Augustine: Conversions to Confessions
For Robin Lane Fox, the timelessness of Augustine’s Confessions demands a reading that attends to the particular time and place that gave rise to this classic work. Accordingly, Lane Fox introduces Augustine: Conversions to Confessions as a “‘biography’ of the Confessions” (7), not as a biography of Augustine. Although such an approach cannot ignore Augustine’s own biography, Lane Fox utilizes the former to make sense of the latter. Writing as a classicist, Lane Fox litters his work’s more than six hundred pages with historical and biographical details, but the principal subject of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions remains the Confessions—not Augustine himself or even the primary addressee of the Confessions, God. Although Christian scholars may take issue with such an approach, Augustine’s own work offers insights about how scholars may read Lane Fox’s work with charity.
The book is composed of an introduction, six parts, forty-two chapters, and an epilogue. Lane Fox explains that he structured the work as a “biographical symphony whose theme is Augustine’s life up to the age of forty-three” (xii). The first half of the work, according to Lane Fox, emphasizes conversions “with confessing as an undercurrent,” while the second half reverses these pairs, placing confessing as the dominant part and conversion in a secondary role (xii). Despite a neat summary, the rhetorical structure is not characterized by equal precision. The reader must deduce from Lane Fox’s treatment the principle themes of each part even though they go unnamed, and Lane Fox leaves reader guessing about the relationship between chapters and the significance of the unnamed sectional divisions.
When reconstructed, Part I may be read to deal with Augustine’s early childhood and his education. Part II signals a transition to Augustine’s time as a Manichaean inquirer and his early career as an instructor of rhetoric. Part III chronicles Augustine’s move to Milan and his conversion. Part IV deals with Augustine’s experiments in communal life and his early writings as a Christian convert. Part V considers Augustine’s initiation into the priesthood and his service as Bishop at Hippo. Part VI turns to the final seven “steps” undertaken by Augustine that culminated in the Confessions. Because of the centrality of Confessions, and because Confessions provides much of the early biographical information for Augustine, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions should be read with a copy of Confessions close at hand, or, better yet, after a careful reading of the Confessions. Peter Brown’s seminal Augustine of Hippo: A Biography1 and Gary Wills’s Augustine’s “Confessions”: A Biography2 are complementary sources that may also aid readers.
Within this structure, the logic that informs Lane Fox’s work may be rendered as an attempt to trace the amalgamation of experiences, relationships, ideas, historical events, and contextual factors that gave birth to the Confessions. Three provisional conclusions, presented toward the end of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, suggest the implicit assumptions that inform the first five hundred pages of his argument. First, Lane Fox states, “The Confessions were not a sudden break with Augustine’s past,” even though they required an “impulse, or ‘prompt’” (519). Second, the Confessions were dictated over a very short period of time, possibly as short as three weeks, immediately before Easter in 397 (533-537). And, third, the main themes of Augustine’s thought had largely been outlined by 397, so that what Augustine composed later represents a deepening of his already established views (558). Although each point remains contested, the cogency of Lane Fox’s analysis assumes the veracity of these three conclusions.
A notable component of Lane Fox’s argument is his use of a literary triptych to provide two historical panes of comparison for the life and work of Augustine. He selects Synesius, the wealthy fifth-century Bishop of Ptolemais, and Libanius, a noted fourth-century pagan Roman rhetorician, as the exterior panes of his triptych construction. Although the Christian tradition contains iconic uses of triptych in art (such as the Isenheim Altarpiece), Lane Fox’s treatment lacks the subtlety and nuance of the many great artworks from which he draws the name. By contrast, like uninvited guests, Synesius and Libanius appear unexpectedly throughout the account, consume an inordinate amount of the reader’s time, and then leave before making significant contributions to the conversation they interrupted. Lane Fox notes that Synesius and Augustine did not know each other (414), but he remains adamant to draw points of comparison between the two figures. Of Libanius, Lane Fox proposes that his career “reminds us of what Augustine, if unconverted, might have remained” (9). In both cases, Lane Fox’s triptych analysis is plagued by hasty generalizations and fuzzy logic.
