His [Augustine’s] monastic base was still combined with travel, always on horseback (without stirrups).
—Robin Lane Fox
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. He is an adventurous fellow. Now he tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’sConfessions, the book in which Augustine described his own life from his birth in 354, to his early belief in Manichaeism, to his baptism in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. He takes over five hundred pages to get us to the time Confessionswas written (397), Augustine’s forty-third year (with thirty-three years more to live).
Lane Fox’s book largely traces the progress of Augustine with reference to dreams, conversions, ascents, and visions. He sets a low bar for these mystical events. In the famous garden “conversion scene” in 386 AD, for instance, Lane Fox claims that the appearance of Lady Continence talking to Augustine was an actual vision—though he admits that the previous image (of seductive women pulling Augustine back from his decision) is a literary convention.
To assure us that prophetic dreams, mystical ascents, and visions were common and believed in, he traces their influence on the thought and actions of two men who were Augustine’s contemporaries, though Augustine did not know, know of, or read them. He locates Augustine (354–430) by a kind of triangulation, tracing similarities with, and differences from, the Christian bishop Synesius of Cyrene (circa 373–414) and the pagan orator Libanius of Antioch (circa 314–393). Since these men are less known than Augustine, this is explaining ignotum per ignotius. He thinks of it, rather, as “like a triptych on a medieval Christian altar,” with Libanius on the left “casting a look of profound disapproval up at Augustine,” and the Christian Synesius on the right “looking up with tempered adoration.” Lane Fox wants us to know that the other two believed, like Augustine, in dreams, ascents, visions, and devils—though the more interesting question would be who, at the time, did not.
He brings in the other two not only to learn about attitudes toward the supernatural. Every sameness or difference of the three is recorded, as on a checklist. Augustine studied hard at school—so did they. Augustine had a concubine, and so did Libanius. He was a bishop, and so was Synesius. But Synesius loved to hunt, and Augustine did not. Did Augustine have throat problems? Libanius had migraines and gout. This is what Lane Fox calls significantly “similar health problem[s],” but who of us doesn’t have some illness sometime?
The conviction grows that if Augustine had at any time described himself as sneezing, Synesius or Libanius would be found doing or not doing that. He not only compares what the three men did, but imagines what they would have thought of each other if they had been acquainted.
Mind reading is another part of Lane Fox’s method. When in 386 Augustine leaves the profession of rhetoric, which he taught first in Carthage and then in Rome and Milan, Libanius, who lived for rhetoric, “would have snorted in disgust,” but Synesius could have helped Augustine hone his arguments in “a ‘conference call’ with Augustine and [Augustine’s friend] Nebridius,” had cell phones existed in the fourth century and had they known whom to call. It becomes wearying to watch Lane Fox leap from one of his three yoked horses to the other as they gallop forward, though he seems to find it as exhilarating as riding with Alexander’s cavalry.
In all this comparing of the three men, Lane Fox fails to examine the one enormous difference Augustine had from the other two. They lived in the great world; he did not. The great world of the fourth and fifth centuries was Rome’s Eastern empire. That is where the theological and ecclesiastical action was. The ecumenical councils occurred there—Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451)—with little or no participation from the West, which was a lesser world intellectually. The early theological giants were from places like Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Constantinople. Among them were Origen, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. They debated and defined Christian teaching, in technical Greek terms, homoousion, hypostasis, prosopon, and the like. The Western church had fewer and lesser men before Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Augustine, and of these only one—Augustine—was not in communication with the East, since he did not know Greek.
That is an astonishing fact, one that Lane Fox brushes away, saying without offering any evidence that “Augustine’s writings in later life reveal that his Greek improved until it was far from rudimentary.” Even if that were true, it would depend on what “later life” means—leaving most of his years Greekless, unable to read the Koine text of the New Testament. In fact, as James O’Donnell, the best editor of Confessions, has rightly concluded, Augustine’s Greek was “pathetic”—in fact, Augustine was the only major thinker of late antiquity who was monolingual. O’Donnell measures the deep significance of that fact:
To come at the end of the fertile years that were marked by the literary careers of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Evagrius Ponticus, to name only a few, and to be heir to a Christian tradition that numbered Origen among its most learned and original figures, and to be unable to read any of them except in very limited and partial ways reflected through translation was bad [enough]. But to be cut off from direct reading of the gospels and Paul as well was ultimately very damaging to what he could say and do. Yet he never seems to have been truly distressed by his lack, though there had to be people around him who sniffed at him for it.1
There were indeed people who scoffed at Augustine’s provincialism. The well-educated Julian of Eclanum dismissed Augustine as “what passes for a philosopher in Africa” (philosophaster Africanus) and a “donkey keeper” (patronus asinorum) of his little flock in Hippo.2
Lane Fox cannot recognize the gap between the greater and lesser intellectual worlds of the time, since he wants to have his three men share one culture, to be at all times and in all ways comparable. He needs the intellectual equivalent of Thomas Friedman’s economic “flat world,” so he can dart back and forth from one to another of his chosen three men. Other scholars, with different concerns, have tried to deny that Augustine was ignorant of Greek and of the Eastern church. They tease out hopes that his discussions of Greek words and Bible verses are not like those of a person deciphering phrases in the Loeb Greek series with the help of the facing page of translation. But Augustine was forthright in admitting his lack of Greek, especially when he treated the Trinity, a doctrine that had been thoroughly vented (some say invented) in the East:
Things for me to read on this subject [the Trinity] have not been widely circulated in Latin—perhaps because they do not exist, or they cannot be found, or I at least have trouble finding them. As for writings in Greek, I am not familiar enough with that language to read easily or understand thoroughly [Greek] works on this topic—though I am sure, from what little has been translated, that they may contain the answers to any questions we could reasonably ask of them.3
Why, when he recognized this deficiency, did Augustine not remedy it? He admits he resisted others’ efforts to teach him Greek in school, but he had many opportunities to learn it afterward. When he was at the Greek-speaking court of the emperor in Milan, officials and soldiers around him used Greek. So did the Christians who most influenced him at this key moment in his life and introduced him to Neoplatonic views—Ambrose, Simplician, Mallius Theodore. The bishop who ordained him in Hippo was a Greek speaker from birth.
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