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Augustine: Confessions, 3 vols.

O'Donnell has produced an extraordinarily valuable three volumes containing the critical text with an introduction to and commentary on the Confessions of Saint Augustine. They are a great improvement over the annotated text of the Confessions edited by J. Gibb and W. Montgomery (Cambridge, 1908; rev. 1927); in many respects they surpass the two volumes of the Bibliotheque Augustinienne edition with introduction and notes by A. Solignac (Paris, 1962), though O.'s commentary has a quite different, less philosophical and theological, focus and also benefits from a new perspective that has transcended the problems and interests of some thirty years ago.

Volume 1 contains a fascinating introduction followed by the Latin text of the Confessions. The introduction sketches the history of the interpretations of the Confessions during the past century, explains the main lines of interpretation that he emphasizes in the commentary, and provides some technical guidelines for using the text and the commentary. On the unity and structure of the Confessions, O. takes a pluralistic approach, though as a single scheme he favors that of memoria for the first nine books, contuitus for Book 10, and expectatio for the final three.

O. argues that modern studies of the Confessions have placed too much emphasis on Augustine's Christianity as "a thing of the mind," as a body of doctrine in which Platonism and Christianity were often seen as struggling for dominance. In doing so, these studies have undervalued the role of cult or liturgy for men and women of antiquity and have neglected the central decision Augustine made during the years covered by the Confessions, namely, the decision to present himself for cultic initiation or baptism, which Augustine saw as linked for himself with the espousal of continence.

O. sees the work of a formal commentary as aimed at a disciplined reading that discloses the most important levels of meaning in the text. He sets himself four tasks which he aims to accomplish in his commentary: (1) to illustrate Augustine's use and interpretation of Scripture in the Confessions, (2) to provide illustrative passages from Augustine's other works, thus allowing Augustine to be his own commentator, (3) to report the findings of modern scholarship, and (4) to interpret the text in the light of the above. He accomplishes those four tasks in exemplary fashion. Though O. has forsworn any systematic study of Augustine's prose style, the commentary does make a significant contribution to such a study.

The Latin text, presented without critical apparatus, is basically that of Skutella (1969) and Verheijen (1981), though O. has re-examined the text word by word and has incorporated numerous corrections, with the variant readings and justifications for the readings he has adopted given in the commentary.

Amid all its scholarship, the commentary has its delights. E.g., on the meaning of animositate with regard to Patricius's plans for his son, O. suggests that "the nearest equivalent might be 'chutzpah'" (2:117). So too, on Ambrose's prohibition of the Parentalia, he quotes Rebecca West as saying that the practice "was too like picknicking for his type of mind" (2:336). It has its controversial moments as well, e.g. when O'Donnell opines that the Confessions may have been dictated while Augustine was prone in bed with an attack of hemorrhoids (1:x1), or where he musters the texts that have led some to see an admission of homosexual involvement on Augustine's part (2:109-10), or where he suggests that Monica may have come from a Donatist family (2:118) or notes the likelihood that Augustine and his concubine deliberately avoided having more than one child (2:385). It also has its weaknesses, when, for example, O. takes the ascents in Book 7 as examples of spiritual as opposed to intellectual vision (2:439) or describes Augustine's stance on grace and free will as holding "two apparently contradictory positions at once" (3:159). But it has, above all, many great strengths in helping the reader come into closer contact with this great saint and fascinating mind.

The two volumes of commentary, though extremely rewarding, are no less demanding. O. allows Augustine to speak for himself, often simply presenting a selection of passages from Augustine's other works to cast light upon a passage in the Confessions. The result is that, along with citations from the Latin Bible and other patristic and classical sources, at least half, if not two thirds, of the commentary is in Latin, with perhaps another five percent in Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

There are indices galore: a 29-page index to Augustine's works, a ten-page index to other ancient authors, a 16-page index to Scripture passages, and a four-page general index. The commentary contains but five excursuses: on mothers and fathers in the Confessions; on the liberales disciplinae; on Alypius, Paulinus, and the genesis of the Confessions; on Psalm 4; and on memory in Augustine. On the other hand, the commentaries on specific topics, such as the triad modus, species, ordo or the phrase pondus menus amor meus, are at least twice the length of some of the "official" excursus.

Though I have regularly taught the Confessions for more than 15 years, on dozens of pages I learned something new or came to see things in a fresh perspective or had my pet theories questioned or--alas!--saw them rejected, not always gently, but with good, if not with wholly compelling, reasons. The introduction and the commentary provide excellent bibliographical references to the most significant works on the Confessions, especially from the last half of this century, most often with O.'s even-handed appraisal. I found only a handful of errata in the three well-edited and attractively printed volumes. O.'s text and commentary on the Confessions is a splendid scholarly achievement that will remain a standard source book on the text for decades to come.
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Author:Teske, Roland J.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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