By DAVID SKEEL
Review of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, by Robin Lane Fox
New York: Basic Books, 2015
Augustine is one of those figures—like Shakespeare or Darwin—who is impossible to keep up with. The fourth century Bishop and author of the Confessions and The City of God is so influential, both historically and today, that the stream of new literature about him never seems to slow down. Some, including the philosopher Charles Taylor, have suggested that Augustine invented the modern, inward looking sense of self, displacing a traditional emphasis on the created order. Others contend that the modern self predates Augustine. Scholars debate whether The City of God accurately portrays Rome as its empire tottered and why Augustine emphasized some features of his life and gave others short shrift in the Confessions.
What is a non-specialist, someone who is interested in Augustine but does not have time to master the scholarly literature, to do?
For the past generation, the short answer has been: read Peter Brown. In a masterful biography of Augustine first published in the 1960s and with two substantial chapters on Augustine in his recent book Through the Eye of the Needle, among other writings, Brown, an emeritus professor at Princeton, has incorporated the scholarly literature on Augustine and his era into books that bring Augustine fully to life.
Brown is great for non-specialists, but not so great for other Augustine scholars who would like to reach a popular audience with their work. How do you escape Brown’s shadow, and persuade lay readers they should venture beyond Brown (or at most, Brown plus the well-received biography by James O’Donnell)? The only hope, it seems, is to come at Augustine from a surprising new angle, or promise clever or counterintuitive insights that will alter our understanding of who Augustine was.
In Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Robin Lane Fox, an emeritus Reader at Oxford University and longtime classicist and Augustine scholar, tries a little of both. He advertises Augustine: Conversions to Confessions as a backstage look at The Confessions, an intimate biography of the book. Lane Fox focuses entirely on Augustine’s his life up to his commencement of the Confessions in 397 at age forty-three. This, along with Lane Fox’s emphasis on the “conversions” and “confessions” in Augustine’s life and his introduction of two secondary characters into the story, are the new angles. Lane Fox also promises to update Brown’s work and to provide surprising new insights into and theories about the Confessions and some of the famous events it recounts.
Lane Fox is a well-respected scholar who tends toward revisionism. The erudition and revisionism are plain to see, but Augustine is too often marred by Lane Fox’s love of speculative theories, his attempts to be racy or clever, and his disdain for the faith that animated Augustine’s life.
By the time he began the Confessions, Augustine had left his native town of Thagaste in North Africa to study in Carthage; become a professional teacher of rhetoric; moved to Rome; secured an appointment as a public speaker in Milan; been baptized by Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan; returned to North Africa; been ordained (against his will) as a priest; and been promoted to co-Bishop of Hippo.
Most readers of the Confessions, including this one, read it as the spiritual autobiography of an early church father who had cycled through a series of enthusiasms during his early life before his dramatic, final conversion to orthodox Christianity. Augustine’s conversion is foreshadowed in the Confessions by Augustine’s statement to God that “our heart is restless until it finds rest in you,” and triggered by the words of a child Augustine hears as he agonizes in a garden: “take it up, read it.”
Lane Fox’s first startling claim is that Augustine’s famous conversion wasn’t a conversion to Christianity at all. Augustine had long considered himself to be a Christian. What he converted to after his garden epiphany was abstention from sex and worldly ambition. He converted to celibacy, Lane Fox assures us, not Christianity. Lane Fox views this as the last of a series of “conversions” that Augustine underwent. The story of these conversions occupies the first three of the book’s five major parts, and is followed by two parts recounting Augustine’s post-conversion “confessions” (by which Lane Fox means Augustine’s commitment to and “blessing” of God, not just his repentance of his earlier misbehavior).
If you’re going to play a conversion-counting game, you obviously need to start by defining just what you mean by conversion. Under Lane Fox’s definition, a conversion “requires a decisive change whereby we abandon a previous practice or belief and adopt exclusively a new one. It involves a ‘turning which implies a consciousness that the old way was wrong and the new is right.’”
With this definition as his guide, Lane Fox chronicles the conversions in Augustine’s life. Augustine experiences his first conversion while studying in Carthage—a conversion to wisdom—under the inspiration of Cicero’s Hortensius. Augustine next embraces Manichaeism—the gnostic interpretation of Christianity that viewed matter as evil and encouraged its adherents to cultivate the sparks of light within them. It’s not entirely clear whether Lane Fox sees this as a conversion, since he believes that Augustine saw himself as a Christian and Manichaeism as a form of Christianity, and Lane Fox usually but not always omits it from his summaries of the conversions. Augustine next converts from rhetoric to philosophy, and finally experiences conversions away from worldly ambition and from sex.
