The Story Behind the Historian

REVIEW: ‘Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History’ by Peter Brown

Princeton University Press
September 24, 2023

Journeys of the Mind is the intellectual autobiography of Peter Brown. I call it an intellectual autobiography because its emphasis throughout is on Professor Brown’s development as a scholar and historian. When his personal life comes into play, it is generally subsumed if not utterly peripheral to the larger subject of the work, which is how, through education and self-cultivation, its author has become one of the most important historians of our time.

Born in 1935 to a Protestant English family in Ireland, off to university as an Irishman in England, later a European in America as a teacher first at Berkeley, then at Princeton, as a boy and then as a man always in a minority and detached from the main stream of things, Brown has been a true outlier in the best sense of the word. This situation, his condition in a perpetual minority position, may well have conferred upon him the original point of view and interesting outlook that have long characterized his work.

The young Brown earned a minor scholarship to Oxford, from which he graduated with a first in History. Not long after he applied for and won one of the coveted youth fellowships at All Souls College, which freed him for seven years to pursue his own intellectual endeavors. (In 1982 he would win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, of which he had not previously heard.) He was swept away by the brilliance of Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages. "Huizinga had an extraordinary gift for presenting the glittering surface of life in late medieval France and Flanders," he writes, "as if this plethora of vivid details, in itself, revealed a deep otherness, a formidable, challenging distance between ourselves and the past. He implied that the hearts and minds of late medieval people were not like ours. They saw the world differently in more ways than we had ever realized." Huizinga led Brown to wish to become a medievalist.

And he might have done that had he not found an even more compelling subject, late antiquity, those years between roughly A.D. 200 and 800, to the study of which he would devote his career. What he brought to the subject was a healthy skepticism and a feeling for social complexity. As he writes late into his autobiography, "to render fragile all that seemed most certain in the world; to show it to be less solid than we had thought—this was the duty of the thinking person."

"In academe at large," he writes, "late antiquity was still considered to be a marginal field." Students were advised by their teachers to avoid it, publishers were less than interested in it, not all that much had been published on the general subject. What attracted Brown to late antiquity was that it presented, as he writes, a "challenge to the view that the last centuries of the Roman Empire could be seen only as a period of decline and fall—as Edward Gibbon and others had seen them." For Brown, "it was the lurch of change toward the unknown and the unthinkable that held my attention." Add to this the fact that he considered himself "a visual historian," and "late antiquity had attracted me first, as it had attracted many others, because of its works of art: its vivid mosaics, haunting faces, and majestic basilica churches."

Then there was the question of whether the last word hadn’t already been said about it 200 years earlier—the word of Edward Gibbon, the very title of whose imperishable History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) suggested that late antiquity, which saw the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome, was an altogether downward proposition. For Brown something close to the reverse of this was the case. When he came to write The World of Late Antiquity (1971), casting aside Gibbon’s scornful view of the age, he set out to show that "late antiquity marked not the end of civilization but its transformation into new and adventurous forms, which would directly influence all subsequent centuries."

In this and his other work Brown reminds one of José Ortega y Gasset, in What is Philosophy?, writing: "History is the second look which manages to find reason for what appears to be unreason. … Therefore history is not properly history, does not fulfill its inner mission, unless it achieves an understanding of man in his period, whatever that may be, including the most primitive."

As a visual historian, Brown felt it incumbent upon himself to visit scenes of the countries he was writing about. Doing so, especially for a visual historian, both broadened his outlook and stirred his imagination. The same was true about language. In Journeys of the Mind he seems always to be off learning another necessary language, contemporary or ancient, for the composition of his own books. After the Latin and Greek he acquired in school, he learned German and subsequently the modern romance languages. Then there was Hebrew, which he learned "as a prelude to Syriac." He resolves one day to learn Coptic to be able to read Manichaen in manuscript, and eventually does so. In preparation for travel through the Middle East, he acquires Arabic, also Ottoman and modern Turkish. On page 699, in the penultimate sentence of the last page of his book, he reports, "I have begun to read in Ge’ez (in Classical Ethiopic) texts that still echo, at a vast distance of time and space, the controversies and ascetic legends of Syria and Egypt of the fifth and sixth centuries, which had trickled down the Nile and Red Sea to Ethiopia, to yet another ‘micro-Christendom’ founded in late antiquity and still surviving in the Horn of Africa." Now 88, he ends his book by writing that "there is room, in late antiquity, for many more such journeys of the mind."

