Books on Augustine

Instead of writing separate book reviews, I’ve decided to commend to your attention two books on Augustine that I think make a great pair. The first is Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown. This book is widely recognized as being the best biography of Augustine; after having read several, I concur. At about 500 pages, it’s no lightweight; yet, it’s the most striking, engaging, and memorable book on Augustine I’ve read. What is portrayed in this book is not primarily a bishop or a theologian, but a man. Brown illuminates Augustine so that the reader can empathize with him, agonizing in his turmoil, participating in his passion.  Brown’s training as a historian of Late Antiquity allows him to vivify for us Augustine’s world. Friends, enemies, relatives, and places of residence all have depth; they will remain with the reader as more than names. The revised edition contains an important chapter at the end modifying some of Brown’s judgments. I was delighted to find that several parts of the book that troubled me were dealt with in that chapter.

As good as Brown’s biography is, it does have a glaring omission. The life is treated thoroughly, the philosophy decently, the theology hardly at all. To supplement this Augustine sans theology, I recommend Augustine by Henry Chadwick. At little more than 100 pages, this is the most concise and accessible introduction to Augustine’s thought. It covers his intellectual sources and the major points of his theology, while occasionally touching on Augustine’s legacy in later church history. Despite its brevity, it avoids and even deconstructs simplistic caricatures of Augustine.

Armed only with these two resources, I believe a reader could gain significant insight into Augustine’s life, thought, and significance for Christianity. I suspect, though, that after reading these two books, many will be eager to devour Augustine’s own words. Perhaps they might start with Confessions?

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on September 24, 2010 at 8:25 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. I loved Brown’s biography of Augustine (I have it in the second, expanded edition). There’s a new(er)bio out: “Saint Augustine” by Serge Lancel; translated from the French by Antonia Nevill (London: SCM Press, 2002)French original: 1999. It’s 590 pages (including endnotes and indexes) of small type. I’ve just barely started it, but it’s fascinating. There aren’t really too many bios of Augustine, so it’s nice to have a new one. By the way, it has a blub on the front cover by Henry Chadwick, who says: “Masterly.”

    Lancel (1928-2005) was a Cuban who spent most of his adult life in France.

    Try to get it, if you can.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Richard. I actually own Lancel’s, but I still prefer Brown’s. However, it contains some technical information about people, places, and religious movements that Brown omits. It seems like Lancel consciously decided to write a “scholarly” biography, that is, one that addresses all the hot points of Augustine research. The result is that Lancel’s is hard reading, drier, and less on point. Perhaps some of that might be the fault of the translator; I don’t know. Someone academically interested in Augustine should have Lancel’s, but I think it’s just too boring and pedantic for the average reader.

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