Peter Brown’s ‘The Ransom of the Soul’ Is a Minor Work by a Magesterial Voice

Brown's first book after his magnum opus The Eye of the Needle is a subtle and relevant study about the material problems of money and the body.

This is minor Peter Brown, and he acknowledges this is in the preface, telling the reader that this volume continues the approach of his 2012 volume, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West. That 792-page volume was so award winning, and so magisterial, that a reader wonders what is left for Brown to do.

Brown doesn’t justify this work, and for those who have read the previous work, The Ransom of the Body seems somewhat superfluous. What distinguishes The Ransom of the Soul, however, is its tightened focus. Think of this book as a core splice, a deeper investigation into the larger whole.

Brown widens his focus in some areas, but has a laser focus in others. He can talk brilliantly about overarching general themes, but also whispers with quiet authority about Augustine’s mother. For early church scholars, his insights might seem well discussed, if not settled. But this work is well constructed enough that an interested general reader can absorb it.

There’s not one early Christianity, the early Christian era ended later than laypeople think, the intersection between varieties of Christianity and between Pagans or Jews remained unsettled, and questions of the materiality of flesh reassert themselves. All of these concerns are balanced adroitly. The central question that Brown asks is how the material nature of the body, and the material nature of redemption, was settled in the early church.

These are academic questions, and Brown’s work doesn’t shirk from the ongoing problems of academia. He makes the argument that the initial fight between various Christ followers in the first five centuries were about what happens to the body after death. Does it rise up without form? Does it have an immaterial shape? Do only some people rise? Does only Christ rise? All of these questions are discussed via problems of ritual language. How early believers describe these bodies affects how they construct meaning within a larger community.

Brown’s best work is the thread, where he discusses the ongoing problem of alms and the afterlife in the early church. This is a consistent theme, best expressed in two long chapters, near the beginning of the text (“Visions, Burial, and Memory in the Africa of Saint Augustine” and “Almsgiving, Expiation and the Other World: Augustine and Pelagius” (410-430)). These chapters complicate a 400-year discussion of what to do with material objects after the death of Christian believers.

Pagans left food for the dead at temples of their gods; the discussion began with concerns about whether Christians could eat the food. The questions grew over time, all centering on what was material. Where the bodies flesh, in Heaven, or after death? Did the souls have a bodily presence? Did the alms that we give the poor translate to alms in Heaven?

There were other questions, as well. They were sent to Augustine, Augustine tried to answer them. The questions, and the answers—about the material and about best practices post-mortem, were a tissue of anxieties. Augustine was less anxious than most, however. Perhaps so calm, Brown suggests, that “to an unusual degree (if we compare Africa with other provinces, where any number of bishops were active writers) Augustine was allowed to act as a one-man brain trust for the churches in Africa.” (60).

One of Augustine’s ideas that gained prominence around the purifying of living bodies in memory of the afterlife was that of giving alms. Alms separate from the sacrifices given to Pagan altars. Reading Brown on Augustine is a great pleasure, for its graceful clarity: “that sin, it was about what could be done about this situation. That is, is what about those modes of expiation for daily sin that Augustine considered to be fundamental to the Christian search for salvation. Among the most prominent of those modes of expiation was the giving of alms to the poor. For Jews and Christians alike, almsgiving for the remission of sins had involved the perpetual circulation of wealth within the religious community for the benefit of the poor.”(84).

Brown pivots these thoughts to arguments about what happens when that cycle ossifies or perhaps breaks. The shifts in the connection between alms and confession reflect larger shifts in the church. One of the shifts occurs when monks gain social status and power — and so the alms re-center on social mobility between minor bureaucrats of the state and minor bureaucrats of the church.

Another shift occurs when there’s less of a connection between the material alms and the immaterial spoken confessions: confession leads to complex matrices of written and oral discourses, continually renewing the discussions of who has power. These shifts focus again and again on the materiality of bodies. The cycle is a central one to the history of faith in the West. In such a limited space Brown can only hint at the larger implications of these arguments, and he is very strict about not moving past the early church, but it is tempting to move forward.

For example, when he writes about the arguments of 4th century Scythian mystic John Cassian: “Only God was totally immaterial, totally spiritual, and so totally boundless. All His other creatures were delimited by a body of some kind, even if this body was as fine as the ethereal fire of angels” (135). Unpack that sentence, and think about the implications of: what makes us human; the authority of Heaven; what the bodies of angels are made of, and; what about our own materiality. This is a 4th century argument that renews the ongoing problem of bodies, which we attempt to deal with even in our post-secular age.

The problem of secular power is a political act related to the control of language, an argument that has been made more explicitly elsewhere (for example, JL Austin or Foucault). Brown hints at these ideas, subtly and persistently, often in passages no longer than a few lines or in ideas that seem like an afterthought. Cassian is only one way he elucidates the shifts in Augustinian notions of politics. He talks about what happened in fifth-century Provence (and it’s a separate case study, he is not a macro historian, and wants us to remember that the case in Sythicia, is different than the case in North Africa, which is different than France). But ideas shift and notions move between people. What he writes, in the afterward, about Provence, is then very specifically local but startling relevant to the larger world:

To pass from “the world” to a monastery or convent of the Columbian tradition was to pass from a cacophony of proud words to a quiet pool of measured speech and low-key, rhythmic movements. The monastic rules ensured that polite petitions would be met, day in and day out, by peaceable answers. This was the case even on so charged an issue of distribution of food to half-starving fellow monks and nuns. Thus, the nun in charge of the cellar (the food supply) should always answer: with mild words, and without any roughness in response, so that the sweetness of her heart may be revealed by the answer of her voice) (192).

There is so much to consider about how order is maintained by how we speak, and about how monasteries function, and about the order of the earthly world and the world to come . But also, even about how speech can be an act of control. That even in moments of hunger, the body must be ruled, the material turned under heel. Brown’s minor work on specialty subjects, after decades of working in the same spaces, has a social authority and political relevance. For those without the patience to read Through the Eye of the Needle this work is so well constructed, and so well argued, that it becomes a necessary pleasure, for both theologians, academic historians, those curious about the early church, and those curious about bodies.

RATING 8 / 10