Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1992 for his book 'Lincoln at Gettysburg', has also served on the faculties of John Hopkins and Northwestern Universities. He has produced in this book an excellent short introduction to Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 - 430), the fourth/fifth century North African bishop of the town Hippo Regius, who was born in an important part of the Roman empire then called Thagaste in Numidia, and today known as Souk Ahras in Algeria. Augustine's huge and lasting influence is seen through his achievements as a writer and international politician rather than as a bishop of the time, of which hundreds lived and died without bequeathing so much as their name to history.
Mr. Wills' enthusiasm for Augustine is as obvious as the depth and width of his knowledge. This book is no mere primer, as it does assume some background knowledge in the history and moves rapidly through numerous theological, psychological, and philosophical issues, considering the Augustinian and opposing viewpoints. The dynamic and responsive development of Augustine's thought is brought out, avoiding the medieval and Calvinist mistake of taking any one book (such as 'The City of God') as a prescriptive fixed statement of 'what should be'. The general reading level is quite high, aimed at approximately a college education reader or above and the book would probably sit well in first year undergraduate reading list. The vocabulary is fairly demanding and had me consulting my English and Latin dictionaries.
Many, and probably most, of the ancient Augustinian debates have pertinence and currency today, as they deal with fundamental issues of human existence on the individual and social level. Politics, both practical and theoretical, is often close to the surface. Some of the issues are entirely modern, such as the ongoing debates in the world of cognitive psychology over the area of human volition (often raised as a pseudo-evolutionary argument, driven by the assumption that everything has to justify its existence in terms of the forces of evolution), or 'will' as Augustine more usefully termed it. Augustine's discussion of political liberalism, weighing impartial rules and procedures above 'irrational' beliefs, ethnic tradition, tribal bonds, and religious conviction is surprisingly flexible and modern.
The book has a brief bibliography but lacks a key to the references, particularly Augustine's own. This caused me a certain amount of work as I had to record the gnomic 'U', 'S', 'L', and 'P' (etc) references as they occurred in the text, and then deduce their related titles ad hoc. (U = 'Unfinished Answers to Julian', S = 'Sermons', L = 'Letters', and P = 'Psalms'. I failed to elucidate ''VDM', 'J', and 'O' from the book alone. Of particular note is 'T' = 'Testimony of Augustine', which is his rather better translation of the famous 'Confessions of Augustine', which gives the wrong impression to modern readers.) All in all about thirty-six works of Augustine are quoted or used in this book, and I recommend it for its good writing, balance, and accuracy.
This report prepared by Michael JR Jose