Augustine: Conversions and Confessions
Robin Lane Fox
Allen Lane 672pp £30
Bloomsbury Continuum 224pp £25
I have written self-indulgently, as I myself like to read about the past. I do not like the proper names of nonentities, numbered dates of unknown years or refutations of other men’s views … I am bored by institutions and I do not believe in structures. Others may disagree.
So wrote Robin Lane Fox in his 1973 book Alexander the Great. I suspect he would not modify his words greatly now. His subsequent works, including Pagans and Christians (1986) and The Classical World: An Epic History (2005) have established him as a historian whose work cuts through the usual boundaries: Greek versus Roman history, classical versus Christian, academic versus popular. His latest book, Augustine, sells itself on a similarly idiosyncratic prospectus: ‘There are many fine short books on Augustine … I saw no reason to write another, so I opted for a long book.’ There are many fine long books on Augustine, too, so what is the constant pulling power of the man? What does Lane Fox bring to the party?
Augustine’s life (AD 356-430) spanned a formative historical period, coinciding with events that we see as separating the classical world from the medieval: the rise of Christianity and of the uneasy relationship between secular and church powers in western Europe; the spread of monasticism; the increasing separation of the Greek Eastern Roman Empire from the Latin West; the encroachments of barbarians into the Empire and, in 410, into Rome itself. When Augustine died, in Hippo Regius in North Africa, a Vandal army was camped outside the city gates.
Augustine is also a thinker who confounds modern stereotypes. That he embraced Catholicism because he found it fundamentally compatible with the findings of science and not despite; that neither he nor many early Christian theologians saw any need to interpret the Book of Genesis literally; that sexual abstinence was not a peculiarly Christian fetish but an idea shared by other serious-minded people in antiquity – these are not new facts, but they still have the capacity to surprise.
Lane Fox takes explicitly Augustine’s Confessions as the backbone to his own study. He sets out his work as a triptych, flanking Augustine with his contemporaries Libanius, the pagan orator and intellectual of Antioch, and Synesius, the Christian bishop of Ptolemais in Libya, and weaving events and themes from their lives in with those of Augustine. The result is a book that is wide-ranging and sure-footed, from its vivid evocation of the travails of the late-antique schoolboy to its account of how Neoplatonism informs Augustine’s vertiginous speculations on time and memory, which conclude the Confessions. I particularly enjoyed Lane Fox’s summary of Manichaeism, the clearest guide I have read to this notoriously baroque religious system. He has a good nose for a racy anecdote too – but no spoilers here. There is also an excellent mini picture gallery with commentary.
There are quibbles. Some are minor: Augustine would have winced at the suggestion that Christians ‘worshipped’ martyrs, though perhaps not all his flock would have done likewise. Some are bigger: I would question Lane Fox’s claim that Augustine narrowed the scope of the term libido from the classical Latin ‘instinctive desire’ to ‘sexual desire’ and suggest that Augustine saw sex as the example par excellence of a desire that latches onto inappropriate objects to an inordinate degree.
But overall this book succeeds, magnificently. I began as a sceptic. We had, I felt, excellent short introductions to the Confessions from Gillian Clark and Catherine Conybeare, among others; who would read a long one? Long before the halfway point I was convinced this is a compelling book, reminiscent of Peter Brown’s great works, especially his Augustine of Hippo (1967) and World of Late Antiquity (1972). There is the same easy intimacy with the sources, the same rich and lucid prose. There is also the same unspoken assumption that we are all gentlemen and scholars, at home in a shared world of wider literary and historical allusion.
Rowan Williams, too, has a serious pedigree as a historian of fourth-century Christianity, notably through his Arius: Heresy and Tradition (1987), a sympathetic study of the Alexandrian theologian, whose thoughts on the relations of the persons of the Trinity were to prove so very stimulating. His latest volume of essays, On Augustine, markets itself on a very different premise from Lane Fox’s. Williams writes as a believer; Lane Fox as a courteous outsider. Lane Fox writes as a historian; Williams states that ‘none of [his chapters] is primarily concerned with strictly historical or chronological issues’. And, unlike Lane Fox, Williams writes in a tradition which eschews the flashing phrase; his Augustine is someone who ‘reflects carefully on a central tension in the human condition between the fact that we have to begin all our thinking and praying in full awareness of our limited, embodied condition and the fact that we are summoned by our creator to go beyond limited and specific desire, reaching out to an endless abundance of life’ (in this connection, Lane Fox presents the Confessions as the result of an agonising bout of anal fissures, probably brought on by Augustine’s ascetic lifestyle). Paradoxically, then, Williams’ dehistoricised Augustine is not only less of his time, but also less of ours, at least as most of us experience it. Williams’ Augustine is a more contemplative, bookish type. He is much less the busy bishop and much more the Augustine of the postgraduate seminar in philosophical theology. Those with interests in that direction may find much in this book.
Philip Burton is Reader in Latin and Early Christian Studies at the University of Birmingham. His books include Language in the Confessions of Augustine (Oxford University Press, 2007).