Tracing the Hard Edges of Religion: On Peter Brown’s “Journeys of the Mind”

June 6, 2023   •   By Michael Ledger-Lomas

Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History

Peter Brown

TOWARDS THE END of the first century AD, a Roman emperor met the family of Jesus Christ. Domitian had this failed Messiah’s relatives hauled before him while he was traveling in Palestine to make sure that they posed no threat to his power. They turned out to be farmers; as soon as he saw their calloused hands, “despising them as beneath his notice,” he let them go.

Historian Peter Brown’s handling of this encounter in Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity (2016), his last monograph, typifies the methods and preoccupations of his lengthy and prolific career. What matters about the anecdote, culled from a fourth-century church historian, is not whether it was true; rather, its importance lies in the big realities it expresses about the society which recounted it. By that time, Christianity had entered a world that refused to take laboring people seriously as intellectual or political figures. The insistence of its theologians on the holiness of poverty soon altered but could not obliterate the assurance of Roman elites. No historian has evoked more vividly the strange waltz between a transcendent faith and earthly powers in the centuries from Constantine to Muhammad (a period the book’s author named “late antiquity”) than Peter Brown. Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History is a gripping new memoir about how he came to do it.

Like the Confessions of his hero Saint Augustine, this is not a conventional autobiography. Its 700 pages, which take us from Brown’s1940s childhood to the mid-1980s, are studded with deliberate silences. Though he writes voluminously about his extended Irish family and tenderly of his parents, he largely passes over his private life. He mentions his marriage only in passing. This is the portrait of a Homo academicus who sometimes disappears into the institutional backgrounds against which he sits. To today’s academic precariat, his habitats might seem as remote as late antiquity itself.

His Irish father’s finances just sufficed to send Brown to Shrewsbury School and New College, Oxford. There he won a seven-year prize fellowship at All Souls College—with a research fellowship to follow. Over predinner drinks, a fellow who was a Faber & Faber editor arranged to publish his first book before he had started writing it. Brown’s modesty makes his rise seem more frictionless than it was. Without formal training, he mastered research, “somehow” acquiring Italian, Russian, and other scholarly languages. The impending success of his Faber biography of Augustine did away with the need to get a doctorate. Brown became head of the history department at a London university, but was soon lured to UC Berkeley, just as Thatcher’s axe was about to land on higher education. After arriving in California, he dumped his dinner jacket on a park bench as a mark of his emancipation. After an enjoyable stint at Berkeley, a MacArthur Prize bought him out of his teaching and enabled him to move to Princeton.

Despite its old-world start, Brown’s career benefited from the modernization of technology and communications. He wrote his Augustine biography as Edward Gibbon might have done, by laboriously compiling extracts from early modern folios in the Codrington Library of All Souls. Although it was possible to keep up with the publications of European researchers in Oxford, currency controls and other hassles ruled out long visits to the Continent. Yet by the late 1960s, Brown was regularly flying to Paris to commune with French experts on Augustine. A decade later, the makers of a David Frost film flew him to Iran and back between his lectures in London. Brown’s visits to Iran, just before Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, and to Afghanistan broadened his vision of late antiquity to include the Sasanian Empire, which had engaged the Eastern Roman Empire in a cosmic struggle for dominance. But less glamorous advances in scholarly infrastructure also counted. The photocopier transformed his teaching by enabling him to share bibliographies and primary sources with students in his seminars.

Although Journeys of the Mind is a vivid and droll guide to Brown’s role in advancing the historiography of late antiquity, it is also a sustained and moving meditation on how historians of any faith cope with the strangeness of its past. Brown’s upbringing among a shabby genteel tribe of Anglican servants of the British Empire in Éamon de Valera’s clerical republic acquainted him not just with the plight of vanishing aristocracies but also with the “hard edges” of religion. The boundary between Protestant minority and Catholic majority in his native Dublin was invisible but always palpable. Yet the “tweedy philistinism” of Oxford seemed to ignore the fierce grip that beliefs exercise over persons, or else read it as an expression of other identities, such as ethnicity or social class.

