Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.02


H.A. Meynell, Grace, Politics and Desire: Essays on Augustine. University of Calgary Press, 1990. Pp. x + 193. ISBN 0-919813-55-0.


Reviewed by Norman Lillegard, University of Tennessee - Martin.

This diverse collection is the product of a conference held at Calgary University in 1986. The title does not provide much of a clue to its contents, but the fact that the conference was a celebration of the 16th centenary of Augustine's conversion does; the first three essays are devoted to discussions of that conversion. Three of the eleven offerings deal to a greater or lesser extent with political themes, two deal with issues of textual interpretation and one examines the relationship between content and style in the rhetoric of Augustine. "Conversion, Language and Politics" might be fairly descriptive of this useful book, which also includes an essay on the body and human values in Augustine and one on Augustine's musical theory.

Hugo Meynell attempts to elicit the "objective cognitional and moral norms" operative in Augustine's conversion (p.5). In his struggle with scepticism Augustine came to see that we must have some apprehension of truth even in order to doubt, and that the mind-independent character of truth (particularly such "eternal" truths as '3 x 3=9') will drive us eventually to acknowledge the existence of an eternal God. Meynell denies that empiricist or relativist attacks on this more or less Platonic reasoning have clearly succeeded, and argues that those attacks depend upon the very norms which they seek to relativize or reduce.

Meynell's discussion does bear on one aspect of Augustine's progress towards Christianity, and might lead historicising or relativist readers to give more respectful attention to the intellectual struggles described in, for example, Confessions Bk. VII or the Soliloquies. But Augustine's own account of his ultimate "conversion" in Bk. VIII of that work stresses an inward struggle in which self-knowledge and the disicipline of the will are central, and in which "philosophy" is actually discounted. That "subjective" struggle is essential to the actual religious conversion, and it is not clear, nor does Meynell try to show, how an intellectual grasp of "objective cognitional norms" enters into such a struggle. Harold Coward's account of "memory and scripture in the conversion of Augustine" shows how Augustine's particular familial and cultural background, rather than universal rational norms, figured essentially in his more explicitly religious conversion. Only the religious teachings, Augustine came to feel, have enough "heart" in them to entice even the unlearned, while the philosophers are left to "tumble about in flesh and blood" (Confessions VIII,8). It is into that (Hebraic) "heart" where memories instilled by his childhood religious training resound that he is called, to discover and recognize there the Holy Spirit at work. But that recognition is triggered by scripture. "The image of God in memory, without the revealing word of scripture, would have no way of being made present..." (p.25). When Augustine takes up the New Testament and reads, Coward claims, the reading jogs his memory. Unfortunately Coward thinks it important to describe the relevant memory (memories?) as "a priori" (p.25), and thus comparable to the "memory" of the slave boy in the Meno who is used to explicate and verify the Platonic doctrine of recollection. But on Coward's own account an essential ingredient of the memory in Augustine's heart was produced by the chanting of psalms and other scriptures which filled a sensitive boy's ears and mind, and by the hearing of the name of Christ, Saviour and Son, which his "... youthful heart had drunk in piously with [his] mother's milk... " (Confessions III,4). In what sense is the memory of God "a priori" or "innate" given the necessity of this background? Even if that background is not sufficient, is it or is it not necessary?

Richard Chadbourne examines the similarities and differences between the conversions of Augustine and Pascal. Both went through a number of conversions, and for both, it seems, the ultimate conversion was distinctly religious in content. In Pascal's case that ultimate conversion involved an explicit rejection of the "God of the Philosophers." Abandonment of the logical rigor of the Cartesian method in favor of an "order of the heart" which he found in the Bible and Augustine was a necessary condition for Pascal's conversion (p.45). And for both Augustine and Pascal conversion was impossible without relinquishing a particularly gripping vice; for Augustine, compulsive attachement to sex, for Pascal a kind of intellectual pride. Chadbourne's account of these similarities in the two conversions puts further pressure on Meynell's account of Augustine's conversion to Christianity as a following through on sound norms of cognition and evaluation (p.10).

In fact none of these essays come to grips in any fundamental way with the reason/faith problematic in Augustine, though Meynell's discussion of objective norms of evalauation is certainly relevant to the issue. In any case these first three essays assemble interesting passages, make useful comparisons, and raise important questions.

Margaret Miles examines "The Body and Human Values" in Augustine's thought, with a particular focus on the Confessions. There she finds evidence that Augustine thought concupiscence something more to be pitied than judged. The paradigm of concupiscence is the infant, anxiously grasping, an open maw of raw need, a need and grasping which persist, thinly disguised, into adult life. The greedy, sometimes cruel and brutal, behaviour to which all people are driven by this root anxiety makes them pathetic, yet "no one is sorry for the children; no one is sorry for the older people; no one is sorry for both of them" (Confessions I, 9). This aspect of Augustine's conception of concupiscence is certainly worth pointing out, lest it be construed as an exclusively moralizing category. Nonetheless it is misleading to ignore, as Miles does, Augustine's repeated descriptions of his concupiscence as a "fault" by which God is rightly offended (cf. I, 6, 16).

