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Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

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This classic biography was first published thirty years ago and has since established itself as the standard account of Saint Augustine's life and teaching. The remarkable discovery recently of a considerable number of letters and sermons by Augustine has thrown fresh light on the first and last decades of his experience as a bishop. These circumstantial texts have led This classic biography was first published thirty years ago and has since established itself as the standard account of Saint Augustine's life and teaching. The remarkable discovery recently of a considerable number of letters and sermons by Augustine has thrown fresh light on the first and last decades of his experience as a bishop. These circumstantial texts have led Peter Brown to reconsider some of his judgments on Augustine, both as the author of the Confessions and as the elderly bishop preaching and writing in the last years of Roman rule in north Africa. Brown's reflections on the significance of these exciting new documents are contained in two chapters of a substantial Epilogue to his biography (the text of which is unaltered). He also reviews the changes in scholarship about Augustine since the 1960s. A personal as well as a scholarly fascination infuse the book-length epilogue and notes that Brown has added to his acclaimed portrait of the bishop of Hippo.


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This classic biography was first published thirty years ago and has since established itself as the standard account of Saint Augustine's life and teaching. The remarkable discovery recently of a considerable number of letters and sermons by Augustine has thrown fresh light on the first and last decades of his experience as a bishop. These circumstantial texts have led This classic biography was first published thirty years ago and has since established itself as the standard account of Saint Augustine's life and teaching. The remarkable discovery recently of a considerable number of letters and sermons by Augustine has thrown fresh light on the first and last decades of his experience as a bishop. These circumstantial texts have led Peter Brown to reconsider some of his judgments on Augustine, both as the author of the Confessions and as the elderly bishop preaching and writing in the last years of Roman rule in north Africa. Brown's reflections on the significance of these exciting new documents are contained in two chapters of a substantial Epilogue to his biography (the text of which is unaltered). He also reviews the changes in scholarship about Augustine since the 1960s. A personal as well as a scholarly fascination infuse the book-length epilogue and notes that Brown has added to his acclaimed portrait of the bishop of Hippo.

30 review for Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lane Severson

    Peter Brown is a beautiful writer. Even if you have no interest in Augustine, you could read this book and simply be lost Brown's command of language. However, this is the defining biography of Augustine. Brown has gone back and updated this book towards the end of his career. This is a gift to the world. Brown covers Augustine as a philosopher, theologian, Bishop, man, son and father. This is a long read, but it certainly belongs on your to read list.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    I read the old version, which was fine. Augustine spanned the gap between the classic world and the emerging world of the middle ages. He started life as a Manichee and flirted with neo-platonism before settling down to life as the bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa. His was a very "Roman African" kind of career (a phrase which meant nothing to me before this book). Roman African Christianity was a "purer" form that was less influenced by decadent Roman/Italian ways. In fact, the main schism of I read the old version, which was fine. Augustine spanned the gap between the classic world and the emerging world of the middle ages. He started life as a Manichee and flirted with neo-platonism before settling down to life as the bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa. His was a very "Roman African" kind of career (a phrase which meant nothing to me before this book). Roman African Christianity was a "purer" form that was less influenced by decadent Roman/Italian ways. In fact, the main schism of Augustine's time, the Donatists, had split from the Catholic church over the issue of Christian collaboration with Roman pagan authorites. Throughout his career Augustine stood for the religion of church and parishioner (as supposed to the religion of the monastaries). His theology emphasized original sin and supported baptism at birth. Humans needed Christianity as a weary traveller needs an inn. He was a prolific writer, but always anchored his writing in current events. For example, City of God was written after the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth(love those names) sent patrician Romans(who were Pagans) scurrying to Africa for succor. I felt I got a better sense of the "life and times" of Augustine as supposed to his thought and ideas. Not that I have a problem with that. Augustine is an important transitional figure between the classical and christian worlds, and his times give the reader of what it was like to live during the fall of the western roman empire. I recommnend it for people interested in Augustine himself or the time period in general.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    A very difficult read, but easily the standard secondary source on Augustine. The broad contours of Augustine's life are well-known, but Brown places them within a theological framework. He takes intellectual themes from controversies in Augustine's life (thus the Latin-ish chapter titles) and retells the story around these themes. It makes for somewhat difficult reading at times, but it is very illuminating. I cannot imagine a better work that more neatly captures Augustine's *sitz im leben* A very difficult read, but easily the standard secondary source on Augustine. The broad contours of Augustine's life are well-known, but Brown places them within a theological framework. He takes intellectual themes from controversies in Augustine's life (thus the Latin-ish chapter titles) and retells the story around these themes. It makes for somewhat difficult reading at times, but it is very illuminating. I cannot imagine a better work that more neatly captures Augustine's *sitz im leben* than this work. He demonstrates Augustine's philosophical commitment to neo-Platonism by noting how many in Augustine's time, including the man himself, were embarrassed (initially; evidence suggests Augustine later worked himself out of this embarrassment) by the "earthiness" of the Old Testament. Of course, that is just one example. More recent editions of this book (current printing previous printings) take into account not only recent scholarship on Augustine, but recent archeological finds of some of Augustine's letters and sermons. Peter Brown is the undisputed master of classical antiquity and this book clearly shows it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ted Rohe

    I think this is a great Biography of Augustine, but I wish there was some more focus and clarification on Augustine's theology. I think I will have to explore some more books on that specifically. However, Brown does focus on aspects of Augustine's Theology and it is interesting to see it in contrast to many views of Augustine today. Overall very good and I learned a lot.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Falk

