Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. New Edition with an Epilogue. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 548, incl. index. ISBN 0-520-22757-3. US$19.95.
André F. Basson
University at Buffalo (SUNY)
Since it was first published more than a quarter of a century ago in 1967 Peter Brown's authoritative biography of Augustine has left an indelible mark on Augustinian scholarship and has established its author as one of the foremost scholars in the field of Late Antiquity, on both sides of the Atlantic. Brown's grasp not only of the life and work of Augustine, but also of the complex network of events and circumstances that influenced his intellectual development, is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that his book's breath-taking scope, imagination and originality are hardly diminished by more modern scholarship that has to its distinct advantage the easy access to a plethora of on-line resources (including specialized libraries and data- banks). Despite the author's modest disclaimer that his original text 'was never meant to be a comprehensive study of Augustine, valid for all times' (p. viii), its pre-eminence still remains unassailed, even after so many years. Brown has chosen to leave the original text (including the bibliography) unaltered and to add only an epilogue (pp. 439-520). Only the latter will be the focus of this review.
Augustine was an indefatigable writer and left to posterity a vast number of theological treatises, sermons and letters. While the authorship of Augustine's theological works has been confirmed by his own Retractationes and Possidius' Indiculum, it is a different matter altogether when we come to his letters and sermons. In the first chapter of the epilogue ('New Evidence', pp. 442-81), Brown in his inimitable and engaging style, first follows the trail leading to the discovery, in libraries in Marseilles and Mainz, of manuscripts containing some letters and sermons of Augustine that had not yet found their way into published collections. The Dolbeau sermons and Divjak letters, as they have been named in honor of their respective discoverers, were written at crucial periods of Augustine's life and deal with issues so peculiar to the everyday existence of the early Christian communities of North Africa, that, as Brown points out, it is not surprising they survived in only a few medieval manuscripts. As a result of the new light these texts cast on the early years of Augustine's career as a bishop in North Africa (in the case of the sermons) and on the last decade of that career (in the case of the letters), Brown realized the need to review his original image of Augustine which, so he readily admits, was to a large extent informed by his interest in the rise to power of Catholic bishops in Roman society in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. This development was by no means a marginal phenomenon and it is therefore perhaps quite understandable that Brown should have been misled by it, especially since the sources he had at his disposal in those early years of his research seemed to confirm the image of Augustine the bishop as a 'severe and aggressive' (p. 197) figure of authority. But from the Dolbeau sermons emerges a picture of an Augustine whose authority was far from secure and whose brilliant oratory often had little success in swaying the opinions of his audience. The Divjak letters indicate that when it came to influencing the Imperial administration, Augustine and his colleagues were equally unsuccessful.
With the flair of an accomplished virtuoso bringing to life an obscure piece of music, Brown reveals how in the Dolbeau sermons he preached in Carthage in 397, Augustine sought to develop, albeit discreetly, an independent view on some of the most contentious issues that plagued fourth century Christianity. Over the years, Brown has acquired a solid reputation as a leading scholar in, among others, areas such as the cult of the saints, and Roman private life in Late Antiquity. Some of the Dolbeau sermons provide him with ample opportunity to apply this expertise. In just a few firm strokes, Brown is able to give a very a clear picture of the extent to which these sermons represent a definite departure from traditional attitudes towards the importance of marriage, and the celebration of the feasts of the martyrs.
The Dolbeau sermons that date from Augustine's fifth visit to Carthage in 403/4, show that his fervour in denouncing some of the excesses that marked the public celebrations of the feast days of the saints had not diminished, despite the fact that it was making him unpopular. Through Brown's description of the events surrounding Augustine's decision not to deliver the sermon he had prepared for the feast-day of St. Vincent of Tarragona on 22 January 404 in the basilica of Carthage, we catch a glimpse of a community whose lifestyle remained to a large extent unaffected by the influence of Christianity. To Brown these sermons are more cultural artifacts than texts of mere theological interest. He shows how their main themes often reveal as much about the audience as they do about the doctrinal issues that were being debated at the time. The portrait of Augustine that Brown draws for us on the basis of his analysis of the Dolbeau sermons is that of a gifted intellectual who often had to draw on every rhetorical skill at his disposal to convey the main truths of the Christian faith to an audience whose mind-set was, in many important respects, still very much a pagan one. Most Christians, so Brown points out, even seem to have remained unconcerned by the fact that paganism still continued to be the religion of choice of the majority of the population. This was in stark contrast to Augustine's conviction, expressed very clearly in the Dolbeau sermons of 404, that only the Christian faith as represented by the Catholic Church has universal validity and is therefore incompatible with any notion that would allow the observance of pagan religious practices or the adherence to divergent Christian beliefs (e.g the Donatists).
