Sunday, February 10, 2013


Mark Vessey (ed.), A Companion to Augustine. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Ancient history. Malden, MA; Oxford: Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. xlii, 595. ISBN 9781405159463. $199.95.

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site


The thirty-nine essays that comprise this invaluable companion to the study of the work and world of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) should be the first port of call for every serious student of the man whose life has come to epitomize what is distinct about the period that we now refer to as late antiquity. Owing both to the sheer number of his surviving works, which include dozens upon dozens of sermons and letters and treatises, and the unusual candidness of his genre-bending Confessiones and retrospective Retractationes, Augustine remains an appealing subject of study because he seems to leave so little to our imagination. In a rich literary corpus spanning several decades around the year 400, the bishop of Hippo made plain the vicissitudes of his entire life, from his memories of childhood and his turbulent youth in North Africa, to his fervent pursuit and ultimate abandonment of worldly ambitions as a professor of rhetoric in Italy, to his philosophical and devotional transformations that led him to embrace Manichaeism, Neo-Platonist philosophy, and Catholic Christianity, to his return to Africa, where he spent the latter half of his life shouldering the burdens of the episcopal office in the thriving port city of Hippo Regius. It was the same wealth of surviving compositions (minus a handful of recent discoveries) that inspired and informed the two towering studies of Augustine in the twentieth century: Henri Marrou's Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (originally published in 1938; 2nd edition with a "retractatio" in 1949; 3rd edition in 1958) and Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967; a new edition with an epilogue appeared in 2000). As Mark Vessey relates in his introductory chapter (Ch. 1: Augustine and Company), both of these authors "had come to see that the standard divisions of the history of western civilization could not contain the phenomena that a close study of Augustine's life, thought, and times revealed." (3) Back then, the works of Augustine informed much of what scholars knew about late antiquity. Now, more than forty years after the publication of Brown's enduring biography of the bishop of Hippo, late antiquity has grown into a thriving field in its own right. New advances in the study of the literature and culture of this period, on full display in the recent Companion to Late Antiquity edited by Philip Rousseau (2009), allow us to view of the life of Augustine with the fresh insights of the generation of scholars who came of age reading Brown and Marrou. In short, the learned essays presented here provide for us an opportunity "to (re)discover Augustine in a world of late antiquity sharply illuminated by other lights than those of his own traditionally canonical works." (4)

The Companion to Augustine boasts seven parts, each comprising between three and seven essays. There is a well-considered logic to the order and organization of each of these sections. Part I (Contexts) presents three essays that provide the broad historical and cultural context in which the bishop of Hippo lived and worked: Christopher Kelly writes on the political history of Augustine's time (Ch. 2), William Klingshirn on the physical and cultural geography of late Roman North Africa (Ch. 3, which includes an excellent map), and Eric Rebillard on the "religious sociology" of the period, in particular, on the markers of Christian identity in late antiquity (Ch. 4). It would be reasonable to expect boiler plate articles on such broad topics at the beginning of an edited volume of this size, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that each of these essays was succinct and dynamic, raising new ideas with little known pieces of evidence rather than rehearsing old orthodoxies, and admirably and thoughtfully setting the stage for the subsequent essays.

The four essays in Part II (Confessions) revolve around the text through which most of us first encountered Augustine, his Confessiones. Roger Tomlin (Ch. 5) reads this text against the grain to highlight the worldly ambitions that Augustine converted from. Next, in a deeply moving essay, Kate Cooper (Ch. 6) enumerates the personal casualties of Augustine's pursuit of a secular career and advantageous marriage in Italy before his conversion to Christianity and return to North Africa. There follows two complementary essays that treat the meaning of the Confessiones itself. Paula Fredriksen (Ch. 7) argues that the work cannot be understood by divorcing the seemingly autobiographical early chapters from the later theological ones. In one of the only essays to offer astute criticism of Brown's biography (90), Fredriksen pulls the reader into the scriptural matrix that provides the key to understanding Confessiones not as a proto-modern study of the self, but rather as a "resolutely theological masterpiece, [the] subject [of which] is not Augustine himself, but Augustine's god." (98). This section concludes with Catherine Conybeare's sensitive reading of the imperfect indicative as the "signature tense" of Confessiones (Ch. 8) and the significance of the cadence of Augustine's language as an expression of his incomplete knowledge of God.

Part III (Media) discusses the ways that Augustine and his contemporaries communicated their ideas. Philip Burton (Ch. 9) looks at Augustine's knowledge of Greek, Hebrew and Punic and identifies the different registers of Latin (Ciceronian, "Middle," and oral styles) that the bishop employed in Latin. Claire Sotinel (Ch. 10) excavates the networks of communication that allowed for the diffusion of ideas as well as the flight of rumor between Christian communities, with a special emphasis on Augustine's written correspondence. Richard Lim (Ch. 11) presents evidence scoured from surviving homiletic materials to argue that Christian prelates like Augustine were not simply opponents of traditional public spectacles like gladiator contests and beast shows, but also attempted to "undercut their attraction" by focusing the attention of their congregations on the cult of the martyrs, the true athletes of God. Lastly, in a very brief essay (Ch. 12), Guy G. Stroumsa moves rapidly from the availability of books to late Roman readers, the replacement of rolls by codices in late antiquity and the cognitive and cultural shifts that this entailed, and relationship between Christianity and written culture, especially in the context of early monastic habits of reading.