The work reads slowly, and typographical errors appear toward the end of Lane Fox’s account (see, for example, 492, 551). The work is noteworthy for its research and extensive bibliography, but remains unmemorable in its style and composition. Sadly, many of the qualities that mark Augustine’s speaking and writing—such as his quick-wittedness, improvisational ability, precision, and rhetorical complexity—are manifest neither in Lane Fox’s treatment of Augustine’s life nor in his analysis of the Confessions. In terms of both style and composition, the work repeatedly over-promises and under-delivers. Moreover, Lane Fox’s decision to restrict his reading to Augustine’s writings up until September 397 (xii)—a few months after Lane Fox’s dating of the Confessions—provides a convenient pretext to underexplore potentially illuminating connections with Augustine’s later works, even while he includes commentary from much later writers, including Leo Tolstoy and T. S. Eliot.
Despite the shortcomings of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Lane Fox is at his best when he moves beyond the biographical details of Augustine’s life and the content of the Confessions to the surrounding historical context of the ancient world. Assiduously researched and filled with historical details, Lane Fox’s discussion of fourth-century Manichaeism (101- 117), Ambrose’s leadership in Milan (181-199, 218-224), and the baptismal rites practiced in Milan (347-352) merit a thorough reading. Lane Fox’s analysis at these points, when read together with his conclusion that the Confessions stands in continuity with Augustine’s past (519), offers valuable historical texture to Augustine’s life and work that can inform one’s reading of the Confessions as well as Augustine’s other works.
For readers who identify as Christian scholars, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions presses the perennial question about the relationship between a confessional perspective and the methodological practices of Christian scholarship. Lane Fox signals early in his work that he does not approach Augustine’s life and the Confessions from a position of faith (xi). Yet Augustine: Conversions to Confessions cannot be cavalierly dismissed because of its lack of confessional grounding. Instead, Christian scholars may benefit by employing a hermeneutic of charity, as exemplified by Augustine’s engagement with the fifth-century pagan world. In a post-Confessions work, The City of God (begun by Augustine in 412), Augustine expresses a hermeneutic of charity in his two cities theo-political account of the nature of Christian existence. For Augustine, the members of the heavenly city and the earthly city cannot be distinguished in the present age. He writes, “In this world, in fact, these two cities remain intermixed and intermingled with each other until they are finally separated at the last judgment” (civ. Dei 1.35). Augustine indicates that even though the respective members of these cities remain mixed together—like fish in a net—Christians may attend to the marks of the heavenly city during their present pilgrim existence. Among others, these include: oriented to the worship of the one true God (civ. Dei 10.2), ordered by Scripture (civ. Dei 10.25), and animated by the Spirit (civ. Dei 14.1). As applied to Lane Fox’s work and to the task of Christian scholarship, Augustine’s vision demands that a hermeneutic of charity be applied to non-confessional writings. In the present age, even though Christian scholarship may be conducted according to the “marks” Augustine suggests, Christian scholars should be wary of attempts to sort forms of scholarship according to absolute confessional and non-confessional boundaries. It may be, as Augustine suggests, premature to sort the sheep from the goats.
At this point, Augustine’s Confessions offers helpful language. In his prayer that begins the Confessions—“Our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (Confessions, 1.1)—Augustine gives voice to the animating theological vision that guides Christian scholarship: human hearts and minds may be both stirred by, and find their proper rest in, the Triune God. Accordingly, Christian scholars can charitably engage with non-confessional forms of scholarship with the knowledge that confessional and non-confessional approaches share a common restlessness that can only be stilled in the presence of God.
Cite this article
- Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, New Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
- Gary Wills, Augustine’s “Confessions”: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). Readers who use this text should be mindful of the differences between Wills and Lane Fox that aired in a recent exchange in The New York Review of Books. See Gary Wills, “Reading Augustine’s Mind,” The New York Review of Books (January 14, 2016); and Robin Lane Fox and Gary Wills, “A Difference Over Augustine,” The New York Review of Books (March 10, 2016).