"The Conversion of St. Augustine" by Fra Angelico (c 1395–1455)
Garry Wills, author of such book-length screeds as Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit and Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, begins his deliciously wicked, and almost completely unfair, review of Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions with this striking vignette: “Robin Lane Fox, a British classical scholar, was the historical adviser for Oliver Stone’s godawful movie Alexander. He asked to be, and was, repaid by riding bareback in the movie, in the front line of Alexander’s cavalry.” Ouch. The review gallops from there in the same unrelenting direction for 3,300 more words, trampling Fox underfoot and dragging his motives and scholarship through the proverbial mud. (For Fox’s much more irenic response, read here.)
Fox and Wills are both historians and both are, surprisingly, close readers of Augustine. They also share a somewhat marginal relationship to the Faith which their subject professes. Wills is a Catholic, but is critical of most things traditionally Catholic; Fox is an avowed agnostic. But Fox, unlike Wills, does not have a bone to pick. And that is one reason Fox’s book on Augustine is so good: he lets Augustine and his times shine through without interposing himself too often or too much.
To be honest, I expected not to like Fox’s book. Fox is a classical historian, an unbeliever, who confesses his own “worldly multiplicity” which not even Augustine’s persuasive influence could dislodge. I thought that Fox would be like so many other unsympathetic readers of Augustine, judging him by progressive contemporary standards, making him out to be the villain of our current woes (usually, sexual ones), and generally butchering the poor saint’s thought for his own purposes. The review by Wills, which I read before I started Fox’s book, seemingly confirmed my suspicionsFox is an Oxford don, obsessed with sex and bent on twisting Augustine for his own lascivious ends. But, upon reading Fox’s Augustine, I was pleasantly disappointed. Fox has written an attentive, rich, and compelling book about Augustine which will reward scholars and edify non-specialists. It will also entertain both.
In his introduction, Fox humorously notes that “there are many fine short books on Augustine…I saw no reason to add another, so I opted for a long book” (xii). Weighing in at 657 pages, he is not kidding (though the good folks at Basic Books charge a very reasonable $35, a mere five cents a pagea good deal!). Readers looking for a concise and accessible introduction to Augustine’s thought would be better off with Matthew Levering’s excellent The Theology of Augustine (Baker Academic, 2013) or Romano Guardini’s The Conversion of Augustine (Newman Press, 1960), which I think is still one of the most incisive readings of Augustine. Fox’s book is not for getting to the heart of things quickly. He has a historian’s eye for detail and a novelist’s flair for telling stories; he cannot let something pass without explaining its whole history. This can be frustrating for those looking to learn only about Augustine, but if you know you’re in for a long ride, you can sit back and enjoy the places he takes you. This is a book for a long summer, best enjoyed with a cup of coffee in hand or a late afternoon mint julep.
Fox envisions his book as “a biographical symphony” and that image is apt, not only because of the size, but also because of the sense of movement, the polyphony of voices and themes that are skillfully woven together, and the elegant style of the whole. Fox focuses on Augustine, but compares and contrasts his life and decisions with two near-contemporaries, the older pagan Greek orator, Libanius, and the younger (also Greek) Christian bishop, Synesius. Together, these three sketches form something “like a tryptich on a medieval Christian altar” (8). We are also treated to occasional reflections on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and other illuminating figures on Fox’s bookshelf. Readers interested only in Augustine may find these “digressions” wearisomein the midst of a meditation on Augustine, we get several pages on someone else (or, in one case, forty pages on Mani and the Manicheans!). But again, if you give yourself over to the historian’s craft, you will enjoy learning about things you would never have even known you wanted to learn about. And you will enjoy learning them.
I continually found myself grateful that Fox did not pick up one of the many common, lame readings of Augustine. Fox, for example, avoids simplistic Freudian analyses of Augustine and his relationship to his mother. He puts Augustine’s erotic expressions of love for his friends in context, dismissing the easy conclusion but not likely possibility that his friendships were sexual.
