A Difference Over Augustine

In response to:

Reading Augustine’s Mind from the January 14, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Garry Wills’s review of less than 10 percent of my book on Augustine contains too many errors and self-inflicted misapprehensions. As my brief letter now published in the The New York Review explains, I will answer some of them here.

‘The Devil Presenting Saint Augustine with the Book of Vices’; painting by Michael Pacher, fifteenth century
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
‘The Devil Presenting Saint Augustine with the Book of Vices’; painting by Michael Pacher, fifteenth century

1. According to Wills, Lane Fox “tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’s Confessions.” My book tells you no such thing anywhere and indeed says exactly the opposite, that the Confessions are not cryptic, etc. (my p. 66). I note that it is Wills, even in the latest of his little books about Augustine, who claims to find unnoticed “depths below depths” in them, for instance in the famous scene of Augustine’s conversion.1

2. He reduces my references to pagan Libanius and Christian Synesius to a sort of parallel life-check, as if I merely note when each of them worked hard or fell ill. I state quite clearly that the point of my occasional comparisons is to compare and contrast the young Augustine, at first a teacher of rhetoric, with a contemporary who was also a public orator and teacher of rhetoric (Libanius) and who also later composed an “autobiography,” one which presented his life, too, as a guided life, in his case by the pagan goddess Fortune. As for Synesius, I use him as a point of comparison (and contrast) with Augustine’s much-discussed absorption of Platonist “wisdom” into his Christian thinking. I also use him as a comparison for Augustine’s reactions when, like Augustine, he was appointed to a clerical position not of his own seeking. The social backgrounds and contacts of the two men make a telling contrast with Augustine’s own, as do other aspects of their education, continuing careers, and opinions on anything from monks to the relation between the pursuit of philosophy or rhetoric and worldly commitment and interventions. I make it entirely clear that they did not speak Augustine’s Latin and that Augustine’s own grasp of Greek was initially limited. Despite Wills, comparison of persons from the Greek-speaking world with someone from the Latin speaking world has a long and fruitful history, from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (circa 100 AD) to the most recent, and excellent, study of Augustine’s mother Monica (2015).2 Libanius and Synesius lived in a civic culture with a social structure very similar to Augustine’s own, part of one and the same empire, one ruled for part of the period I discuss by a single emperor. I trust nobody who read Wills was left thinking that Augustine was living in a “Latin West,” cut off, despite translations, from the Greek world as if in some dark age, nor that it is fair, in James O’Donnell’s words, to call Augustine’s grasp of Greek “pathetic” even in older age.3

3. Wills complains that I do not discuss Augustine’s “new” notion of the human will and his “entirely new concept of his own self” as was once claimed by Albrecht Dihle in his stimulating Sather lectures. On p. 12 I refer to this sort of claim about the will but do not endorse it, because it has long since been rebutted by classical philosophers, including Michael Frede in his important Sather lectures of 1982 (published posthumously in 2011).4 As for Augustine’s views on personality in his On the Trinity, I did not dwell on them either, because they lie far outside my book’s stopping-point of 397. Of course my chapters have things to say on the classic questions of Augustine and the idea of “inwardness,” including what he interestingly calls the “internal Eternal.”

4. Wills complains that my comparisons with Libanius et al. are there because Lane Fox “keeps trying to demonstrate his own originality.” I have no interest in trying to make any such demonstrations. As a historian, partly of Late Antiquity (which Wills is not), I simply wish to compare, and often contrast, Augustine’s career and talents with others’, a historical perspective which is not much emphasized in his Confessions.