    There are some problematic aspects to Brown’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, most of which, if not before, becomes apparent in the Epilogue included in the revised edition: “We should remember that in the 1960s some of the best work on the thought of Augustine stressed those moments where he appeared to have changed his mind on important matters. These studies examined the manner in which Augustine's progressive absorption of the Christian Scriptures, his pastoral experience and his wrestling There are some problematic aspects to Brown’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, most of which, if not before, becomes apparent in the Epilogue included in the revised edition: “We should remember that in the 1960s some of the best work on the thought of Augustine stressed those moments where he appeared to have changed his mind on important matters. These studies examined the manner in which Augustine's progressive absorption of the Christian Scriptures, his pastoral experience and his wrestling with the issue of grace and free will led him to surrender his earlier outlook on the nature of society, on the role of upper-class culture and on the potentialities of human nature. His thought changed, slowly but surely, in pace with the changes of his circumstances. As a result of these studies, I believed that it was possible ... to seize 'that crucial area where external and internal changes touch each other'. A sense of human movement in a figure usually identified with all that was most rigid and unmoving in Catholic dogma was what my biography strove to convey.” (pp. 489-90) It is quite noticeable in his book that Brown strives to make Augustine consistent in his development, and not the least, to describe an interplay of internal and external change. However, this also seems to have led to a case of ‘myopia’ on Brown’s part in several areas; the logic of ‘a happened externally at the time of x, consequently b happened internally at the time of x’ is rather simplistic, and though it might lead to guessing right in some instances, in others if may end up getting things spectacularly wrong. In addition, I did find Brown to be a bit simplistic also in his sheer admiration of Agustine, who he unhesitatingly describes as a genius, not that he is uncritical in this treatment of him, but his criticism comes more as ‘asides’ – as a sort of afterthoughts - rather than being fully integrated into the main treatment of his subject. “I have lost nothing,” Brown writes, “over the years, of my original fascination with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman world. But, on looking back, I would say that I was unduly fascinated by the role played in this development by the Christian bishops. They were not the only agents in this process. At the time, however, it was natural to look first and foremost in their direction. My training as a medievalist at Oxford had placed the issue of episcopal authority at the very centre of my interests. lt was important for me to know how Augustine had contriuted to the formidable hegemony of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe. His dealings with the Donatists and his ready acceptance of the use of Imperial laws to suppress Donatists, pagan and heretics posed the problem as to whether, if at all, Augustin merited the invidious title of 'theorist of the Inquisition'. That question, which any medievalist must at some time or other pose of Augustine, challenged me to reconstruct, without prejudice and without the distorting effects of hindsight, the exact social circumstances of late Roman Africa. In so doing, I attempted to recover the social and moral constraints within which Augustine wielded a weight of authority that was so formidable in theory and so far from overpowering in practice. (p. 491) Brown at times tends to treat the local conditions in North Africa as incitements for Augustine to write as he did on various topics. Again, he might be right in some instances, yet Augustine's eager correspondence with friends and other clerics all over the Roman world as well as his monastic community in Hippo doesn’t make this an obvious approach. "He arranged that he would never be alone.. Even [in] his most intimate experience of contemplation.." (p. 194) – It is a bit ironic that I picked up this book precisely because of one thing that Brown describes well, namely Augustines neoplatonist approach, but then find myself agreeing with Henry Chadwick's judgement, that this is a 'biography without the theology’ – a judgement Brown accepts as fair (p. 495.) He goes on to write: “Yet, looking back, I would put the matter somewhat differently. What was lacking in my book was not so much 'philosophy' or 'theology'... It was, rather. a sense of the wider background of late antique religion and thought that gave weight and seriousness to many themes with which Augustine grappled, even if these were themes for which it was not so easy, in the 1960s ... to bring ... into our own times. Thus my preoccupation with those themes that could be communicated in modern terms led me to pass over the density and the challenging strangeness of many aspects of the late classical and early Christian thought-world in which he lived. Now, however, we are in a better position to place Augustine against that wider landscape than we had been in 1961. This is due in part to the fact that, in the period between 1967 and the present, the study of Augustine has been overtaken ... by a veritable coming-of-age of the study of late antique Christianity and of late antique polytheism as a whole.” Throughout this book, Brown treats paganism almost as it is dead already: “It seems as if Augustine were demolishing a paganism that existed only in libraries. In fact Augustine believed quite rightly, that he could best reach the last pagans through their libraries. In this, the City of God reflects faithfully the most significant trend in the paganism of the early fifth century. The partially disinherited generation of a Volusianus had sought to invest its religion in the distant past. They were fanatical antiquarians. They preferred every form of religion and philosophy that could boast a litterata vetustas - an immemorial origin preserved for them in literary classics. It is just this vetustas which Augustine dissects. He intercepts the pagans in their last retreat to the past: he will expose the tainted origins of the cults that were most ancient, and that figured most in the classics; he will play upon the inconsistencies, and hint at the secret incredulity of the writers who preserved this past, their poet, Vergil, their antiquarian Varro.” (pp. 303-4) To me, the “secret incredulity” of the pagan writers appears far more preferable than the often blatant credulity of their Christian counterparts. Brown, however, doesn’t concern himself with such matters. Pagans, to him, were not only antiquarians, but fanatical at that. It is this type of lightweight argument, or rather, it is entirely lacking in argument, so let’s call them superficial statements, that at times made it difficult for me to take Brown seriously. Here’s another example dealing with an entirely different topic: “When he turned to Paul after 394, he fastened on two passages in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: 'What have you that you did not receive? If you received it, why do you boast as if it did not come to you as a gift ? ... and then, as it is written: 'Let him who glories, glory in the Lord’.' Those two phrases were central for every subsequent statement of Augustine's view of grace. For in them Augustine had found 'the antidote to Christian élitism'. [quoting W.S. Babcock, 1982] We can now see from those of the Dolbeau sermons which have the best possibility of having been preached at Carthage in 397, that Augustine set about immediately, in the first years of his episcopate, to apply an 'antidote to élitism' at every level of Christian experience. They were sermons of hope, and, decisively, sermons of equality. No group was untouched by the grace of God. For there was no effort, no matter how humble, that did not depend as absolutely upon the free gift of God's grace as did the most spectacular manifestation of 'charisma'. All believers were equal because all were equally 'poor'.” (p. 509) He immediately set out; he fastened on those two passages after 394. This quote is from Brown’s recent epilogue; again a similar case where the argument is completely lacking. Lo and behold, Augustine, the great promoter of predestination, hastened to apply this “antidote to élitism” he had found in Paul’s Letters! - Since Paul was of crucial importance for Augustine’s conversion (as described in his Confessions), he would have read Paul closely in the years following his conversion in 386, and likely ever after. Grace was of paramount importance to Paul, and surely this influenced Augustine to continue to develop this view. - My meaning is that providing a reference doesn't mean you can leave out the argument and wider context. It needs some fleshing out. I’ve been reading a biography of Paul of Tarsus more or less simultaneouly with this book, and it struck me that there is one particular area where I wish Augustine would have read Paul more closely, namely regarding celibacy. It might have been something that could have made him think twice before developing his pernicious doctrine of original sin. F.F. Bruce writes in his 1969 biography of Paul: “Unless one had a special vocation—a charisma, as he [Paul] calls it [1 Corinthians 7:7] —for celibacy, any attempt to adopt this condition was contrary to nature and would expose them to the very kind of temptation which they abhorred.” – Charisma; gift, or talent. That Augustine lacked just that talent, no one who has read his Confessions can doubt. In fact, many a Catholic priest seem to have lacked it, and so I found it all the more interesting to consider that the apostle had a both wise and common-sense approach to just that matter. - “For Augustine, the present world was always overshadowed by a great sadness. Married couples should walk, regretfully, through the recognizable ruins of a perfect sexuality devastated by Adam's pride.” (p. 502) The sadness was Augustine’s own, and it makes it even sadder that he bequeathed this sadness to posterity through his doctrine. Back to Hippo – and a different area of repression: “Now, in Hippo, Augustine was again exposed to what he regarded as his previous besetting weaknesses. For a bishop was a figure of authority. If he was to be effective, he had, at least, to be admired; he must concern himself with his reputation... Augustine, indeed, had to draw on aspects of his own character that he had always regarded with infinite disquiet. In Book Ten of the Confessions, he faced this fact with exceptional honesty: he may no longer be vengeful when insulted, but love of praise, the need to feel admired and loved by others, still caused him to be 'roasted daily in the oven of men's tongues' One feels that the tensions that sprang from his relations to others, his need to influence men, his immense sensitivity to their response to him, were far more deeply rooted and insidious, than the more obvious temptations of greed and sexuality. His acute awareness of the motive-force of a 'love of praise' in his ecclesiastical rivals, the Donatist bishops, and in the ancient, pagan Romans, shows both how vividly he had experienced the emotion in himself, and how sternly he had repressed it: for 'no one who has not declared war on this enemy can possibly know how strong it is'.” (pp. 200-1) This “love of praise” is a theme that will be figure prominently in one of his best known writings. You have to find the parallel yourself, Brown doesn’t refer back to this when it appears about 100 pages ahead. “He agreed with his contemporaries on two important points: the moral history of the Roman people was more important than the naked 'facts of life' of the Roman conquests; and the moral qualities of the Romans had made their Empire, if not uniquely privileged and deserving to last forever (as was the case for pagans), at least better than any of its predecessors... By allowing himself to be challenged by these exempla, Augustine transforms the Roman view of their own past... he emerges with a single, all-embracing explanation: the Romans had been moved to an outstanding show of virtue by one force alone, by an overweening love of praise: 'They were, therefore, "grasping for praise, open-handed with their money; honest in the pursuit of wealth, they wanted to hoard glory." This is what they loved so wholeheartedly; for this they lived, for this they did not hesitate to die: all other lusts, they battened down with this overwhelming desire.' ... Augustine's average man was a very frail creature indeed. He was a slave to social custom. Even the greatest thinkers of the pagan past, it seemed to him, had capitulated to this force: they had hidden their true views... The irrational is also very close: the devotion of the crowds can make idols seem to move; a mysterious 'lower realm of feelings' can make a man put his own sense of being alive into a dead copy of the human form. Men need 'authority': they need to be shaken from their habits and irrational tendencies, by a firm, persuasive challenge from above. (...) For Augustine believed in demons: a species of beings, superior to men, living forever, their bodies as active and as subtle as the air, endowed with supernatural powers of perception; and, as fallen angels, the sworn enemies of the true happiness of the human race. Their powers of influence were enormous: they could so interfere with the physical basis of the mind as to produce illusions ... always ready to swoop, like birds, upon the broken fragments of a frail and dissident humanity.” (pp. 308-10) Augustine’s ‘City of God’ is clearly not for the faint of heart. Further back in his book, Brown deals with Augustine’s approach to ‘Disciplina’: “..when Augustine had become a priest he had retained some optimism about the power of man's free will: the act of faith was still an act of conscious choice ... He had attempted to reform popular piety at this time... by persuasion and by removing habits that gave rise to false opinions, he might turn a congregation of unthinking Christians into good, 'spiritual' Catholics. Now he was less sure. There seemed to be a great disparity between human circumstances and intentions, and the invincible purpose of an omnipotent God. The ability of the Catholic Church to expand rapidly by force if needs be, came to depend less on what a mere, conscientious bishop might judge to be practicable. (...) For a Donatist, Augustine's attitude to coercion was a blatant denial of traditional Christian teaching: God had made men free to choose good or evil; a policy which forced this choice was plainly irreligious. The Donatist writers quoted the same passages from the Bible in favour of free will, as Pelagius would later quote. In his reply, Augustine already gave them the same answer as he would give to tbe Pelagians: the final, individual act of choice must be spontaneous; but this act of choice could be prepared by a long process ... which might even include fear, constraint, and external inconvenience ... Augustine ... summed up his attitude in one word: disciplina... In the Old Testament, God had taught His wayward Chosen People through just such a process of disciplina... The persecution of the Donatists was another 'controlled catastrophe' imposed by God, mediated, on this occasion, by the laws of Christian Emperors ... no more than a special instance of the relationship of the human race as a whole, to its stern Father, who would 'whip the son He receives', and indiscriminately enough at that; like the man who beat his family every Saturday night 'just in case'.” (pp. 232-3) The suppression of the Donatists, after being branded heretics in the 'Edict of Unity’ of 405, happens around 4 years after Augustine finished writing his ‘Confessions’ – yet it seems a long way from the “sensitive soul” he gives expression to in that work. Nevertheless, Peter Brown can’t view him as being other that consistent: “A man who had recently analysed, with evident fascination and horror, the strength of the motives that had once led him, in his teens, to a quite gratuitous act of vandalism by stealing pears, would not be likely to underestimate the dangerous force of the 'sweet taste of sinning'..” – “Augustine may be the first theorist of the lnquisition; but he was in no position to be a Grand Inquisitor.” (pp. 235-6) Brown returns to the topic of the Donatists in the Epilogue: “In a sermon on the difference between 'true' and 'false' Christians, a Donatist bishop pointed out that although Pharaoh had attempted to kill the children of the Israelites in Egypt, he had never dared to attempt to make them change their religious beliefs, as the Catholics were doing to his own flock in Africa!” (p. 486) Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians, pagans, Augustine deals harshly with each in turn, and while it is true, as Brown points out, that he “was in no position to be a Grand Inquisitor” it is easy to get the impression that given the chance to fill such a position, he would probably not have declined. “With Augustine's victory over Pelagius, in the 420s, what had been the shadow of his own 'Lost Future' – associated with the sad abandonment of a classical view of the human capacity for self-improvement - fell across the entire tradition of Western Christianity. Many scholars are now prepared to claim, partly on the strength of my own description of Augustine's changes of mind in the 390s, that those changes caused a sinister fissure to open up between a sunnier, because more "classical', form of early Christianity and an early medieval world dominated by doctrines of original sin and by an insistence on the all-powerful and inscrutable workings of divine grace. I myself do not agree with such extreme interpretations. But scripta manent.” (pp. 497-98) That this would be an “extreme” interpretation, is an opinion Brown is entitled to hold, yet it is only an opinion. Scripta manent. – Still, this is mostly a very erudite and also well written book, though I find I have to beg to differ on some points. It also seems to me that he fails to see, or at least to point out, some aspects of his subject that should have been fairly obvious (even in the 1960s.) He does keep good track of Augustine’s neoplatonic approach, which what I was looking for in this book in the first place, so let me end this already far too long review with a quote from this book that perhaps shows Brown at his best: “Augustine's extraordinary capacity to construct from his reading of Neo-Platonic material an entirely new sense of the inner life of the individual was achieved at a cost. He allowed the Platonic sense of the majesty of the cosmos to grow pale. Lost in the narrow and ever fascinating labyrinth of his preoccupation with the human will ..., Augustine turned his back on the mundus, on the magical beauty associated with the material universe in later Platonism. ... Augustine would never look up at the stars and gaze at the world around him with the shudder of religious awe that fell upon Plotinus, when he exclaimed: 'All the place is holy' ... Plotinus went on to write of the cosmos: 'and there is nothing in it which is without a share of soul.' Augustine pointedly refused to share this enthusiasm. He viewed the Platonic notion of a World Soul ... as an uninteresting and basically unnecessary speculation: if such an entity existed at all, all that mattered was that it should not be worshipped instead of God... Something was lost, in Western Christendom, by this trenchant and seemingly commonsensical judgement. The common sense of the ancients had been different. Seven hundred years had to elapse before the Platonists of Chartres recovered, through their own speculations on the anima mundi, a sense of the density and significance of the natural world which the notion of an ever active World Soul had guaranteed in classical thought.” (p. 504)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo is a brilliant tour-de-force that will delight any reader familiar with the history of theological thought or the late Roman empire. It recounts the life and intellectual struggles of a fascinating person, elucidates the writings of an important philosopher and gives a brilliant portrait of African society in the fifth century. The first thing to understand is that Brown has written a true biography; not a speculation of the life of man known through his actions Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo is a brilliant tour-de-force that will delight any reader familiar with the history of theological thought or the late Roman empire. It recounts the life and intellectual struggles of a fascinating person, elucidates the writings of an important philosopher and gives a brilliant portrait of African society in the fifth century. The first thing to understand is that Brown has written a true biography; not a speculation of the life of man known through his actions and a few written sources. Brown had the full range of material necessary to compose a true history of the public and private man. At his disposition were voluminous writings, sermons and letters from the pen of Augustine plus numerous other contemporary sources. In the epilogue to the second edition of his book Brown writes: ""Augustine appeared to me to be one of the few figures of late antiquity of whom a biography could be written. His writings were extensive, vivid and most important of all securely dated. But there was more to it than that. ... He showed how it should be done , not only in his Confessions but in his many letters." (p. 488) In other words, Augustine put enough of himself in his Confessions and letters that the modern biographer can recreate the inner man at the different stages of his life which is what Brown does and in brilliant fashion. His book contains the same charms as David McCulloch's life of Harry Truman or Jean Tadie's biography of Proust. One does however need to know a little about the subject before starting. I had taken a course on the late Roman empire as an undergraduate for which I had read excerpts from the City of God and later read Augustine Confessions on my own. This was enough of an introduction to allow me to enjoy Brown's book. I would not recommend it to anyone who had not read the Confessions and some sections of the City of the God. I was initially impressed at how well Brown explained the Confessions. He assures the read that the book even when read in the original Latin has the feel of being a work of the eighteenth century. It lacked any stylistic precedents in the classical era and thus tremendously surprised the readers of its era. Brown however insists that Augustine's Confessions where truly intended to be what the title indicated. They were written as the exercise of a Christian trying to understand his own weaknesses so as to become a better Christian. Rousseau's Confessions in which he takes a bizarre pleasure in parading his at times perverse behaviour before the public may be written in the same style but have different objectives. Brown presents Augustine as a thinker who was exposed to many ideas and thought deeply about them. He received a Classical education of the Roman era. He was briefly a Manichee and then spent most of his professional career as a Catholic bishop fighting two heresies: Donatism and Pelagianism. Augustine's great achievements for posterity were to unite Platonism with Christianity and to lay the ground work for Calvinism through the development of the doctrine of predestination. The achievement of Brown's book is that it gives the reader an understanding of the intellectual context that Augustine was educated and lived in as well as explaining how Augustine's works affected what followed. Brown in the first Edition of his book acknowledges that there is some truth in the accusation that Augustine was the great theologian of the inquisition. In his writings, he examined Peligianism and Donatism carefully refuting the in the finest detail. As a bishop, he used the full judicial, military, and police power of the empire to suppress these two heresies. In the first Edition, Brown argues that while Augustine used physical coercion it was still the verbal arguments that gave him the greatest pleasure. In the Epilogue to the Second Edition, Brown suggest that new letters discovered since the publication of the first edition suggest that Augustine was in fact saddened by what he felt was the need to resort to physical force to solve intellectual problems. Brown also feels that St. Augustine's concept of predestination was extremely close to that which Jean Calvin developed from St. Augustine's writings. The difference that Brown sees is that while the Calvinists simply insisted that there was an elite "elect" predestined for salvation, St. Augustine despaired at how deeply sin was embedded in his nature and concluded that he could only achieve salvation through God's grace. Thus, the Calvinists at times appear to gloat over those who are not predestined for salvation, St. Augustine simply argued that he could not without God's help overcome his own sinful nature. The critics in his time pointed out to Saint Augustine that his doctrine may have had some merits in a society that was predominantly Christian but that it considerably missionary effort in that missionaries in order to win converts in non-Christian society need a message of hope not despair. St. Augustine was not moved. Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo is a wonderful book. It does require a basic familiarity with St. Augustine's work but for those who possess such a familiarity, it is a treasure trove of insight and pleasure.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Melora

