Briefly Reviewed: November 2023
Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History
By Peter Brown
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Review Author: Eric Jackson
Peter Brown has done it again! He has written an intellectual autobiography that will prove as enduring as his studies of late antiquity. His latest book traces many journeys of the mind, from his early school days through his time as a professor of history at Princeton University. As such, it is also “a portrait of an age — of the remarkable half century after the end of World War II in which the study of late antiquity in its present form came into its own in England, America, and Europe. That age is past.”
In the book’s very first chapter, we find Brown in his mother’s apartment, contemplating her recent death and musing over two newspaper clippings from the day of his birth. Brown writes, “Sitting in the empty attic of my mother’s house, in 1987, 52 years after my birth, I was touched by the primal sadness of all historians. I was reading about people who knew as little of their future as I knew of my own.” That primal sadness permeates this profoundly beautiful book.
One of the reasons it does so is Brown’s parenthetical placement of the years of birth and death of those he mentions, for instance, Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). No one is likely to be saddened upon learning of the demise of the Antonines. The impact is different when it comes to more recent figures. To encounter, again and again, a section devoted to the praise of some scholar whom Brown knew, and from whom he learned much, with the dreaded dates is to confront one’s own mortality. Since Brown is 88, it is hardly unexpected that his mentors and most of his contemporaries have passed away. Still, one feels as if nearly the whole field of late antiquity has faded.
Or consider Brown’s description of the Oxford University of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “When I first arrived at New College, on October 7, 1953, and the college porter showed me to my rooms, I was convinced that there had been a mistake. These rooms seemed too grand for an undergraduate. My two rooms — a bed-room and a sitting room — were on the second floor of a ‘Gothic’ building of the 1920s. A large oak door stood open, faced by a splendid bay window, with mullioned frames, set in a deep, wide alcove. A fireplace in beige marble was decorated with heraldic Tudor roses and framed by white-painted Gothic paneling. These, surely, must be the rooms of a don. But no, said the porter: they were mine.”
Though not without his share of suffering, Brown has lived the charmed life of a scholar. In addition to chapters devoted to world travel — especially in the Middle East, including trips to Iran before the revolution — much of the book focuses on the reading he did in preparation for his writing. He displays an unfailing deference to and charity toward his fellow scholars, but he is sincere. I was surprised to find myself viewing Michel Foucault in an entirely new light.
Brown’s self-criticism is commendable. One never gets the impression that he has written the last word on a topic. For instance, after explaining the years of study that went into his writing of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967), he offers his reappraisal considering the march of time and the recent discovery of some of Augustine’s letters: “Altogether, Augustine has emerged for me as a kinder, braver, and more patient man than I had thought…. It is not in his treatises and stirring controversies that Augustine comes closest to us. It is in the flatlands of his routine duties — in the undergrowth of letters and stay sermons.”
This commendable quality contributes to the sadness. If an eminent historian like Brown can’t come to fathom Augustine after decades of study, what hope is there for the rest of us? This same unfathomability applies when we try to know ourselves, as Augustine well knew (see Book X of his Confessions). Still, we can know something about those who have gone before us; our knowledge is imperfect and provisional — but real. The very modesty of the aims of the historian ennobles his work.
I don’t wish to convey the impression that Journeys of the Mind is merely sad. Like Brown’s histories, it is somehow both sweeping and intimate. An encounter with a particular scholar opens new avenues of thought, altering Brown’s perspective. One has the same experience reading his histories. By casting light on a particular work of art or citing a seemingly obscure document, we see the field of study in a new light — and a little more clearly. Here is Brown, for instance, in his book The World of Late Antiquity (1971): “The historian is in danger of forgetting that his subjects spent much of their time asleep, and that, when asleep, they had dreams.”
Journeys of the Mind is also quite humorous. “In the glow of the candlelight, [Ernest Jacob’s] face had the transparency of the face of a late medieval bishop on his alabaster tomb. ‘Brown,’ he said, ‘I have spent all day with Archbishop Chichele.’ This was said with such evident pleasure and conviction that it took me some time to remember that Archbishop Chichele (ca. 1364-1442; a contemporary of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt) had been dead for over five hundred years.”
Such anecdotes could be extracted indefinitely, but this shall be my last: “On my arrival at Princeton, Art Eckstein and Jeannie Rutenberg, my friends from my very first days at Berkeley, sent me a powerful memento — a few leaves from a eucalyptus tree as a reminder of those high groves of eucalyptus that filled the air of Berkeley campus with an unforgettable smell.” And then, quoting a letter from Jeannie, “This eucalyptus leaf was acquired through a particularly spectacular athletic feat on Art’s part (a miracle in itself, really): again and again, fearlessly, he hurled himself at the tree, trying to grasp at a branch.”
A book like this doesn’t come around very often. Tolle lege.
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