Thursday, May 29, 2014


Jason David BeDuhn, Augustine's Manichaean Dilemma, Volume 1: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 408. ISBN 9780812242102. $69.95. Jason David BeDuhn, Augustine's Manichaean Dilemma, Volume 2: Making a "Catholic" Self, 388-401 C.E. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. x, 552. ISBN 9780812244946. $79.95.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents Vol. 1
Table of Contents Vol. 2

The last written words of Augustine, of the five million surviving from his pen, are these, addressed to the "Pelagian" Julian of Eclanum (c. Iul. Imp. 6.41): "When you deny the evil of the things that are evil and do not connect their origin to the sin of the first man, you don't make them not be evil. But by believing that their evil nature makes them coeternal with the eternal good, you are blindly and detestably supporting the Manichees, and there's no point to your attacking them, because in reality you are their wretched supporter." In their grinding, wearying slanging match, Augustine was returning the compliment: Julian had claimed that Augustine was still spouting Manichean doctrine.

Jason BeDuhn has been well regarded for a decade for his work on Manicheism, signally The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual (Baltimore 2000). Few indeed are those scholars who have approached Augustine only after giving a full and fair hearing to the Manichees; most are incapable of seeing them except through the eyes of their persecutor, Augustine's Inspector Javert describing the Manichee's Jean Valjean. BeDuhn now approaches Augustine with what must be the clearest eye of any scholar since Pierre Alfaric over a century ago. The three volumes of Augustine's Manichaean Dilemma will trace Augustine's obsession through his entire career. I will here discuss the two volumes so far in print and say without hesitation that they amount to the best and most original work on Augustine's Confessions and early life in at least two decades. (The first volume takes us through the years covered by the narrative of the Confessions; the second volume picks up the story in 388 and continues to 401; a third volume anticipated in a few years will conclude the study.)

The story is one of "conversion," is it not? Conversion as theme of Christian discourse in late antiquity was powerful, but scarcely less powerful has been the modern willing reception of that discourse. Yes, exactly, we say, conversion is what was going on and we must become connoisseurs of the phenomenon. And so, as long ago as A.D. Nock's Conversion (Oxford 1933), that is what we have become. But we now know better, know that conversion is a performance, performance to self, performance for others, and for that matter, performance before God. Take the famous moment in the garden in Augustine Conf.: conversion, yes? Well, it quite resembles a decision to quit smoking. Augustine had sworn off the temptations of the flesh before, only to take up his old ways again. The scene in the garden didn't really become a conversion until it proved to have stuck—until he had stopped smoking long enough to boast about it, so to speak. The winter that followed at Cassiciacum gave Augustine a way of testing his resolve and, incidentally, removed him from the social opportunities and temptations of big city life. So BeDuhn rightly observes that "actual conversion . . . is the act of maintaining the converted self" and argues that seeing Augustine's departure from Manicheism as a once-for-all transformation just can't be true to the facts, however true it was to Augustine's self-narrative (1.3-5: I give references by volume and page number). BeDuhn rubs our noses in the fact that even when we insist on thinking of "conversion," there were two sides to the story: "Augustine the convert was always inevitably also Augustine the apostate" (1.20). Ex-smokers, ex-womanizers, and ex-Manichees may leave their past behind, but it remains with them. Better we should use the language of another affliction and speak of Augustine as a "recovering Manichee."

Once we try on the eyes of Jean Valjean, things long in plain sight take on new meaning. One of Augustine's early autobiographical sketches anticipating the Confessions, is a paragraph of the anti-Manichean "Two Souls" (de duabus animabus 9.11, of 391/92):

"Two things really caught me at that age and kept grinding me down as I went in circles. One is the sense of community that snaked in and looked very much like a good thing, winding itself around and around my neck like a chain. Then there were the poisoned victories I regularly won arguing with inept Christians struggling to defend their faith as best they could. The more I succeeded, the more my adolescent chutzpah was fed and I grew nearly incorrigible. Because I started on this debating career after I had become their 'auditor,' whatever success was owed to my native ability and what I had learned elsewhere I happily attributed to them alone. So from their preaching I got my zeal for arguing and from my success in arguing my love for them grew day by day. So whatever they said I took for truth, not because I knew it was true but because I wanted it to be true."