Augustine thus converts to wisdom, to philosophy, to humility and to celibacy. The only thing he never converts to is Christianity itself. Augustine’s spectacular garden experience is “not a conversion to Christian faith, let alone to ‘Catholic’ faith,” Lane Fox argues. “It is a conversion away from sex and ambition.” Even Augustine’s subsequent baptism by Ambrose—which Lane Fox recounts in detail, taking obvious relish in the fact that Augustine and his peers were baptized naked—somehow doesn’t count as a conversion in Lane Fox’s reckoning.
Lane Fox’s story does offer some useful correctives to a simple understanding of the transformations Augustine underwent—he plausibly argues, as have others, that Augustine’s garden experience gave him a stable view of the Christian God, rather than an entirely new one-- but it also is extraordinarily frustrating. One problem is that his suggestion that a conversion to wisdom or humility is the same as a conversion to Christianity or another religion is highly misleading. I suspect Augustine himself would have viewed his embrace of wisdom, philosophy and humility as steps toward a conversion to orthodox Christianity, or as conversions with a small “c”. (Lane Fox occasionally seems almost to endorse a version of this perspective himself, describing the last three of Augustine’s conversions as a single three-part conversion, rather than three different conversions as he does elsewhere in the book.)
This isn’t to say that all Christians experience a conversion with a capital “C”. Even within my own tradition, evangelical Protestantism, which places particularly strong emphasis on conversion, we recognize that many Christians do not come to faith through a single, definite moment of conversion. Some may grow up in a Christian family and context, and never know a moment when they did not see themselves as a Christian. Others experience their conversion as a process that includes more than one step and occurs over a period of time.
Perhaps Augustine viewed himself as someone who was a Christian from his earliest childhood, as Lane Fox suggests. Christianity does seem to have been an ongoing theme in Augustine’s adult life. “The ‘name of Christ,’” as Peter Brown puts it, “had always been present in whatever religion he adopted.” But Augustine’s system of beliefs underwent radical change. Under Lane Fox’s own definition of conversion—the conviction that an old way is wrong and the new one right—Augustine surely converted at one point to Manichaeism and then, as chronicled in the Confessions, converted to (or possibly back to) Catholicism.
Lane Fox’s claim that Augustine didn’t experience a conversion to orthodox Christianity in the garden would be slightly less dubious, though only slightly, if Augustine never took Manichaeism seriously. But Lane Fox clearly believes that he did, as do most other scholars. Although Augustine never became one of the Elect, the highest rank of Manichees, he was a Hearer for roughly a decade and was instrumental in converting others—including his patron Romanianus—to Manichaeism.
A Protestant friend of mine plans to join the Catholic Church this fall. He was a Christian before and he will be a Christian after. But I am quite confident that he will describe the step in the future as a conversion. Surely someone who took the much larger step from Manichaeism to Catholicism in the ancient world converted too. Lane Fox’s attempt to suggest there is no conversion here is revisionism gone badly amok.
Two recurring tendencies raise additional questions about Lane Fox’s backstage story: his skepticism of faith and the supernatural, and love of speculative theories, especially when they are bawdy or naughty.
Lane Fox’s skepticism of faith is most evident in his portrayal of Monica, Augustine’s famously devout and long-suffering mother. Lane Fox frequently characterizes her as little more than a social climber. He speculates that she was happy that he postponed marriage and took a concubine, because she believed that he could better enhance the family’s status through his marriage if he achieved renown before marrying. It was Monica’s idea, as Lane Fox puts it, that Augustine “not be wasted too soon on a local bride from a modest family.” Lane Fox no doubt is right that Monica was concerned about the family’s stature, but he gives short shrift to her passionate faith and her longing for Augustine to fully embrace orthodox Christianity as she had.
Lane Fox’s resistance to the explanations Augustine and Monica themselves gave for their actions—faith and God’s intervention in their lives—would be easier to stomach if Lane Fox didn’t drop dismissive references to Christian Scripture and belief throughout the book. He asserts that the opening chapters of Genesis are untrue, for instance, based on what appears to be a hyper-literalist understanding of the passages; and he assures us that “nowadays” historians consider Christians’ belief that the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied the coming of Jesus to be false. Lane Fox’s discomfort with Augustine’s faith makes Augustine seem as much about Lane Fox himself as about his subject.
