Late antiquity, as it’s more generally known, had long been painted as the period of Rome’s decline and fall, Byzantium’s stagnation, and classical culture’s enfeeblement and eventual descent into monkishness and barbarism. By the 1960s that depiction of a supposedly crude and irrational age was at last questioned, then revised and finally dismissed, to a large degree because of a historian named Peter Brown.
In a brilliant, often thrilling biography, “Augustine of Hippo,” pioneering essays such as “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” a remarkable introductory survey called “The World of Late Antiquity” and — as the years went by — a cluster of magisterial volumes such as “The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity” and “The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000,” Brown focused his meticulous learning on this widely misunderstood and pivotal era. Rather than Greco-Roman civilization’s decadence, he saw transformation and continuity; instead of stultification he discovered cultural fluidity. What’s more, Brown simultaneously enlarged the period’s geographical reach, extending its area of interest to embrace the ancient Near East and the pre-Islamic Persian Empire. How all this came about is the major theme of Brown’s just-published intellectual autobiography, “Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History.”
Whereas a show business memoir might be enlivened with the names of Hollywood or Broadway legends, Brown’s 700-page career retrospective memorializes and celebrates the many great scholars he came to know, in particular superstars such as Arnaldo Momigliano and Henri-Irénée Marrou. In essence, “Journeys of the Mind” commemorates an immensely erudite academic community, a global Republic of Letters, drawn from many nations and disciplines. Now in his late 80s, Brown looks back on those years and the people he met with nostalgia and gratitude.
After some overlong chapters about his Protestant ancestors and his childhood in Catholic Ireland, Brown focuses almost exclusively on his academic life and what one might call “the growth of a scholar’s mind.” We follow him through an especially stellar career at Oxford (a “congratulated” first in history at New College, a prize fellowship to All Souls) on to his years teaching at London’s Royal Holloway College, the University of California at Berkeley and finally Princeton. During holidays and sabbaticals he also made several eye-opening trips to Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan.
As a young hotshot, Brown fought to establish intellectual and religious history as a legitimate university subject, “to issue a challenge to the tweedy philistinism that (in my jaundiced eyes) appeared to dominate the Oxford History Schools.” Rather than kings, wars and politics, he studied saints and sorcerers, arcane works of religious doctrine, the spiritual forces that energized people’s lives. More and more, he also recognized that medieval studies, traditionally centered on Europe and the legacy of Rome, had shortchanged the Greek-oriented Fertile Crescent of the Near East.
In nearly all his work, Brown explores the complexities of late antiquity by asking seemingly simple questions with sometimes unexpected answers. Why, for instance, did a cult of the saints arise? To a large degree because saints “humanized the other world.” Why were anchorites such as Simeon Stylites — who lived atop a pillar — regularly consulted on all sorts of practical problems? Because they were unconnected to normal society, above it all so to speak, and could thus render wholly impartial judgments. Why was virginity, among men as well as women, so prevalent among early Christians? Because to renounce sex was to free the body from the bonds of the secular world’s marital and social obligations. “It was society, not sex, over which the detached virgin body was thought to have triumphed.”
Besides being an enthralling account of an eminent scholar at work, “Journeys of the Mind” can also function as an annotated guide to dozens of important works of intellectual history. It will send at least a few readers back to older classics such as Johan Huizinga’s “The Waning of the Middle Ages”; M. Rostovtzeff’s “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire”; Norman Baynes’s history of ancient Judaism, “Israel Among the Nations”; Marc Bloch’s “Feudal Society”; and R.W. Southern’s “The Making of the Middle Ages.” Brown also stresses how much he learned about societal and cultural dynamics by reading the works of anthropologists, notably E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s groundbreaking “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande” and Mary Douglas’s “Natural Symbols.” The late-in-life discovery of Pierre Hadot’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises From Socrates to Foucault” leads to his declaration that “I would never again read a text of ancient philosophy, or even the most banal ethical treatise, in the same way.”
Even while tracing a trajectory of almost unbroken academic triumph, Brown nonetheless views himself as essentially a lifelong student, always learning, always modifying his views in light of new discoveries. In one mini-essay, he admits the limits of paideia — the classical education of antiquity — but nonetheless honors its beneficent “emphasis on poise, on self-control, and on gracious behavior,” on becoming “a ceremonious and balanced person.” After becoming a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he grows to esteem its now-legendary editor, Robert Silvers, as his “ideal reader.” Perhaps surprisingly, Brown also comes to deeply admire the controversial Michel Foucault, with whom, on one memorable occasion, he discussed sexuality at a Berkeley hangout. The contrarian philosopher argued that, compared with earlier periods of history, our era’s emancipation from supposed sexual repression had actually led to sex being grossly distorted and granted undue prominence in modern lives.
As in all his books and essays, Brown’s prose is pellucid, meditative, courteous. On the occasions when he uses a foreign phrase — and Brown can read all the major European languages as well as Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopic and a dozen others — he quickly translates it into English. When he refers to an important scholarly work, whether his own or someone else’s, he always outlines its argument. Brown even reminds us that later printings of his own publications often contain new introductions or afterwords indicating those points about which he has since changed his mind.
Brown brings “Journeys of the Mind” to a close in the late 1980s. By then, he had made late antiquity one of the hottest fields in history, written paradigm-shifting articles and books, been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and begun teaching at Princeton. Will some future volume cover the second half of his ongoing career? I hope so. I’ve read lots of autobiographies — the genre became the focus of my own studies back in those Cornell days — but none that quite so vividly depicts a life, a deeply enviable life, centered on humanistic research and the reading and writing of scholarly works. In its way, “Journeys of the Mind” may well be the most romantic book of the year.
Princeton University Press. 736 pp. $45
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POST AUTHOR: Michael Dirda