Fra Angelico: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, circa 1430s

Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France/Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource

Fra Angelico: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, circa 1430s

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’s Confessions, 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 Confessions was 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.

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, homoousionhypostasisprosopon, 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.

It seems that Augustine intuited from early on that concentration on his own resources, especially those born out of inner needs, would foster his greatest gift as a thinker—his endless originality. He says that he sought God within himself, mystery seeking mystery. “You were more in me than I was in me” (interior intimo meo). “You remained within while I went outside” (intus eras et ego foris).4 Starting thus from his own inner place, he humbly invites others to join him in his exploration of the unknown:

Anyone reading this should travel on with me where we agree; search with me where we are unsure; rejoin me if he finds he is astray; call me back if I am astray. In this way, we may jointly proceed along the path opened by love, venturing toward the one of whom we are told, “Search always for his countenance.”5

By starting every inquiry from a new place, Augustine surprises us, time after time, page after page, with the absolutely original things he has to say. The eminent classicist Albrecht Dihle, after devoting his famous Sather Lectures to a survey of Greek and Latin writings on the human will, concluded: “It is mainly through this entirely new concept of his own self that St. Augustine superseded the conceptual system of Greco-Roman culture.”6 The philosopher Gareth Mathews calls De Trinitate “the first…treatise on mind in the modern sense of ‘mind.’”7 The Plotinus scholar Paul Henry claimed that Augustine was “the first thinker who brought into prominence and understood an analysis of the philosophical and psychological concepts of person and personality.”8 Augustine invented an entirely new theology of the Trinity by finding it reflected in the one-and-many aspects of human personality.

Lane Fox does not follow any of these paths into Augustine’s originality. Instead, he keeps trying to demonstrate his own originality by ringing all the changes on his comparisons with Libanius and Synesius. It is not enough for him to say that Synesius was a Christian bishop, like Augustine, but that Synesius was married with children (a not uncommon situation in the fourth century). He has to go on and imagine what the whole course of Augustine’s life would have been if had been a married bishop. We are marshaled by phrases like he “might have” (three times) or “would have” (four times) toward a bridge to nowhere. He even tells us how many children Augustine might have/would have had—four. It’s a wonder he doesn’t tell us their names. Lane Fox aspires to know the unknowable, even when it is not worth knowing.

The absurdity of this procedure would not be so frustrating if he did not waste so many pages in its obsessive pursuit. Though many people date the composition of Confessions in stages over more than a year, he argues cogently that it was written all at once, in a great feat of concentration. But then comes the inevitable comparison with Libanius, who wrote his own autobiography in the form of an oration, but did it in stages—and we get five close-printed pages to describe those stages. Then, when we finally get back to Confessions, Lane Fox tells us not only what year it was written in (397) but what days—during Lent for the account of his sins and during Easter season for the last books on the creation verses of Genesis. It is an interesting though unverifiable guess, but it does not change the meaning of the text or our reaction to it.

Lane Fox does not restrict his stringing out of hypotheses to comparisons with Libanius and Synesius. Since Halley’s comet appeared in 374, when Augustine was a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher, if he looked up at it, and if there was no cloud cover over Carthage, he might have considered it a supernatural omen, as Libanius would have if he saw it in Antioch. But Lane Fox prefers to think it would be for Augustine, as for his fellow Manichaeans, “a flash of divine Light”—which does not tell us much about Augustine, who never mentions seeing the comet, but it gives Lane Fox another of his visions.

‘Saint Augustine writing’; illumination from Augustine’s City of God, 1459

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris/Scala/White Images/Art Resource

‘Saint Augustine writing’; illumination from Augustine’s City of God, 1459

The book has many finespun hypotheses, but the most revealing of them is the semen bread episode. The millionaire ascetic Paulinus of Nola had begun an admiring correspondence with Augustine, who was disturbed when Paulinus did not respond to him for a while. In a period when letters (carried by friends or hired couriers) often went astray or went undelivered, there are many possible explanations for this—there could be letters lost before delivery, or now lost to us after they were delivered; Paulinus could have been sick or otherwise disabled for some of the time, or tied up with his new duties at the shrine of St. Felix in Nola, Italy. But Lane Fox has the real explanation. He is the “truther” of this self-created scandal. It is the case of the sperm-filled loaf. It is worth looking at this best example of his daisy-chaining of flimsily connected guesses, along with a virtuoso indulgence in mind reading. This, as perhaps the flimsiest as well as the most sensational of his arguments, should be looked at in detail. Lane Fox connects and confuses three different things.

1. Semen bread. The story begins when Augustine, as a Manichee, may have heard (must have heard according Lane Fox) an anti-Manichaean slander that the cult’s Elect, at their secret meals, had sex on top of flour spread on the floor. Their joint juices were spilled on the flour, and the male like some unknown Onan spilled his seed upon the ground, making the flour a carrier of the particles of light from the Elect, as the members of the Manichee sect were called. Bread was then made of the flour for the Elect to consume. Like most attacks of bigotry, this slur was illogical. What good would it do for the Elect to recycle light out into bread and then back into the source of the light in the first place? There is no way to know how widely this crude attack was known to people, much less to know how many credited its nonsense.