Some years ago, the historian George Marsden argued that Christian historians may have special insight into the history of Christian figures and movements, since they are open to the supernatural influences that their subjects believed to be shaping their lives. Lane Fox’s disdain for Christianity suggests that the opposite can also be true. His disinterest in Christianity seems to interfere with his ability to sympathetically engage with Augustine and with the genius of the Confessions.
Lane Fox’s penchant for speculative theories is most evident in his fascination with an allegation by critics of Manichaeism that the elite class of Manichaeans, who ostensibly were required to remain celibate, actually engaged in an bizarre ritual in which they poured flour on the floor, had sex, and then made bread from the “seeded” flour. Lane Fox connects dots between this allegation and the apparent breach of Augustine’s friendship with a wealthy Christian couple who gave all of their wealth to the church and committed themselves to celibacy. The couple seem to have stopped writing to Augustine some time after Augustine sent them a loaf of bread as a gift (in return for a loaf of bread they had sent him). Lane Fox speculates, without any direct evidential basis, that the couple may have suspected that the loaf given to them by Augustine, who was dogged by allegations of Manichaeism long after he rejected its teachings, came from seeded Manichaean flour. Surely the husband “believed what he had heard,” Lane Fox writes in the dramatic concluding sentence of a chapter called “Food for Scandal,” “that he and his wife had swallowed Augustine’s seeded loaf.”
Lane Fox is not the first scholar to explore Augustine’s Manichaeism and the seeded flour allegations. But he seems to delight in spinning them into a web of racy intrigue.
Lane Fox’s most interesting claims come late in the book, when Augustine begins to write the Confessions in 397. Lane Fox credits a medical condition that made it difficult for Augustine to sit or lie down as prompting him to start writing. “In his major commentary on the Confessions,” Lane Fox writes, “James O’Donnell first aired the possibility that the book might have owed its origin to Augustine’s time in bed with piles [hemorrhoids], but he left it merely as a possibility.” Lane Fox speculates that this ailment may have been caused by Augustine’s weekly fasting, and embraces it as the likely “crucible in which the Confessions began.” Lane Fox also speculates that Augustine wrote extremely quickly. As against scholars who believe that Augustine wrote the Confessions over a lengthy period of time—perhaps as long a decade—Lane Fox contends that Augustine could have completed the book in as little as three to six weeks during flurry of writing during Lent. I will leave it to Augustine scholars to debate this claim, but Lane Fox makes an intriguing case. He marshals fascinating evidence from relatively recently discovered Augustine sermons to support his argument for an early completion date.
But even this is undermined by Lane Fox-ian cleverness. As he chronicles how and why the Confessions was written, Lane Fox makes a little joke. “[T]here was no greater cue for a sense of God’s grace,” Lane Fox writes, “than a sense of relief at escape from pains in the backside.” It is as if an English schoolboy were whispering to his neighbor, with glee in his voice, did you hear why Augustine started writing the Confessions …?
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions is not entirely without other redeeming qualities. To add texture to his account of Augustine’s professional life, Fox occasionally refers to Libanius and Synesius, two men whose lives paralleled Augustine’s in some respects. Their experience gives a richer sense of the lives of teachers of rhetoric and philosophers in North Africa during this period.
Lane Fox also provides the fullest overview of the esoteric theology of the Manichees that I have seen, and he argues convincingly that Augustine’s extensive writings about Genesis and creation, and his emphasis on the Bible’s teaching that the universe was created from nothing, were prompted by a desire to refute the Manichees’ belief that the universe was not created and that good and evil have always co-existed.
But Lane Fox’s ludicrous parsing of Augustine’s “conversions” and non-conversions, his love of speculative theories, and his quarrel with Augustine’s faith made me reluctant to credit even his more plausible-sounding claims.
The best part of the book, in some respects, isn’t in the 563 pages of text. It’s in the notes that follow. At the beginning of the notes for each chapter, Lane Fox gives a brief summary of the key sources and his own assessment of them. I suspect I may revisit these from time to time in the future. But for everything else, I’ll stick to Peter Brown and the Confessions itself.
Posted on 12 September 2016
DAVID SKEEL is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of True Paradox: How Christianity Make Sense of Our Complex World, (InterVarsity Press, 2014).
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity 127-35 (1989).
 James O’Donnell, Augustine, Sinner and Saint: A New Biography (2005).
 P. 8.
 P. 289.
 Through the Eye of the Needle, p. 160.
 Lane Fox spells her name as Monnica, but I use the traditional spelling here.
 P. 49.
 See, e.g., George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1998).
 P. 510.
 P. 519.
 P. 520.