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Book Review: Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (Robin Lane Fox)

Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine.  We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell?  Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away.  Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading.  But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works.  Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.

This is a theological biography of Augustine.  That may seem like a tautology—since Augustine was a theologian, what else would a biography of him be?  But he was also a bishop, a contemplative, and before all that, an indifferently religious worldly striver and a devotee of a peculiar heresy/religion, Manicheism, which this book taught me was vastly more complex, and vastly more bizarre, than I had known.  Thus, any particular biography of Augustine might not engage fully with Augustine’s theology, but this one does.  Given Augustine’s voluminous output and huge range of thought, this is not a full history of that theology, much less an explication of it, but rather a view of the man’s life viewed largely through his theology.

It’s a very good view of that life, and even more impressive when you realize that Fox is an atheist, something he mentions in passing, but which he does not emphasize, and which mostly does not color his explication of, or appreciation for, Augustine’s theology.  The exception is more than one blunt claim that any belief that the Old Testament predicted the Gospel is “entirely false” because that’s “how historians consider [that claim] nowadays.”  Using that yardstick, what atheist historians think, seems not very relevant to the truth of any part of Christianity.  In any case, the book covers Augustine’s life only up until he wrote his Confessions, which Fox dates to being completed in 398 A.D. (apparently there is disagreement about this among Augustine scholars).  Therefore, other than a few references, Fox does not cover the decades of Augustine’s later life as Bishop of Hippo, much of his writing, or his death.

Naturally enough, given that Augustine is a theological biography, it’s very dense, and it’s very long.  Unless you are keenly interested in Christian theology, this is not likely to be a book that holds all that much interest for you.  It is not filled with titillating descriptions of Augustine’s sex life—most references to sex are to a lack of it.  Nor is it filled with titillating descriptions of pagan sex lives, either.  In fact, the only thing titillating is several, vaguely creepy references to “not feeling the softness of a woman.”  I would have felt better without those references.  But, luckily, I am keenly interested in Christian theology, and I also am interested in the late Roman Empire, an underserved era in which Fox is an expert, so this book held a lot of interest for me.

From various phrasing that Fox uses, it’s evident that in the subculture of Augustine scholars, there is quite a bit of dispute about the details.  Many of these disputes seem to center around the dating of various events in Augustine’s life; others revolve around the reasons why one thing or another happened, such as Augustine’s movements within Italy, or back to North Africa.  Much of this seems like inside baseball, and lends the book a slightly stilted academic air in some parts.  This is compounded, or at least emphasized, by an overt attack in the Introduction upon the former Librarian of the Bodleian Library, Sarah Thomas, for “breaking . . . the carefully planned link between pagan and Christian worlds which had underlain its lower reading rooms productively for many years.  Research into Augustine now means crawling on hands and knees to find essential journals in a sub-basement, while the outer building publicizes newly build access points for the disabled.”  We are all familiar with the virtue signaling project of exalting the supposedly disempowered at the expense of excellence, so I certainly sympathize, but it is a bit odd to see such an attack in the middle of a set of thanks and dedications to others.

Fox not only directly examines Augustine’s life and career, but views it through and against the life and career of two rough contemporaries who shared certain similarities:  Synesius, a upper class scion and disciple of Hypatia of Alexandria, who like Augustine ended his life as a North African bishop, and Libanius, a Sophist pagan philosopher who spent most of his life in Antioch, who was a friend of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, as well as the teacher of St. John Chrysostom.  These men pop in and out of the narrative, with Fox using them as foils to illustrate points about Augustine, many of them relating to how unique his path was, even among committed Christians.  All three men began on a traditional track of oratory and philosophy, and ended at various points along the religious spectrum, in theory and practice.  This framing both provides interesting insight and keeps the book moving along, where it might otherwise become overwhelming if it merely focused on Augustine.

The basic organization of the book is as a chronological history of Augustine’s life until 398 A.D., which at the same time focuses a great deal on his inner life and spiritual development, mostly through the prism of the Confessions (which after all are autobiographical), as well as through various other writings, including letters and other informal writings.  Fox manages to give a thorough flavor of the different places Augustine spent time—Thagaste, where he was born; Carthage; Rome; Milan (with St. Ambrose); then back to North Africa, to Hippo.  In each place, Augustine’s philosophy continued to develop, ranging from Christian-tinged classical philosophy; through Neoplatonism; to Manicheism; to baptized Christianity (though Augustine always believed firmly in Christ); to fully engaged (and then some) Christianity.  Nearly as important to the narrative are Augustine’s close friends and other interlocutors, with whom he engaged in the development of his thought and practice, many of whom are described in interesting detail, such that they seem like real people, not just historical cardboard cutouts.

