Reading Peter Brown

As my sabbatical is quickly coming to an end (as of, tomorrow), I’m coming to at least three realizations:

1. There remains so much more to read.

2. There remains so much more to write.

3. There remains so much more to blog about.

All of these are perhaps inescapable and the very definition of an active intellectual life.

To add one more post before things get really hectic, I’d like to post about a classic biography, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. Brown first wrote the book in 1967, but it remains a key work for understanding Augustine’s life and context.

The book is large–over 500 pages–and I had wanted to devote my full attention to it. Over the past several months, I’ve been able to read it cover to cover and really appreciate both its style and its content. This was one book I probably wouldn’t have read if not on a sabbatical, so I wanted to make sure I did read it while I had the time.

The book is well recognized as a classic, and I can recommend it as such. In both accessibility and content, it reads as well and better as Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand.

Without a doubt, Augustine remains one of the preeminent figures in all of Western History, especially so for Catholics and Protestants. Rooted in his time–he lived from A.D. 354 to 430–Augustine thought and wrote in such a way that he laid the intellectual groundwork for much of the Early Middle Ages. Because of his Christian philosophy, Augustine was able to acknowledge and prepare for a world after Rome.

Still, Augustine was very much a man of his time and place, of his context in the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. It is this context which Brown illuminates so well. Brown is less interested in the intricacies of Augustine’s theology than in Augustine’s life and work. Brown largely gestures towards elements of the theology, assuming other works are available for readers to understand Augustine’s theology–as there are. Instead, Brown describes how the world appeared to Augustine, how he confronted possibilities in his world, and how he occasionally managed to transcend them.

There were several important moments in Augustine’s career that Brown helped me better understand. The first was Augustine’s conversion. This is movingly–and famously–recounted in The Confessions. Driven almost to despair, Augustine rushes into the garden, hears children singing “Tolle, Lege” (“Take and Read”), and picks up Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which was near at hand. Romans 13 speaks directly to him, and he is converted. Brown’s account shows more of what Augustine was trying to do in Milan when he was converted and how he had become drawn closer and closer to Christianity. Indeed, the presence of Augustine’s mother Monica meant that the Church was never far from his mind.

A second insight I gleaned came regarding Augustine’s time as a bishop. We may think of him as a theologian, but what was he doing as Bishop of Hippo. Quite a lot, it turns out.  He had to worry about basic administration and even administer justice to the locals. He preached regularly, and he made frequent trips to Carthage, also to preach. He kept up an extensive correspondence, which only increased as Augustine became more famous. Thus, rather than a withdrawn theologian, Augustine had to write even while immersed in the press of daily activities. (Given his output, that should put me and every other contemporary to shame.) In one touching moment, Augustine paused in a letter to a gentleman to encourage the gentleman’s son in his Latin grammar studies. Augustine thus demonstrated the ability to take pains for small things even when other details pressed upon him.

The book also gave me better context for understanding two of the most famous controversies Augustine was involved in: the Donatist and the Pelagian Controversies.

The Donatists were a splinter Christian church in North Africa. They believed the Catholic bishops were invalid because during intense persecution, several bishops (including the bishop of Carthage) had recanted their faith. Such bishops could never consecrate others, even if they were still leading the church. The Donatists favored an austere, pure church. In response, Augustine developed his theology of the Church that saw it as more of a hospital, rather than a group of already-perfected saints. What I came to understand was how compelling Donatism had been in North Africa. In many places, they were the majority. Even in Hippo, Augustine had to struggle to convince townspeople to rejoin his church. Many towns had two rival bishops. So, rather than an obscure movement, Donatism was a very real existential challenge to Augustine and the rest of the Church.

Next, Brown sketched some of the dynamics of Augustine’s battles with the supporters of the British monk Pelagius. Pelagius was a perfectionist who believed the only thing holding back individuals from spiritual perfection was their own effort. Contra Pelagius, Augustine had to define both an idea of Original Sin and a concept of grace that explained why human effort was not enough. Here, I appreciated Brown’s tracing how such a debate functioned in the Church around the entire Mediterranean. Particularly interesting were Augustine’s sparring with one very shrewd Pelagian named Julian of Eclanum.

Finally, the biography really placed Augustine’s work on his masterpiece The City of God in perspective. Augustine labored over it for years, decades even. He was responding to many audiences, and his ideas developed even as he worked on it. Augustine called it his “great and arduous work.” (Granted, reading it sometimes seems a great and arduous work.) Understanding how it came together in pieces helps makes sense of its rather sprawling content.

After writing the Augustine biography, Peter Brown continued to work on the world of late Antiquity, really establishing it as a field of study in its own right. Another of his striking works was simply titled Body and Society, which examined ideas within monasticism. Just recently he has published Through the Eye of a Needle, which looks at how wealth was viewed and used in the Church in this period.

Peter Brown has been at Princeton for many years, and I really enjoyed the several times I was in seminars where he was still asking insightful questions. I didn’t bother Brown himself, but I had several great conversations with a few of Brown’s students, who are really building on his legacy.

Several of them–including David Michelson, Jack Tannous, and Thomas Carlson–are really advancing our understanding of Eastern Christianities. Although most Westerners are interested in European Christianity, these scholars are pointing to areas where the Church was much more developed–in the Middle East and farther East, beyond the reach even of the Byzantine Church. There are whole literatures in Syriac that still have not been mined. What I discovered was that thinking only about Western Europe in the late antique/early medieval world really limits our understanding of the church’s capacity for theological reflection and the shaping of culture.

So, reading Peter Brown and learning from his students has really awakened my interest in the world of late antiquity. It will be one more thing to think about when I’m not thinking about the Early American Republic


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