His [Augustine’s] monastic base was still combined with travel, always on horseback (without stirrups).
—Robin Lane Fox
Robin Lane Fox, a British classical scholar, was the historical adviser for Oliver Stone’s godawful movie Alexander. He asked to be, and was, repaid by riding bareback in the movie, in the front line of Alexander’s cavalry. He is an adventurous fellow. Now he tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’s Confessions, the book in which Augustine described his own life from his birth in 354, to his early belief in Manichaeism, to his baptism in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. He takes over five hundred pages to get us to the time Confessions was written (397), Augustine’s forty-third year (with thirty-three years more to live).
Lane Fox’s book largely traces the progress of Augustine with reference to dreams, conversions, ascents, and visions. He sets a low bar for these mystical events. In the famous garden “conversion scene” in 386 AD, for instance, Lane Fox claims that the appearance of Lady Continence talking to Augustine was an actual vision—though he admits that the previous image (of seductive women pulling Augustine back from his decision) is a literary convention.
To assure us that prophetic dreams, mystical ascents, and visions were common and believed in, he traces their influence on the thought and actions of two men who were Augustine’s contemporaries, though Augustine did not know, know of, or read them. He locates Augustine (354–430) by a kind of triangulation, tracing similarities with, and differences from, the Christian bishop Synesius of Cyrene (circa 373–414) and the pagan orator Libanius of Antioch (circa 314–393). Since these men are less known than Augustine, this is explaining ignotum per ignotius. He thinks of it, rather, as “like a triptych on a medieval Christian altar,” with Libanius on the left “casting a look of profound disapproval up at Augustine,” and the Christian Synesius on the right “looking up with tempered adoration.” Lane Fox wants us to know that the other two believed, like Augustine, in dreams, ascents, visions, and devils—though the more interesting question would be who, at the time, did not.
He brings in the other two not only to learn about attitudes toward the supernatural. Every sameness or difference of the three is recorded, as on a checklist. Augustine studied hard at school—so did they. Augustine had a concubine, and so did Libanius. He was a bishop, and so was Synesius. But Synesius loved to hunt, and Augustine did not. Did Augustine have throat problems? Libanius had migraines and gout. This is what Lane Fox calls significantly “similar health problem[s],” but who of us doesn’t have some illness sometime?
The conviction grows that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.