Part IV (Texts) is one of the longest and most straightforward sections of this collection, with each of the essays addressing texts that Augustine himself encountered over the course of his life. Danuta Shanzer (Ch. 13) covers the Latin classics that Augustine first encountered in school, most notably Vergil and Cicero, and the many different ways that he cited them in his later writings. Sarah Byers (Ch. 14) conducts an "integrative reading" (175) of Augustine's theological and pastoral works to find evidence of Augustine's awareness of earlier philosophical traditions and argues that "Augustine's view of the body-soul relationship shares more with Aristotelianism than has been recognized in the past." (186) James van Oort (Ch. 15) offers a lucid description of the Manichean church and Augustine's knowledge of Manichean writings. Michael Cameron (Ch. 16) presents a dense but deeply informative discussion of Augustine's understanding of Christian scripture. Particularly useful is his important distinction that Augustine "did not work analytically upon Scripture ('What can we observe about this text?'), but hermeneutically from within Scripture ('How does his text disclose the mind of God?')." (202) The next two essays in this section complement each other particularly well. Mark Edwards (Ch. 17) surveys Augustine's use of earlier Christian ecclesiastical literature, from Cyprian of Carthage to Ambrose of Milan, while Michael Stuart Williams (Ch. 18) considers the bishop's relative isolation in Hippo and his notion that Scripture was more authoritative than any commentary on it to explain why Augustine did not seem to be an avid reader of his Christian contemporaries. In the final essay of this section, Mark Vessey (Ch. 19) argues that Augustine's reading with Jerome's catalogue of significant Christian authors entitled On Famous Men (De viris illustribus) prompted him to write Confessiones as an "attempt to assert a personal ideal of Christian profession as a way of living among texts, against Jerome's monumentalization of himself in an imaginary postclassical Forum of Trajan." (253)

Part V (Performances) presents Augustine in the many different roles that he fashioned for himself throughout his life. Gillian Clark (Ch. 20) begins with Augustine's introduction to philosophy through an early encounter with Cicero's lost Hortensius and considers Augustine's philosophical inquiry in light of his reading of the Bible and his long engagement with the Manicheans. Therese Fuhrer (Ch. 21) provides a portrait of Augustine in philosophical conversation with his contemporaries and in controversial debate with his religious adversaries, most notably the Manicheans. John Peter Kenney's essay (Ch. 22) on Augustine as a mystic and a monk relies primarily on the bishop's own accounts of his spiritual experiences and thus gives much more weight to his personal transformations than to his contributions to the history of institutional monasticism. Hildegund Müller (Ch. 23) presents many facets of Augustine's activity as a preacher to Christian congregations, from the physical context of his sermons, to the oral improvisation that characterized his presentation, to the theory of preaching expressed in his De doctrina christiana. In the following chapter, Neil B. McLynn (Ch. 24) offers an even-handed portrait of Augustine as an administrator of his diocese, with an emphasis on the techniques that he used to resolve controversies both among his congregation and his fellow bishops. The scandal at the bishopric of Fussala, where a young appointee of Augustine named Antoninus ruled with unexpected tyranny, shows that the bishop of Hippo was not always successful in this capacity. Lastly, Caroline Humfress (Ch. 25) addresses Augustine's career as a "controversialist" who "was at work self-consciously composing treatises against a litany of named – and occasionally unnamed – individuals, from the time of his ordination until shortly before his death." (324). Part VI (Positions) takes the reader from the concrete to the conceptual in its treatment of a variety of intellectual and theological issues and themes over which Augustine's writings would exert considerable influence in the western tradition. These topics include the resolution of the human will (Ch. 26 by James Wetzel); the human body with the concomitant issues of sexual sin and the embodied resurrection (Ch. 27 by David G. Hunter); Christian friendship, with an emphasis on the relationship between Augustine and Jerome (Ch. 28 by Stefan Rebenich); schism within the church in the context of Augustine's writings against the Donatists (Ch. 29 by Alexander Evers); political society and civil government, framed by the bishop's correspondence with Macedonius, the imperial vicar for Africa (Ch. 30 by Robert Dodaro); the trinity (Ch. 31 by the late Sabine MacCormack); and the theology of redemption (Ch. 32 by Lewis Ayres).

The volume concludes with Part VII (Aftertimes), which includes a chronological survey of the reception of Augustine's writings during his lifetime (Ch. 33 by Clemens Weidmann), the influence of his work in the early medieval west, with a very useful section on the genesis of the dossier of monastic materials that became known as The Rule of Augustine (Ch. 34 by Conrad Leyser), and the Augustinian traditions inherited by the later Middle Ages and the Reformation (Ch. 35 by Eric L. Saak). Two final chapters consider the reception of Augustine by modern philosophers from Descartes to Gadamer (Ch. 36 by Johannes Brachtendorf) and the use of Augustine to postmodern thinkers who "find in him the resources for a robust critique of modernity." (Ch. 37 by John D. Caputo; quotation at 492). In an epilogue to the volume, James J. O'Donnell muses on the study of Augustine in the twentieth century and charts some useful trajectories for future research. "Augustine," he concludes, "is not done with us." (515)

For those of us who teach Augustine on a regular basis, but who are not members of the sprawling familia of scholars who have structured their research agendas around the work of this fascinating and deeply influential late antique bishop, this volume is a treasure trove of judicious assessments and learned insights. It would not be difficult to structure a very worthwhile seminar on the age of Augustine using its contents, particularly Parts I-V. Mark Vessey has performed an exceptional service by marshalling this legion of specialists to produce what will surely be one of the most important resources for the study of Augustine for many decades to come.

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