As a young man in his thirties, Peter Brown, a young Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford, embarked on a detailed and comprehensive writing on the life of Augustine. The saint, Augustine, is in some ways an ideal figure to embark on such a journey. Augustine supplies us with countless works ranging from philosophy and theology, hundreds of sermons, letters, and an biographical prayer in the Confessions. At the end of his life he sat with his biographer, Possidius, and read through many of his works making comments and corrects to them in what is known today as the Retractiones or “reconsiderations.” After his death Possidius catalogued all of Augustine’s work so they could be passed down from generation to generation and people would know the order and authentic works that were penned from the great saint.

All this material provides a wealth of information and insight into anyone who attempts a biography of such a great figure. Possidius quips that no one man will be able to read through the breadth of all the works of Augustine. Surely Brown must have felt the weight of this when he commenced on such an expedition. But masterfully, at the beginning of a long and illustrious career, Brown successfully navigated the waters and has produced a brilliant and learned biography on the life of Augustine. This is not a theological biography but a traditional work examining the life, cultural context, and major events in Augustine’s life. Brown breaks the book down into many short chapters that flow both chronologically (for the most part) and thematically. What the reader is left with is a solid understanding of the life of Augustine with the issues and life happenings that effect Augustine’s writings during that time period.

After the initial publication of the biography, Johannes Divjak, uncovered 27 previously undiscovered letters of Augustine in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles.[1] These letters, now known as the Divjak letters, provide valuable insights into Augustine’s later life in North Africa. Many of these letters shed light on events that scholar’s previously had little to know information. Several years later, in 1990, Francois Dolbeau, found 26 unknown sermons, now called the Dolbeau sermons. Several of the sermons were written in 397 when Augustine was at Carthage.

Instead of reworking earlier parts of the biography, Brown adds two chapters to the epilogue titled New Evidence and New Directions. In this section Brown not only reflects on the impact of the new evidence on his previous studies, he also reflects on years that have passed in Augustinian studies since his initial publication. The epilogue paints a picture of a humble and reflective scholar who explains changes that should have been made to his previous work and how he would have gone about it differently.

Generally, a work is not considered a classic within the author’s life, but this biography on Augustine is an exception. Brown, 45 years ago, laid a foundation that still stands for Augustinian studies today. Any scholar interested in Augustine will do well to read this book as subsequent studies all have built upon this foundation.

  1. Divjak actually found 29 letters but two of them had previously been found, which brings the total to 27 newly discovered letters.  ↩