From the time he read the Hortensius at age 19, Augustine always wanted to be a philosopher. That ambition was with him when he went to the Manichees and with him when he left. It was fulfilled when Ambrose showed him how he could be a philosopher and a Christian. BeDuhn is excellent on capturing the philosophicality of Manicheism and the eliteness of it: cells of a few auditors around an "elect" sage, not a religion for the common man at all. They were illegal, but remarkably ordinary-seeming. They embodied the highest philosophical culture and succeeded by progressing beyond what others could achieve. The great virtue of BeDuhn is his normalization of Manicheism and his de-monsterification of it. If we could read the exact Latin texts Augustine read, it would be a lot easier to feel that cultural normalcy, but they have perished, and many of the primary materials we have from Manicheism are in languages classicists do not aspire to know. But it is of the highest importance to see how the Manichees and Ambrose were of one purpose in making Christianity classical, making it fit into the heritage of elite Romans.

BeDuhn's work here is a thorough, consistent, patient, and richly successful rereading of Augustine with fresh eyes and thus many startling discoveries. The Manichee guru Faustus (BeDuhn 1.106-125) who so disappoints Augustine was a disappointment precisely because he was so much what Augustine wanted to be: gentlemanly, Roman, cultured. He was more Christian than the Christians, sneering at the traditional elements of their performance of religion—the sacrifices turned into love-feasts, the idols turned into martyrs to whom to pray, the graveyard picnics appeasing the shades of the departed with wine and food, the persistence of the old calendar.1 Manicheism offered him religious solace without giving up the intellectually respectable traditions of culture to which he clung (1.213). In Milan, he would find how to get the same result without getting in trouble with the law. When we first see him rehearsing the part of the devout Catholic Christian and quoting scripture, we should observe that his scripture consisted disproportionately of the wisdom books and a few Psalms—the Old Testament selected for a philosopher to use.

BeDuhn is also excellent on context in an important way: by showing how ignorant Augustine himself was of the context within which his story played out. BeDuhn emphasizes the creation of "Nicene" and "Catholic" Christianity in 379-381 CE and following, when Theodosius came to the throne. The emperor's church made the surprising choice of going back to the Nicene formulation that had been all but abandoned, even by Constantine, and using it to create an approved form of Christianity that passed under what was now a brand name of "Catholic." The word had been a generic creed word for a long time, but from the 380s forward, perhaps drawing on usage already coming into play in Africa to differentiate Caecilianists from Donatists, it appears as a label for the kind of Christianity that emperors could approve of. That relaunched brand of Christianity, so to speak, was what Augustine stumbled upon in Milan.2

The "early" Augustine, the one, that is, already baptized and writing Christian books, was still woefully ignorant. He got to be who he was by going off by himself, first to Cassiciacum, then Tagaste, without a teacher, without a library, without guidance. He made stuff up. As late as 391, when he was being press-ganged into ordination, there is no sign that he knew much about going to church or even that he had been to church at all since his baptism. He was entirely obtuse on resurrection. Christ for the becoming-Catholic Augustine is not a redeemer or an atoner, but an awakener and informer. Other surprises lay ahead for Augustine the cleric: miracles, infant baptism, millennial expectations. He swallowed most of them.

Perhaps the most important new argument in BeDuhn and one that will be tested intensely is his claim that Augustine in the early 380s really did have good reason to leave Africa, one step ahead of the law. The standing position on this issue has been that he left two years or so ahead of a crackdown on Manichees, that his enemies claimed he had been fleeing that suppression, but that Augustine was really just innocent and lucky. BeDuhn discounts innocence and luck (1.135ff, 1.218ff). There was a new law of 383 threatening increased pursuit of Manichees. Augustine could not have foreseen that this law would not be enforced in Africa until the proconsul Messianus did so in 386. When Augustine left Africa, he did so as a Manichee and lived with Manichees in Rome into 384. BeDuhn shows that when the crackdown came in Africa, Augustine was indeed named, so he reads the 386/87 winter's retreat to Cassiciacum (and the resignation from his public position) as at least in part motivated by a desire to lay low. A public amnesty from Theodosius in January 387 was followed by Augustine's reappearance in Milan a month or two later as a baptismal candidate. The evidence for this argument is thinner than one could wish and the attachment to Augustine's saintly honesty is so intense among many readers that there will be fierce resistance. I accept that the departure from Africa was motivated as BeDuhn says and take under consideration the remainder of the argument.

There are numerous discussions of familiar topics in Augustine that are seen in new light here: I will only mention, e.g., the treatment of the death of Augustine's great friend recounted in Conf. 4, the turn (or return) to Academic skepticism, the usefulness of the neo-Platonic books he reads in Milan, and the way anti-Manicheism leads him to say things in de libero arbitrio voluntatis that come back to haunt him later. Perhaps BeDuhn overdoes his reading of Augustine's first book, the de pulchro et apto, as the work of a crypto-Manichee (1.100), but the discussion is at least instructive.