Miles also insists that the power of concupiscence in human life does not, for Augustine, require a dismissal or downgrading of the body. Rather the body is itself a helpless victim of the soul's insubordination and disordered love. Thus Augustine could argue that no one honestly hates their own body and he consistently stresses the importance of the resurrection of the body (p.60).

The picture of Augustine which emerges from these considerations conflicts with the not uncommon reading of the Confessions as the work of an overly scrupulous, guilt-plagued body-hater who has contributed to that quasi-gnostic uneasiness with bodily life which seems to have marked much of Christian history. Yet Miles believes that the effective history of Augustine's ideas has been different in important respects from what a close reading of his works would warrant. Augustine has in fact been read as denying the possibility of any happy relationship to sexuality, and derivitavely from that, to bodily life more generally. That is not simply a misreading, Miles avers. For Augustine sexuality was, it seems, degrading or at least compulsion-ridden. Thus it was easy for him to infer that sexuality is part of the "state of punishment" of human kind, rather than a gift to be received thankfully. A corollary of this, on Miles' view, is that for Augustine the complete fulfillment of bodily life is possible only in an order in which sexual relations plays no role. Perhaps more significantly Augustine tends to postpone human fulfillment in general. Thus it is not reasonable, on his view, to expect equality between persons prior to the resurrection, and so he advocates an ordered harmony in the household and the state in which some persons dominate others, even though he holds that in the resurrection there will be no such dominance. Thus Miles thinks "...it is important to ask, not only about the intent of Augustine's description of the resurrection of the body, but also about the effects, observable in the Christian West to our own time, of the indefinite postponement of full human actualization" (p.65). In this comment Miles' ideological bias becomes a bit too transparent for my taste. Some will feel obliged to protest that it is more important to ask what have been the effects upon the "Christian West" of the failure to indefinitely postpone "full human actualization." Would it be so misleading to say that Marx's total entwickelte individuum is realized in a gulag? Other utopian ideas have not fared much better.

Miles does not attempt to support the claim (which she seems to be making) that it is Augustine's thinking, rather than Paul's or any other canonical or extra canonical thinker, or any combination of these, which has been particularly responsible for those effects "observable in the Christian West" which she decrys. To do that she would have to enter into the difficult and complex history of the transmission of Augustine's ideas. However, these cavils aside, Miles has presented a more or less balanced account of Augustine's thinking on a topic or nest of topics which are troubling to people today, troubling partly because (I would argue) we too are so far from having settled upon a satisfactory account of (or sense for) the body and sexuality, of love, desire and lust, in human life.

Anthony Parel expounds the relations between justice and love in the political thought of Augustine. The core issue here is not unrelated to the faith/reason problematic discussed above. The shortcomings of the earthly city are due to one thing only, namely, lack of divine illumination. Reason unaided by faith cannot discern true justice. The result is an unremitting pessimism respecting the earthly city, which nonetheless is better than no city, no communal order.

T.D. Barnes' discussion of religion and society in the age of Theodosius issues in nothing more definite than the claim that the importance of paganism in the late western empire "... still remains to be settled" (168). Yet even in the west the christianizing policies of Theodosius could tempt Augustine into a brief flirtation with triumphalism. The strength of that temptation can perhaps be gauged by the almost universal capitulation to it and thus Augustine's final rejection of such optimism, Barnes suggests, exhibits his genius (168). The depth of Augustine's religious struggle ruled out any submission of his religious judgements on the earthly civitas to the superficial criteria supplied by external history.

Augustine's resistance to improper mixtures of the secular and the Christian also explains his retraction (Retractationes 1.4.3) of a remark in the Soliloquies which allows that there can be more than one road to wisdom. In "The Background to Augustine's Denial of Religious Plurality" John Vanderspoel argues that Augustine saw in the pleas for religious tolerance of such pagans as Porphyry, Themistius and Symmachus something more than merely prudent self-defense in an increasingly "Christian" world. Rather they were philosophically committed to religious plurality, and thus committed to a denial of the uniqueness of Christ. If that is so then it is clear why Augustine had to distance himself from their thought. Vanderspoel believes that Augustine was in fact heavily involved with neo-platonism when he wrote the Soliloquies and that he retrospectively falsifies his own relation to Porphyry. To what extent that is a correct account turns upon such matters as the correct identification of sapientia in the writings from Cassiciacum, but in any case there is much prima facie evidence in favor of Vanderspoel's reading.