5. Wills complains that by “mind reading” I try to tell the “whole course of Augustine’s life…if [he] had been a married bishop.” I do not. Only on half of one page, in six sentences marked at the start and end as counterfactual and “utter fiction” (my p. 540), do I turn aside to imagine how Augustine’s life might have developed if he had remained a public orator, as in 384–385, and had never undergone the great changes of 386–387 and later been ordained (let alone become a bishop). I consider this possibility as a foil to the career of his fellow public orator, Libanius, also an “autobiographer” in the face of scandal, but especially in order to suggest how far Augustine had come in the twelve years since he abandoned a similar public career. My “would have’s” in these sentences are there to emphasize that I am only guessing, whereas the rest of my book, 675 pages of it, is based on evidence and scholarly citations. Skipping over other errors, I fear I must dwell on what Wills called “the case of the sperm-filled loaf” because his indignant account is so wrong. I hope that neither he, nor anyone else, believes that I suspect that Augustine himself actually did what his vicious enemies accused him of doing. I am studying outrageous allegations, wrongly cast against him, poor man, as I made abundantly clear.

It is not I who somehow “connect and confuse” three separate things, leaving Wills to disentangle them in 2016. Augustine himself shows they were combined when he reports allegations against himself in a famous passage written in 402 or 403.5 In it he presents in brief summary the scandalous charges being made against him by fellow Christian Donatist enemies. He relates them back to allegations contained in an enraged letter sent by the elderly bishop Megalius in 396 when asked to “ordain” him bishop (it was Megalius’s right and duty as Primate to do so: he was not simply “join[ing] in the consecration” as Wills wrongly states). Specialists in Augustine, whether Peter Brown, Henry Chadwick, J.J. O’Donnell, or many others, take this view of the origin of what Augustine writes here.6 So does Wills, but he omits a crucial half of it. Augustine rhetorically grants that his opponent, the Donatist Petilian, may indeed repeat the allegations against him all over again. “As for the gifts of blessed bread (eulogiae panis) which were given with joy, let him, (then), defame them with a venomous name of libidinous foulness and madness.” Before 397 Augustine is known only once to have sent privately blessed bread to anyone. It went to Paulinus and his wife Therasia in spring 396, just before Megalius denounced him in his irate letter as a Manichaean. The defamation here expressly concerns the bread. It is not that Augustine has simply bewitched it, as if he had merely said “Abracadabra” over it like one of Wills’s “wizards.” The words “libidinous foulness” and “madness” relate to invective against “mad” Manichaeans and to the supposed foul nature of Manichaean bread7: they do so because Manichaeism was the subject of Megalius’s allegations against Augustine in 396. “Sperm-filled bread” was alleged from the start, and as other scholars have long remarked, it was the very bread whose previous dispatch we can read about in a surviving letter from Augustine to Paulinus and Therasia.

Augustine then amplifies the point: let his opponent also “presume that it can be believed of him (when he claims) that erotic items of wicked sorcery were given to a married woman with her husband’s awareness and (connivance).” As Pierre Courcelle and others have correctly observed, Paulinus and Therasia are the only married couple to whom eulogiae panis, or bread, the “erotic items” at issue in this sentence, are known to have been given by Augustine. I am not being “sensational” in giving these allegations three pages out of 676. I am not saying anything new or being what Wills calls a (first-time) “truther.” My text cites and my notes credit the great Pierre Courcelle for making exactly this point (in 1950 and 1951). He repeated it in his other books and their editions until 1968 and no specialist reviewer or reader has ever challenged it.8 Others since have made the same point, even that most discreet and cautious of Augustinian scholars, Gerald Bonner, apparently independently.9

6. Wills calls it illogical that Manichaeans should be said to have used their sperm to make bread and then to have had it eaten in order to set the divine light-particles in it free. It was not illogical at all. All other light-rich fluids had to be consumed and digested by one of the Manichaean Elect for the light-particles in them to be freed from surrounding matter. Following all Manichaean specialists I had already made this point (pp. 119 and 124), clearly, I had hoped. Since I and, indeed, Wills wrote, its logic has been exhaustively endorsed by Johannes van Oort, a major Manichaean scholar, in a fundamental study of Augustine’s references to this sort of rite.10

