For more than two decades, I have taught in a department that includes majors in both history and political science. The combination is not unusual at small colleges; the disciplines have a certain affinity, and students interested in one are frequently interested in the other. For many years I used to joke—mainly to irritate my historian colleagues—that history is the study of past politics, and political science is the study of present history. There’s something to that, but as I have worked with historians over the years, I have gradually come to appreciate more fully the distinctive questions they bring to their work. They strive to make past worlds come alive, to understand them on their own terms, to imagine what it would have been like to be those people, in that place, at that time, seeing the world through their eyes. They ask what Peter Brown, in the preface to his recent memoir Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, calls “the historian’s eternal question: ‘What was it like?’”

Brown is eminently qualified to tell us what it is like to spend one’s career asking that question. Many readers may know Brown mainly for his classic biography Augustine of Hippo. But he is much more than that: the author of books on numerous topics in early Christianity, from the cult of the saints to chastity to attitudes toward wealth and poverty; the generally recognized founder of “late antiquity” as a distinct historical field; and one of the most esteemed historians of his generation.

At a sprawling 699 pages, Journeys of the Mind attempts to do many different things, at times perhaps too many. It is part autobiography, although we get to know Brown’s Irish ancestors more intimately than we do Brown himself; about his personal life, he remains reticent, focusing on the development of his ideas. (Only, however, through the first half of his career, since the book, despite its length, ends in the year 1987.) It is also the history of a field, describing how Brown and other colleagues challenged the sharp division between the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, gradually bringing late antiquity into focus as a transitional period worthy of study in its own right and not merely a period of decay. 

In places, the book reads like a travelogue, taking us from the British Isles through Europe to the Mediterranean, across Iran, and to both coasts of the United States. It is a Who’s Who of great twentieth-century minds: Brown encounters everyone from C. S. Lewis to Iris Murdoch to Michel Foucault; in one two-page span he takes us from dinner conversation with Isaiah Berlin to learning of his own induction into All Souls College along with Charles Taylor. It is also a portrait of Anglo-American higher education in transformation. In the mid-1950s, scholars still relied almost entirely on print volumes in great libraries and archives; as Brown delights in pointing out, they did not yet even have photocopiers, making it difficult to share resources. By 1987, academia had become a much broader universe of international contacts, travel, and conferences.

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Brown, who prides himself, with justification, on writing for an intelligent but non-specialist audience, tells all of this clearly and without academic jargon. But his story does, at times, become like one of those plays with more characters than the audience can keep track of. Often in just two or three pages, he describes his encounters—sometimes personal, sometimes via their books—with a vast array of scholars. The specialist in late antiquity, I assume, will already know their names and significance, but may not learn anything new about their work. The rest of us will find it difficult to tell the players without a scorecard, despite Brown’s clear and careful exposition.

Many of us find it difficult to be forced to revise our assumptions and change our views, but for Brown, it seems to be one of the great joys in life.


Nevertheless, there is a kind of excitement to Brown’s narrative, deriving from a very simple source: his own apparently endless curiosity and almost boyish enthusiasm for the life of the mind. Brown is constantly excited by some new book he reads, offering a new interpretation that casts ancient sources in a new light. Having spent his boyhood in both Sudan (where his father worked) and Ireland—two peripheral regions of different sorts—Brown has a fondness for outsiders and underdogs, people whose stories have not been fully appreciated or ideas that upset our confidence that we have everything figured out. He is always learning to see things from a new perspective, and his delight in this is contagious. Many of us find it difficult to be forced to revise our assumptions and change our views, but for Brown, it seems to be one of the great joys in life.

This is nicely illustrated by Brown’s persistent interest in religion and the interplay between his intellectual study and his personal experience of faith. Many scholars assumed during the immediate postwar decades that religion was a dying influence in a modernizing and secularizing world; material forces such as economic interest were what really drove history. By choosing to write about Augustine, by contrast, Brown “claimed a place for individual subjectivity, for ideas, for culture, and for religious experience as proper objects of historical study.” Though important, this interest was not the same as a living faith. Describing himself in the mid-1950s, he writes, “My interest in this [Christian] past was that of a historian and not of a believer. For the next twenty years I was attached to no church.” 

