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Reviewed by:
  • Augustine's Confessions
  • Kim Paffenroth (bio)
Garry Wills . Augustine's Confessions. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011. vii + 166. ISBN 978-0691143576, $19.95.

This slim volume tries to adapt the genre of biography to describe the genesis, production, and reception of a book—in this case, Augustine's Confessions. The first two chapters are mostly biographical of the author, Augustine, with detours to discuss the religious situation in North Africa of his time, reading and writing in antiquity, and the purpose and genre of the book. The following six chapters (Chapters 3-8) are then a close reading of Confessions. In keeping with Wills's frequent (and fully appropriate) insistence that the book is not an autobiography (e.g., p. 22, "Confessions is commonly read as an autobiography. . . . It does not fit into that genre"), he takes his analysis all the way through Book 13 of Confessions: Books 1-4 (Chapter 3), Book 5 (Chapter 4), Books 6-8 (Chapter 5), Book 9 (Chapter 6), Book 10 (Chapter 7), Books 11-13 (Chapter 8). There are, of course, numerous references back and forth to preceding or subsequent Books of Confessions, as appropriate to Wills's discussion. The book concludes with fairly brief notes, a short list of suggested further readings, and a detailed index.

The book's strengths are clear. Wills's style is, as always, pithy, journalistic, provocative. In Wills's prose, technical issues like the historicity of Confessions come out as radically more interesting than they do when handled by most of the rest of us writing on Augustine. This is not to say that Wills is merely a popularizer: rather, he writes about difficult, complicated matters in a clear style, with passion for his subject, concern and respect for his readers, and an incisive mind that deftly seeks out what is really important, what is really at issue and should be studied and remembered, while gracefully letting slip away that which is distracting, pedantic, or irrelevant. As an [End Page 536] introduction—and a rather thorough one, at that—to Augustine's thought, I cannot really think of any text that would reward its reader more, especially if the reward is measured in insights per page, or how much depth one could get for a day's worth of engaging reading. To whet the reader's appetite, I would say that whoever wrote the cover copy was quite right to pick this sentence, as it guides Wills's analysis, and shows the sensitivity with which he approaches Augustine, as well as the art and subtlety he uncovers in this ancient and much-maligned author: "We have to read Augustine as we do Dante, alert to rich layer upon layer of Scriptural and theological symbolism" (25).

Within such a rewarding bit of writing, however, there are points at which the analysis could have been improved and clarified. For example, the controversial point of Monica's alleged Donatism is taken for granted, without discussion (19). There is far too little discussion of Neoplatonism for a book on Confessions. And running throughout the book, there is the problem that I think is shared by all of us writing on Confessions. For those of us (the present reviewer included) who want to insist that the historicity of the events narrated in the book do not really matter (but who still want to insist there is some meaning and value to the narration nonetheless), Wills makes, as usual, a succinct and eloquent statement: "It is the thesis of my book that the superimposition of Genesis patterns on the events of his life makes the question of literal historicity beside the point, since Augustine is not writing history or autobiography" (42). But, despite this, there are several points where Wills wants to argue quite strenuously (e.g., against Courcelle) for the historicity of an event, especially with the scene in the garden in Book 8: "The details of this section show that Augustine is not just talking in symbols. . . . There are many things to indicate that the core story at this point is about real happenings" (74, 75). But just a few pages previous, Wills's argument...


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