Friday, April 29, 2011


William Harmless (ed.), Augustine in His Own Words. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010. Pp. xlii, 496. ISBN 9780813217437. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Rocki Wentzel, Augustana College, SD (

Version at BMCR home site


St. Augustine of Hippo was notoriously long-winded and his corpus correspondingly vast. William Harmless' project, to assemble a mosaic portrait of Augustine from excerpts chosen from Augustine's works, is a bold undertaking. Intended for newcomers, this anthology, Augustine in His Own Words, assumes no previous knowledge of the man or his works. It includes, to use Harmless' terms, not only Augustine's "greatest hits" but also "hidden gems," which may be familiar to the scholar but perhaps not to the novice. Harmless begins every chapter with a few pages of useful background. Each excerpt within each chapter is introduced by brief remarks, which include summaries, historical context, reception, theological implications, Biblical background, and comments on terms or words. Key concepts are also helpfully highlighted in these introductory comments. The reader is assumed to have no background in Latin. The translations are largely the author's adaptations of FOTC versions and are readable and accessible. Following the introduction is a list of texts and translations. Relevant and current scholarship is footnoted throughout. Additionally, a thorough list of suggestions for further reading appears in the back of the text organized by chapter, along with a chronology of events, a list of Augustine's works, and various indices of all the texts cited.

Harmless' text consists of ten chapters, which can be divided into two parts: Chapters 1 through 5 form an autobiographical portrait of Augustine, while Chapters 6 through 10 present Augustine's theology through the various controversies, in which Augustine engaged throughout his career. With the exception of Chapter 1 titled after his Confessions, the chapters of the first half are titled according to the various roles Augustine played throughout his life: Augustine as philosopher, bishop, preacher, and exegete. Together they illustrate Augustine the man with episodes from childhood; personal relationships; philosophical influences, particularly, Neoplatonism and Academic skepticism; daily duties and activities as bishop; and eating and dressing habits. Harmless is committed to producing a living and dynamic image of the charismatic Augustine, repeatedly urging his audience to read passages of Augustine's works aloud, particularly the sermons, in order to experience a sense of the orality, which he believes is preserved even in translation. Chapter 1 concerns only the Confessions, but the excerpts for Chapters 2 through 5 are chosen from a range of Augustine's works. Chapter 2, for instance, includes excerpts from Soliloquies, On True Religion, On the Teacher, and Against the Skeptics. Chapter 3 on Augustine as Bishop draws largely from letters and sermons, but is supplemented by passages from Augustine's biographer Possidius of Calama, one of only a few deviations from strictly autobiographical sources. As issues from the chapters on philosophy and exegesis overlap with theological concerns, such as the problem of evil, Harmless revisits many of them in depth in the later chapters on the controversies.

The second half of the text concerns the various controversies that occupied Augustine's time, effectively giving an overview of the evolution of Augustine's view on every major theological issue during his time. Chapter 6 "Against the Manichees" presents issues of evil and the goodness of creation. Chapter 7 "Against the Donatists" concerns baptism and the catholicity of the Church. Chapter 8 "Augustine as Theologian: On the Trinity" presents Augustine's theology of the Trinity, while the latter half of the chapter is devoted to his speculative exploration of psychological analogies to the Trinity. Chapter 9 on Augustine's longest work, "Controversies (III): On the City of God, Against the Pagans" covers a variety of issues including political philosophy, apologetics, controversy against the pagans, the theme of the two cities, and human sexuality. Harmless saves the weightiest portion of Augustine's legacy for the final and longest chapter, "Controversies 4: Against the Pelagians." Here he traces Augustine's thoughts on original sin, infant baptism, free will, predestination, and the human condition. In this chapter, Harmless also includes voices from the other side of the controversies, including those of Caelestius, Pelagius, and Rufinus the Syrian. Harmless, generally prone to championing Augustine, comes to his defense more than once in regards to theories that he feels have often been attributed to Augustine erroneously or inaccurately, such as certain Western views on sexuality and the "just war" theory. Otherwise, he does, for the most part, allow Augustine to speak for himself.

Harmless' multi-faceted, but perhaps not always balanced, view of Augustine is an, at times neutral, but almost always complimentary portrait of Augustine, as a man much sought after, full of the best intentions, highly conscientious, moderate yet passionate, and fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Harmless gives little credence to Augustine's detractors, but this portrait is, after all, in Augustine's own words. Augustine is not always kind to himself, yet he emerges, even out of his errors, in a glowing light.

Given the enormity of the Augustinian corpus, Harmless' has tackled a tremendous task. It would naturally be impossible to touch on everything. Nevertheless, Harmless has succeeded in providing a useful resource, an excellent jumping off point for the novice wanting an introduction to Augustine or an overview for scholars interested in incorporating Augustine's works in their own research. This text would be a valuable supplement in a course on Augustine or in a course on the early church fathers. The selections are not redundant, yet there is sufficient overlap of central issues and themes, so as to give the reader a solid overview of Augustine's chief concerns and the evolution of his thought. The text is intended to whet the appetite and paint a portrait of Augustine the man, the philosopher, and the servant. Harmless' elegant collection is a success not only in this regard but is also an engaging and accessible introduction to Augustine's works.

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