One of the most significant Christian thinkers of all time, St. Augustine (354 to 430) was enormously influential in framing such theological concepts as original sin, just war, grace and predestination. His autobiographical Confessions contains history’s second-most famous conversion story (after St. Paul’s), including the very human prayer, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He and Wills, 76—one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive—make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation.
And what a book it is. Some of Augustine’s works are theological masterpieces and landmarks in Western intellectual history. But Confessions is unique—it is all that and a classic of world literature, a psychologically brilliant journey into memory. It’s been called the first autobiography, but Wills is having none of that. In looking back on his conversion experience a decade before, Augustine sees the hand of God and Scriptural parallels to actual events in a way he didn’t at the time, Wills says, leading to a symbol-laden narrative reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “We are not in the realm of autobiography but of spiritual psychodrama.”
That insight allows Wills to clear away past misconceptions. Romantic writers saw Augustine as the hero of a libertine tale, a concept with no basis in the text. (Augustine, completely faithful to his partner of 15 years, was addicted to sex but not to promiscuity.) But none got it so wrong as the Freudians, who gave the saint a mother fixation, an Oedipal complex and a gay orientation, while detecting scenes of masturbation hidden behind theological symbolism. Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever.