The Real Man

Book cover
Augustineby James J. O'Donnell

Ecco/HarperCollins. 396p $26.95

Out of his vast knowledge of the ancient world, Robin Lane Fox, an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, has drawn a remarkable picture of Augustine—the child, the teenager, the youth, the man. His method is not unlike the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus. He situates Augustine in his time and place(s), comparing and contrasting him with well-documented lives of men his age. This is especially effective in discussing Augustine’s earliest years. Fox points out that the only source for Augustine’s childhood is Augustine himself in his Confessions, and that account is far from complete. To fill it out, he uses parallels with two figures who are roughly contemporaries of Augustine and thereby develops social, cultural, familial and religious lines of mutual concern.

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Libanius, 40 years older than Augustine, was born in Antioch in Syria. He was a pagan, a lover of all things Greek with a disdain for all things Latin. Synesius, younger by about nine years, was from Cyrene in Libya, also Greek but with some regard for Latin. It is a tryptych, as Fox calls it, a device that works well to delineate the central figure, Augustine, for whom Fox clearly has a fondness and admiration, though certainly not a worship.

From his earliest years, Augustine had a primordial sense of good and evil, leaving no room for a morally indifferent or neutral explanation of the simplest human behavior—like the angry cry of an infant. No guilt is imputed where there is no will, but the action is evil nonetheless. It’s no wonder he found a fascination in his late teens with Mani and his teachings as they were current to the lad Augustine 100 years after the master’s death.

Fox gives a most satisfying and comprehensive accounting of Manichaeism. His purpose in doing so is to explain how much of that sect’s discipline Augustine knew and accepted for years of his life—from age 18 to 30. He was a “hearer,” not one of the elect, but a true believer while also considered to be a “semi-Christian” i.e., unbaptized and not yet fully catechized. He was an avid proselytizer of that sect, able to persuade some close friends and others to accept it in spite of its rigorous strictures about human sexual activity. (With a sly sense of humor, Fox reports the claim of Manichaeism that there is a redemptive value in human flatulence.)

In his Confessions Augustine reveals to God how sexually sinful he had been in the first part of his life; he prayed, rather famously, for the gift of chastity—but not yet. Our author, carefully and respectfully, explores this aspect of that revelation: Augustine the teenager fully employed his testosterone heterosexually in many ways. Fox has no patience for those authors who would try to minimize Augustine’s lustful indulgences. While it is true that at one point Augustine decided to be exclusively faithful to his concubine, the mother of his son Adeodatus, he enjoyed her favors liberally and, Fox contends, with care to avoid another conception. Eventually, he broke with her—she is never named—when he became affianced to an underage girl of a wealthy family and high social standing when he was 30. That marriage was intended to assure him of position, preferment and sex. In the waiting period, he took another concubine.

The subtitle of this book, Conversions to Confessions, is in the plural because Fox maintains there were essentially three of these couplings in Augustine’s life journey: first, from teenage pragmatism, i.e., study for the sake of getting a good job, to philosophy, a love of wisdom for the enrichment of the interior man; second, from a sort of half-baked semi-Christian at age 18 to become a hearer and an advocate of Manichaeism; and finally, from a disenchanted Manichaeism to a total commitment to Jesus Christ in the faith, for which his mother Monica prayed with copious tears for many years. It meant for him a total renunciation of worldly ambition and, especially, all sexual activity, living a celibate life.

Recounting this last phase of Augustine’s conversion to confession, Fox’s writing, profuse and thorough, was thrilling. He takes us through all the persons, books, lectures, sermons and friends who influenced Augustine to seek baptism from St. Ambrose in Milan.

The quest for meaning, the search for truth, the hunger for an ultimate love were possible of attainment at last and with them peace and freedom of mind and heart.

Blessed John Henry Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua achieved the same, though from a very different perspective. Newman’s aspiration was “not to sin against the light.” Vowed by himself to celibacy long before his conversion to Catholicism, Newman was never credibly accused of sexual misconduct. It was a quotation from Augustine—Securus iudicat orbis terrarum: “the judgment of the universal church is certainly true”—that, in his word, “pulverized” Newman’s Via Media and impelled him further to Rome.

More than a third of Fox’s work is devoted to Augustine the baptized Christian, the priest, the bishop and the most prodigious writer of ancient times. There is a large corpus of extant material and, according to Fox, more is being discovered.

Augustine’s thinking has had and continues to have an enormous influence on Christian life and teaching. Newman, called by one historian of religious thought the greatest intellect of the 19th century, favored Augustine over Aquinas. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, a great theologian of our time, embraced Augustine’s approach to learning, preaching and writing about the love of God. It is true, however, that in his masterful first encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” Benedict laments the noxious influence of Manichaeism (and the later Jansenism) on Catholic life and thought.

Professor Fox reveres Augustine the saint and generously pays tribute to his holiness and spiritual inspiration, remaining all the while the historical biographer and never the hagiographer. His delectable prose, laced at times with wry humor, will engage the scholar and scholarly student with copious notes and references to primary sources. Serious but casual readers, like myself, will find inspiration, rich insights and more information than is needed—but never without interest. Worthy to be chewed and swallowed, this tome could be delightfully tasted by the speedreader and the bed-and-beach readers. One telling effect I believe it can have is to promote a desire to reread the Confessions of St. Augustine, newly armed with up-to-date information, profound insights and holy aspirations. It’s a good book.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mark Burke
2 years 4 months ago
Has anyone noticed that the picture and publisher's information about this book is wrong?

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