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Augustine: Conversions to Confessions.

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions. By Robin Lane Fox. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015. Pp. 688. $35.00.)

It is hard to argue with faithful readings of Augustine's Confessions, for the same reason that no sustained interpretation of the work will ever command general assent. The text closes too perfectly on itself. The main historical action of the narrative ends with the author's hectic "conversion" in a garden in Milan in the summer of 386--before the earliest of his extant works was composed, more than a decade before the drafting of Confessions itself. By the time Augustine appears in the historical record, he is already (re)writing the story of himself and his associates--literally rewriting it in the case of the Cassiciacum dialogues from late 386, edited from the shorthand transcripts. The theological and historiographical debate over the veracity of the narrative line of the Confessions was more than half a century old when Pierre Courcelle raised the methodological bar in his Recherches of 1950.

Since then, the best work on Augustine's life, thought, and cultural significance has typically been done by respecting his masterly discourse of himself, resisting, and, where possible, recontextualizing it. Anglophone scholars have played decisive roles in the process, on the whole acknowledging the fundamental research of (especially) French colleagues and precursors. After Peter Brown, Robert Markus, James O'Donnell, Paula Fredriksen, and Carol Harrison--to name some of the more influential figures--Robin Lane Fox has now brought his exceptionally sharp eye and pen to the hermeneutical problem of the Confessions with mixed success.

Anyone with a serious interest in Augustine and late antiquity should read Fox's book with extreme attention. There are riches here. The chapters on Augustine as a disciple of Mani and on the philosophical coterie of Milan in the mid-380s offer a host of fresh insights, based on a remarkable command of the texts and dauntingly large bodies of relevant scholarship. Though likely to be more controversial, the treatments of Augustine's sexuality and the emergence of his ideas on divine grace are also worth following in their detail. Fascinated as he is by Augustine's intellectual history, Fox never loses sight of the material realities of his subject's life and career. Guided by this author, readers understand better not only why Augustine was drawn to a life of contemplative withdrawal but also how he expected to pay for it. On page after page, assumptions are tested, hypotheses are probed and (usually) discarded, and the essential reliability of Augustine's own story of his early life are staunchly upheld. The book is never dull.

There are times, however, when it feels overlong, or seems to strain for credibility, or when its tone jars. "Compare and contrast" exercises involving Greek contemporaries unconnected to Augustine take up space that could have been devoted to Latin coevals with whom he was actively engaged. Section epigraphs tend to be "cliquey" and the main text drifts uncomfortably close to high-table chatter in places. Not least of the paradoxes of this version of the Confessions, so sedulously expanded and reauthorized by a late convert to its "truth," is that the written voice of Augustine is rarely heard in it for more than two or three sentences at a stretch.

Mark Vessey

University of British Columbia
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Author:Vessey, Mark
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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