    Brilliant! I had this on my shelf for a year before I got to it – the size and subject matter just seemed a bit daunting – but it turned out to be engrossing and readable. Brown is a wonderful writer (though his style includes more use of commas than I am accustomed to), and he does a beautiful job balancing the personal details of Augustine's life with the history of the period. I would assume that most readers going in to this would have a basic familiarity with traditional Roman religion, the Brilliant! I had this on my shelf for a year before I got to it – the size and subject matter just seemed a bit daunting – but it turned out to be engrossing and readable. Brown is a wonderful writer (though his style includes more use of commas than I am accustomed to), and he does a beautiful job balancing the personal details of Augustine's life with the history of the period. I would assume that most readers going in to this would have a basic familiarity with traditional Roman religion, the history of the late Roman Empire, and with the major controversies within the Church in this period, but even without this background I think this book would be enjoyable (though more challenging. For example, the Donatist controversy comes up quite a bit before Brown goes in to it in detail. Similarly with Pelagianism. And Platonism. But when he does get to explaining things, he does it wonderfully well!) I love the way Brown draws connections between various of Augustine's writings, tracing the development of his ideas along with the events of his life and the changing circumstances of the Church. I hadn't realized before this what an incredibly rich body of work Augustine had left, and Brown uses excerpts from his letters, sermons, pamphlets, and books throughout. My copy of Augustine of Hippo is the New Edition with An Epilogue, published in 2000, which updates the 1967 edition with an Epilogue consisting of two chapters – “New Evidence” and New Directions.” In “New Evidence” he discusses how the 'Divjak letters,' 27 letters by Augustine found in a manuscript discovered in 1975, and the 'Dolbeau sermons,' 26 sermons, found in 1990, have added to historians' understanding of the period and of Augustine's thought, and also how they have changed his (Brown's) thinking on Augustine. “New Directions” is more personal. In this chapter he describes how his own thinking on Augustine has changed since he began his research in 1961. Both the study of the newly found documents and his own maturing over the thirty years or so have given him a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of Augustine, and particularly of the apparently severe, elderly Augustine. Not to say that Brown's presentation of Augustine in the 1967 biography is unnuanced or unsympathetic at all, but that he now sees compassion and kindness in places where he previously saw only rigidity. For an example of the tone of “New Directions”.... “There is a harshness in my judgements on the old Augustine which the indulgent reader should put down to a young man's lack of experience of the world. Since then I have come to know bishops. Some can be saintly; many are really quite nice; and most are ineffective. They are as ineffective, that is, in the face of a confidently profane world, as Augustine and his colleagues are now revealed by the Divjak letters to have been in their own time. Augustine's writings and the examples of his activities in Africa may have contributed decisively to the formation of Catholic Christendom in Western Europe. But fifth-century African bishops did not live in such a Christendom. They were far from being the undisputed spiritual leaders of a society 'in which church and state had become inextricably interdependent'.” (pg 492) I read the Epilogue before I started the rest of the book, and I recommend this order, although I suppose the fact that Brown chose to make it an “epilogue” rather than a “prologue” suggests he would not agree with me. There were so many marvelous passages from Augustine here that picking one is hard, but this one (and I include Brown's words to make the situation clear) nicely conveys what makes him so loveable... “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 together 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.'” (pg 354)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Peter Jones