7. Despite Wills’s doubts, young Augustine, a former Manichee, was well aware of what people alleged about Manichaeans’ “foul” bread. He already played on suspicions about it in the text against Manichaean morals which he wrote before late 391 and again, I think, in 392 (my p. 435).11 Later, in (probably) 421, terrified Manichaean girls in Carthage were interrogated before a government official and one was even internally examined by midwives to establish the supposed truth of this foul rite, to which the poor girls then “confessed.” According to Augustine’s own biographer, Possidius, Augustine himself was present among the Catholics who participated in the interrogation. They were followed by others, probably six years later, of which Augustine was also fully aware.12 The allegations of sperm-filled bread and a “human semen eucharist,” as van Oort calls it, were quite well known. Francois Dolbeau recently published a text, which he dates just after Augustine, in which the same allegation is inserted into a genuine work by Augustine, not, it should be noted, for a rarefied minority of readers but, it seems, for a Christian audience who were to hear it as a sermon in Church.13

8. Wills claims my chronology of the foul allegation and its going public is too tight. It is not. The allegations were made by June 396 and, in my view, were becoming more widely known by autumn 396, already fanned by Donatist opponents. The “anger” which Augustine recalls in Letter 38 when hearing something then from his colleague Profuturus may not only be anger at the full details of the foul allegation but also at the fact that hostile Donatist Christians had already got hold of it and were starting to exploit it against him. We know that “not a few” of them came to have copies of Megalius’s angry letter of denunciation.14 On my chronology, Paulinus in Italy only had to hear about the allegations by spring 397, up to six months later. He owned large estates in North Africa which he was selling up and messengers going to and fro could perfectly well have told him about the alarming allegations. Wills italicizes Nola as if it was the back of beyond. It certainly was not, as a visit to it could have shown him or a rereading of Peter Brown’s fine book of 2012 which is clear about this point.15

9. Paulinus does not write back to Augustine for a significant time throughout 397 and 398, as two more inquiring letters from Augustine establish. He was not ill all the while, as Wills wonders. He wrote long poems for the birthday celebrations of his saint, Felix, in each of the years in which he was still silent.16 He was not too preoccupied to write to others, either. Other scholars before me have ascribed his abrupt silence to the foul rumors he had heard from North Africa. Scandalous reports from Africa were accepted as a likely reason for Paulinus’s breach of contact with Augustine by Peter Brown too in 1967 (or is he a mere mind reader, in Wills’s derogatory use of the term?).17 The most thorough and scholarly study of Paulinus’s exchanges of letter, by Sigrid Mratschek in 2002, states the case crisply and clearly and accepts it without more fuss.18 Paulinus was not a “blithering idiot” (Wills’s intemperate phrase) if he broke off communication as a result. If he heard that Augustine was being denounced in Africa as a Manichee and the bread that Augustine had sent him had been foul Manichaean bread, his decision not to write back to its donor is eminently intelligible. Despite Wills, the supporting allegations that the bits of bread were erotic wickedness did not have to be logical. If they were made in exactly those terms in the heat of the moment, the malicious implication may have been that eating the sperm-filled bread would have the result of hotting up Therasia erotically, a woman known to have been living in a chaste and sexless marriage at the time of receipt unlike anyone known then in North Africa. Not everything in an angry outburst is fully thought through.

10. Wills goes right off piste by claiming finally, and at labored length, that “only Lane Fox knows” if Augustine or one of his aides was considered to have inseminated this bread. I have no idea. The question is entirely irrelevant to the argument and was never even raised by me. I merely contend that false rumors of Augustine’s Manichaeism (and the bread) caused Paulinus to fall silent, in my view for more than four years. Perhaps Paulinus became aware of Augustine’s written ripostes in 402 or 403 to these vile charges and was then convinced that there was nothing to them and duly resumed the correspondence. Unsurprisingly, neither party preserved whatever letters between them first broke the icy silence. How, though, does Wills claim to “know” what I supposedly “know” (though I do not)? Not, certainly, by telepathy. By attempted mind reading, but in his case without any evidence.