2. Love spell. In 396, when Augustine was no longer a Manichee but a Catholic priest, his bishop in Hippo, Valerius, and Africa’s leading bishop, Aurelius, wanted to make him an auxiliary bishop. They invited Megalius, Africa’s longest-serving bishop in Calama, to join them in the consecration. Megalius said he would not join them, because he had heard that Augustine was still a secret Manichee, and that he gave “love spells” (amatoria maleficia) to a married woman with her husband’s consent. He said this in a letter now lost, but later quoted against Augustine.9 Nonetheless Megalius went to Hippo, where Augustine and his sponsoring bishops persuaded him the rumors were wrong, and Augustine was consecrated by him.

Lane Fox assumes that (a) because one charge Megalius reports is that Augustine was still a Manichee, (b) the other charge, of love spells, must have been connected with Manichaean practice, (c) so the spells must have worked through the Manichaean semen bread. This makes no sense. The semen bread was not a love spell, but a way of recycling light among the Elect. The charge of using evil magic (maleficium) was a common one used against witches and wizards.

3. Paulinus. Lane Fox assumes that Augustine’s love spell—his “noxious love charms” for a married woman—referred to Therasia, the wife of a complacent husband, Paulinus of Nola, in a sexless marriage inspired by piety. Paulinus, a friend of Alypius, Augustine’s alter ego, had written an admiring letter to Augustine introducing himself, and enclosing “one bread as a sign of community” (panis unus indicium unanimitatis). It was a custom of early Christianity to share the communion bread with other communities, to express that the believers were all one in Christ, what Paul called “one bread, one body.” Lane Fox says that this was a foreign custom in Africa, but Augustine surely knew it from his days in Milan, and he responded to Paulinus by sending his own blessed bread.

Lane Fox at last has his solution to Paulinus’s lapse in correspondence with Augustine. Paulinus, after consuming Augustine’s bread, heard of the charge against Augustine of using a love charm, and thought of it as the sperm bread of the Manichaeans. Why would he think that? The sperm bread was not a love charm, and if the communion bread was a love charm, how was Augustine in Africa going to seduce Therasia in Italy? Or was he trying to make Paulinus and Therasia break their vow of abstinence? Why? Augustine admired their joint renunciation of sex after they became Christians.

Why would Paulinus suspect that Augustine’s bread, offered in response to his own blessed bread, broke that currency of exchange to introduce a love spell? To entertain that suspicion Paulinus would have to think that Augustine, whom he had recently praised, was not only hostile to him or capable of evil magic (maleficium), but blasphemously treated the communion bread of their common faith. Does Lane Fox think Paulinus was a blithering idiot?

Lane Fox has an explanation (of sorts) of Paulinus’s change from admiring Augustine to snubbing him. In 397, Augustine wrote to his friend and fellow bishop Profuturus that Melagius had died three weeks before. He then reflects, perhaps remembering Megalius’s initial opposition to his consecration as a bishop, that we should not give way to anger, and he reminds Profuturus of a recent conversation they had on a journey.

What is the connection here? Lane Fox says that the “neatest guess” is that Profuturus had told Augustine about Melagrius’s letter and one or the other had to check his anger. Moreover, this conversation let the world know of Megalius’s charges. Why? It was not in the interest of either Augustine or Profuturus to promote the slander. Yet Lane Fox with the wave of a wand changes the situation in which nobody knew (even Augustine) of Megalius’s letter to one where everybody knew (including Paulinus). “Once known, there would be no containing it [Megalius’s letter] from the vicious twitter of Donatists and other suspicious bishops in Africa. Inevitably, it would swirl across to Italy and reach Nola” (emphasis added).

Events in Lane Fox’s time scheme occur as close to another as anything in Shakespeare’s plays. Paulinus has to get and eat Augustine’s bread of blessing, and then, before he can write back to Augustine, he has to hear and believe the swiftly spreading news about Megalius’s letter and decide not to write Augustine ever again. Lane Fox, having explained to his satisfaction how a rift occurred, says nothing about how it was healed when Paulinus and Augustine continued to correspond with mutual friendship and admiration following the hiatus.

Though the semen bread story has nothing to with the putative focus of this book—which is Augustine’s Confessions—Lane Fox brings it in toward the end of this long book, where it is given a separate chapter coyly titled “Food For Scandal.” We are asked to watch, in fascinated horror, how Augustine “dispatched the fateful gift,” after which Paulinus realized “that he and his wife had swallowed Augustine’s seeded loaf.” None of this is mentioned by Paulinus himself in his letters to Augustine or anyone else. The whole tale of horror takes place in Paulinus’s mind, as that is read by a special access granted to Lane Fox.10 And now that he has taken us into Paulinus’s head, why not ask whose sperm Paulinus thought he had swallowed. Did Augustine fill the loaf with his own sperm? Did he recruit or hire some other filler or fillers? Only Lane Fox knows.

  1. James J. O’Donnell, Augustine (Ecco, 2005), p. 126. 
  2. Augustine, Unfinished Answer to Julian (PL 45) 5.11, 4.56.  
  3. Augustine, The Trinity, preamble to Book 3.  
  4. Confessions 10.38, 3.11. 
  5. Augustine, The Trinity 1.5.  
  6. Albrecht Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity (University of California Press, 1982), p. 127.  
  7. Augustine: On the Trinity: Books 8–15, edited by Gareth B. Matthews (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. ix.  
  8. Paul Henry, Saint Augustine on Personality (Macmillan, 1960), p. 1. 
  9. Augustine, Against Petilian’s Letter 3.19. 
  10. Pierre Courcelle partly agreed with the claim that the tale of the semen-filled bread disturbed Paulinus—which does not make the whole chain of hypotheses more convincing. See Courcelle, Les Confessions de saint Augustin dans la tradition littéraire (Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1963), pp. 568–573. 

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