Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.1

Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 463. $39.95. ISBN 0-674-05276-5.

Reviewed by Mark Vessey, University of British Columbia,

As if momentarily lost for words, an expert in literary genres once called Augustine's Confessions a "great book" and left it at that.1 The reviewer of Brian Stock's new study of the same work and its conjugates may be tempted to do likewise. But greatness is not the critic's to bestow and, even if it were, the question would remain: What kind of book is this? Writing for its dustjacket, Alastair Minnis speaks of an explication de texte, perhaps meaning to evoke, beyond the older and nowadays often disparaged "new" critical methods of this century, the ancient practice of the enarratio poetarum in which the young Augustine was schooled. To the extent that such shorthand can also stand for the textual pedagogy evolved by the mature Augustine, described by Stock as "a type of aural readership whose attention is focused on another person's understanding of what is essential in the text" (184), it may be helpful to prospective readers of Augustine the Reader. However else we may describe it, this book is an act of implicitly aural/oral readership in the spirit of Augustine's ideal of reading as textual collocution or, as Stock calls it on a hint from Charles Taylor, interlocution (16; cf. Conf. 4.8.13: "conloqui et ... simul legere libros dulciloquos ... docere aliquid invicem aut discere ab invicem"). Although the scholarly author can no more be present to us in talk than the author of the Confessions, the close modeling of his text after Augustine's invites a more intent readerly engagement than scholarship typically demands. Stock suggests that Augustine's "normal unit of thought is the book," i.e. the individual work (3). One might argue contra, and with this study in support, that Augustine's thought frequently exceeds that limit, but to do so would only be to remake Stock's point: that Augustine is to be read at length and, so far as possible, consecutively -- a lesson recently retaught us by James J. O'Donnell's commentary on the Confessions,2 itself a commanding instance of the contemporary enarratio Augustini. Stock's exposition of Augustine's thought is dulciloquent to a rare degree. Even so, the reader who would follow his (Stock's) thought to the limits of this densely expansive book must learn an almost ascetic discipline. Initially discarding the riches of the notes (for once conveniently set apart), taking in hand or calling to mind the books of Augustine successively in question, he or she must be ready to "hear" a new interpretation without losing "sight" of the prior narrative. "The relationship of the life that Augustine has led to the life that he desires to lead," Stock proposes, "is like a gloss on a text he has previously read (or a text that he has had read to him or has viewed through narrative images): This commentary has no autonomy; it too is a part of the temporal flow of images and words" (212). It is not the least of the hard-won felicities of Augustine the Reader that, in reading it attentively, we conform to a style of readership that the author would have us think of as Augustinian. By the same token, the reviewer (even for an electronic journal) is at an unusual disadvantage. Short of contriving a dialogue in which his comments would fluidly coexist with the full texts of Augustine and his latest interpreter, he can only respond to the author's continuous gloss with disjointed reader's notes or, more faithfully perhaps, notes on the experience of reading.

Like the Confessions and certain other texts of Augustine (244f.), Stock's book is a hinged construction in two parts, the parts in this case answering to "narrative" (or "authorial practice") and "analysis" (or "theory"). Part I is written over "the narrative about reading" in Confessions 1-9, while Part II pursues "various analytical statements on the subject [sc. of reading]" (19) through the early philosophical dialogues, De utilitate credendi, De doctrina christiana, De catechizandis rudibus, Confessions 10-13, and De trinitate. Since each part is written in the light of the other, there are at least two possible orders of reading. In practice, Stock's readers may find it most natural to begin with and return to the "narrative" (in the larger sense) of Confessions 1-13, from which the topics considered by him as "connected to reading in [Augustine's] philosophy of mind" (126) visibly derive. Although Augustine the Reader is about more than the Confessions, the Confessions is the text on which it turns; as "the reader" provides "a principle of unity" (301) in Augustine's XIII libri de se et de scripturis sanctis (cf. Retr. 2.6.1), so those thirteen books supply the theory-in-practice of readership on which the unity of this one depends. Crediting his author at the outset with "the West's first developed theory of reading," Stock claims that the objects of that theory ("among other things, mental representations, memory, emotion, cognition, and the ethics of interpretation") are "unified by Augustine's concern with the self as reader, that is, with the personal understanding that can be created through a mental 'rereading' of the narratives of previous events lodged in memory" (1) -- or in other words, by his concern with the kind of personal understanding dramatized in the Confessions. A few pages later he suggests that Augustine "invented a number of new roles for the later ancient reader," adding (without further argument) that "[h]is reference point for the many writings in which he explored his novel ideas was the Confessions" (18). It is possible to imagine studies of "Augustine the Reader" that would be less exclusively oriented on issues of "the self," individual psychology, and the philosophy of mind. Henri-Irenee Marrou's Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique3 may be reckoned one such, with its focus (dictated by the De doctrina christiana rather than the Confessions) on the significance of Augustine's theory and practice of reading for the Christian transformation of ancient Graeco-Roman intellectual culture as a whole. Another complementary study, of still broader scope, would take its cue from the De civitate Dei, the crowning instance of Augustinian textual exegesis as "cultural revision";4 a brief for it is already given in passing by Stock (13, 209). To recognize these alternatives is not to detract from the claims of the present work, only to insist on the aptness of its subtitle and the real priority of its text of first and last resort.

