The African prodigy with an ‘awesome flow’

The Conversion of St Augustine by Fra Angelico

by Robin Lane Fox,
Allen Lane, £25

In San Gimignano on an April Sunday in 1966, around the age of 20, Robin Lane Fox was introduced to the story of St Augustine by his uncle, who took him to see the frescoes in the church that bears the saint’s name.

Nearly 50 years later, Lane Fox, now an Oxford don and a successful author of books on the classical world, was crawling on his hands and knees through a sub-basement of the Bodleian to find articles on Augustine for this new biography, subtitled Conversations and Confessions.

From the outset, Lane Fox does not hide his admiration for Augustine and his “restless intelligence”. Neither does he smooth away the difficulties inherent in confronting a man of such distinctive temperament and ideas, so out of tune with modern mores and assumptions. Indeed, Lane Fox has often wondered how Augustine would write to him. His conclusion: that Augustine would belittle his “worldly multiplicity” (while failing to dislodge it).

Any biographer of Augustine, admiring or not, must stand amid what Lane Fox calls the “awesome flow” of words written by him (and indeed about him), and find a way of coping with that flow and extracting something fresh and digestible for the reader.

Lane Fox achieves this in two ways. First, his book stops at the Confessions, thereby imposing both a focal point and an end point that have nothing contrived or arbitrary about them, but give him the luxury of space. Secondly, the book is constructed, at least in part, like a “triptych on a medieval Christian altar”. Augustine, of course, occupies the central panel – at either side of him, though, stand two contemporaries, Libanius and Synesius, both unknown to Augustine himself.

At apposite moments, Lane Fox launches into digressions on these two: Libanius, older than Augustine and a lifelong pagan; Synesius, younger and a Christian and, like Augustine, destined to become a bishop. None of the three was European: Lane Fox’s triptych is occupied, in terms of modern geography, by an Algerian, a Syrian and a Libyan. All three were teachers of rhetoric, although Synesius and Libanius were Greek-speaking, while Augustine inhabited the Latin West.

The triptych device gives Lane Fox a means to broaden his scope beyond what we can know for certain about Augustine’s life, and shed borrowed light on his subject, but in a way that remains in step with the engaging and personal tone of the work as a whole.

Libanius and Synesius are used, for instance, to extend our understanding of the “market in higher education run wild”, in which Augustine the teacher had to operate, where gangs of pupils of one professor would fight those of another. Coming from higher up the social ladder, the two others help us to see just how much of a striver Augustine needed to be in order to make headway in his career.

Lane Fox repeatedly insists that Augustine’s Confessions should be seen from start to finish as a prayer addressed by Augustine to God, but intended to be overheard by his readers. It is not the rehearsed narrative of modern autobiography. If Augustine omits something, or focuses on something that to us seems less significant, he is “not necessarily being evasive: his confessing prayer imposes its own relevance”. Evidence for what Lane Fox sums up as “the complex pattern of God’s correction and order, mercy and long-term love” could be found by Augustine in the unlikeliest turn of events.

It is bracing to be reintroduced to some of the more startling notions Augustine puts forward as a result. The youthful theft of pears, which takes up so much space in the Confessions, matters because, to Augustine, it was a show of misplaced liberty, a shadowy likeness of omnipotence, when omnipotence is a quality of God alone. Augustine’s Christian faith is a prism through which he can re-examine incidents that other classical authors would have skimmed over glibly.

Lane Fox is superb, too, at judging where, when and how to take us off on lengthy tours of the ideas that shaped Augustine’s life and mind. Page after page, for instance, is devoted to the truly bewildering extravagance of Manichean cosmology. Augustine spent nine years in the illegal sect, the only world religion to believe in the redemptive power of flatulence.

Also fascinating is the account of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and how he opened Augustine’s eyes to escape routes from biblical literalism. The long discussion of Plotinus reminds us of the common ground between traditional Catholic attitudes to sex and some of ancient Greek philosophy.

Experts will pass judgment on the nature and scale of Lane Fox’s achievement. Rowan Williams, in the New Statesman, has already deemed it a watershed in Augustinian studies. For the general reader, however, this book is that unlikely thing: a 560-page romp through the life and times and “tumults of the soul” of a great Christian thinker.