P.S.: Readers of The New York Review keep e-mailing me to ask if there is some undeclared quarrel or pre-history between Wills and myself to explain the tone of his review. There is not. We have never met or made contact about anything. In the light of what he now polemically calls “mind reading” it would be interesting to discuss with him his own little books on Augustine, three of which I found useful in places and therefore mentioned in my book’s notes. I will not, however, risk sending him a present of hot cross buns this Easter.

Garry Wills replies:

Three points:

1. Triptych. I have never seen an author so indignantly reject any accusation of originality or new meanings. Now he is a “just the facts, Ma’am” historian. Lane Fox is clearly embarrassed by his attempt to present his new way into Augustine, since he tries to write the triangulation with Libanius and Synesius out of his book. He tells us it is only a matter of “occasional comparisons” (on a hundred or so occasions according to the index). But this three-way traffic was unveiled to readers of the book as a great structural principle. “I have planned the book with a clear structure for which a musical analogy may be helpful…. Throughout [not occasionally], I allow pagan Libanius and Christian Synesius to play variations on some of their chords.” But more important than the musical analogy is the visual one: the book is “a triple set of sketches, like a triptych on a medieval Christian altar”—all three, that is, to be seen together in stable combination.

Now he says the “occasional comparisons” are of important things, though he imagines what would have been Augustine’s “review of his life” if he had married (like Synesius) and had four (not three, not five) children—but he begins “Suppose” and ends with the admission that this is “entirely fictitious.” Then why include it? In fact, most of the “occasional comparisons” of the three men are trivial, irrelevant, or both—which is why he now downplays his “triptych” idea.

2. Greek. The author says I should not bring up Augustine’s views on the Trinity since “they lie far outside my book’s stopping point.” He misses the point. I bring up Trinity to quote Augustine’s most candid admission that he did not read or understand Greek. This is a towering fact that stands in the way of point-to-point comparison of Augustine with the two men who were part of the Greek culture of the East. He is still trying to brush away this fact, now calling Augustine’s Greek “initially limited.” When I write that the West was a lesser arena of Christian thought I am not calling it “a dark age,” as he would have it. Yet even in that subsidiary world Augustine stood apart. Many other Westerners knew and used Greek, including those close to Augustine (Ambrose, Simplician, Mallius Theodore, Valerius).

How can one ignore the astounding fact that Augustine is the only major thinker of late antiquity who was monolingual? I believe that this is a key to his originality, the private way he sought answers to the most difficult questions. That is why I bring up the Trinity, which—as James O’Donnell argues—is at the heart of Confessions (especially the last three books), Lane Fox’s subject, and therefore not far beyond his stopping point.

3. Semen bread. The questionable thing about Lane Fox’s book is not that there was a malicious slur on Augustine as a Manichaean believer in such nonsense as bread soaked in semen—I granted that fact—but that Lane Fox thinks Paulinus of Nola believed that he had eaten such bread masquerading as the communion loaf Augustine sent him. The learned Paulinus never says such a thing. Yet Lane Fox offers us a “neatest guess” that the slur was repeated just in time to “swirl across to Italy and reach Nola” (could have, therefore did?), where Paulinus believed it (how do we know?). But this bizarre news reached him too late, Lane Fox speculates. Paulinus had not only received what is melodramatically called “the fatal gift” (Verdian drumroll), but he “believed what he had heard [if in fact he ever heard it], that he and his wife had swallowed Augustine’s seeded loaf” (why on earth would they think that of the esteemed Augustine, especially when the communion bread was being exchanged by these Catholic Christians?).

Paulinus then punished Augustine by not writing to him for over a year (though he never mentions this) until somehow, we do not know how, he realizes that he was mistaken about his hero (again, no mention) and their cordial exchanges continue as if nothing had ever happened (because it hadn’t?), no explanations needed or offered. All this is pure speculation on Lane Fox’s part. “Just the facts, Ma’am”?