    (I read the old edition.) Titanic is the word that came to mind as I read. Augustine, his theology, his philosophy, his pastoral ministry, his interaction with the state, his defenses of orthodoxy come alive in this wonderful biography by Peter Brown. Brown emphasizes Augustine's intellectual labors and how his thought matured over the years. I was especially convicted by his love for his flock and his compassion towards them. Brown's discussion of the Donatist controversy and the Pelagian (I read the old edition.) Titanic is the word that came to mind as I read. Augustine, his theology, his philosophy, his pastoral ministry, his interaction with the state, his defenses of orthodoxy come alive in this wonderful biography by Peter Brown. Brown emphasizes Augustine's intellectual labors and how his thought matured over the years. I was especially convicted by his love for his flock and his compassion towards them. Brown's discussion of the Donatist controversy and the Pelagian controversy were excellent. I never realized how much passion Augustine had and how deeply he felt certain things. I did not come close to absorbing all that was discussed, but what I got was exciting. Two specific things came out of the reading: First, I want to think better and deeper. Second, I want to get Augustine's sermons.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    This is an incredibly detailed biography of Augustine. Peter Brown uses Augustine’s writings and other sources of the period to create a biography which must be considered the authoritative work on Augustine. It is a difficult read at times and I read this over a period of time, taking it slowly. However, it was certainly worthy the effort.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matt Pitts

    I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the life and world of Augustine through Brown's landmark biography. There is a reason why it has remained the standard life of Augustine for over 45 years. The epilogue, which was not a part of the original biography, includes two chapters reflection on the advances in Augustine scholarship since Brown first wrote. The first focuses on the significance of the discovery of two groups of manuscripts - one of sermons and another of letters - that have I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the life and world of Augustine through Brown's landmark biography. There is a reason why it has remained the standard life of Augustine for over 45 years. The epilogue, which was not a part of the original biography, includes two chapters reflection on the advances in Augustine scholarship since Brown first wrote. The first focuses on the significance of the discovery of two groups of manuscripts - one of sermons and another of letters - that have occurred since Brown first wrote. The second is more reflective on Brown's own cultural and scholarly milieu in the 1960's and how that influenced his writing as well as how scholarship has changed and advanced since then. This final chapter is a marvelously honest and humble self-reflection, perhaps in the spirit of Augustine's own Retractions. A highly respected work that does not need my commendation but which I offer nonetheless.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Petruccio Hambasket IV

