Review of "Augustine of Hippo"

Augustine of Hippo, by Peter Brown. ISBN 57109232-2.

Note: There is a new edition, ISBN 0571204953, which differs only by having a 65-page epilogue about recent discoveries. The ISBN at the top is for the edition I read.

This is -- so far as I can judge -- a very successful biography of Augustine. I am not competent to evaluate its accuracy and completeness -- I haven’t even read the Confessions, and more or less everything I know about Augustine’s life comes from this very book -- but it seems comprehensive, and shows every sign of having been carefully researched. It also includes a decent bibliography, a good index, and (in 5 pieces placed at appropriate points) a chronological summary, year by year, of Augustine’s life and work.

What I can evaluate is its success in keeping the reader interested (very good), in giving an idea not only of what happened to its subject but of what sort of person he was (excellent), and in showing him in the wider context of his world (very good). When -- as here -- the subject also happens to be a genius and a great writer, a good biography should also communicate this and encourage the reader to move on to the subject’s own writings. Here too Brown succeeds admirably. (His book contains many small quotations from Augustine, which -- among other things -- communicate something of the excellence of his writing. It would have been pleasant to have a few longer samples, and to know whether the translations are Brown’s own or from standard English editions. I’m guessing the former, on the grounds that he’d have had to credit the translators otherwise.)

One thing I would have liked to see in the book -- though strictly it wouldn’t belong in a biography -- is a final chapter saying a bit about the later influence of Augustine’s ideas. For instance, his (mostly negative) attitude to sex is sometimes asserted to have made a huge difference to mediaeval and later Christianity; he was, I think, the first major writer to frame a doctrine of predestination clearly, which presumably also had huge impact; and so on. How much of the subsequent development of Christian thinking was because of Augustine, and how much was in the air anyway? By what routes did his ideas find their way into the church as a whole?

The bibliography could have been much better. As it stands, it’s simply a list of works in alphabetical order by title. Fair enough, but a really good bibliography -- organized thematically, with some comments on the works referenced -- would be a very helpful way into this vast literature. On the other hand, those chronological tables include all his writings and references to translations of them, which is very welcome.

One final and rather trivial note. Brown’s English grammar is a little strange; he is very fond of oddly placed commas. "This countryside indeed, was to present Augustine with an intractable problem." Grammatical pedants will find this repeatedly niggling, but no worse than that.