Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, by Peter Brown, Princeton University Press, 736 pp, £38, ISBN: 978-0691242286
As a young boy growing up in the 1930s in a Dublin Protestant family, Peter Brown could have been personally acquainted with the unblessed coupling of politics with religion long before he wrote about its presence in Roman North Africa, the subject of his first published work as a scholar of late antiquity (200 to 700 CE). Ireland’s bourgeoisie tolerated a degree of mixing between Christians of different faiths, but not when it came to marriage: when one of Brown’s aunts, aged eighteen at the time, became too close to a Catholic boy she was packed off to relatives abroad and the whole business buried in silence. Seventy years would pass before he came to know about it.
A distant connection with Lady Jane Grey, the executed grandniece of Henry VIII, invested the maternal line of Brown’s genealogy with impeccable Protestant credentials; the male side traced its descent from Scottish Presbyterians who had settled in the Irish capital. Brown’s father was an engineer who worked in Sudan but not, his son assures readers in Journeys of the Mind, as an empire-builder: profession and citizenship kept the railroad engineer apart from the imperialistically minded, Oxbridge-educated British elite governing the country. Peter stays with his family for three winters in Atbara, two hundred miles north of Khartoum, until the outbreak of World War II. At the age of eight he moves to Aravon, a boarding school south of Dublin. Outside the state education system, Aravon had its share of eccentric staff, including a history teacher who had been a colleague of William Joyce, the infamous ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, executed by the British for broadcasting on behalf of Hitler’s Germany. This was hushed up when it became known to the school principal and Peter innocently benefits from the gifts of a teacher who gives him confidence and an interest in history. From the top of a bus he sees the swastika flying at half-mast above the German embassy on the day of Hitler’s death.
After the war, his mother travels to Sudan and Peter moves to Dublin’s Lansdowne Road where, when not at Aravon, he lives for two years with a grandmother and aunt. He goes climbing in the quarry of Dalkey Hill with a friend, James Farrell, a companion who will go on to write a trilogy of books about the fall of the British empire. When his parents return to Dublin, they send him as a boarder to an English public school, Shrewsbury, where he remains until he wins a scholarship to Oxford. Perhaps it is his recall of the fog that ‘rose on winter’s evenings from the river Severn and mingled in a golden glow with the lights of the school Houses’ that wraps his account of life at the public school in misty-eyed nostalgia. His father might have struggled to afford the fees but the fact that class privilege was being purchased is downplayed in favour of remembering his favourite history teachers at the school. He reads Christopher Hill’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution but finds it a ‘stupid, cruel, futile story’; Oxford’s cloisters and crenellations are more appealing to his imagination and for historical sustenance he turns instead to the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages.
Brown’s intellectual autobiography gets into its stride with the chapters covering his time at Oxford, gaining his degree, advancing to a fellowship and establishing his research interests. He recalls taking Henri-Irénée Marrou’s Saint Augustine et la fin de la culture antique with him on a punt from Magdalen Bridge, piquing an interest in the decline of paganism in ancient Rome and the divisions between different Christian groups that emerged in the Maghreb. He learns to question the familiar tropes of Rome’s decline and fall by focusing instead on the differences developing between the old Latin order in the West and the buoyant new world of Byzantium in the East. The first volume of Marrou’s book, completed in 1937, described Rome in the late stage of an inevitable decay but a shorter second volume written in 1949 rebutted the thesis of a fatal imperial decadence overwhelmed by barbarian pagan warlords. Marrou showed the student Brown that a figure like Augustine belonged to both the ancient and the medieval world in a way that required a new term for this in-between historical period: with Spätantike ( late antiquity), a term used by German art historians to pin down works that had ceased to be classical but were yet recognisably medieval, Brown had found his shtick.
An uncharacteristic but forgivable note of self-congratulation records his attainment of a first at Oxford in 1956, calculating that they were awarded to only six per cent of students that year and he basks in, as he puts it, a ‘rare distinction’. It opens the door to a seven-year fellowship, with no obligation to teach or even remain at Oxford, and he celebrates with a sojourn at the Butler Arms in Waterville, Kerry with his parents. Women make their first appearance in the book, although, to judge by his recall of discussing Sophocles’s Antigone with Catholic girls of his own age from a convent school, his sex life is progressing at a remarkably slow pace. He notes what is going on in the wider world – the uprising in Hungary and the British and French attack on Egypt – but his own political affinities are not stated and his making the acquaintance of Bertrand Russsell’s son is given equal attention.
