With this very short guide to Augustine’s Confessions, Gillian Clark has written an excellent handbook for use in undergraduate courses on late antiquity in general or Augustine in particular. The work is a revision of her 1993 book of the same name written for the Landmarks in Classical Literature series for Cambridge University Press.
Not to be confused with major works such as Peter Brown’s classic Augustine of Hippo or James O’Donnell’s recent Augustine: A New Biography or even Clark’s own Latin edition of the Confessions and studies of late Roman society, this handbook makes no claim to do more than, as Clark puts it, “encourage those who have not yet become readers of Augustine and especially of Confessions, and to be of some use to those who have.”
Students will appreciate the straightforward division of the text into three sections on Augustine’s world, a study of the Confessions themselves, and an up-to-date guide for further reading. After a brief introduction, Clark begins by looking at the political and social situation of Roman Africa in which Augustine grew up. Augustine’s early life in small-town Thagaste (noted as part of the “Bible belt” of the Roman Empire) gives readers a clear picture of Augustine’s family, education, and religious background, especially Manichaean influences. Augustine’s journey to Italy, young adulthood in Milan, and conversion are all covered clearly and succinctly. This section concludes with Augustine’s return to Africa as a monk, then bishop.
Clark’s second section is not a textual commentary as much as it is a brief consideration of Augustine’s goals and methods in the Confessions. Clark does not over-simplify Augustine’s motives for students, but presents them as complementary (personal defense, spiritual biography, an exercise in Christian rhetoric, etc.). She gives a relatively detailed survey of problems regarding narrative and memory, which is sure to spark classroom discussions, and closes with a quick look at the reception of the Confessions by writers such as Petrarch, Teresa of Avila, and Rousseau. Clark’s bibliography is a boon to those students writing research papers on Augustine, both with printed texts and her direction to O’Donnell’s authoritative web page on Augustine.
Scholars searching for a detailed analysis of the Confessions and their social setting should turn to the work of Brown, O’Donnell (including his 3 volume commentary), or Courcelle, but Clark’s brief guidebook is a treasure for undergraduates.