For all his impressively deep scholarship, Brown’s writing has always been accessible. This was by plan. From his earliest days, as he notes, he wished to write not for an academic but for a generally educated and cultivated audience. He wrote, he tells us, "for my aunts." He had in mind his "Auntie Mai—for persons like her, who had a good high school education but had not continued on to university. … As a result, the idea of writing for an imagined public came naturally to me from this time onward."

In Journeys of the Mind he conveys his method of composition when writing Augustine of Hippo (1967), his first and perhaps still best-known book: "Having drafted a chapter in longhand [by pen], I would read it aloud to make sure of its rhythm. I was determined that Augustine of Hippo would be a book of literary value: the very rhythm of its sentences, when read aloud, should maintain a momentum that carried the reader from one end of Augustine’s life to the other. It would be a very oral book—written to be heard as well as read."

Yet Brown, a man steeped in language and languages, in early boyhood developed a stammer, one he never lost. Some attributed this, unconvincingly in his and my view, to his father, who, working for the British railroad in Sudan, was absent for long stretches when Brown was growing up. As a young man, his stammer often forced him into silence, which gave the impression to others that he was diplomatic and deep. I once heard Brown lecture at the University of Chicago, and my memory is of his having an especially difficult time with words that began with the letter p, among them people, poverty, pope, paradise. In some strange way his stammer seemed only to italicize his words and make them all the more emphatic.

His few references to his stammer are among the rare detours into the personal in this autobiography. The longest such detour is a full chapter about the end of his beloved mother’s life. Only late into the book we learn that Brown is married. Not long after a second wife appears. Was there a divorce? Did the first wife perhaps die? Did he have children with either woman? One never finds out, and, somehow, one doesn’t in any way feel terribly deprived of significant information. In a work of intellectual autobiography, such domestic details come to seem of tertiary importance.

What Brown does take up in Journeys of the Mind are his relationships with other thinkers. Of encountering C.S. Lewis during a lecture on John Milton when a student at Oxford, he writes: "The heavy swags of carving in the great wooden canopy beneath which he spoke seemed to come alive, and to tumble down in a baroque exuberance that mirrored the richness of Milton’s own poetic genius." He also met the anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard at Oxford and cites the influence his book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande had upon his own study of the late Roman Empire. He also notes the importance of social anthropology in showing him the way his own histories could be composed to view society from the bottom up.

Journeys of the Mind provides brief portraits of its author’s relations with, among others, Mary Douglas, Robert Silvers, Pierre Hadot, Paul Henry, Glen Bowersock, Clifford Geertz, and Edward Shils, and a lengthier one of Michel Foucault. Brown devotes an entire chapter to Arnaldo Momigliano, the great historiographer of the ancient world, who over the years served as an influence, a friend, and a model. He tells an amusing anecdote of Momigliano challenging Isaiah Berlin over who had the heavier set of keys on his key ring. I knew Momigliano, and know that key ring, loaded with keys to library carrels round the world, a ring that couldn’t have weighed less than two full pounds.

Along with Journeys of the Mind, I have read only two other of Brown’s books, his Augustine of Hippo and The World of Late Antiquity, and I turn out to have a higher opinion of them than he does. Of his biography of Augustine, he writes, "I would now admit that Augustine’s thought may not have been as conflict-ridden and as fissured by discontinuities as I had believed." Of The World of Late Antiquity, he regrets that he wrote it before the non-Muslim populations of the seventh- and eighth-century Middle East "have come to be studied in detail as active agents in the formation of Islam itself." This is characteristic of Brown, who understands that no true history is ever finally completed, on most great subjects the last word is never in. This same understanding joined with his tireless efforts to lift the veil of prejudice wherever in his work he has encountered it goes a long way to have made Peter Brown the fine historian he is.

Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History
by Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, 736 pp., $45

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books).

Published under: Book reviews , history