A brisk if circuitous introduction familiarizes us with the array of topics and arguments to be advanced in the sequel, without offering any single focus or conceptual framework for them. It would seem, in fact, that the interest attaching to an exploration of Augustine's multiple intuitions about the "potential connections between lives and writings" (212) and the desire to ascribe to him a singular and coherent "theory of reading" pull in opposite directions. Augustine is to be expounded strictly ex Augustino, consideration of his "sources" and later fortune set aside, yet even within this (by no means narrow) compass, the points of purchase for a study of his "design for reading" (2) are not readily reduced to a diagram. (Diagrams appear at intervals in later chapters.) Committed to retracing in Augustine's texts "le mouvement propre de son discours et de sa pensee" (Goulven Madec, cited 3), Stock is uncharacteristically ill at ease in this introductory hors-texte of his own. Of its three unrubricated sections, the last and shortest (15-18) comes closest to grounding the ensuing enarrationes in a discourse outside the opus Augustinianum. Stock writes: "Augustine's ideas on these issues [sc. of reading] arose out of a traditional Christian position" (15). Two aspects of the relation to tradition are mentioned, both of which betray distinctively Augustinian emphases: first, a belief that the human reliance on signs, including the signs used in reading and writing, is a consequence of the Fall; secondly, a conviction that by living according to "the inner man" (St. Paul) human beings can begin an ascent from the fallen realm of signs to that of the (neoplatonic) undivided intellect or (Christian) God. Because the act of reading was already understood in antiquity to involve a passage from outward (bodily) sign to inward (spiritual) meaning, Augustine came to regard it as paradigmatic, if not instrumental, for this movement of self-recovery. Hence, as he aspired to a mystical experience beyond textuality, he also envisaged a certain type of reading as "indispensable for the acquisition of salvific knowledge and beneficial self-discipline" (17).

The linked concepts of reading as saving self-discipline and of Pauline-neoplatonic spiritual ascent are integral to most, if not all, of the themes traced in Stock's book. Those themes include: the role of the Bible and other authoritative texts as guiding scripts for moral reform; the ideal supersession of sequential reading (lectio), and of an associated awareness of life-in-time, by a contemplative apprehension of permanent realities in an extended present (meditatio); the interplay of oral performance, silent reading and various modes of writing; the respective claims of reason and authority, especially the authority ascribed to tradition, in epistemology and ethics; the theory of signs and its application to christology and biblical hermeneutics; interconnections between psychology and the philosophy of language; the role of memory as a basis for self-knowledge and of first-person literary narrative as a vehicle of the same; the substitution of a newer ascetic for an older aesthetic rationale for the activity of reading; and the emergence of Christian communities defined by their members' shared obedience to a textual rule of life or shared expression of faith. Anyone familiar with Stock's previous work, from The Implications of Literacy (1983) through the studies collected in Listening for the Text (1990) to the recent essay on "Reading, Writing, and the Self" in Petrarch and his forerunners (in New Literary History 1995), will discern again in this new book several of the trajectories already sketched by him for a longer history of western modes of reading, interpretation and social organization. The possibilities of such a history form a kind of penumbra round the present work, but its whole light is concentrated on the text of Augustine.

Part I, then, is devoted to Augustine's "narrative of his progress as a reader" (21), retold by Stock as a series of "chapters" or "stages" in the formation of the "Christian reader" (53), each signalled by one or more key episodes of textual encounter. Although the moments of encounter are for the most part too well marked in traditional readings of the Confessions for the choice of any of them to occasion much surprise, it will be an exceptional reader who does not derive new stimulus from Stock's commentary on such often-commented passages as those relating Augustine's initial contact with Vergil's Aeneid and Cicero's Hortensius, his witnessing of Ambrose's silent reading, his own reading of the libri Platonicorum, or the climactic sequence of text-acts that constitutes Book 8. The privileging of acts of reading in a general (r)enarration of the Confessions has its drawbacks. Sometimes the sense of progress is almost comically abrupt, as when we learn that, thanks to the preaching of Ambrose, "[w]ithin a few weeks, one stage of his future student's reading experience was finished and another begun" (60). And because progress in and through reading is not the whole story of Augustine's peregrinatio animae, there are places where the author could be faulted for soliciting the text unduly (e.g., 43f. on the interpretive practices of the Manichaeans) or where the discussion seems to offer less than the text itself promises (e.g., 116f. on the vision at Ostia), but they are few and far between. Conversely, there are many instances where the discussion fruitfully, if not always conclusively, overflows the "subject of reading," even as generously defined by Stock (e.g., 34f. on pagan fictions in performance). Certain sections could be profitably read or assigned to students as separate essays; for example, the one on the texture and tendency of Conf. 7.3-7;9-21 (65-74, ten of the finest pages in the book) or another on the providential correction of Alypius in Conf. 6.7-9 (77-89), recalling and superseding a classic miniature by Erich Auerbach.

