Saturday, February 13, 2016

What We're Reading: Augustine's World

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions

by Robin Lane Fox

There were two books that I read in my high school days that left a lasting impression. They were not the usual assigned “classics” like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, or To Kill a Mockingbird. One of those books was Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the book that defined the character and methods of historiography in the Western World. The other was The Confessions of St. Augustine. I was a serious young man. In looking back, it seems a disparate, perhaps antithetical, pairing. Thucydides’ history was notable in that it was one of the first to banish the agency of the gods in explaining the political affairs of men, while Augustine’s book was an extended paean to a personal God, one whose hand he discerned in the critical moments and movements of his life.

Bob Dylan’s song, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” led me to the Confessions. It was the lingering memory of Confessions that caused me to pick up Fox’s book. Readers who are looking for a sympathetic spiritual or reverential treatment of Confessions should know before investing time in this 657-page book that this is not what Augustine: Conversions to Confessions is about. This is not hagiography. Fox tells readers that he does not share Augustine’s Christian faith, and in fact some readers may find few passages mocking and irreverent in their tone. Fox is a classical scholar, and his exposition here is distanced and erudite. He does not try to recreate the compelling elements of Confessions, the extraordinary power of Augustine’s artful intimacy with the reader or the powerful vision of the beneficence and love of God he presents to his readers. Fox’s book is a secular reconstruction of Augustine’s intellectual and religious development, a tracing of the road that led to the meanings and form of The Confessions. It is an account in which the religious and philosophical currents of the time rather than the action of the Holy Spirit, as Augustine attests, explain the experiences and course of Augustine’s life. In the instances in which Augustine finds the intervention of God in his life, Fox is apt to offer alternative explanations, ones that have more to do with the social context of the world in which Augustine lived, and with practical and worldly motives. We get a detailed look at Augustine’s life, his family, and his early career as a rhetorician and teacher.

St. Augustine (detail) from an early Renaissance
portrait by Antonello da Messina, 1472
Although Fox is interested in contextualizing Augustine, in having us understand the world in which he lived and that formed his thought, this is, in its own right, a fascinating story; Fox’s scholarship is exemplary. His account confronts some common religious and historical simplifications and misconceptions. We are reminded that the major tenets of Catholicism were ideas that developed over the course of centuries from the time of Christ, the Apostles, and Paul. Fox gives us an interesting portrait of Catholicism in the ancient world. It was an odd hybrid of Christian beliefs and vestiges of pagan traditions, with local cults of martyrs and raucous festivals that celebrated their feast days. The classical world did not end one night and the Christian era begin the next morning, the demarcation we project so readily on the ancient past. Augustine’s world of the late 4th Century was a world of fluid and fervid intellectual and religious currents. In the Romanized world of North Africa, where Augustine was born, there was a major split in the Catholic Church. It was not based on differing theological points, but rather on conflicting claims as to which party represented the true lineage of the faith. In addition to this long-term schism, Manicheanism, with its assertion of the dualism of good and evil, was a powerful alternative to Christianity. In fact, for 11 years of his life, Augustine was a Manichean. Fox gives an extensive and detailed explanation of Manicheanism and examines its place in Augustine’s thought and spiritual development. Classical paganism, too, was still a strong and viable faith and practice. And the tradition of classical Greek and Roman learning, particularly the thought of the Platonists, greatly influenced contemporary thought and religious belief. Fox explores the impact of all of these on Augustine’s ideas and faith, and shows how they inform the thought and structure of the Confessions.

St. Ambrose by Francisco de Zubarán, 1626.
Ambrose was bishop of Milan, and was Augustine’s
Christian mentor and baptized Augustine.
Augustine had travelled from North Africa to
Milan to advance his career as a teacher
and rhetorician.
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions does a remarkable job of tracing Augustine's intellectual development and the origins of his theological innovations. But the thing that is attractive about Confessions, the sense we get of Augustine’s spiritual and emotional life, is missing. We don’t get a sense here of the emotions that drove the thoughts. Fox looks in great detail at the role of sex in Augustine’s life; in fact he believes that Augustine’s “is not a conversion to Christian faith….It is a conversion away from sex and ambition.” It is never clear, however, why the turning away from sex to celibacy was important in Augustine’s emotional or intellectual life. What compelled this? What ideas or contemporary context made this seem the necessary path to an understanding of God and a closer relationship with God?

St. Monica by Benozzo Gozzol, 1464.
Historically, Monica’s ascendancy in the
hierarchy of Catholic saints had everything
to do with Augustine, her famous son.
Today, a densely populated and largely
agnostic city on the western coast of
the United States bears her name.

There is the sense in reading Fox’s book that Augustine’s internal struggle is one that takes place in a psychological prison of his own making, that it is not an existential task still common to us all. We do not have the introspective conversations with ourselves that Augustine had, we go through neither the self-doubting nor arrive at the certainties that animated Confessions and made it such a compelling text for generations of readers. We live in a different world. As Mark Lilla wrote in his review of Augustine in the New York Times, “We traded pious self-cultivation for undemanding self-esteem. But is love of self really enough to be happy? You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine.”

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