Embarking on intellectual journeys fuelled by books, talks and networking at high table dinners, there is travel beyond the then taught range of ancient history – Herodotus, Thucydides and Rome up until the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE) – into Near Eastern and Hellenistic society, Christianity as a political force and Roman imperialism as far as the sixth century CE. Rejecting the conventional view of the later Roman empire as succumbing to dissipation and an excess of state power, Brown identifies social mobility and fluidity as characteristics of its eastern parts. Pagans and Christians, usually portrayed as engaged in a full-on confrontation, assume for him less agonistic positions in the gradual transition to the early Middle Ages.
Roman North Africa and dissent in that region by Donatists – a Christian sect at odds with the mainstream church – becomes a focus of consideration for the young Oxford scholar and this is reflected in the attention it receives in Journeys of the Mind. He views Donatist intransigence not as evidence of regional dissent but more a symptom of anxieties about the place of religion in Roman society. He is self-deprecating about how his 1961 article on the topic failed as an academic trumpet blast bringing down the academic walls of Jericho but he pursues his conviction that religious coercion in the late Roman state cannot be compared to the earlier brutal persecution of Christians. Pagans and Jews were treated as second-class citizens but not fed to the lions and enforcement was left to local officials to administer as they saw fit. In North Africa, Augustine of Hippo had no qualms about the repression of Donatism and the forced theological obedience of its followers.
It is his biography of Augustine that gives Brown academic kudos and he receives acclaim partly because, not writing as a theologian or a cleric, he is able to reach out to a larger audience than armchair historians. A year after beginning the research, he attends the Oxford Patristics Conference, held every four years, and comes into direct contact with European scholars who share his interests and who, moreover, are not exclusively male. A paper by Marguerite Harl, looking at interpretations of Adam and Eve’s nudity, stays in his mind. Their lack of clothing in Eden was traditionally seen as emblematic of an innocence that would never recover from the Fall but, contrarily, their donning of garments could be viewed as an early step in lessening human vulnerability: ‘the making of trousers [continued] through the invention of agriculture and the building of cities, to culminate in the building of the great Gothic cathedrals’. To go from trousers in the Fertile Crescent to cathedrals sweeps alarmingly across millennia and continents but Brown is impressed by the argument that such an exegesis of the Fall feeds into medieval universities and comes to underpin modern notions of technological progress. It plays a part in convincing him that late antiquity, far from being a period of decline, was a time of creativity; Christians like Augustine and Clement of Alexandria, being in dialogue with ancient culture, become a bridge between Rome and medievalism.
His Augustine biography (160,000 words plus 3,000 footnotes), written by hand, garners positive reviews when it appears in 1967; it remains in print and was republished in 2020, even though by then new letters and sermons of Augustine had come to light. Brown becomes a historian of the Eastern Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and Iran in the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries – with the rise of Islam on the horizon. It was an area ripe for exploration given the unique position of East Rome – steeped in classical Greek but not out of touch with the rise of Christian faiths – and it opens a window into Manichaeism, a religion with crucial manuscripts in Coptic that were safely housed in the Chester Beatty Collection in Dublin. As the religion, founded by Mani in Iran in the third century CE, begins to spread towards the Mediterranean – promising to harness and harmonise doctrines of Jesus, Zoroaster and Buddha – it is resisted by Rome, but a bridgehead with the West is built through Syriac culture. Brown is entering territory with different languages, like Arabic, Syriac and Coptic but he does not shy away from the challenge of the new.
He begins to learn Classical Hebrew – ‘the Latin of the Middle East’ as he calls it – and his intellectual horizons continue to broaden when he finds himself reading Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological study of the Azande tribe, in the region of Africa where his father had once worked as an engineer. Evans-Pritchard showed how witchcraft beliefs for the Azande of southern Sudan were not the manifestations of an intrinsically inferior Black mentality but a way of talking about and negotiating human misfortune; for Brown, this sheds light on the role of sorcery in late antiquity. Anthropology drew connections between how spiritual beliefs operated and the social structures wherein they arose and this insight could be applied, in ways not dissimilar to studies of the Azande, to the sorcery accusations under Constantius II (337-361). Asking what was gained and who benefited by believing in demons was equally relevant to late Roman and early medieval society and Brown is further stimulated to probe such questions by the work of Byzantine scholars and another British anthropologist, Mary Douglas.