    If you're a student of history, and have been forced to read any previous Peter Brown, you will know that his usual writing style amounts to stuffing an overwhelming chunk of ideas into a very small amount of pages. What would take one historian 50 pages to explain, Brown can perfectly synthesis in 5. His use of language is intensely precise and rigorously academic (a quality that in practice should make his writing seem stuffy if not for the sheer breadth of his ideas). Augustine of Hippo: A If you're a student of history, and have been forced to read any previous Peter Brown, you will know that his usual writing style amounts to stuffing an overwhelming chunk of ideas into a very small amount of pages. What would take one historian 50 pages to explain, Brown can perfectly synthesis in 5. His use of language is intensely precise and rigorously academic (a quality that in practice should make his writing seem stuffy if not for the sheer breadth of his ideas). Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is not the usual Peter Brown. The typically dense and highly complex pattern of writing that one has come to expect is, to the readers delight, relaxed in this study. Instead, we get a comparatively 'plain' language investigation into the infinitely interesting life and mind of St. Augustine: a man so complex (and important), that if it weren't for Brown's name on the cover, you might be amazed at how it could have been left complete at a mere 500 pages. I am not trying to be flippant when I say that this might be the greatest biography ever written; it is without a doubt the best personal study of any Late Antique figure. Brown exposes the changing shades of Augustine's psychology with breathtaking clarity and analysis, a feat that at the same time gives us an immense understanding of the Roman world that is falling to pieces all around him. Augustine's African upbringing, his various intellectual explorations (Manichaeism/Neo-Platonism), the Donatist controversy, the death of Monica and the conception of The City of God; it's all there, displayed with brilliant scrutiny and an ease of understanding that makes it clear the author has an exhaustive comprehension of his subject. For me it's always a rare delight when a far removed historical figure can be plucked out of the fog of time and displayed without bias in such an insightful fashion. The closest example of this type of work I can think of is Marguerite Yourcenar in her Memoirs of Hadrian. Unlike Yourcenar, however, Brown doesn't have to resort to imaginative writing to give us an intimate understanding of Augustine of Hippo, and each time I read this book the affect is like that of revisiting an old friend. Furthermore, it should be noted that Brown doesn't get bogged down in the theological aspects of Augustine's life. This isn't because he isn't well versed in these subjects (he is a leading religious scholar), but rather because he chooses to take the more rounded approach. This allows those who have minimal interest in the intricate religious debates to also enjoy the study. It removes the clutter of certain theology (although obviously not all) and gets to the fundamental purpose of the biography. This is a source of some criticism among various scholars, but even those that shake their head at Brown's lack of intricate religious detail cannot find much at fault with his end result. This is a model biography and a scholarly triumph. Read it even if you don't care about Augustine and I promise you'll be sucked into this fascinating Roman world.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Father Nick

    I was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pretty much together in my own head. I thought an Augustine biography would be redundant, having already read the one written by the saint himself. For some reason, the stupidity of this attitude did not make itself aware immediately; fortunately, it only took the first few pages of Brown's book to disabuse me of my philistinism. Brown's research is I was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pretty much together in my own head. I thought an Augustine biography would be redundant, having already read the one written by the saint himself. For some reason, the stupidity of this attitude did not make itself aware immediately; fortunately, it only took the first few pages of Brown's book to disabuse me of my philistinism. Brown's research is meticulous; he sculpts broad, arcing narratives within each section of Augustine's life, peppering the plot with abundant references to the man's letters and sermons, situating them within the rich context of provincial, African Christianity. The persistent and simultaneous tug of contemplative inclinations against pastoral, practical controversies within the flock is standard stuff of ancient ecclesiastical biographies, but Brown was able to get out of the way with enough tact to let the details of Augustine's personal story stand up in clear but ornate relief against the backdrop of 5th century Hippo, Carthage, and Rome. The two great controversies of Augustine's life--over Donatism and Pelagianism--stand like pillars on either side of his episcopal ministry, and I realized that prior to this biography I hadn't understood what was at stake in either of them, having approached them through an exclusively theological lens. Brown bestows a measure of flesh and blood on the controversialists, for which I am quite grateful. Learning of Augustine's own development, from an intense, almost rigorist neophyte to a venerable man of affairs deeply acquainted with the mysterious nature of human sin, softened the portrait of this brilliant and devoted Christian without diminishing any of his greatness. The melancholy of the crumbling late Roman empire overrun by invasion after invasion struck me with consistent force, and gave me a sense of the tragic feeling of futility that must have gnawed at those with responsibility to preserve and hand on civilization. Augustine's literary executor, Possidius, said upon his death that "I think those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church, and, most of all, those who had some contact with the quality of his life among men." Having read this biography does little to ameliorate our lack of experience of him, but does inspire a deep desire to be faithful to the graces of one's own life, no matter where they lead, in confidence that the contribution one single person can make in all this madness is worthwhile, no matter how small.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nathanial

    The best thing about Peter Brown is that he's an historian writing a biography. Sounds obvious, right? But he's not a psychologizing, or moralizing, or theologizing. He's historicizing. This biography from the late '60s (his new edition left the original pretty much intact, and just added a preface and epilogue with information about recent discoveries of sermon texts and letter transcriptions, with the attendant implications in thought), was among the first to situate such a major figure from The best thing about Peter Brown is that he's an historian writing a biography. Sounds obvious, right? But he's not a psychologizing, or moralizing, or theologizing. He's historicizing. This biography from the late '60s (his new edition left the original pretty much intact, and just added a preface and epilogue with information about recent discoveries of sermon texts and letter transcriptions, with the attendant implications in thought), was among the first to situate such a major figure from antiquity in the contemporary social, political and organizational structures. You can see, from almost the first moment of reading it, why this book influnced so many subsequent authors and editors: the scene is lively, the setting complex, and the tone--well, if it's not conversational, it's at lease collegial. You get the feeling that he's not trying to instruct you in something, but that he's exploring terrain with you. It may be a place where he's spent much time, but he's just as interested in developing new insights as you are. For example: he reports on the inscriptions on gravestones current at Augustine's time, and connects that to the cultural attitudes and emphases that he might have met, combated, or assumed. He compares the inscriptions from Northern Africa to the inscriptions in Southern Europe, and both to those in the Middle East. Weaving this thread throughout the chapters, along with details about diet, transportation, fashion and entertainment, helps him build a convincing case about the character of Augustine himself, his changes in temperment and the development of his relationships, both with allies and enemies. Just when you start to wonder what he's missing, he critiques his own argument in the epilogue! Simply a great read: stunning in scope, utterly original in bent, and still joyful in depth.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    The past is a foreign country. When we read history, we shouldn't seek to necessarily read moral tales and place ourselves at the helm. Instead, we must seek to have humility and strive to understand the characters in their place and time. I had to constantly remind myself of this when reading Peter Brown's magisterial biography of Augustine of Hippo, or known affectionately by most as St. Augustine. Brown's prose and integration of source material in this biography is remarkable. At times, even The past is a foreign country. When we read history, we shouldn't seek to necessarily read moral tales and place ourselves at the helm. Instead, we must seek to have humility and strive to understand the characters in their place and time. I had to constantly remind myself of this when reading Peter Brown's magisterial biography of Augustine of Hippo, or known affectionately by most as St. Augustine. Brown's prose and integration of source material in this biography is remarkable. At times, even beautiful. Yet, all that being said, this was an incredibly difficult book to read. Augustine is one of the most brilliant - if not *the* most brilliant - minds in the history of the Christian church, compiling a massive amount of intellectual material over the course of his life. The reader of Augustine needs to proceed with caution. Thus, doing justice to Augustine's legacy in under 500 pages is an accomplishment in and of itself. But within these 500 or so pages is not loose musings or thoughts but sentences loaded with thoughtfulness. Peter Brown writes with heavy prose. Readers beware. All in all, this is an incredible book, but in attempting to traverse the mountain of Augustine's thought, by way of Peter Brown's leading, don't be surprised if you get altitude sickness - I know I did. The views are stunning but only if you can handle the headaches.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mitch

    An excellent picture of the man and what shaped him. Brown is an adept biographer; his treatment of St. Augustine reads almost like a novel. I would be a lot more enthusiastic about biographies if they were this well-presented. This served as a great tool to prompt interest in Augustine's works, namely, his confessions and City of God.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Janet Craigmiles

    This is probably one of the best biography's I have ever read. It creates a realistic portrait of one of the most important figures in Christian history. I highly recommend!!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jay Franklin

