- The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. xix + 262. ISBN 978–0-674–96758–8
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The Ransom of the Soul is an inquiry into why “certain notions of the Christian afterlife” developed as they did from the third to the seventh century. Why did it happen that early Christian visions of a leisurely anticipated “Big Future of the Resurrection” became late antiquity’s “finely differentiated story of the journey of innumerable souls” through a “twilight zone” of dread and danger (8–17)? From Tertullian to Julian of Toledo, Peter Brown contends, against the backdrop of a changing society, western Christianity’s maps of the future devoted ever more space to a “grey zone” of disembodied souls waiting final assignment. By the later fourth century, with persecution left behind and the church on its way “to swallowing Roman society whole,” the questions of “average Christians” (54–5) had become searchlights sweeping that liminal expanse: how could the living refresh the dead? How might the special dead be incited to intercede for the living? Of what use in this respect were almsgiving and prayer? How might wealth be commuted to treasure in heaven or deployed to purchase smooth passage through that “strange world beyond the grave” (59)? By the time Julian penned his Prognosticon (a “futurology of the Christian soul”)—and late ancient Christianity’s embrace of wealth, sin, and penance had progressed to its limits—the spirits of the dead might be envisioned as “stragglers” in a marathon, strung out, dogged by demons, uncertain of finishing (15). The Ransom of the Soul, which takes off from a series of lectures in 2012, thrives on such metaphors, just as Brown’s ancient interlocutors stretched language to imagine the soul’s journey to that far celestial shore.
After an introduction and first chapter (“Memory of the Dead in Early Christianity”), two chapters interrogate Augustine. On matters of the afterlife, Brown reminds us, Augustine was “sternly minimalist” (63). Peppered with questions about the soul’s future, this Augustine seems uncharacteristically “myopic” (64). Could the dead truly appear to the living, as they seemed to do? Might not the soul be sheathed in some “ethereal” body able to infiltrate dreams? Would burial near a martyr benefit the soul of the deceased? Augustine famously discouraged speculation, denied legitimacy to visions, dampened confidence in the human capacity to see beyond death, and stripped burial ad sanctos of all utility except the possibility that prominent burial might inspire more frequent mention in prayer. Yet, not Augustine’s sobering replies but the anxieties revealed by his overflowing in-box take center stage here. For, Brown stresses, Augustine took his stance in a North Africa confident in the validity of visionary visitations and against the judgment of an Italian aristocracy whose mausolea crowded in on the martyrs’ tombs. It is also a sign of the times, however, that Augustine softened his position, finally extending his belief that modest daily alms to the poor could offset the “humdrum sins of daily life” (101) to include money’s ability to ransom even the souls of the dead. Here was “a doctrine for the long haul” (104)—a preacher’s response to Pelagian ideas of perfectibility and radical renunciation that had accompanied the flow of millionaire refugees to Africa after 410. Sin and its remediation are familiar Augustinian themes, of course, but on this topic, Brown avers, we glimpse Augustine “from an unusual angle” (106): prepared to allow alms an ameliorating affect on average souls stranded in that “twilight zone, between human time and eternity” [End Page 443] (108). Although Augustine’s ill-defined “purging fire” would eventually assume an imaginative force he could not have foreseen, in the moment it is the clamor of Augustine’s “innumerable Christian questioners” (114) that indexes the anxieties rippling through a church now comprised of so many “average” Christian sinners.
Despite his concessions, Augustine kept grim visions of the soul’s fate at arms length. It was in Gaul...