Looking at social and religious phenomena as two faces of an underlying social-political structure has, although this is not dwelt on, a quasi-Marxist colouring and such an approach at that time has to confront a mixture of intellectual distain and racism. The Dominican friar André-Jean Festugière translated writings by the monks of Antioch about the lives of saints in Egypt, Syria and Palestine – best known in the popular mind through the figure of Symeon Stylites (396-459), who lived for thirty-seven years on a wicker platform atop a sixty-foot pillar near Aleppo – but Brown’s interest in the topic has to deal with Festugière’s conviction that the minds of these monks were on a par with ‘the most savage primitive lost in the forests of Equatorial Africa’. His own less jaundiced mind is well represented in these words: ‘Gradually, I discovered that the holy men of Syria were not wild, spaced-out recluses. They did their job, day in and day out, as mediators and peace-keepers in a boisterous rural world that needed their services.’ Symeon Stylites may have been ‘the most awesomely remote of such holy men’, but he worked with local villagers on the need to ration water in times of drought and intervened in a village dispute over acceptable rates of interest for loans. There were also holy women in Syria and Brown acknowledges how modern scholarship has brought this to life, but he does not extend to them the holy man’s fascinating balance between a Bartleby-like non-involvement and the exercise of a form of power that was unofficial but effective: ‘Attached to no one, the holy man could impinge on local affairs as objectivity incarnate.’ The argument that the ascetic holy man exercised an influence worthy of a distinct place in religious history is a stronger claim than will be found in canonical narratives like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial A History of Christianity (2009).
By the late 1960s, Brown’s authority in the field of late antiquity is well-established and he plays his part in rebutting the thesis of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book title etched in cultural history even though few now manage to get through its six volumes. One of the last studies to accept a Gibbonian perspective, ER Dodds’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (1965), is fairly brought to account by Brown for seeing individuals’ psychological crises as symptoms of a societal breakdown. The author, whose earlier The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) remains essential reading, presents an interesting contrast to Brown. They share an Irish Protestant background but had dissimilar social origins and affinities, both political and intellectual; these are urbanely glossed over by Brown. There are places in Journeys of the Mind where the reader looks for the kind of introspection that makes Dodd’s autobiography, Missing Persons, so striking and piquant – but there are also similarities: going to Oxford was life-changing for both of them and each gained Firsts (though, unlike Dodds, Brown did not smoke some quality cannabis resin and recall the occurrence in Missing Persons with humorous fondness).
The name of Brown’s autobiography both is and is not a guide to its contents. There are many journeys to be sure, hence the title’s plural, but any mind is grounded on more than just a rational search for understanding and there are other dimensions to be considered, metaphysical, traumatic, unconscious ones – the whole perplexing excess in subjectivity that seems at odds with reason. When Brown considers the phenomenon of trial by ordeal in the Middle Ages, any suggestion of illogicality in ordeal is rationalised into a normative, socio-symbolic space where communication and agreement can be negotiated while subject to relations of power and domination. There is truth in this, of course, but adhering rigidly to this approach and regarding it as the only truth loses what Dodds recognised as the mind’s capacity to disrupt its own functioning and such a journey beyond historicist hermeneutics lies outside Brown’s purview.
A trip to Iran in 1974 is described in detail, taking up four chapters, and almost as much space is devoted to a return trip two years later. There is no doubting Brown’s interest in the Sasanian empire of the fifth and sixth centuries CE, not the earlier Achaemenid age of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes that (thanks primarily, until recent new research in the area, to Herodotus) remains far better known. The 1979 Iranian revolution would bring down an iron curtain on this area of research –‘I had lost an entire horizon’ – but the travel confirms his realisation that the study of late antiquity cannot ignore the Asian lands that border on the Mediterranean; the classical world and the Islamic world are not poles apart.