    “Augustine of Hippo” was first published in 1967 and then recently revised in 2000, with a new epilogue that dealt with a whole new breed of archeological evidence that emerged between the two dates. Augustine lived from 354-430 AD. While this may seem distant from the modern consciousness, Brown has a special gift for immersing us in Augustine’s writing style (which is timeless) and relating it to the history and culture of the period. Another wonderful technique of Brown’s biography is to let “Augustine of Hippo” was first published in 1967 and then recently revised in 2000, with a new epilogue that dealt with a whole new breed of archeological evidence that emerged between the two dates. Augustine lived from 354-430 AD. While this may seem distant from the modern consciousness, Brown has a special gift for immersing us in Augustine’s writing style (which is timeless) and relating it to the history and culture of the period. Another wonderful technique of Brown’s biography is to let Augustine, for the most part, speak for himself — what one reader described as an “almost like a mediated autobiography, an expanded “Confessions,” if you will.” It makes for a great summer read because the chapters are short and to the point allowing the reader to forge his way through it. It is however that great book (500+ pages) that makes for a wonderful vacation read. One of the things I think you will find in it is a correlation between Augustine’s times and our own: note the “three fold Christian task” below and tell me if that has not changed at all. One anecdote I recently read about its creation is even more fascinating and should be told to every masters thesis research scholar: “Turns out that Brown had not developed any special interest in Augustine until the end of his undergraduate studies. Being pressed for a thesis topic, with a deadline approaching, he picked Augustine almost at random. He then set about to master Augustine, and in just two years ended up writing the definitive bio that changed the field forever.” Is that a hoot or what? Another vote for “Follow your passion.” The bibliography takes up eighteen pages and in a triumph of scholarship Brown uses primary sources in Latin, as well as, scholarly works in English, German and French. He is also a master of the anecdote and of the memorable “obscure” fact which makes him a favorite of mine. For instance, he tells us that in the Fourth century the image of Christ was that of a teacher, and a philosopher. There were no crucifixes in the Fourth century, and the concept of the suffering Savior did not exist. I don’t know if anyone has noticed but my way of reviewing a book is to share the reading selections I made from it. So here is a few of what I considered the best of Peter Brown’s “Augustine of Hippo:” The Importance of Confession “It will not be held against you, that you are ignorant against your will, but that you neglected to seek out what it is that makes you ignorant not that you cannot bring together your wounded limbs, that you reject Him that would heal them. No man that has been deprived of his ability to know that it is essential to find out what it is that it is damaging not to be aware of; and to know that he should confess his weakness so that He can help him who seeks hard and confesses.” The rest is here: http://payingattentiontothesky.com/20...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn Mattern

    I never finished reading this book, and it's not my favorite by Brown, however, I learned a lot about Augustine and filled in my mental picture of the milieu of early Christianity which interested me so obsessively when I was in my thirties. If you want to read a history of Augustine that is nearly as readable as a novel but infinitely more informative, this is the book for you!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    The go to book for a broad overview of Augustine's life and theology. Brown really gives his reader a sympathetic look at the ancient world. I first read this book in an Augustine seminar, with primary sources alongside the complementary sections, and it was a great way to learn Augustine.

  20. 5 out of 5

    vittore paleni

    A rich, subtle, and delightful read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brent McCulley

    Magisterial. An excellent biography of the life of Augustine.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Z. J. Pandolfino