But his encounter with religious communities that had been neglected by Western scholars reignited Brown’s faith. In a great irony, it was on a trip to Iran that Brown rediscovered faith as a vibrant possibility in the modern world: in the poetry of an Islamic memorial service for a deceased young man; in the recitation of martyrs during an Eastern Christian ceremony, where he saw, for the first time, “the liturgical creation of a community;” and in the beliefs of a surviving Zoroastrian minority. This trip—which reminds one of Augustine’s realization, in Confessions, that God was drawing him home even when he was least aware of it—is the memoir’s fulcrum. Brown returns home from this trip and tells us, in the book’s most quietly dramatic sentence, “On my return, after a lapse of twenty years, I resumed regular attendance at a Christian church.”

Brown’s enthusiasm for new discoveries and transformed perspectives, however, raises some difficult and puzzling questions about the very nature of historical inquiry. He repeatedly tells us how a new work by some scholar or other revised a particular field of study and set it on a new course. Sometimes the language is explicitly revolutionary. William Frend “advanced a hypothesis that (if accepted) totally altered our view of Augustine and of his North African environment.” “[S]cholars such as Jack Tannous and the late Tom Sizgorich . . . have revolutionized our knowledge of this last and most tantalizing phase of late antiquity in the Middle East.” Évelyne Patlagean “offered nothing less than a new vision of the society of the East Roman Empire in late antiquity.”

These are among the more breathless examples, but even when the descriptions are less revolutionary, Brown is constantly emphasizing how some new scholarly work changed our understanding of the past in far-reaching ways. At one level, this represents one of the book’s most appealing features: Brown is a remarkably charitable reader, a model for students in any discipline, able and willing to learn important lessons even from scholars with whom he disagrees. At the same time, however, this unremitting emphasis on changes in our historical understanding seems to call into question the practice of history itself. If we are constantly having to revise our interpretation of the past—this volume, after all, covers only about three decades of scholarly activity—then history begins to appear a somewhat futile task. Not because the past itself is unreliable, but because we are. If we’re always getting things wrong, why have any greater confidence in our current interpretations than in our previous ones? Are we perhaps just not very good at doing history in the first place? The farther I read in the book, the more I felt this frustration nagging at the back of my mind.

Maybe, however, Brown’s persistent willingness to revise his own views is evidence not that the study of history is pointless, but rather that he is a particularly good historian. Michael Oakeshott, in an essay on “The Activity of Being an Historian,” has described the historian as taking a particular attitude toward the past: not a “contemplative” attitude, which delights simply in beholding past actions, as we might see them portrayed in an epic or chronicle; not a “scientific” attitude that would try to establish general laws of cause and effect that hold true in any hypothetical (or future) historical situation; not a “practical” attitude that would seek to relate the past to our own concerns by asking what lessons we might draw for it or how it could illuminate our current moment; but rather a distinctively “historical” attitude, seeking to understand how the fragmentary evidence now available to us comes together as a coherent whole, revealing how things were at some moment in the past or why some particular event played out as it did. We live in “a complicated world,” writes Oakeshott, “without unity of feeling or clear outline: in it events have no over-all pattern or purpose, lead nowhere, point to no favoured condition of the world and support no practical conclusions. It is a world composed wholly of contingencies and in which contingencies are intelligible, not because they have been resolved, but on account of the circumstantial relations which have been established between them.”

If this is so, then every new discovery, every fragment of evidence unearthed and brought to light, potentially brings that web of contingent relations into question as the historian asks whether it can be brought into harmony with his current interpretation of past events. Time and time again he is forced to ask whether he must revise his answer to Brown’s eternal question: What was it like? 

Oakeshott elaborates on this in a more extended discussion of historical understanding in Experience and Its Modes. His comment there is worth quoting at moderate length, because it sounds almost as though he had been reading Journeys of the Mind and was describing Peter Brown’s frequent realizations that he must revise and update his views:

To see the bearing of a new detail upon the world of history as a whole is at once the task and the difficulty of historical thought. For each new discovery, whatever it may appear to be, is, indeed, not the discovery of a fresh detail, but of a new world. Every experience is, by implication, a complete world of experience. And each new discovery must be seen in its place in that world, its effect must have been felt upon that world, before its meaning can be said to have been apprehended, before it is “discovered.” The process of historical thinking is never a process of incorporation; it is always a process by which a given world of ideas is transformed into a world that is more of a world.

Seen in that light, Brown’s boundless enthusiasm for revisiting his view of the past—not with grudging frustration but with outright gusto—turns out not to be a sign that history is a futile enterprise. Rather, it only means—as one might have expected—that Brown knows more about the historian’s craft than I do. And also that he is right, even after 699 pages, to end his book by writing, “There is room, in late antiquity”—and, no doubt, in every other nook and cranny of the human past—“for many more such journeys of the mind.”

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