The Divjak letters date from the last decade of Augustine's life and throw light on the latter stages of his involvement in the Pelagian controversy, as well his association with other leading figures in the Church. Brown's book shows how the fallout from the Pelagian controversy destabilized the carefully constructed relationships these men maintained with each other (more often than not out of political expediency), but especially how it affected Augustine's own position which was not as esteemed by his contemporaries as has generally been accepted by many modern scholars. Brown readily admits that in evaluating Augustine's intellectual development scholars have been unduly prejudiced by the somewhat strident tone of his later writings against the Pelagians. In this regard, the Divjak letters provide a healthy correction. In them we encounter an Augustine who still found time to attend to detail and even minor problems, despite a very heavy work- load.
The second chapter of the epilogue carries the title 'New Directions' (pp. 482-520). Here Brown seeks to provide an overview of the more notable advances made by scholarship on Augustine in the years that followed the first publication of his book. Some receive only cursory mention, for example the new chronology for Augustine's sermons established by A. M. La Bonnardière, O. Perler's work on the voyages he undertook as a bishop, and A. Mandouze's prosopography of Christian North Africa between 303 and 533.[] The work of archaeologists such as the late P.-A. Février, N. and Yvette Duval (to be distinguished from Yves-Marie Duval) has done much to increase our knowledge of early Christian North Africa and has created new interest in the world in which Augustine lived and worked for such a large part of his life. Recent archaeological and literary discoveries have opened up new perspectives on this world and, in some cases, have even required a revision of a number of traditional views. This is especially true in regard to some of the major intellectual movements and controversies that had such a profound influence on Augustine or that shaped his literary discourse. At the same time, these new insights have revealed more than ever before the awe- inspiring extent of Augustine's achievement.
In the greater part of this chapter, Brown reflects more consciously on how these insights have necessitated certain changes in emphasis in his own work on Augustine over the past thirty years or so. His initial aim was to write a history of the later Roman Empire as reflected in the life of Augustine. Although the turbulence of the period did not always have a direct impact on Augustine's thought, there were certain changes, such as the rise of the Christian Church and the growing importance of the Christian bishops, which shaped his intellectual development quite profoundly. At the same time, on the basis of evidence from the Dolbeau sermons and the Divjak letters, Brown now readily admits that in his earlier portrait of Augustine the bishop he had been unduly influenced by Augustine's more formal writings at the expense of his letters and sermons which reveal 'the more humdrum, the less successful and the more gentle, painstaking aspects' (p. 446) of his life.
Since the 1960s, there has been a greater appreciation for the rich variety and complexity of the life of men and women who inhabited the Roman world in Late Antiquity. Previouly unkown and unexplored contours of that landscape have now emerged enabling scholars to plot with greater accuracy Augustine's unique place in it. The rise of asceticism and the debate on marriage and sexuality are just two of the areas in which recent scholarship on Augustine has been able to demonstrate the originality of his thought. Brown admits that in the first edition of his biography of Augustine these two areas did not receive the emphasis they deserved. It is an example of his great modesty and generosity that, while keeping silent about the slew of seminal works he has authored on these and related subjects since then, he is eager to point out new directions to the next generation of scholars.
[] A. M. La Bonnardière, Recherches de chronologie augustinienne (Paris 1965); O. Perler, Les voyages de Saint Augustin (Paris 1969); A. Mandouze, Saint Augustin: L'Aventure de la Raison et de la Grâce (Paris 1968).