    Writing biographies of ancient people is a difficult art. Many popular biographies of figures like Cleopatra, Cicero, Augustus, and other Greco-Roman movers and shakers quickly devolve into fantastic conjecture that borders on sheer fiction, especially when historical evidence is sparse for certain periods of people’s lives. For that reason, as a classicist, I tend to stay away from biographies. Great Men history is a relic of a more oppressive academic era, and social, economic, and political Writing biographies of ancient people is a difficult art. Many popular biographies of figures like Cleopatra, Cicero, Augustus, and other Greco-Roman movers and shakers quickly devolve into fantastic conjecture that borders on sheer fiction, especially when historical evidence is sparse for certain periods of people’s lives. For that reason, as a classicist, I tend to stay away from biographies. Great Men history is a relic of a more oppressive academic era, and social, economic, and political trends tell us more about ancient societies than the exaggerated deeds of their leaders anyhow. Nevertheless, Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, a man who quite literally transformed the face of the Catholic Church both in his lifetime and long after his death, stands out from ordinary surveys of ancient people’s lives. First, so much of Augustine’s writings are extant; hundreds of letters and sermons and dozens of monographs not only give a vivid picture of the saint’s life but also of the Late Antique North African society in which he lived. Second, Peter Brown is no run-of-the-mill scholar. His acute insight into the world of Late Antiquity and ancient religions has earned him a hallowed reputation among historians, religious studies experts, and classicists alike. While Augustine of Hippo is his earliest work of principal scholarship, it remains one of his most critically acclaimed, and for good reason. Brown’s historically oriented, psychoanalytic approach gives readers a profound sense of Augustine’s thinking, preferences, and theological assertions. Brown scrupulously documents the evolution of Augustine’s thought over the course of his seventy-five long years of life, from his Manichaeist days as a university student in Carthage, to his conversion at Milan and subsequent intellectual retreat to Cassiciacum, to his final days as a beleaguered bishop at Hippo, literally surrounded by marauding bands of heretical Vandals slaughtering Catholics and touting Arianism. Whereas Confessions, Augustine’s own autobiography, offers readers a rich portraiture of his intellectual and spiritual growth up until when he was made Bishop of Hippo, Brown’s biography extends far beyond the saint’s middle years and gives detailed treatment to works like De doctrina christiana and De civitate dei. In an updated edition published in 2000, more than three decades after the biography’s original publication, Brown includes a lengthy epilogue, in which he further complicates his nuanced picture of Augustine, discusses recent discoveries of the Dolbeau sermons and the Divjak letters, and suggests new directions for Augustinian scholarship. Brown’s discussion of the Donatist Controversy, which consumed a tremendous amount of Augustine’s energy and time for almost two decades, stands out for his noteworthy conclusions. The Donatist issue emerged after the so-called Great Persecution of Christians in 303-305 CE under the emperor Diocletian. In the midst of this chaos, a number of North African Catholic officials handed over sacred books to Roman authorities to be burnt in order to avoid persecution. These bishops were known as traditores, and sometime before 312, Caecilian, archdeacon of Carthage, was consecrated bishop by an alleged traditor. Bishops from Numidia opposed this consecration on the grounds that Caecilian and others, insofar as they were connected historically to the sin of traditio, stood outside the church and could not perform the sacraments. They selected their own bishop, Maiorinus, who was succeeded by Donatus, after whom the new sect was named. For a century, Donatists lived alongside Catholics and debated Catholic bishops on theological issues. The Edict of Unity, however, issued by the emperor Honorius in 405, essentially outlawed Donatism and promoted coercive measures to convert Donatists to Catholicism. In 411, a council of bishops at Carthage presided over by Marcellinus, an imperial official, reinforced the existing legislation and effectively ended the schism. While Donatism continued to persist in certain areas, Augustine and his colleagues had succeeded in terminating the Donatist threat to the Catholic Church with the help of imperial authorities. First, Brown takes issue with W. H. C. Frend’s assertion that the religious differences in North Africa that precipitated the Donatist Controversy were outward manifestations of social and ethnic cleavages and that Augustine, as an urban bishop, could not fully understand the popular tradition from which Donatism emerged. “In fact,” Brown contends, “no great differences in class, race or education separated Augustine from the Donatist bishops, whose views he caricatured in his pamphlets” (212). The Donatists celebrated the same liturgy, the same sacraments, and more or less espoused the same beliefs as their Catholic opponents; they did, however, advocate rebaptism for converted Donatists with an eye toward the impurity of the Catholic Church ensured by the successive consecration of bishops connected with Felix, the infamous traditor. Augustine attacked this stance with vigor, Brown explains, and “a highly personal training as a philosopher. His writings against the Donatists will mark a final stage in the evolution of Early Christian ideas on the church, and its relation with society as a whole” (213). Second, Brown situates Augustine’s conception of the role of the church and its relation with society amidst the saint’s Neo-Platonic leanings. “The whole world appeared to him as a world of ‘becoming,’ as a hierarchy of imperfectly-realized forms, which depended for their quality on ‘participating’ in an Intelligible World of Ideal Forms,” Augustine’s heaven of heaven. The “true Church” of Augustine, according to Brown, “is the ‘reality’ of which the concrete church on earth is only an imperfect shadow” (217). Augustine employs this logic to defend the legitimacy of sacraments administered by Catholic bishops accused of traditio. “The rites of the church take on an objective and permanent validity. They exist independently of the subjective qualities of those who ‘participate’ in them” (218). Thus, the Donatists have no claim that baptized Catholics stand outside the church and, in order to convert to the true faith, Donatism, require rebaptism. Brown outlines this line of thinking eloquently and in highly intelligible terms. Brown’s discussion of the Pelagian Controversy, the other great episode that came to define Augustine’s later years as bishop, also stands out for his nuanced treatment of Augustine’s very, very dark stance on human nature. To put it simply, Pelagius, a provincial from Britain who made his name through theological acumen at Rome, “had no patience with the confusion that seemed to reign on the powers of human nature” (343). Unlike Augustine, who left so much of the human decision-making process up to God—“Command what you will, give what you command”—Pelagius vociferously defended the human ability to conform one’s will entirely to the will of God. In Pelagius’s view, human persons can fulfill each and every one of God’s commands; our refusal to do so stems not from some notion of original sin inherited from Adam, but from our own human weakness. Thus, “the Pelagians placed the terrifying weight of complete freedom on the individual: he was responsible for his every action; every sin, therefore, could only be a deliberate act of contempt for God” (351). Those who call themselves Christians must, therefore, strive for perfection. In the words of Brown, “Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” (348). Brown quickly points out how Augustine, in opposition to this view, “was in no mood tolerate the coteries of ‘perfect’ Christians . . . For this reason, the victory of Augustine over Pelagius was also a victory for the average good Catholic layman of the Later Empire, over an austere, reforming ideal” (349). For Augustine, the Church welcomed everyday sinners who consistently failed to obey God’s commands, so long as they recognized their failures, repented, and gave glory to God. Moreover, Brown notes that despite “his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation,” Augustine actually “appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic Church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings” (351). Accordingly, unlike Pelagius, Augustine would rely less upon threats of the inevitable approach of the Day of Judgment in his moral exhortations, and more upon the notion of “love for a distant and immemorial country: ‘the ancient City of God’” (314). Brown demonstrates how Augustine emphasized love, not fear, alongside his determined stance on the ineluctability of human failing. In the epilogue, Brown encourages readers to approach Augustine not as if he were a modern theologian or philosopher, but as a highly intelligent and articulate bishop very much tied to the sociopolitical culture of his time. “We must never read Augustine as if he were a contemporary with ourselves,” Brown exhorts when discussing Augustine’s attitude toward sexuality. “He was the contemporary of Jerome, who spoke of marriage as a tangled thornbush, good only to produce . . . the ‘roses’ of new virgins; of Ambrose, who, when faced by married candidates to the episcopate, expected his readers to agree without question that voluptas, sensuality alone, had driven Adam from Paradise” (500). In this light, Augustine, who defended sex within marriage and envisioned Adam and Eve as fully sexual beings capable of intercourse in Eden, seems far more moderate. Brown’s appeal applies to issues beyond sex, however. “The more we have been enabled to place Augustine against the wider landscape of late antiquity,” he says, “the more we have come to realize that many of the aspects of his thought which seem closest to modern persons were often those which struck his contemporaries as the most idiosyncratic” (502). He then points to Augustine’s interest with the self and “fascination with the working of the will” as evidence. In the end, Augustine was a complex man. He flirted with Manichaeism for nearly a decade, briefly pursued a secluded intellectual life as a Christian ascetic, was quite literally forced into ordination as a presbyter, then consecrated bishop, and ultimately earned an international reputation as one of the most influential voices in early Christianity. His philosophical and theological views metamorphosed, sometimes drastically, over the course of each of these chapters of his life. In Augustine of Hippo, Brown acknowledges, as I do, that Augustine’s authoritarian streak evident in the midst of the Donatist Controversy and especially the Pelagian Controversy is disturbing. Augustine’s defense of religious coercion authorized by the state and his ardent desire to silence Pelagius, whom he deemed a dangerous heretic, remind modern readers like myself of the horrors condoned by the Catholic Church centuries later through institutions like the Inquisition. Nevertheless, Brown adds, the recent discoveries of the Dolbeau sermons and Divjak letters demonstrate Augustine’s admirable commitment to pastoral care and the individual lives of those in his flock, like the small girl he interviews after she has been kidnapped by slave traders, and the father of a teenage boy who, upon Augustine’s request, sends the bishop his son’s rhetorical dictiones. In these instances, we appreciate that, unlike many of his contemporaries, and certainly unlike many theologians today, Augustine refused to sit perched upon an ivory tower musing about the origin of the soul and an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. No doubt, he thought deeply and wrote many books on topics like these, but he also penned hundreds of sermons in simple Latin intended for the ears of those who worshipped at his basilica in Hippo. Over fifteen hundreds years later, Augustine still speaks to the faithful through these impassioned moral exhortations. At a time when the role of the Catholic Church in the world is unclear and groups like Black Lives Matter grapple with the tension between love and justice, Augustinian thought is perhaps more relevant than ever. Peter Brown captures the man behind the message vividly; his biography of North Africa’s most influential saint will no doubt persist as the definitive account of Augustine’s life for many years to come.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ruben

    insightful background to Augustine's work

  24. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    This is an excellent historical biography. I am amazed by Brown’s grasp of Augustine’s works and that he wrote this so early in his career. The epilogue provides a very useful and interesting analysis of the new evidence of the Dolbeau sermons and the Divjak letters. In epilogue Brown also describes how Augustine and late antique scholarship has changed since the 1960s, and is able to analyze his own development as a historian since then. He points out areas of weakness in his early scholarship: This is an excellent historical biography. I am amazed by Brown’s grasp of Augustine’s works and that he wrote this so early in his career. The epilogue provides a very useful and interesting analysis of the new evidence of the Dolbeau sermons and the Divjak letters. In epilogue Brown also describes how Augustine and late antique scholarship has changed since the 1960s, and is able to analyze his own development as a historian since then. He points out areas of weakness in his early scholarship: “There is a harshness in my judgments on the old Augustine which the indulgent reader should put down to a young man’s lack of experience in the world.” He writes that, as a young medievalist in the 60s, he was fascinated “with Augustine as a Janus figure, towering, for good or ill, above his contemporaries on the threshold between the ancient and medieval worlds.” Augustine’s works provide an inner look at the rise of Christianity in late antiquity. Brown himself admits that his biography lacks theology, but it nevertheless is an essential read for Augustine studies.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

    Anything by Peter Brown is well worth the read and this is no exception. This has been for me a really life-giving experience allowing me to drink deeply from Augustine's inner life while learning about the outer events that shaped it. I seldom recommend books to friends but have encouraged every close friend I have to pick up a copy of this important historical, philosophical, and theological work.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Seth Woodley

    Brown's biography of Augustine is thoroughly enjoyable and insightful. He uses many details from Confessions and other works by Augustine to compose this excellent biography. Brown helpfully situates Augustine in late Antiquity, and he explores the cultural influences on Augustine's life and writing. This book is so enjoyable and beautiful that it is fairly easy to forget how long it is.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Fariba