By way of reaction, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967) proclaimed the autonomous power of its subject’s convictions. As bishop of a North African diocese, Augustine was an authority figure in a beleaguered empire. But the slow vanishing of his hope that humans could attain their own salvation and his coercion of dissenters were not just symptoms of political crisis. They were the products of tectonic spiritual shifts. To understand them required patient “listening” to his surviving words—a million and a half of them—and then reconstructing how he had developed his dark rationale of human depravity. Brown presents his biography as an almost mystical feat of empathy: stretching his heart “to read Augustine’s heart.” Yet, while it rescued his piety from modern condescension, it risked placing it beyond conventional historical explanation: the hole in a Henry Moore sculpture, as Brown put it in a talk from these years.

British anthropologists taught Brown how to rescue antique faith from this privileged inscrutability. E. E. Evans-Pritchard had vindicated Sudanese peoples from the charges of primitivism leveled at them by British imperial officialdom. Instead of classing witchcraft as primeval irrationalism, he drew attention to its social functions. No less influential on Brown was Mary Douglas—like Evans-Pritchard, a devout Roman Catholic—whose work suggested that a religion’s power lies not in its verbal articulation but in its symbols, especially when they match with “social experience.”

Brown, who had never accepted the notion that Christianity had returned the Roman Empire to mental darkness, applied these functionalist approaches to new breeds of holy persons in late antiquity. Syrian villagers venerated Simeon Stylites, who mortified himself atop a pillar. His isolation made him an ideal (because independent) arbitrator with the powerful. No longer just listening to Christianity, Brown now explained its uses in adjusting to the harder environment of late antiquity, in which the emperor’s power had become concentrated, distant, and unpredictable.

The publication of The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988) signaled a further shift: from asking what holy people did to asking what their holiness did to them. Its point of origin was the movement for sexual liberation of which Berkeley had been one epicenter. Liberal Christians touched by that ferment hoped that by revisiting their faith’s origins, they could uproot its inhumane, puritan elements. Brown gratefully used the primary texts that reforming French Catholics edited. But he wrote neither to condemn Tertullian, Jerome, and other enemies of sexuality nor to draw a wire between their thinking and the harmful obsession of later times with female virginity. Instead, he evoked the fierce remoteness of their debates about why sexual renunciation might be necessary and from whom. It was not sexual acts that late antique ascetics policed but thoughts and desires: they sought the scorched mastery of the self that could make themselves reservoirs of supernatural power. For wealthy women in particular, the renunciation of sexual life meant stepping off the reproductive treadmill to which ancient societies had confined them and entering new spheres of activity.

In recovering the social and cosmic payoffs to self-abnegation, Brown posited the kind of paradoxes that had startled Michel Foucault’s readers. His sympathetic portrait of Foucault and his friend Paul Veyne cast them as allies in his quest to fissure the present’s easy identification with past persons. If he voices a criticism of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (first volume, 1976)—especially its final, long unpublished volume (2018)—it is that its philosophical commitments prevented its author from fully rendering the alien theologies that sculpted Christian flesh.

Brown confines discussion of his works since the 1980s to a brief postscript. They merited more space though, for they have explored an early Christian idealization of poverty no less tortuous yet socially productive than its exaltation of celibacy. The gospels changed Rome’s elites, but less rapidly and fully than Brown had once imagined. They bowed to bishops as protectors of the destitute and lavished riches on the poor—or on the monks who deemed themselves such. But they did so for a startling return: piles of treasure in heaven. It was this mining for eschatological bitcoin that generated the material splendor of medieval Christendom.

Now in his late eighties, Brown is not finished with scholarship; he writes of learning Geʿez to study Ethiopian Christianity. But the discovery of this fiscal transfer mechanism between earth and heaven, which softened without closing the social gap between Jesus and Domitian, will likely stand as the last and most provocative of his unsparing attempts to investigate what the Christianization of the antique world did to Christianity.


Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian of religion and the author of Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown (Oxford, 2021).