In these chapters, as throughout the book, one's prevailing sense (this reader's anyway) is of hermeneutic abundance, an effect of Augustinian reading practice which Stock does not specially stress -- perhaps because he wants us to ascend, with Augustine, from the Many of textual explication to the One of supratextual contemplation! -- but which, it could be argued, is the natural obverse of any theory of reading that can be described as ascetic.5 The abundance arises in the first place from Stock's attention to Augustine's text, already so prolific in linked images, multivalent terms and suggestions for narrative recombination. It is enhanced by an expository style which, when unconstrained by paraphrase, is naturally pregnant to the point of elusiveness. The portrait of Ambrose as silent reader, Stock writes, "is inseparable from the notion that someone ... is observing silent reading taking place. It is the observation of another person's contemplativeness, rather than the technique of reading itself, that makes the moment unique in the ancient literature of interiority" (62). Or consider this: Augustine "combines the ambivalence toward the body that is typical of patristic exegesis ... with the idea that anyone's body can in principle become the 'text' on which the story of the incarnation is written. If that were not the case, there would be no point in locating the reader in the literary structure of the Confessions" (70). Or this, with an allusion to Wittgenstein: "Augustine is the first to present a consistent analysis of the manner in which we organize the intentional structure of thought through [the] activity [of reading]: he suggests that through reading a 'language game' can become a 'form of life'" (111; cf. 27 on game-playing and scriptural interpretation). One such aphorism can inspire as much thought as several pages of close commentary, and Stock is happily prodigal with them.

There is, however, a more problematic side to this facility with formulas capable of assuming a kind of autonomy even in the context of commentary. Filling a gap in the "record" of Augustine's reading for the early months of 386, Stock offers the following summary of the central tenet of his book:

"Encouraged by the allegories of Ambrose, he came to understand that the reader could distinguish between what Paul called the 'spirit' and the 'letter' as a parallel to the 'inner' and 'outer' self. Texts and selves interpenetrated: it became possible to look upon the building of a new self as an exegetical and interpretive process. A piece of writing when it was read and understood, mediated the reality that it described, as did our thoughts about the same reality when they were transformed into words. Augustine thus confirmed a Platonic style of thinking, placing realities above representations, while he linked self-improvement to the creation of mentally represented worlds. He envisaged his programme as the living out of a story whose meaning he inwardly understood before it was translated into action, and he did so by evolving a theory that did not depend on specific pagan texts." (54-55: emphasis added)
We might ask: In what sense is Augustine the author of the "programme" or "theory" here attributed to him? That a pair of Pauline distinctions and a Platonic "style of thinking" provide the basis for much of his thought from the mid-380s will not be lightly disputed. The difficulty begins with the sentence, "Texts and selves interpenetrated ...." By this point in the book, most of the terms and ideas that appear from there to the end of the quoted paragraph are already familiar from previous sections. Yet nowhere, so far as I can see, does Stock find a comparable articulation of them in a text by Augustine. The summary he gives here is explicitly offered in place of texts that are lacking. The next paragraph reviews Augustine's "progress" to the position stated, as supposedly recapitulated in the "interior monologue" of Conf. 6.11. There Stock claims to discern "a three-stage plan [sic] for self-improvement," but the movement of the passage is against him. Augustine's own commentary on the same set of utterances discourages any attempt to read it in search of method: "Cum haec dicebam et alternabant hi venti et impellebant huc atque illuc cor meum ...." Stock is undeterred: "In sum, what he advocates is a union of reading and conduct as a replacement for the ethical relativism of the pagan classroom." Neither project nor advocacy is so clear to this reader. Stock goes on: "If memory is added and some footnotes on time, we have the complete foundation of the ascetic programme in the later books of the Confessions." Q.E.D. But what sort of demonstration is this? And how confident should "we" be of possessing the "foundation" of an Augustinian philosophy of reading, when the placement of its building-blocks depends so obviously on the will of the interpreter? I raise these questions, not to belabor Stock's subtle and productive exegesis with the rod of an old-fashioned textual positivism, but to clarify the challenge it sets us as readers. In Stock's view, Augustine's Pauline-neoplatonic hermeneutic located "the student of the Bible in the ontological space between the inner and outer person" (17). As was hinted earlier, the student of Augustine the Reader occupies an analogous interpretive space between the text of Augustine and its latest enarratio. Customary as that position may be for readers in the literary and historical disciplines, we are rarely made so conscious of its responsibilities, even as students of Augustine.

