Augustine

Conversions to Confessions

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Robin Lane Fox
  • New York, NY: 
    Basic Books
    , November
     2015.
     688 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780465022274.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions provides an impressive addition to the ever growing body of scholarly work devoted to Augustine’s life. As with any new biography of this towering figure, its enduring significance will no doubt be judged against the standard set by Peter Brown’s seminal 1967 work, Augustine of Hippo (University of California Press, 1970). While the quality that sets Brown’s account apart is his particular attention to the evolution of Augustine’s inner self, the quality that characterizes Lane Fox’s book is his portrait of the African bishop as a man of his time. One of the reasons Lane Fox is able to succeed in this ambitious task is because of his decision to limit his study to the first forty-three years of Augustine’s life—up to the point at which he composed his Confessions. In doing so, Lane Fox affords himself ample space to indulge with detail in the historical circumstances and intellectual concerns that shaped Augustine as a man of late antiquity.  

The forty-three chapters that make up the book are divided into six parts. The first three parts cover what Lane Fox considers to be Augustine’s three conversions, each taking place within the Christianity he would have been brought up in by his mother, Monica: First is his conversion from rhetoric to philosophy through his acquaintance with Cicero’s Hortensius as a young man; next is his conversion from worldly ambition to the supposedly “true Christianity” preached by Mani and his followers; and finally comes his conversion from a life of sexual indulgence to a life of celibacy through the influence of Ambrose and the books of the Platonists in Milan. The decade between Augustine’s baptism in Milan and his writing of the Confessions, Lane Fox suggests, was no longer characterized by conversions, but rather by confessions (297). These consists of three phases, he writes, in which Augustine seeks to integrate his prior conversions into his life. Therefore, Lane Fox devotes the final three parts of the book to each of these phases in turn: There is the period immediately after his baptism, where Augustine attempts to pursue true philosophy by living a monastic life with a handful of close friends; there is, next, the period after he was reluctantly thrust into the role of priest in 391, during which he is forced to come to terms with the challenges of ecclesiastical life; and there is the final period, in which the ideal of philosophy to which Augustine was converted as a young man comes full circle through his increased engagement with scripture. Therefore, when he sits down to write the Confessions some two decades after feeling his heart burn while reading Cicero’s Hortensius, the religious and the philosophical have finally been fused into a robust vision of the Christian life.

A particularly unique feature of the book is how Lane Fox contrasts significant points of Augustine’s life with those of two of Augustine’s near-contemporaries: Synesius, a bishop in Libya who shared Augustine’s love of philosophy; and Libanius, a pagan rhetorician from Antioch who also wrote an autobiography. By contrasting Augustine’s life with these other two figures, Lane Fox seeks to achieve a historical perspective that is noticeably lacking in the Confessions itself, and also in much scholarship on the Confessions. For this Lane Fox is to be commended. However, there are relatively large stretches of the book where these two figures disappear from view, and when they do re-emerge, the comparisons between them and Augustine often seem forced and rather inconsequential. In the end, the reader is left wondering what, exactly, is gained by these comparisons and whether they are worth the amount of space Lane Fox devotes to them.

However, this critique should not take away from the abiding merit of the work, namely, the astounding breadth and depth of knowledge that Lane Fox skillfully brings to bear on his subject. Of the many excursions into historical detail that give life to the book, the amount of information and the clarity with which it is presented in the twenty-five pages he spends sketching the history and teachings of the Manichees stands out as most impressive (91-117). To be sure, at other times Lane Fox’s penchant for detail veers into tangential territory, or even that of mere conjecture—such as when he discusses the reason why Augustine’s correspondence with Paulinus of Nola seems to have stopped for a period of time in 396-397. The explanation for this gap in correspondence, Lane Fox suggests, is due to Paulinus’s offense at receiving a gift of a “seed loaf” from Augustine, which, he claims, was based on the Manichean practice of baking human semen into a loaf of bread (501-510). But this claim is hardly verifiable on historical grounds and will likely be rejected by most Augustine scholars. Still, thankfully, the many fascinating historical excursions the reader is taken on throughout the book far outweigh the few disappointing ones.

In the end, Lane Fox has provided a fresh take on an old figure. The reader, no matter their previous acquaintance with Augustine, will find precious gems littered throughout each chapter. Though the length and level of detail of this book mean that it is not for the faint of heart, the quality of scholarship it contains demands that any serious student of Augustine give it careful consideration. Going forward, it will rightfully be considered alongside the likes of Serge Lancel’s 1999 Saint Augustin (Fayard) and James O’Donnell’s 2006 Augustine: A New Biography (Ecco) as the latest essential supplement to Peter Brown’s portrait of this remarkable individual.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Glowasky is Research Affiliate at St. Paul's College, University of Manitoba.

Date of Review: 
October 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin Lane Fox is University Reader in Ancient History and an Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford. The author of The Classical World and Alexander the Great, Fox lives in Oxford, England.

Keywords: 

Comments

Mark Caponigro

Students of Augustine should be encouraged to move beyond any reluctance they might have for recognizing the clear influence that Augustine's readings in the greater of the Neoplatonists, Plotinus and Porphyry, truly admirable philosophers, had on his own theological imagination. E.g., the imagery he used to illustrate the superrational mystery of the Trinity, in his book "On the Trinity," has connexions with Neoplatonic ways of thinking; and his famous exegesis of the opening verses of Genesis 1, toward the end of his "Confessions," including the concept of time as not a condition of even God's existence but as just another creature (which in fact is probably a theological insight that is quite foreign to the great majority of Christians), would have been impossible without Neoplatonic concepts.

Therefore it's regrettable if Robin Lane Fox missed an opportunity to say more about this aspect of Augustine, especially seeing that he is said to have given a fair amount of attention to Augustine's somewhat earlier contemporary Synesius of Cyrene. That is, Synesius was not only a Christian bishop, he was also an open Neoplatonist, and a friend and correspondent of the Neoplatonist mathematician and astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, director of (what was left of) that city's famous Library.

Some years ago, the historian Peter Brown, who did as much as anyone to identify Late Antiquity as a distinct period and important focus of historical study, and wrote an important biography of Augustine, is remembered to have said that we should probably think of there having been an Early Late Antiquity and a Late Late Antiquity; the passage from one to the other is marked by a hardening of attitudes in religion and society, including an abandonment of a pluralistic intellectual forum in favor of a forceful, dominant, uncompromising Christian orthodoxy. Therefore we can probably locate the turn within Augustine's lifetime. E.g., in 415, Hypatia was brutally lynched by Christian monastic thugs, perhaps at the instigation and probably with the knowledge of their formidable bishop, Cyril of Alexandria. And Augustine himself contributed, as we see not only in his dealings with Donatists and Pelagians, but also in his "City of God," in which his thoroughgoing sustained demolitions of the glorious creativity of Roman polytheism and of the unmatched brilliance of Greco-Roman philosophical activity make for most painful and embarrassing reading nowadays.

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