The delight in this basket of lesser discoveries is his treatment of the pear theft recounted in Conf. 2. No modern reader has been entirely comfortable with the disproportionate treatment given a petty act of mischief. "Rum thing," said Oliver Wendell Holmes, "to see a man making a mountain out of robbing a pear tree in his teens." Nietzsche was derisive. But BeDuhn makes us read the episode again in context: fruit plucked from trees and then thrown away for pigs to eat. This happened when he was sixteen; he became a Manichee at nineteen; and we hear him tell the story at forty-three. What BeDuhn captures is the shocking moral dimension this story had for a Manichee. Vegetarian Manichees ate fruit like pears precisely because they would in doing so liberate the particles of the divine trapped therein. To cast them to pigs, on the other hand, was somewhere between blasphemy, sacrilege, and deicide. In Augustine's early manhood, this story would be a dramatic display of gross moral failure. The post-Manichee Augustine could make something else of it, presenting it in Conf. as his own version of fruit-based sin in the garden of Eden and glossing over the pre-existent account of cosmic moral drama. To Manichee readers of Conf., however, wrapping the story in a new moral made them see how far Augustine had come.

The great set piece in the second volume is his discussion of the debate in 392 with Fortunatus the Manichee (2.122ff). In 392, we still have the Augustine who makes stuff up. He went after Fortunatus in a public debate arguing on grounds of reason, but promptly had his head handed to him on the first day of debate on grounds of scripture. BeDuhn is lucid and even funny on the "all-nighter" Augustine had to pull between days of the debate just to rescue something from scripture to come back with. He pulled it off about as well as the best student papers written during all-nighters do. The debate ended messily. Fortunatus, BeDuhn argues, was happy to have made his point and escape arrest. Augustine wrote it up and crowed victory. But this was the day that started the turn towards what emerged a few years later as his distinctive, pessimistic reading of Paul. BeDuhn 2.163: "Hence, he may have been the last one to recognize the degree to which he gradually reconstructed Fortunatus's reading of Paul and made himself vulnerable to the charge of leading the Catholic Church in Africa in a Manichaean direction." The things Julian of Eclanum would later attack in Augustine as Manichean do not go back to his Manichean days, but result from focusing his attention and defending his position from this moment in 392. His firmly orthodox Christianity was shaped, defensively, in a way that would do as much justice as he felt he had to do to the Manichee position. That accommodation would baffle those who did not have Augustine's Manichee past and would read to them as simple Manicheism. They were not as wrong as Augustine would like to think.

The narrative of the second volume remembers—as most readers of accounts of Augustine's life in the 390s do not remember—his Manichee past. He was drafted into the priesthood, resisted as had Ambrose and Gregory Nazianzen, but capitulated. Scripture was still not something he knew well or studied intensely, but he made a serious start. When he was ordained as bishop, irregularly, with his predecessor still alive, his past came back to haunt him. Megalius of Calama, the primate of the African church, couldn't forget Augustine's past or entirely believe in his conversion. BeDuhn makes a case that Augustine was effectively on trial in the eyes of the African Catholic church and that the Confessions were his apology. The deliberate Didonic overtones of his abrupt and frightened absquatulation from Africa appear now as brilliant misdirection.

The work is a brief for arguing the importance of a still-neglected aspect of Augustine's thought and life. The volumes underdo and leave aside some things that a fully rounded new study of Augustine's early life would have to include: the meat of Augustine's relationship with Ambrose (and the influence of Ambrose's lost de philosophia, seen inter alia in the project Augustine undertook to write books about the "liberal arts" as preparation for mysticism), the writing and importance of de doctrina christiana in 395, and what I have called the writer's block that only broke with the Confessions and the flood of works they made possible. Donatism is almost nowhere in these volumes, though it was everywhere in Augustine's African life, starting from his own mother's upbringing in that community.

The final volume will follow the rest of Augustine's life in what BeDuhn calls "the inescapable shadow," from 401 to the end of his life in 430. He promises to explore how far Augustine stayed with the solutions he had deployed in answer to Manicheism and how what he took from the Manichees became transmuted into something quite different. I wish I already saw the book on the publisher's website as "forthcoming," but will abide in patience a little longer, digesting what we have learned from this impressive achievement.


1.   The persistence of the old in Christianity: Ramsay MacMullen's remarkable The Second Church (Atlanta 2009), as eye-opening and reorienting a book as his Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven 1984).
2.   Garry Wills, Font of Life (New York 2012), excavates and limns the stumbles at Milan splendidly.

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