A possible way of treating passages in Stock's book like the one quoted above, consistent with his own sense of Augustinian theory and practice, is to regard them as acts of meditative (re)collection or synthesis performed in "silences" between the texts taken as objects of analysis and enarratio. By pragmatically distinguishing between narrative and analysis in Augustine's discourse of reading, Stock maximizes the opportunities for such high-order critical activity. Because any segment of narrative can be submitted to analysis (as above and throughout Part I) and any piece of analysis scrutinized for its narrative possibilities (as routinely in Part II), and because there will always (presumably) be some disparity or incompatibility between the fragments of discourse thus confronted, scholarly readers have ample occasion to harmonize and complete a scheme of thought that may be less than fully immanent in the Augustinian texts at their disposal. In this context, the highest praise we could give to Augustine the Reader would also be the sharpest criticism of it: that it succeeded better than Augustine did himself in the "attempt to lay [a] theoretical foundation for a reading culture" (1). Stock, however, is too good a reader for such success. Another and vital aspect of the abundance of his book is its openness to the more excursive and improvisational qualities of Augustine's texts and consequent failure to close neatly on the hinge between its own two parts.

A striking instance of this flexibility occurs in the chapter on Confessions 8, entitled "Reading and Conversion" (75-111). The chapter begins with a passage of intra- and paratextual synthesis of the kind already noted. By now we should be able to recognize the "pattern" of Augustine's proceeding. Stock continues:

"Book 8 introduces a new feature into this pattern, which reflects a heightened tension between God's predestination and man's limited understanding of his fate. Augustine contrasts the unknown outcome of reading experiences in personal narratives with the interpretive certainty of his perusal of a single text, Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which acts as a unifying principle for the various episodes. Book 8 thus transforms the programme of study announced at 7.21.1-6. At the same time, Augustine introduces a variant of typology into the Confessions in which foreshadowing and fulfillment take place not between historical events, figures, or stories in the Bible, but between secular figures, guided by providence, whose narratives are interlocked by means of a logic that is clarified to none of them before the events take place." (77)

Recognizable here are the usual tropes of collection and recapitulation in the service of a higher harmony: "introduces into this pattern," "acts as a unifying principle," "transforms the programme of study." But we are asked to notice something else "at the same time," a new "variant," not in this case of some prior Augustinian construction but of an interpretive procedure current in contemporary Christian culture (biblical typology), a practice adapted by Augustine to reflect what he had come to feel as a basic "tension" in human experience. This something is what Stock, with typical compression of thought, elsewhere calls "literary predestination" (e.g., 313 n.146). It is the compositional technique by which Augustine enables the reader to participate, as interpreter and emulator of his text, in the process by which he and other actors in his story have come to see the events of their lives as part of a divinely-authored narrative or "text" comparable to Scripture. Stock is not the first reader of the Confessions to recognize this typological principle, but he is the first to place it in the larger framework of a "theory" that is profoundly ambivalent (his word) about the utility of reading as a means of understanding oneself in relation to God. "The final lesson of Augustine's education as a reader," he writes, "is that nothing is learned from reading itself" (125). And again, on the book's last page: "Augustine believes that reading is essential for 'spiritual' development in the individual, but he is pessimistic about the degree of 'enlightenment' that reading itself confers" (278). By constantly "reediting" one's self-narrative in the light of authoritative texts and whatever personal illumination one may have been granted, one acquires a sense of self approximating the divine "intention"; yet in doing so one also leaves the textual plane behind. Some of the literary and other effects of this ambivalence vis-à-vis textuality are explored in the richly detailed chapter on "Reading and Conversion" but the implicit assimilation of biblical and non-biblical (including Augustinian) texts, qua text, is not pursued in Part II (though cf. 187 on biblically-inspired narratio as "literature"). Instead it is left, like many another insight found obiter in the same pages, for the reader to consider apart. If we wished to weave this particular ambivalence into a larger synthesis than Stock attempts, we could begin by relating it to Augustine's thoughts on sacred and profane history, as traced by Robert Markus in the context of his theology of the saeculum, locus of all ambivalence.6 Alternatively, we might renounce the pursuit of pattern in this writer's texts beyond the point at which he himself gave up insisting on it.

"Inveniet ... fortasse quomodo scribendo profecerim [Augustine wrote at the end of his life], quisquis opuscula mea ordine quo scripta sunt legerit" (Retr. prol.). By placing the narrative of Confessions 1-9 at the front of Augustine the Reader, Stock signals a decision to let the author's (earlier) retrospective view of his personal readerly "profectus" predominate over any more documentary reconstruction derived from the sequence of his writings. At the same time, he invites us to set his own reader-centered enarratio of those books alongside the analyses in the first three chapters of Part II, which present a virtually chronological review of Augustine's ideas about language, texts and interpretation from his earliest letters and dialogues down to the De doctrina christiana (interrupted ca. 397 when the Confessions was begun). No tension arises from the juxtaposition. Nor should it, since Stock has given notice that his interpretation of Augustine's formative years will be one "that emphasizes the consistency of his thinking, on the basis of his approach to reading, in contrast to the once fashionable tendency of scholars to distinguish sharply between the writings of the early and middle phases of his career" (3). Unlike those amateurs of Augustinian trial and error -- and others, such as Pierre Courcelle, who sought to check the historicity of the autobiographical part of the Confessions against the evidence of earlier writings --, Stock is intent on exposing the preparations for Augustine's mature stylization of the self as Christian reader.