To me, one of the most interesting parts of the book was a great deal of information about the Manichees, who are commonly referred to as a Christian heresy, but whose beliefs are radically unconnected to anything resembling Christianity today.  Mani was a Mesopotamian born in the early Third Century into a Christian sect, who created a syncretic dualist religion, revolving around the Kingdom of Light as opposed by the Kingdom of Darkness, both eternal and uncreated.  Mani thought he was the Holy Spirit and he had a “Twin,” a heavenly interlocutor, who communicated truths to him.  Orthopraxy in Manicheism consisted of practices designed to collect Light supposedly fragmented into the world, such that the Light could be ascended to the Moon, there collected and transmitted to the Sun and thence back to the Kingdom of Light, during which the Moon waned until it filled up with Light again.  The basic mechanism of this was for the Manichee Elite, the Elect, to liberate the Light by eating foods considered rich in Light, only certain fruits and vegetables, prepared ritually by the Manichee Hearers, the initiates, and to avoid practices that kept Light bound.  Certain Jewish and Christian doctrines are visible, but very dimly.  Sins were less the individual’s personal responsibility but actions of the Kingdom of Darkness within him, to be combatted by adhering to the Light through ritual.  Eventually Mani was killed by the king of Persia, whereupon the faith was spread by missionary work throughout Asia, including to China, where it remained modestly popular until the Middle Ages, though it was stamped out further west much earlier.

Fox accurately characterizes Mani’s theology as “more like Star Wars than [our] own Christianity.”  It has an endless series of demigods, demons, angels, and other actors, all populating a bizarre universe where, for example, the firmament is the stretched skin of flayed demons defeated in battle.  Augustine was a devout Manichee, though a Hearer, not an Elect, for nearly ten years.  He used his oratorical and intellectual talents to convert others, as he did later to spread Christianity.   Fox rejects the idea that Augustine was in any way a crypto-Manichee, but does see certain elements of Augustine’s thought being formed in reaction to Manicheism.

Fox also examines, although not with the intensity and depth of the Manichees, the Donatists, an undoubtedly Christian but heretical sect dominant in North Africa, who (among other beliefs) held that sacraments were not valid if the priest administering them was not in a state of grace.  The Donatists had arisen during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian, when many priests knuckled under to the state, in particular by handing over their copies of the Scriptures to the authorities to be destroyed.  The Donatists were those who did not, and their approach was similar to that of the also-heretical Novationists, who denied the efficacy of repentance to those who had recanted the Faith.  Much of Augustine’s combat with the Donatists took place after the events of this book, while Augustine’s adherence to Manichaeism took place in his earlier life and was also much more important in his personal theological development.  Thus, the Donatists occupy a less prominent place in this book.

Fox covers not just Augustine’s theological development, but what might be called his mystical development as well.  He starts with elements of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, relating to “turning inwards and passing beyond thought” to elevate one’s mind, until a “vision fills one’s eyes with light, [which] does not make one see something else by it, but the light itself is what one sees.”  This progression to foretaste of what is in essence the Beatific Vision is at least potentially available to all who form their minds appropriately; it is the possible fruit of contemplation, in the trained-but-passive Josef Pieper sense, not in the sense of active struggling to reach the desired point.  Augustine reached that point three times, and left detailed impressions which have fascinated generations of Christian readers, and Fox as well.  Moreover, the metaphor of ascent derived from this process becomes important in the Confessions, where it is used as a framework for much of the book.

Augustine also preached a great many sermons to the local populace, mostly in Hippo, a large number of which seem to have survived, surprisingly, and they are still being uncovered.  These are dense expositions, frequently revolving around subtle and complex allegories Augustine found in the Scriptural passages for the day.  Augustine, like all the Church fathers, was very focused on Biblical exegesis, in contrast to the stereotype Protestants like to spread about, that before the Reformation the Bible was ignored.  He focused heavily on the Psalms and on the writings of St. Paul, with an “insistence that scripture has a multiplicity of meanings, no one of which can be upheld as the right one so long as each is consistent with God’s Truth.”  These sermons sound very interesting, and may be more approachable then the Confessions or other longer works of Augustine.

While Fox extensively discusses the Confessions, the (untutored) reader only gets a fragmentary picture of that famous work—he gets the famous stories of stealing pears, of conversion, and so on, and he gets an explanation of the work’s structure, but the work itself never takes complete shape in the reader’s mind.  This is not necessarily Fox’s fault, since this is a biography, not an exegesis of a difficult and complex work.  It helps those interested in further study that the glittering Sarah Ruden has recently published a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions; I have a copy and haven’t read it yet—but now I have a place to start when it’s time!

I don’t think this is the best biography to read if you are just dipping into Augustine (although it’s the first I read).  That honor seems, by common agreement, to go to a book I have not read:  Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, recently re-issued in a forty-fifth anniversary edition with new supplementary material by the author.  Fox refers repeatedly to this book with glowing admiration, including as “a work of genius.”  But this book, Fox’s book, is still a very good book, which (surprisingly, in some ways) manages to retain the reader’s interest throughout, probably because of the framing choices made by Fox, along with his cogent and direct writing style.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews Charles Christian History Christian Theology Classical History Religion


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