    I read the 1967 edition without the epilogues, so I am aware that the book is dated in parts; however, Peter Brown’s classic biography of Augustine of Hippo has got to be the greatest biography I have ever read. Brown gives his reader a human portrait of a complex figure in the history of Western Christianity. Such an engrossing read! Despite the highly unpleasant teachings in Augustine’s writings against Julian of Eclanum, I feel that the “Augustinian pessimism” is actually quite comforting. Our I read the 1967 edition without the epilogues, so I am aware that the book is dated in parts; however, Peter Brown’s classic biography of Augustine of Hippo has got to be the greatest biography I have ever read. Brown gives his reader a human portrait of a complex figure in the history of Western Christianity. Such an engrossing read! Despite the highly unpleasant teachings in Augustine’s writings against Julian of Eclanum, I feel that the “Augustinian pessimism” is actually quite comforting. Our imperfections, our pride, our lust for power – they are all-too-human. And while we should all aim to overcome our weaknesses, we have to learn to love ourselves and our neighbor despite them. “Whoever does not want to fear, let him probe his inmost self. Do not just touch the surface; go down into yourself; reach into the farthest corner of your heart. Examine it then with care: see there, whether a poisoned vein of the wasting love of the world still does not pulse, whether you are not moved by some physical desires, and are not caught in some law of the senses; whether you are never elated with empty boasting, never depressed by some vain anxiety: then only can you dare to announce that you are pure and crystal clear, when you have sifted everything in the deepest recesses of your inner being” (432). Augustine’s weaknesses are not overlooked by the author. Brown shows us an Augustine who encourages the use of force to suppress the Donatist and Pelagian heresies. He does not criticize the atrocities committed by Christian generals, although he asks his fellow monks to refrain from gossip and to live frugally. While Augustine certainly does not sanction sin he is more likely to excuse it than many of his contemporaries. Brown may claim that Augustine was no inquisitor, but his tactics are not always the most virtuous. One wonders what Augustine would have done if he had been given more freedom (a concept Augustine has a lot to say about). Augustine’s last years are a testament to the evolution of his character. As a young man he had illusions of living in a Christian community apart from the world. As bishop of Hippo, Augustine chooses to remain in North Africa and face the barbarian invasions with his “flock”. He never renounces his ascetic practices, but he does not expect everyone to be a servus dei. Augustine’s life and writings have had a huge influence on the West. His commentaries on the human condition in The Confessions have withstood the test of time and have influenced countless philosophers and theologians, both secular and religious (Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Marcel Proust, Wittgenstein, etc.). It is perhaps for this reason that Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine should appeal to a wide audience.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    This biography of Saint Augustine is ideal for someone not part of the Christian elect but yet interested in the development of Western (Catholic) Christianity. The focus is primarily on the personal and professional experiences in Augustine's life that helped shape the development of ideas on original sin, predestination, and grace espoused by one of the "doctors" of the early church. Part of what makes Peter Brown such a great historian is that he is physically unable to write a book that This biography of Saint Augustine is ideal for someone not part of the Christian elect but yet interested in the development of Western (Catholic) Christianity. The focus is primarily on the personal and professional experiences in Augustine's life that helped shape the development of ideas on original sin, predestination, and grace espoused by one of the "doctors" of the early church. Part of what makes Peter Brown such a great historian is that he is physically unable to write a book that doesn't go out of its way to wipe the dust of history from its characters, revealing living, breathing humans whose decisions are motivated by the bric-a-brac that composes the individual human experience (personality, emotions, family and friend dynamics, cultural peculiarities, social status, etc). Brown did some of this must-needed housekeeping on the historical Augustine, and we’re all the better for it. One of the sections that most illuminates the man behind the hagiography, concerns Augustine’s battle of ideas with the proponents of Pelagianism (Pelagius and later Julian of Eclanum). Students of early Christianity will know that Augustine expended a great deal of effort to convince his colleagues, the Pope and the Western Roman Emperor that Pelagianism represented a sharp reversal of established Christian doctrine, and as such constituted a dangerous heresy. Augustine’s writings and behavior during this internecine war of Christian ideas has earned the early church father a reputation as an intolerant and dogged pursuer of fellow citizens of the City of God. Without getting knee-deep in theology, the masterstroke of Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is showing the persecutor of Pelagius not as a high-minded, detached theologian serving as the attack dog of Christian dogma, but as a Bishop very much in touch with the bread-and-butter issues of his constituents. To the reader, Saint Augustine becomes a man so humbled by his knowledge of human frailty, learned from his own life experiences, that he is unwilling to accept Pelagianism's conception of a God Who would set unattainable standards of sinlessness upon His flock; in essence making Christianity not a faith with a big enough tent for all people, but an exclusive club for those whose own efforts are enough to achieve salvation without God’s favor. Without hesitation, Augustine the man is willing to go to bat for humble people seeking salvation but aware of their own limitations and unable to understand or without the practical time to digest the musings of a disconnected theological elite.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mike E.

    Brown takes the reader on an epic journey. It took me a long time to read this book. Reading it was like a long mountain bike in the Sierra--painful, long, beautiful, and worthy! Brown's book is not a casual read but the reader will be rewarded by getting to know a godly man who lived in a world so different and so distant from our own. Augustine lived in Roman, Christian Africa. Only after reading this book do I even have a hint of what that culture was like . . eating roasted peacock, studying Brown takes the reader on an epic journey. It took me a long time to read this book. Reading it was like a long mountain bike in the Sierra--painful, long, beautiful, and worthy! Brown's book is not a casual read but the reader will be rewarded by getting to know a godly man who lived in a world so different and so distant from our own. Augustine lived in Roman, Christian Africa. Only after reading this book do I even have a hint of what that culture was like . . eating roasted peacock, studying and writing and preaching and praying for so many hours. Unlike many biographies, Brown does not write primarily a chronological account, but a thematic one. He covers themes ranging from friends to predestination, from the "City of God" to old age. Surprises: Augustine wanted to die alone and spent his last days mediating on four psalms. Augustine had a false theology of marriage and sex. After sending his concubine and son away, his life was consumed by all kinds of tireless labors. I am so thankful that the Lord has matured His church from a low view of marital love! Augustine serves as a model to me as one who deeply loved Christ and the Scriptures. Every preacher will think Augustine's words are his own! "For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words: and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart (De Catechizandis Rudibus, ii,3 [On the Catechising of the Uninstructed])." Augustine on why we as preachers use figures, analogies, stories and the like: "The presentation of truth through signs has great power to feed and fan that ardent love, by which, as under some law of gravitation, we flicker upwards, or inwards, to our place of rest. Things presented in this way move and kindle our affection far more than if they were set forth in bald statements. When the soul is brought to material signs of spiritual realities, and moves from them to the things they represent, it gathers strength just by this very act of passing from the one to the other, like the flame of a torch, that burns all the more brightly as it moves (De Doctrina Christiana [On Christian Doctrine] 55,x1,21)." Augustine on the Bible: For such is the depth of the Christian Scriptures that, even if I were attempting to study them and nothing else, from boyhood to decrepit old age, with the utmost leisure, the most unwearied zeal, and with talents greater than I possess, I would still be making progress in discovering their treasures (On Christian Doctrine, 137,3).

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ray

    This is the definitive bio of Augustine. (What Bainton once was for Luther). The 2nd edition is a whole new work. I met Peter Brown in Princeton, where he taught, a few times, and he just oozed brilliance. I have nothing new to add except an anecdote that tells it all. The story goes that Brown was so focused and mature that he came to the idea of writing this definitive critical bio of Augustine while in his early teens. He focused all of his energy on it, methodically begining to maste the This is the definitive bio of Augustine. (What Bainton once was for Luther). The 2nd edition is a whole new work. I met Peter Brown in Princeton, where he taught, a few times, and he just oozed brilliance. I have nothing new to add except an anecdote that tells it all. The story goes that Brown was so focused and mature that he came to the idea of writing this definitive critical bio of Augustine while in his early teens. He focused all of his energy on it, methodically begining to maste the secondary academic literature on Augustine before even beginning his university studies. He wrote this bio shortly after completlng his undergraduate honors thesis, publishing it to rave reviews in his early 20s. This story has made him a legend. And once, Dr. Paul Rorem of Princeton Seminary told us, he asked Brown about it. Brown laughed and told an even more amazing one. Turns out the truth is that Brown had not developed any special interest in Augustine until the end of his undergraduate studies. Being pressed for a thesis topic, with a deadline approaching, he picked Augustine almost at random. He then set about to master Augustine, and in just 2 years ended up writing the definitive bio that changed the field forever! The mag. opus of one of the world's great scholars.

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