The first section of the short chapter on "Beginnings" gives a rather spare account of his "theory" of reading as it may be inferred from early (and not-so-early) letters to Nebridius, Paulinus and others. The second, on the De ordine and Soliloquia, reveals the basis for his lifelong confidence in the disciplines of grammar and dialectic, "disciplines ... which, paradoxically, retain their truth even though their application may be false" (136). Both sections, though slight, bear interestingly on the themes of the Confessions treated in Part I. Read more expansively, they also open new avenues for work on late antique Christian epistolography and the arts of the dialogue. The pace of the book then slows markedly as, in the next two chapters ("Speaking and Reading" and "Toward Theory"), Stock works his way through the complex, overlapping and not always obviously compatible arguments of the De dialectica, De magistro, De utilitate credendi, De catechizandis rudibus and De doctrina christiana. If the reviewer's experience is at all typical, the reader's sense of the value of these sections is likely to be mixed. On the one hand, it is good to have Stock's meticulous summaries and discussion (with up-to-date bibliography) of such relatively understudied texts as the De dialectica and De utilitate credendi, the second of which is only now beginning to receive the attention it merits. Like some of the close readings of Part I, a number of these passages have a usefulness independent of the arguments of the book as a whole. Insofar as they are meant to contribute to those arguments, however, they run into two kinds of difficulty: either they confirm or conveniently supplement the narrative of Part I, an effect which is less satisfying the more often it is repeated; or they do not, in which case the reader, like the author, must deal with the inconsequence. Stock's punctiliousness again precludes any easy solution of the dilemma. When he asks of the De dialectica, "What are we to make of this fragmentary set of observations on dialectic, grammar, rhetoric, and 'the force of words'?," we know that he for one will not make too much of it, despite the investment of the previous pages. In general, the measure of conformity on matters of "reading" between the earlier writings -- down to and including the De utilitate credendi of 391, on which these two chapters pivot -- and the three closely interrelated texts of the late 390s (De doctrina christiana, Confessions, De catechizandis rudibus) seems less than the initial hypothesis of continuity and the detail of the subsequent analyses might lead one to expect. Points of contact, insight and interesting complication continue to abound (e.g., on "unstatedness" and the hermeneutic circle [151, 157]; on texts as "combin[ing] visual and aural modes of communication" [161]; on the ideal "third party" required to qualify interpretations as "true" [170]; on Augustine's outline of a "hermeneutic of tradition" [174f.]). In the meantime, the reader who follows Stock every step of the way learns to relish the fact that Augustine started more arguments than he meant to finish and tried more propositions than he ever expected to combine into a single "theory" or system.

