Book Review: Augustine
by Robin Lane Fox
Basic Books, 2015
Had Bishop Augustine of Hippo been alive in the 18th Century, he would have rankled at Edward Gibbon’s priceless zinger about him, that “his learning is too often borrowed, his arguments, too often his own.” But even Augustine’s unconvincingly chastened vanity would have been pleased by the flowing stream of critical attention given to his Confessions, a little work he himself certainly didn’t consider his masterpiece.
The Confessions acts as the rhetorical climax of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, a big new book (“There are many fine short books on Augustine,” our author tells us, “I saw no reason to add another, so I opted for a long book …”) by historian Robin Lane Fox, who spends the bulk of his 600 pages giving one of the most comprehensively detailed and enthusiastically readable accounts ever written of the first thirty years of Augustine’s life, his wild youth, his ardent Manichean period, and his gradual drift – and then sudden leap – into the waiting arms of his mother’s Christianity.
Readers of Lane Fox’s previous books will know the signature combination of classical learning and very contemporary wit this author brings to his work, and despite its fairly ponderous subject matter, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions operates along the same patterns, shifting nimbly between the two registers, sometimes in the same paragraph:
In a remarkable letter, Augustine presents himself in a somewhat different predicament. Early in 397, perhaps in February, he writs to the man whom he calls his ‘alter ego‘. Profuturus, now a bishop, to tell him that he is acutely ill. He is in bed. He cannot sit and he cannot walk. He describes his condition by two words of Greek origin, implying an expert medical assessment. He has haemorhoids, or piles (exochadae), and ‘anal fissures’ (rhagadae). ‘As we are sure it is the Lord’s will,’ he writes, ‘what also can we say, except that we are doing very well?’ in body as well as in spirit. Augustine’s faith in God’s ‘order’ and goodness was being tested from the bottom up.
St. Augusine’s own writings provide readers with one of the most detailed and believable of human portraits over time. There was scarcely a moment of his adult life when Augustine wasn’t writing, and in some of that writing he pioneered entirely new ways of being honest with readers. It’s this quality above all others that continues to make The Confessions a searchingly contemporary work, and Lane Fox demonstrates here a shrewd insight into that evergreen appeal:
After sixteen hundred years, a post-Christian age has begun to wonder if we have finally ‘finished with’ Augustine’s ideas. His confessions of sins, him himself tells us, ‘rouse the heart and stop it sleeping in despair and saying, “I cannot”’. He hope to encourage Christian readers to share his high ideals, but even those who do not share them and whose hearts say ‘I cannot’ are still moved to think, ‘Why not?’ We will never finish with his confessions because they will not finish with us.