Despite his increasing antipathy to certain aspects of pagan "philosophy" Augustine's attitude to poetry is arguably more influenced by Plato than by Christian scripture. In "Augustine and Poetic Exegesis" Haijo Westra skillfully weaves together quotations from Augustine in order to exhibit the bishop's basically Platonic distrust of anything that gives sensuous pleasure or departs from sober literal or philosophical truth. This Platonic disposition leaves Augustine with the problem of accounting for the use of poetry, parable and story in the scriptures. His strategy is to seek out some purely didactical intent. Yet Augustine's own argument suggests that the beauty and richness of obscure Old Testament passages is inseparable from the form of presentation, and he does not succeed in discounting entirely the pleasure that comes from the practice of allegorical interpretation, a practice which is itself a form of poetry. The old rhetorician is a lover of poetry malgre lui. Nonetheless Augustine never discusses non-biblical Christian poetry, or encourages its production. In this his attitude diverges sharply from Jerome's, who hoped for great things from Christian poets. Westra thinks it reasonable to assume then that Augustine' silence with respect to the poetic works of such Christians as Paulinus of Nola and Prudentius reflects basic disapproval. Westra's own argument suggests that this disapproval is rooted in Augustine's suspicion of poetic language in general, rather than in the fact that this early Christian poetry was based on pagan models. Thus the latter fact is not "the main problem" as Westra at one point claims (p.93).

Gordon Hamilton shows how Augustine's methods of biblical interpretation developed in a direction away from excessive allegorising towards a more frequent use of typology and greater respect for the historical sense. Although no modern scholar would feel free to adopt the rules for interpretation proffered by Tyconius, which Augustine cites with approval in On Christian Doctrine, Hamilton thinks it is nonetheless possible to learn from Augustine's practice, which is always informed by the principle that genuine understanding of scripture will result in the building up of the love of God and neighbor (On Christian Doctrine I 26).

Christine Sutherland argues in "Love as Rhetorical Principle" that it was Augustine's "... deep conviction that there can be no separation between style and content..." in Christian discourse (p.140). By 'style' she means elocutio, the choice of words and sentence structures. Sutherland points out that for Augustine the choice of style, grand, moderate, or subdued, is not what matters, but rather "... that the orator always attends to all three [sc. understanding, willingness and obedience] and fulfills them all as much as he can, even when he is using a single style" (On Christian Doctrine 4.26.57). But this quotation can be taken to deny Sutherland's claim about the unity of style and content. If what matters is not what style one uses but the content that one succeeds, in whatever manner, in communicating, and its "perlocutionary effect," then in fact Augustine is claiming that there can be a seperation between style and content. Westra, remarks, in reference to passages in De ordine, that "... the fact that there may be a connection between form and content ... totally ... escapes him [Augustine] here (but not, say, in the De doctrina christiana, Bk. 4)" (p.91). But it escapes him there too, though perhaps not "totally." It is true that in Bk. 4 of De doctrina Augustine finds a (purely utilitarian) place for traditional rhetorical practice. If it works, why not use it? It would not be wise to leave such powerful tools for the exclusive use of pagans! (De doctrina 4.2.3.) Yet such an attitude is rooted precisely in the idea that there can be a separation between style and content. Sutherland acknowledges that for Augustine "... what moves the Christian is ... not the style but the content of the speech" (p.150). How then does she arrive at the conclusion that Augustine has the "deep conviction" mentioned above? I believe that she has confused Augustine's deep committment to finding a language in which what is "said" (the words used) matches in some way what is in the heart (so that all lying and prattle is avoided), with the conviction that there should be no separation between style and content. The former could be thought of as a rhetorical task, in a very wide sense of 'rhetoric,' but it does not appear that that is not what Augustine had in mind when he spoke of style, even in Bk.4 of De doctrina. Speaking Christian truths truthfully requires character, not literary skill. That seems to be Augustine's fundamental insight. Nonetheless it must be conceded that such a thought was not entirely absent even from the pagan rhetoricians (cf. Sutherland's citation of Quintillian on 146-47), and Augustine does admit that in the scriptures it is sometimes the case that the perfect marriage of saying and manner of saying is achieved (cf. De Doctrina IV.6.9).

I conclude that it would be more reasonable to claim that Augustine's concern for the Word and words is indeed a concern for the marriage of something like "style" and content, but that his own suspicion of "rhetoric" gets in the way of his working out any plausible or useful account of the relation of form and content in Christian discourse. The difficulty of doing so is of course still very much with us.

William Jordan's "Augustine on Music" is in some ways the odd man out in this collection, but it is capable of standing on its own. Of particular interest is his claim that in his approach to Pythagorean thinking Augustine managed to "... invent a psychology based on continuity between perception, memory and judgement that is rooted in time and change, thereby enabling it to transcend the conventions of Hellenistic culture..." (p.124). One would like to see how, if at all, this claim might ramify into a deepened appreciation of some central Augustinian themes. In any case Jordan handily demonstrates the importance of Augustine's focus on time lengths rather than space (string lengths) for the subsequent history of musical theory in his discussion of Bonaventure (p.132-33).

It would be useful, for those of us who are not Pythagoreans, to have a perspicuous account of the various "numbers" (sounding, reacting, etc.), if that is indeed possible. Jordan makes some attempt to provide such an account, but I think most readers will still find many of these "numbers" quite mysterious.

All in all this is a useful collection which is attractively printed in a clear type, with separate title pages for each essay and short vitas at the end of each. Unfortunately there are quite a few typographical errors, some of which interfere with sense.