The sense of progress "Toward Theory" in the chapter with that title is assured in part through an arrangement whereby issues of "reception" raised in the De utilitate credendi invite the fuller treatment of the De catechizandis rudibus (ca. 399-400) which then, in a "logical rather than ... strictly chronological sequence" (181), leads to the incomplete essay De doctrina christiana of ca. 396-7. As Stock notes, this last work is in a different genre from those previously discussed, neither first-person narrative nor dialogue. (He is wrong, however, to call it a tractatio [191], which for Augustine names the mode of scriptural exposition itself.) That it is in a sense more "theoretical" than Confessions 1-9 seems clear. It is also oriented differently: "In this work the entire [?] Christian community is envisaged, potentially at least, as a body of readers, either as clergy or as cultured laypersons" (190). How well do its methods and concerns mesh with the thematics presented by Stock in earlier chapters? For his purpose, the tractatio scripturarum should be referrable to a self-narrating, self-reforming subject-as-interpreter, who would also be the object of narration. And so it proves to be, to the point that the cultural programme divined in the same text by Marrou and others on the basis of a different Augustinian orientation is cast in shadow. "If there is a community," writes Stock, summarizing the prologue, "it consists initially of the reader and God" (193). Perhaps. On the other hand, there are few places where Augustine insists more decisively on the reader's social responsibilities and on the abjection of humanity "si homines per homines nihil discerent" (prol. 4). Book 1 is plotted as a diagram, with the following gloss: "Love operates vertically, descending from the text to the reader, and horizontally, as readers relate to audiences. Christianity emerges as a textual community built around shared principles of interpretation" (196, emphasis added). True as this may be, it is a disappointingly flat epitome of so multi-dimensional a text, especially disappointing given the quality of Stock's other analyses, to say nothing of his original and influential use elsewhere of the italicized term. In the event, this Augustinian "textual community" is no sooner evoked than it is displaced by a much fuller discussion of the gradual ascent to wisdom at 2.7.9-11. This Stock collates with parallel schemes from earlier works to show how the author unites "the neoplatonic notion of ascent with step-by-step progress through education," i.e. an education centered on the Bible (200). The confirmatory value of this exegesis for his general argument is plain. Yet one could also argue that the chief interest of the seven-step ascent in De doctrina christiana is as a relic of modes of thought that Augustine was coming to find less and less useful for his purposes as a public interpreter of Scripture; in any case, the scheme plays only the most circumscribed role in the thought of Book 2. Unfortunately, Stock's summary of the rest of that book and of Book 3 runs so aslant the text as to be barely intelligible at times, while the page and a half on Book 4 carries little conviction. In Book 4, he suggests, "Augustine moves from the personal to the social dimension of communication" (204). As James O'Donnell has pointed out in a review of a new translation of the De doctrina christiana, the very first sentence of Augustine's treatise already contains a clause ("ut ... etiam ipsi aperiendo proficiant") which, if taken seriously, would make it impossible for him to separate the personal and social aspects of biblical interpretation.7 By the end of this chapter, we must I think consider the possibility that, as Marrou's reading of the De doctrina christiana was unduly influenced by the shape of the thesis he was arguing, Stock's may be too. Where the humanist scholar of an earlier generation rearranged Augustine's proposed Christian paideia to fit the categories of the "classical" curriculum that he (Augustine) was laboring to transcend, then found it wanting, this one searches the work for traces of a prophetically post-modern technology of the self and does not find enough of them for his purpose.

The section on the De doctrina christiana ends on a deconstructive note: "The prologue, perhaps as an afterthought, moves in the direction of hermeneutics; yet book 1 undermines its interpretive potential, and books 2-4 do not attempt to restore it completely" (205, emphasis added). Earlier Stock speaks of the prologue as possibly "contemporary" with Confessions 1-2 (192); were it an afterthought, it would thus be an early one. Attempts to read the prologue as somehow at cross purposes with the rest of the work have been made before, notably by Ulrich Duchrow who argued, against the evidence of the manuscript tradition, that Augustine drafted his "preliminary" remarks while finishing the interrupted treatise in ca. 427. Stock is concerned less with the chronology of the De doctrina christiana than with its internal logic, or (as he sees it) scarcely concealed illogic. On his view, as it emerges from the chapter as a whole, the work is more than just evidence of Augustine's recognition of the limits of "reading" as salvific discipline; it is also, and not incidentally, a failed attempt at "theory." The reviewer who has taken a similar line with respect to the incomplete work of ca. 397 will cheerfully agree.8 Where Stock and I differ is in our sense of the terms on which the (first) De doctrina christiana "failed" and of the relation between this "failure" and Augustine's subsequent essays in the theory of reading or constructive hermeneutics, beginning with the Confessions. That difference has to do, in turn, with the locations we assign to such works in what can be thought of as Augustine's life "outside writing," as distinguishable -- if in practice only with the greatest difficulty -- from the life he was engaged in writing and reediting in his texts; put more reductively, it has to do with our sense of the relationship between "historical" and "literary" Augustines.

"Historically" speaking, if in no other respect, Augustine the Reader is a thin book. To apply a distinction made by the author himself in an earlier essay, it favours a "compositional" approach to the phenomena of reading and writing, at the expense of a fully "contextual" one.9 Before moving on to the considerations of "memory, reform, time, and the concept of the self" (207) that provide the substance of his last two chapters, Stock recapitulates the events of Augustine's life from Monica's death to the moment of his beginning to write the Confessions. Although he discusses several texts composed after 400, this is as far as he takes his own narrative of the vita Augustini. Recalling the early projects of Augustine and his friends for a monastic retreat in North Africa, he suggests that "Confessions 10-13 informs us about the individual rather than the institutional side of his reflections as his programme of ascetic reform gradually came into focus" (emphasis added). A note refers us to modern studies of Augustine's initiatives as a monastic legislator, then we are reminded of another aspect of the "institutional" setting: "For Augustine the priest and later bishop, the reading of scripture was part of the daily routine of liturgy and pastoral care. Against the background of this activity, the statements about reading in the later books concern not the acquisition but the application of his skills" (209, emphasis added). Once adduced, these contexts quickly recede from view while we pursue a series of typically absorbing analyses on the themes of memory, self-reform and time, all in relation to "the implied role of reading" (221, a key phrase) in Confessions 10-11. Earlier Stock has undertaken to "describe [Augustine's] responses to specific occasions, audiences, and controversies" (3). In practice, the principle of contextualization counts for little once we are past the circumstances related in Confessions 9. If the historical prelude to the analysis of Books 10-11 serves any clear function, it seems designed to relieve the texts of the burden of reflecting their supposed "institutional" conditions, whether monastic or pastoral, so freeing them to yield insights into their author's "individual" position. It is true that those texts, like a great deal of Augustine's writing, frustrate our best attempts to locate his ideas on the "institution of reading" (209) within the array of social "institutions" as ordinarily understood; the expedient adopted by Stock is thus a natural one. Its effect in this case, however, is to widen the gap between works such as the De doctrina christiana which (it may be suggested) will resist his analysis precisely to the extent that they are concerned with the social or institutional conditions of Christian reading, and texts which he would present as instances of an "exemplary use of theory" in the cause of an Augustinian technology of the self (232, on Conf. 10-11).