The irrational could be seen to be making its presence felt in the cult of saints in the Latin world of the fourth and fifth centuries, the topic Brown next turns to: ‘Here were dead bodies endowed with qualities that belonged elsewhere. It was as if a piece of the shining heavens had descended from its proper place to lie buried in the full earth where normal bodies stank and rotted before they turned to dust.’ Faces of the holy dead assume a new importance in Christianity but what Gibbon saw as indicating a regression to pagan polytheism is again rationalised by Brown as a social phenomenon, managed and cultivated to provide a form of comfort amidst the insecurities that came after the fall of Rome.
Brown’s professional life takes new turns, first when he leaves Oxford for a history professorship at the Royal Holloway College outside London and then with lecturing visits to the US. Transatlantic trips bear fruit when in 1978 he takes up a permanent professorship at Berkeley. With, presumably, a considerable salary increase and teaching duties amounting to only six hours a week, a new appointment in sunny California would seem to be an offer he could not refuse. On a trip to say farewell to his parents, the postmistress at his local post office gives him a list of all of her relatives in San Francisco and Redwood City. Emigration to America, as he says, was something taken for granted in his own country and he settles into Californian life after the reality of grinding poverty that he sees for himself on a trip to Cairo. The eternal academic, this prompts him to study the topic of poverty in the later Roman empire.
The final section of Journeys of the Mind includes encounters with two major thinkers. At Berkeley, he meets Michel Foucault and this precipitates his study of sexual renunciation in early Christianity. Brown questions the assumption that sexuality fared badly under the likes of Paul and Augustine – ‘Pagans scored top marks: sex did not seem to trouble them greatly’ – and in the process condemned Europe to a thousand years of repression. He finds instead that early Christians did not fear sex but lauded asceticism as a glue of the social order. Foucault’s interest in subjectivity and self-fashioning overlaps, though with significant differences, with the concerns of another key philosopher that Brown meets, Pierre Hadot. Becoming a good friend, Hadot had found in ancient philosophy an emphasis not on abstract theory but on the business, or the art, of living – though he invests it with a cosmic dimension that would have had little interest for Foucault but which strikes a chord with Brown.
Brown’s wife is referred to for the first time on page 631 of this 713-page book because it occasions the final move in his professional life. She gains an appointment in the art history department at Princeton and accompanied by her spouse travels to the east coast. He takes up a new professorship at Princeton. The personal note registered by mention of his wife continues with a short but tender chapter about the last years of his mother’s life, also spent on an eastern coast but this time alone and more than three thousand miles away in Ireland’s Sandycove. Habits of a lifetime cannot desert him and he writes about her as a historian, citing entries from her diary as evidence of a fortitude that he recognises is her remarkable quality. He particularises the nature of her Irish identity; never a nationalist, she had experienced the British abroad as a young wife in Sudan and came to see Englishness as a social flaw marking snobbery and assertiveness.
The pages about his mother draw attention to what overall is a deficit of the personal in Journeys of the Mind and it may leave readers wanting to know about Brown’s life outside academe. Without wishing to insist on anything private, let alone confessional, it is hard not to admit to a willingness to exchange one of the many précis of an article on some aspect of late antiquity for some crumbs of insight into Brown’s thoughts on religious belief – he refers ever so briefly to his own saying of prayers and one hopes this in the spirit of Hadot’s account of spiritual exercise (as outlined in his must-read Philosophy as a Way of Life) – or what he thinks about the social and political happenings fleetingly recorded in his book as mere background. This, though, is churlish when measured alongside an outstanding account, drawing on an exhaustive personal archive and aided by a formidable memory. Written in pellucid prose, always gracious, unpretentious and unaffected, it is a rich feast to relish slowly; it may well be a failing of the palate that wishes for some tartness and acidity.
Now in the second half of his eighties, Peter Brown reflects on words used by someone else to describe an old friend, recently deceased: ‘gentle, scholarly, ever-polite and infinitely patient’. The impression from this book is that such a description might also encapsulate the essence of the writer of Journeys of the Mind.
Sean Sheehan is a writer of non-fiction, including Jack’s World: Farming on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, 1920-2003 (Cork University Press) and Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury).