Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.2

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 James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania , .

The sight of a man reading -- seriously reading, reading a book, privately, by himself -- was a striking thing in Augustine's time. His own account of his bashfulness on encountering Ambrose in this pose has been misserved by the twentieth century notion that what struck Augustine's eye was the fact of silent reading.1 What held his attention was that intensity of attention devoted to the virtual reality of the written page. To imagine Augustine himself reading in a comparable situation has something awesome about it. Everything we know of him suggests that his reading was an intense and full-body experience. His five million surviving words contain, implicitly and explicitly, strikingly attentive, serious, and original readings of Cicero, Plotinus, and the Christian scriptures. He worked alone, without a net, with what one scholar has called the tranquil audacity of the autodidact.

Augustine did not read only privately. If we attend to what we have of him, we are given the sight of him reading repeatedly in his surviving works. In sermon after sermon, for the most part taken down in shorthand transcript by secretaries on the spot, Augustine follows the public declamation by one of his deacons of a scriptural text with his own line by line exposition, ferocious in its intensity, remarkable in its consistency over an immense body of work spanning four decades (for all that there are changes of mind on specific topics), and fecund beyond belief in its influence on after generations. (His written works -- for the most part dictated to some of the same secretaries2 -- are very often themselves structured as readings of particularly problematic texts. When we find him, for example, writing de virginitate, we must not be surprised if instead of proceeding analytically through questions that might arise in a synoptic treatment of the subject, he begins instead with one or two scriptural texts that raise specific questions, and proceeds not by a purely logical trajectory but by an association of congruent scriptural texts.) Our last sight of him comes on his deathbed, when in his biographer's narrative he had the seven penitential Psalms written out on sheets and posted around his sickroom, then banished his caregivers to be alone with the sight of written words that came to him with irresistible authority.

Augustine not only lets us see him read, he talks about reading and he talks about himself reading. Several of his books are devoted in whole or in part to questions of interpretative principle, notably the de magistro and the de doctrina christiana. The narrative of his early life embedded in the Confessions, moreover, takes fresh form if it is read as a series of accounts of readings: reading Vergil in school, reading the Hortensius of Cicero in his advanced schooling, trying scripture at that point and failing to make a go of it, then whacking away at the books of the Manichees, pausing to boast discreetly of having mastered Aristotle's Categories without benefit of a teacher, going on to read scripture again, and then Cicero, and then Plotinus (or Porphyry? or both?), and then Paul -- to culminate in a moment of dramatized "conversion" whose outward form is a brief reading of a single verse of Paul in a codex on a bench in a garden in Milan. Within the narrative, moreover, are several subnarratives of religious conversion effected in and through encounters with the written word. As if that were not enough, the remaining non-narrative books of the Confessions turn soon enough into not only an exegesis of a scriptural text but (in book 12) an exegesis of a scriptural text whose point is to discuss and describe principles of reading such texts.3

Brian Stock gives us just such a reading of the Confessions, and if that were all we had of this book, we would be well served. Take for example, the treatment of the small biography of Augustine's friend Alypius, embedded in book 6 of the Confessions. It is precisely attending to the relative roles of the written and spoken words in that story that enables Stock to show more clearly than anyone before how Alypius' story anticipates and implicitly comments on Augustine's own word-driven conversion narrative in book 8. Alypius comes upon Augustine teaching and hears a message not meant for him but takes it for his own; so too, Augustine in the garden at Milan comes upon a message in a written text and takes it for his own as well. That the process works equally well with spoken and written "texts" is an important theme for Stock. Augustine the reader emerges in Stock's pages as curiously independent of books. Books are at best instrumental and exercise in themselves, or through their outward form, no teaching power. Truth is a thing of the soul and in the high Platonism of an Augustine or a Stock it is communicated soul to soul; books are just the weightiest and most pedestrian of systems of "signs" by which souls reach one another. They are also merely scaffolding that is dashed away once the construction of truth in the soul has taken place. Stock does not fully address the paradox of a man so awash in books that he read and wrote constantly, and yet holding himself to be somehow above mere books when it came to things that matter.

Stock's approach chooses a handful of the many readers that Augustine was and pursues them through the pages of his works with an intensity and a seriousness quite reminiscent of Augustine himself. Stock comes to his topic by backing up, as it were. His Implications of Literacy (Princeton 1983) is a densely argued and infinitely patient study of three core samples of eleventh and twelfth century cultural history designed to show how intricate and complex are the social dynamics of reading and writing in pre-print societies. Professor at Toronto, Stock inherits the Torontonian interest of Innis, McLuhan, and Havelock in the relation between the technologies of writing and mentalities, but takes the analysis to a higher plane by the way he does rich and full justice to the microclimates of societies in which "textual communities" form and reform on the slender basis of a few handwritten copies of old and difficult documents. Now, in pursuit of the origins of western habits of readings and the mentalities that both precede and follow upon some of those habits, he has come back to Augustine. This book is clearly an intensely felt study of themes that link late antique Platonism to medieval Platonism to modern scholarly concerns.