Lane Fox objects that I give too much attention to this part of his book, as if it is just another of his “occasional” asides (it has nothing to do with Confessions). But he did not hide it modestly away. The story is told in a separate chapter, in a climactic position, with a flirty title (“Food for Scandal”). As the weirdest thing in a weird book, it would stick in the reader’s memory, and a reviewer should be bound to evaluate it. Anyone, particularly, who is interested in Paulinus is bound to ask if the holy poet was a dope. Lane Fox thinks so.

  1. 1

    Garry Wills, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 77. Augustine in the garden as Christ at Gethsemene? I think not.  

  2. 2

    Gillian Clark, Monica: An Ordinary Saint (Oxford University Press, 2015).  

  3. 3

    G.J.M. Bartelink, “Die Beeinflussung Augustins durch die griechischen Patres,” Augustiniana Traiectina, edited by J. Den Boeft and J. van Oort (Paris, 1987), pp. 9–24, is one counter. M. Lamberigts, “Augustine as Translator of Greek Texts: An Example,” Philohistor 60 (1994), p. 151–161, well illustrates the older Augustine’s far from “pathetic” grasp of Greek.  

  4. 4

    T.H. Irwin, “Who Discovered the Will?” in Philosophical Perspectives, edited by James E. Tomberlin, Vol. 6: Ethics (1992), pp. 453–473; M. Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought (University of California Press, 2011).  

  5. 5

    Augustine, C. Litt. Petil. 3. 16. 19. Also in 403, a similar sensitivity to slander appears in Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum 36. 3., 19–20.  

  6. 6

    Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London, 1967), pp. 203–204; Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 64: James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Saint and Sinner (HarperCollins, 2005), p. 27 and p. 345, n. 59.  

  7. 7

    Augustine, Nat. Bon., 44 and especially De. Haer. 46. 9–10 where he uses the same word turpitudo (foulness) three times with reference to the Manichaeans’ sperm-filled rite.  

  8. 8

    Pierre Courcelle, “Recherches Sur Les Confessions de Saint Augustin” (Paris, 1950 and revised edition 1968), 22822–9, 238–239 esp. n. 2 and 242; id., “Le mutisme de Paulin en 398-9 et ses causes,” Rev. Et. Anciennes 53 (1951) pp. 259–262; Wills cites only Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin Dans La Tradition Litte (Paris, 1963), pp. 565–568, which repeats his 1951 study and dismisses him, without reasons, in a footnote, without even explaining that Courcelle is the authority I cite for this connection in my own text.  

  9. 9

    G. Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (Norwich, revised edition 1986), p. 119–120.  

  10. 10

    Johannes van Oort, “Human Semen Eucharist Among the Manichees?” Vigiliae Christianae (2016), pp. 1–24. Augustine, C. Mor. Manich. 2. 18. 66; C. Fortunatum 1. 3.  

  11. 11

    Augustine, De Haer. 46. 9; Possidius, Life of Augustine 16 and Arnobius the Younger, Praedestinatus 1. 46. Compare also now J. van Oort, “Manichaean Women in Augustine’s Life and Thought,” Vigiliae Christianae 69 (2015), pp. 312–326.  

  12. 12

    Possidius, Life of Augustine, 16 and van Oort, op. cit. (n. 10, above) for the chronology.  

  13. 13

    F. Dolbeau, “Un témoignage inconnu contre les Manichéens d’Afrique,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 150 (2004), pp. 225–232.  

  14. 14

    Augustine, C. Cresconium 3. 80. 92.  

  15. 15

    Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 218–219.  

  16. 16

    Paulinus, Carmina 14, 15, and 16, with D. Trout, Paulinus of Nola (Berkeley, 1999), p. xv.  

  17. 17

    Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London, 1967), p. 204.  

  18. 18

    S. Mratschek, Der Briefswechsel des Paulinus von Nola (Stuttgart, 2002), pp. 528–529.