Peter Brown's biography of Saint Augustine, written over 30 years ago, is still as fresh and inviting to-day, finding excited and interesting readers in whoever picks it up. Augustine lived from 354-430 AD. While this may seem remote, Brown has a special gift for making Augustine live through his writing style, which both provides clever and welcome points of modern comparison to Augustine's contemporary events. Another wonderful technique of Brown's biography is to let Augustine, for the most part, speak for himself - it is almost like a mediated autobiography, an expanded "Confessions," if you will.
This manifests itself in the lengthy, but always extremely applicable excerpts that Brown draws for every occasion from Augustine's "Confessions," as well as his other major works, correspondence, religious tracts, and sermons. Brown is as little intrusive as possible, setting Augustine's writings, actions, and speeches in their immediate context. At the same time, Brown's exhaustive research is readily apparent, as he constantly refers to or makes note of the wide range of historical, biographical, and critical scholarship available to him as he wrote.
A key element in Brown's biography is the importance of asserting Augustine's heritage as a particularly African one. Brown recovers and reminds us that for his massive impact on the course of Christian thought, Augustine was tied in remembrance to his native Thagaste, and through his ministry, to the seaside city of Hippo in Northern Africa. The African element asserts itself in Brown's emphasis on the African impact of many of Augustine's most definitive struggles - against the Manichees (who insist on static dualism and absolute wisdom), the Donatists (schismatics who insist on the primacy of their version of Catholicism), and the Pelagians (who insist on a form of radical free will).
What is most important and most impressive about Brown's biography is that he renders a portrait of Augustine, the man. While other, now legendary figures are referred to as Saint Ambrose or Saint Jerome, Brown carefully calls the subject of his biography, in the spirit of Augustine's writings, simply Augustine. We see straight through the book Augustine's own pervasive preoccupation with the limitations and possibilities of the individual human being and his struggles with his faith and his responsibilities. In light of this, Brown consistently brings the reader back to Augustine's notion of the 'progress' of the person of faith. For Augustine, faith and belief were not matters of complacency. God and Heaven are to be always 'yearned' for, and actively sought, no matter how Augustine's thought shifts over the course of his life.
There is a great hope in Augustine characterized by this idea that, although God's will may be fundamentally inaccessible, people must actively pursue and hopefully enrich their faith. In this context, Augustine is also very inclusive - his ideas for a church on earth that welcomes all people in all stages of faith who are willing to join is remarkable. So, yes, I heartily recommend Brown's biography of Augustine. That it is still in print and in revision is a testament to its own timelessness as a glimpse into the life of a quintessential thinker.