He also, refreshingly, takes Augustine’s theft of the pears seriously. Many see this teenage prank as simple adolescent mischief and accuse Augustine of an overdeveloped sense of guilt. But Fox rightly notes that Augustine’s “analysis goes to the heart of the Confessions” (65). Augustine dwells on this episode at length (almost the whole length of Book 2 of the Confessions), not because of the gravity of the external act (there are clearly things he has already done that are more objectively grave), but because, Fox argues, Augustine sees in this act the “human propensity for purposeless evil” (68). Much to the chagrin of my Thomist friends who think that every action has to aim at some good, I think that Augustine understands the darkness of the human heart better. We have the capacity, even inclination, to choose nihilating evil for no reason, out of sheer perversity of the will. Fox gets Augustine right on this.
There are arguments in Fox’s voluminous book that scholars will want to engage: his persuasive account of Augustine as a lifelong Christian; his intriguing understanding of the role of the Platonists in Augustine’s conversion (drawing on the standard Milanese, but ultimately false intellectual genealogy that Plato learned Moses’ teachings from the prophet Jeremiah); the role of the last three books of the Confessions; and his creative take on the Tolle, lege episode. Scholars may also want to weigh in on the lurid (and false) accusation against Augustine which Fox describes and which Garry Wills so angrily decries. The details should not be repeated in decent company, but you can read Wills’ review and Fox’s response for the particulars and the scholarly controversy surrounding it.
Fox also makes a speculative, but credible argument for how Augustine wrote the whole Confessions during Lent in a period of sickness. In Lent of 397, Fox explains, Augustine had terrible hemorrhoids which prevented him either from standing or lying down (let alone attending to his daily work as bishop of Hippo). He then, Fox suggests, spends his days kneeling and dictating the Confessions to his secretaries. There is some evidence from Augustine’s letters at the time that confirm this theory and, while unprovable, this speculative account would make sense of the dynamic current and immediacy one feels when reading the Confessions all the way through. It would be another argument for its deliberate and well-structured unity, which seems to baffle so many scholars.
Fox’s book is also is peppered with British wit. When speaking about the letter where Augustine talks about praising God in the midst of suffering from hemorrhoids, Fox wryly notes, “Augustine’s faith in God’s ‘order’ and goodness was being tested from the bottom up” (519). When discussing Augustine’s views of original sin, evidence for which Augustine claims can be seen by watching babies, Fox writes, “A baby’s limbs are feeble as it kicks and strikes out, but its mind is sinful. Few parents in the front lines nowadays would disagree” (37). Only those without children object to Augustine’s account of the sinfulness of little children.
Even though Fox does not share Augustine’s faith, he is deeply sympathetic with Augustine and clearly admires his mind and thought. Still, there are times when Fox could have tried harder to enter into the interior logic of fourth-century Christians, even if he disagrees with them. Fox has a rather limited view of the life of virginity, calling fourth-century virgins virtuousi and “overachievers.” Aside from these disparaging terms, he also sees virginity only in terms of lack, repeatedly using the phrase “sexless life.” Rather than a radical openness to God, virginity is understood only in terms of what it rejects. This is to deeply miss the self-understanding of those early Christians, but also something at the heart of Christianity. As my friend Eve Tushnet says, “Jesus died a virgin. If you can only see this as a lack instead of seeing it as his love flowing in different forms, then you are really missing something central about the life of Jesus and his followers.” Fox misses it.
This comes through particularly in Fox’s account of what has traditionally been called “Augustine’s conversion.” Fox rightly points out that Augustine is a catechumen from his infancy and that Augustine always believed in Christ, so, in some sense, Augustine was always a Christian (even if unorthodox). Augustine’s conversion is better understood as a “reversion,” a returning to the faith his mother gave him as child. But Fox keeps the language of conversion and says that Augustine had “a conversion away from sex and ambition” (289). While this is certainly true, Fox does not really try in any serious way to connect these conversions “away from” to a conversion “to.” The reductionist understanding that Augustine’s conversion was simply a negative turn away from lesser things without a corresponding turn to better things is not an accurate reflection of Augustine’s life and thought.
Still, these occasional lapses from sympathy with his subject should not turn anyone away from reading Fox's enjoyable tome. If you want to know about the first forty years of Augustine’s life in great detail; if you want to engage his thought; if you want to get a vivid sense of life in the fourth century; if you want an entertaining and edifying summer read which will help you understand one of your favorite saints better, then I heartily recommend Augustine: Conversions to Confessions.
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions
by Robin Lane Fox.
New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Hardcover, 657 pages.