As it happens, we know little for certain about the context and occasion of either the first De doctrina christiana or the Confessions in its various phases of composition. Their closeness in time and the multiple resonances between them nevertheless invite us to read them, in part at least, as alternative and complementary responses to a set of fairly urgent "thisworldly" demands10 that Augustine had recognized by 396 and would continue to grapple with -- as bishop, monk and Christian writer -- for the rest of his life. Whereas Stock's interpretation of texts of the late 390s and after would leave the De doctrina christiana behind as a theoretical cul-de-sac, another might see in it the premature sketch for a theory and practice of Christian reading, communication and living-in-the-world ("hermeneutics" in the largest sense) that was to be progressively, if never definitively, worked out in a series of texts that would eventually include, besides the Confessions and the miscalled "systematic" treatises De trinitate and De civitate Dei, a host of lesser and more obviously "occasional" speeches and writings. The contest between two such competing interpretations could, perhaps, be provisionally decided by a comparison of their success in accounting for features internal to the texts themselves, i.e. as enarrationes. Sooner or later, however, -- and sooner rather than later, one would think, in the climate of contemporary Anglo-American scholarship on Augustine and late antiquity -- their exponents are likely to be asked for an account of the "worldliness" of the same texts, for an act of what Edward W. Said, in a coinage marvelously apt to the present case, calls "secular criticism."11 Peter Brown once imagined three possible trajectories for a biographical study of Augustine; high, low and middle.12 By leading his readers to "the heights of his speculations on the Trinity" (Brown's phrase) and leaving them there, far above the political, social and institutional planes in which Augustine the "outer man" had his being, Stock risks letting that secular-critical argument go by default. Given the terms of his study and the impressive consistency of results he is able to achieve, it is a risk that he and some of his readers may be content to live with.

As it takes us from the theoretical misfire of the De doctrina christiana to the "exemplary" theorizing of the later books of the Confessions, Chapter 8 also calls in question the utility of theory itself, setting up a finale which, as an extended exploration of allegories of reading in the De trinitate, might be subtitled "Beyond Theory." "In these discussions," Stock writes, "Augustine frequently uses theory as a self-deflating device. He gives the discussions a theoretical preface whose function is partly to illustrate what theoretical reason cannot achieve" (208). A note adds that this model is "announced" in the much earlier De dialectica and De magistro. Had Stock himself announced it earlier, his first-time reader might be less troubled by the seeming inconsequences of Augustine's thought, as it unfolds between and within books. The phrase "self-deflating devices" implicates the rhetorician Augustine as much as the theorist; and rightly so, since the line between (rhetorical) self-deflation as compositional artifice and (theoretical) self-defeat as the suspense of composition itself (e.g., the "writer's block" diagnosed by O'Donnell in Augustine of the mid-390s) is never easy to draw with this author. When Marrou famously complained that "Augustin compose mal," one of the things that troubled him was his subject's habit of following a thought to the point where it was fully worked out or (more often perhaps) became too difficult to pursue any further.13 What Marrou failed to concede, even in his later retractation, was that the bad habit in question was fully consistent with the principle (noted above) of the profectus scribendo or aperiendo, of intellectual progress through the act of writing or trying to explain something (such as a text) to a reader or audience. In the course of his culminating chapter, a tour de force which should be read for itself (but only after the chapters preceding it!), Stock touches on a process by which "the intended reader emerges as a participant in an interpretive process that is organized in part by Augustine's fictional configuration of the manner in which the student rewrites what his master says" (245). Some such configuration is surely implicit in Augustine's writing from as early as we have any of it to read. It is an aspect, and a very important one, of his practice of "oral genres ... of an exegetical and meditative type" (5). Far from promoting an ideal textual community "consist[ing] of the reader and God," Augustine habitually envisages a "community around a text" (215) consisting of himself and one or more others united in the love of God. Reading and writing are thus always for him, in principle if not in fact, social processes. According to his construction (and by God's grace), the manifold aporias and defeats of his "personal" exegetical and writerly activity acquire the potential to be providential stumbling-blocks, means rather than obstacles to a higher understanding. Granting this premise, we should be even more willing to recognize in the later books of the De trinitate, as Stock does, "some of the vicissitudes, misdirections, and unanswered questions of [Augustine's] earlier writings" (278). The principle of vicissitude, in the Ciceronian sense of studious exchange or mediated interaction of minds, is at the heart of Augustine's hermeneutic. Simply stated, it is what saves his theory of self-knowledge from being a theory of self-love.

