Augustine of Hippo, the hugely influential philosopher and theologian of the late 400s and early 500s, was, according to Garry Wills, “a tireless seeker, never satisfied.”

In Saint Augustine, his clear-eyed, tightly written concise biography, published in 1999, he writes:

Like Aeneas, the hero of his favorite poem, he sailed toward ever-receding shores (Aeneid 6.61). Impatient with all preceding formulations, even his own, he was drawn to and baffled by mystery: “Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it.  If you could understand it, it would not be God.” (Sermons 117.5)

We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves.  We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us: “Our mind cannot be understood, even by itself, because it is made in God’s image” (Sermons 398.2).

Wills packs a lot of Augustine’s life, thinking and publications into the 145 pages of his text.  His book is part of the Penguin Lives series in which the stories of great people are told by prominent writers and thinkers in a highly focused manner, aiming at capturing the essence of their importance.

“Illicit loves sizzling around me”

One emphasis for Wills is to rebut the widely circulated identification of Augustine with a negative and oppressive view of sex, supposedly rooted in a rejection of his wildly wanton youth.

He notes, for instance, that Augustine opens book three of his Confessions with the sentence: “To Carthage I came, all that cartage of illicit loves sizzling around me (translation by James J. O’Connell).” This, he ways, has often been taken as an indication of the teenaged Augustine’s initiation into a life of debauchery.

If so, Wills quips it was “a very short career if he is to find Una and have her son by the time he is seventeen.” 

Una is the name that Wills gives to the unnamed young woman with whom Augustine lived for more than fifteen years before his conversion to Catholicism. The son, whom it appears Augustine doted on, was named Adeodatus which is usually translated “Gift from God” — Wills calls him Godsend.

Rather than carousing all hours of the night with loose women, Augustine, as Wills portrays him, was in a one-woman man, living in a marriage-like relationship, albeit one that was at times or maybe frequently uncomfortable for the partners.  The “To Carthage” sentence, he writes,

applies better to the life of a confused graduate student with an unwanted baby and a sexual partner submitting reluctantly to this form of union.  Augustine’s paragraph (1) is closer to Jerome’s description of married life — “The swelling of womb, the torturing jealousy, the financial strain” (Letters 22.2, emphasis added — than to the memory of a Don Juan.

“And flits into the past”

Although Augustine lived sixteen centuries ago, Wills finds ways to show his parallels with and impact on more recent authors and critics. 

For instance, he compares Augustine’s ideas about the blindness of people moving through life with those of Matthew Arnold, as expressed in a key phrase in Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”:

Augustine had his own reason to say that the world is a place “where ignorant armies clash by night” — though Matthew Arnold, when he wrote those words, was announcing God’s death and Augustine drew his vision precisely from his theology of a hidden God, a providence that is not manifest.

In his Confessions — which Wills argues would be better translated as Testimony — Augustine talks about time, i.e., the present, as a bridge between the past and future, one that, in a way, doesn’t exist:

“If we could suppose some particle of time which could not be divided into a smaller particle, that alone deserves to be called the present, yet it is snatched from the future and flits into the past without any slightest time of its own — if it lasted, it could be divided into part-future and part-past. So there is no ‘present’ as such.” (Testimony 11.20)

That’s an insight that Wills suggests Vladimir Nabokov had found in Augustine and used in his novel Lolita “when he made Humbert Humbert describe his own self-awareness as ‘a continual spanning of two points, the storable future and the stored past.’ ”

“Puns, wordplay, jingles”

As a towering intellect, Augustine can seem unapproachable by any except the most brilliant.  Yet, Wills notes that, in his sermons, Hippo’s bishop was very down to death and full of “catchy witticisms.”

He uses puns, wordplay, jingles, all kinds of verbal fireworks, to drive home his point. He can deploy rhyming tags, like the modern preacher Jesse Jackson: “Faith must hold what it cannot yet behold (Sermons 230.7).  Or, to show that the faithful, as the body of Christ, should care for their own members: “Where the sliver rends (one’s foot), the whole back bends” (Sermons 162.A.5)….

The military profession is not evil in itself, though soldiers often are: “The damage is not done by militia-ness but by maliciousness” (Sermons 302:15).

“The same God”

Seven years before Saint Augustine, Wills published Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, the winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Lincoln was a deep reader of relatively few books rather than someone who went through great numbers of volumes.  So, when Wills discusses efforts that Augustine made to understand and reach out to the Donatists who opposed Roman Catholics, I had the thought that Lincoln might have been a latter-day reader of the long-ago philosopher-theologian.

Wills makes no mention of this.  Yet, he notes that Augustine, in his attempts to connect with Donatists, stressed similarities rather than differences:

“We call on the same God, believe in the same Christ, hear the same gospel, sing the same psalm, respond with the same Amen, chant the same Alleluia, celebrate the same Easter” (Explaining the Psalms 54.16).

Anyone familiar with the life of Lincoln and his eloquent Second Inaugural Address can hear an echo of Augustine in the President’s words about the North and the South, opponents in the Civil War:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

“A kind of singing from the other end”

As “a tireless seeker, never satisfied,” Augustine was constantly and viscerally astonished by the beauty of God’s creation, even those parts not usually thought of a beautiful.  Wills writes:

Late in life, Augustine could marvel at any created thing or faculty — even farting.  “Some can produce at will odorless sounds from their breech, a kind of singing from the other end” (The City of God 14.24). 

His theological point is that men can gain greater control over their farts than over their erections, but the marveling runs through all Augustine’s thought on the body.

“That life might die”

In the final pages of Saint Augustine, Wills offers an extended quotation from the bishop about the carnality of the Incarnation — the reality of the body in all its aspects that Jesus took on in becoming human — comparing it to the poetry of John Donne. 

It seems a good way to end this review, and, to highlight the poetic nature of Augustine’s words, I’ll put it in lines:

Man’s maker was made man

that he, Ruler of the stars,

might nurse at His mother’s breast;


that the Bread might hunger,

the Fountain thirst,

the Light sleep,

the Way be tired on its journey;


that Truth might be accused of false witnesses,

the Teacher be beaten with whips,

the Foundation be suspended on wood;


that Strength might grow weak;


that the Healer might be wounded;


that Life might die. (Sermons 191.1)

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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