Anticipating a review of Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography, I thought I would spend a moment talking about two biographies. The dominate biography has been Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo (1967). Deservingly so, Brown’s work remains as one of the leading sources for the life of Augustine and a great entry point to Augustinian scholarship. While Augustine of Hippo still holds much value, one can also profit much from Serge Lancel’s biography St. Augustine (1999). By no means is Brown’s biography obsolete, but rather, Lancel’s biography is quite adept at being a suitable alternative to Brown.
An immediate advantage of Lancel’s St. Augustine over Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is the availability of resources. Neither Brown nor Bonner were able to profit from the Divjak letters. The 1975 discovery, by Johannes Divak, of 29 letters which 27 were previously unknown adds to our understanding of Augustine as a person, especially from 419-428. Whereas previous portrayals could tend to show a rigid and hardened polemicist, the Divak Letters reveals a more personal and caring Augustine.
While one can accuse Augustine of being merely concerned with theological issues, this depiction mistakenly limits the bishop’s endeavors to theology. For instance, as Lancel shows through the use of the Letters, Augustine was heavily involved in alleviating the injustice surrounding the African Church. First, in Letter 21 he writes of the havoc created by heavy taxation and the immoral enforcement of these taxes. (St. Augustine, 260). Unfortunately, Augustine had to admit his ineptness to ratify the situation; his lack of leverage could not compare with those more powerful. In this letter Augustine addressed the need for a defensor civitas who would work on behalf of the people in a civic role by protecting against such injustice.
Second, though Lancel points out that Augustine was not an abolitionist by any modern understanding, he did perceive slavery to be evil and took certain measures to tide the “economic necessity” (St. Augustine, 262). In one of the Letters Augustine consults Eustochius, a jurisconsult, over the issue of children born into slavery and their legal right out of it. While Augustine’s clerical position could not prevent slavery, he at least could challenge those who would take advantage of poverty stricken families forced into slavery.
Third, related to this issue, Augustine writes to Alypius concerning the Mangones who would conduct raids on isolated villages for the prospect of slaves. His hopes were to gain government intervention in dealing with these raids, not only to prevent this atrocity but also potential civilian uprisings against the Mangones and the practice of selling relatives into slavery.
Fourth, in the same Letter 10 to Alypius, the bishop writes about his concern over certain authorities that had exceeded humane limits of punishment and violence. While Augustine did condone the use of force, he was wary of the abuse of these measures.
Lancel’s St. Augustine is a strong treatment of the life and work of Augustine. St. Augustine is a well written biography that provides a balanced presentation of the bishop and offers much to Augustinian scholarship. Though Brown’s Augustine of Hippo still remains the standard, Lancel’s St. Augustine is a welcomed alternative.
 Lancel’s work has been translated by Antonia Nevill in 2002. While this post will be using the translation, it will not be commenting on the worth of the actual translation. Most reviewers have advised readers of the merit of the translation while alluding to small errors such as an occasional use of a French word or use of an uncommon English word/expression.