Stock ends by attributing to Augustine a "strongly anti-utopian view of reading," a belief that "problems of reading and interpretation cannot be solved through the imposition of a conceptual scheme; [that] they can be addressed only by means of a system of deferrals in which the authority for the text is ultimately removed from the reader's control" (278). It is a neat and fitting conclusion to a relentlessly and irresistibly thought-provoking study. Poststructuralist readers of Augustine the Reader -- and that should include everyone who reads it to the end and then starts over again -- will be able to determine, with more conviction now than before, that Augustine is their interlocutor. The benefits of such a realization for research on the writings of Augustine and his contemporaries have been slow in coming and we should be grateful to Brian Stock for gently but decisively forcing the pace. It would be a pity, however, if the sharpness of his final focus were to blind us even momentarily to another article of Augustine's literary (anti-)utopianism,14 one to which this book witnesses on every page: that as long as we inhabit a world of signs, we owe each other close readings.


  • [1] Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 74.
  • [2] Augustine: Confessions, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
  • [3] Bibliotheque des Ecoles Francaises d'Athenes et de Rome, 145 (Paris: De Boccard, 1938); reissued with a "Retractatio," 1949.
  • [4] I borrow the term from David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). See now also his two essays on Augustinian hermeneutics: "Transcendence as Embodiment: Augustine's Domestication of Gnosis," Modern Theology 10 (1994) : 1-26, and "Sign Theory, Allegorical Reading, and the Motions of the Soul in De doctrina christiana," in De Doctrina Christiana: A Classic of Western Culture, ed. Duane W. H. Arnold and Pamela Bright (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 123-41.
  • [5] Cf. Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), esp. 91-34 on Augustine's Confessions. Harpham's argument, which I have turned inside out, is that any "theory of reading" worth the name must be "ascetic," since intelligibility in interpretation depends on the interpreter's willingness to submit to extrasubjective or "communal" norms.
  • [6] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970; 2nd edn. 1988), 17: "Only 'sacred history' will furnish clues to what God has really done -- apart from such insight as he may grant privatim into his dealings with them personally." Stock's study focuses on the way in which an Augustinian subject reads and writes the data of such "private" revelations into a narrative of himself consistent with his reading of the sacred history revealed in Scripture. Any written (hi)story resulting from this process -- the Confessions for example -- becomes a context or quasi-scriptural model for other self-readings and -writings, but without ever being "sacred" in the sense in which the narrative of Scripture is.
  • [7] BMR 96.3.15, reviewing R. P. H. Green, ed./trans., Augustine: De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). O'Donnell writes: "'Aperire' in this context (as in the previous phrase) is clearly used of exposition of a text and the striking ('etiam') conjunction lies [sic] in the claim that illumination comes not only from reading but even from the act of interpreting for others itself. One might think of the character in Forster who said she didn't know what she knew until she heard what she had to say, or might think of Augustine himself, 'egoque ipse multa quae nesciebam scribendo me didicisse confitear'" [= Trin. 3, prol. 1, commented upon by Stock, 246].
  • [8] Vessey, "Conference and Confession: Literary Pragmatics in Augustine's 'Apologia contra Hieronymum," Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 (1993) : 175-213 at 194-5. This article explores Augustine's construction of a writerly persona, rather than his theory of a readerly self.
  • [9] "Textual Communities: Judaism, Christianity, and the Definitional Problem" in Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 147-8: "One can speak of orality and literacy in literary or philosophical terms, and one can study a set of social and historical relations. But these are not the same. In the one case, the emphasis is inevitably compositional; in the other, it is contextual.... [In the contextual approach] we are no longer dealing with the creation of ideas or expressions, or with psychological questions that historians cannot answer. The individual who creates a work and the work as created object have socially definable careers over time. They can be studied through the reactions others have to them." Stock's remarks on Augustine's own "hermeneutic of tradition" in works such as the De utilitate credendi convincingly present him as a theorist of the "contextual" approach here described.
  • [10] Cf. 112 where, as elsewhere, Stock emphasizes "innerworldly" and "otherwordly" options.
  • [11] The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).
  • [12] Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1967), 9.
  • [13] Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, 61f.; "Retractatio," 665f.
  • [14] While Stock's classification of Augustine's view of reading as " anti-utopian" makes perfect sense in relation to a deconstructive notion of semiotic differance, the same stance could be called utopian insofar as it serves a religious vision that "places" the ultimate objects of its faith beyond the created cosmos. Cf. the application of this term to the study of late antique religions by Jonathan . Smith (e.g., in Map is Not Territory [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978]).