On reading and rereading, the contents and structure of this book gave me puzzle for a long time. Formally it is broken into two sections: four chapters in a section titled "Confessions 1-9" whose content is a selective thematic review of the content of the narrative books of the Confessions, then five chapters in a section titled "The Ethics of Interpretation" whose content reviews similar themes in a choice subset of Augustine's oeuvre. Works reviewed here include selected letters (with especially good work on the letters to and from Augustine's pale philosophical friend Nebridius), the dialogues written in the winter of 386- 87 at Cassiciacum by Augustine between his moment of conversion and his baptism, then the de dialectica, the de magistro, the de utilitate credendi, the de catechizandis rudibus, the de doctrina christiana -- and then perplexingly a return to the last books of the Confessions and a very selective review of portions of the de trinitate.

At first, the arrangement seems a mixture of good and bad chronological principles. There is an old habit among Augustinian scholars of treating the narrative books of the Confessions as transparent source for biography and so beginning a study of an Augustinian theme with the account in the Confessions, for all that this risks imposing the theological views of c. 397 on the years narrated (354-387). On that reading, Stock risks subverting his own narrative of development by using anachronistic material when a more prudent procedure would be to begin with the earliest dated evidence and move carefully forward, taking Confessions in turn after de doctrina christiana. But the puzzling disjunction of first and last parts of Conf. suggests an alternate reading to which I now strongly incline. The arrangement deliberately takes the narrative first in order to create in the reader of Stock's book a specific sequence of ideas: A.'s ideas from youth and early manhood as best we can reconstruct them, then the orderly development of his mature views from his surviving books, culminating in the juxtaposition of Conf. 10-13 and trin. For Stock sees what many fail to recognize, that Augustine's works after the Confessions were completed c. 397/401 offer several trajectories on which the themes of the Confessions were deliberately continued. The de Genesi ad litteram takes up the exegetical mission, but the de trinitate -- not finished for weary decades of wrestling false starts -- takes up the mystical ascent of books 10 and following of the Confessions. What Augustine learned to do in the mystical experience with his mother at Ostia, I have argued elsewhere, he then does as a writer in a text in Confessions 10, measuring the limits and possibilities of mysticism; and then begins again in Confessions 11-13 to redefine and live forward his contemplative vision not as a struggle for momentary ecstasy but as a continual process of meditation on scripture. The trinitarian and exegetical principles of Confessions 11-13 offer a framework for interpreting his work for the fifteen years that follow. It takes the collocation of events of the early 410s -- the final defeat of Donatism, the sack of Rome by the Goths, the outbreak of "Pelagianism", and the judicial murder of his last great friend Marcellinus -- to reorient and reinspire his writing along new lines (enabling him, or at least forcing him, among other things, to finish off the long-delayed masterworks of the years before, both de trinitate and de Genesi ad litteram).

Identifying this pattern allows the reader then to make sense of what otherwise seems a thematic lack of focus in the book. The book is not a focused study of the cultural practices of reading such as one might expect from a Roger Chartier, but a book about the specific philosophical implications of Augustine's version of the "reader". Augustine's self-conscious, self-doubting reader is a crucial key for him: "I propose that the notion of the self-conscious reader plays an important part in his resolution of key issues in the philosophy of mind." (p. 3) Accordingly, the last chapter, for example, is entitled "The Self" and lands us up on firmly Platonic grounds. What begins as a piece of cultural studies ends as metaphysics. It is an uncompromising book, difficult and demanding, but full of illuminating detail and rewarding on every page.

The most pregnant and titillating pages of the book, ones I would gladly have seen filled out further, fall in the pages of a section "Defining the Reader" (162-73) and embrace a curious and intriguing divergence: allegory and error. What the two have in common is that both are names for moments in reading when a discernible tension or gap has emerged in a reading strategy. (How that discernment works is a deep theoretical question not addressed here.) Permissible departure from norms of "literal" interpretation is allegory; impermissible departure is error. What controls the navigation is no technical expertise nor literary theory, but ethical principles -- hence the section title mentioned above, "The Ethics of Interpretation." Stock stands with Augustine on the principle, unverifiable but alluring, that a good man's reading is a good reading.

The book's arguments emerge from elaborately detailed and patient analyses of specific texts. No praise should be stinted for the learning and intelligence that have been brought to bear here, and the mastery of the modern secondary literature in particular is quite extraordinary for someone who has not spent a lifetime working through the vast halls and spreading plains of published scholarship on Augustine. This is thus in many ways the book we have needed for years, an integrative study of Augustine's views of "signs" and beyond that of theoretical issues raised by texts -- integrative in the sense that it links these issues intimately to wider Augustinian themes.

The limits of the book must be appreciated along with its strengths, precisely in order for its strengths to emerge properly.

First, the Augustine of this text is the philosophical Augustine long known to another strain of Torontonian (under the patronage of Etienne Gilson), Platonist par excellence. The strains of thought that converge in Augustine are numerous, and their convergence is more like a whitewater canyon than a placid stream. The Augustine implicit in this text never grows old to face Pelagians and confront Julian, and it is particularly remarkable that for all the breadth of philosophical interest here, scarcely a trace of the embodied Augustine can be found here. Monnica makes some familiar appearances, but the world of signs and texts is one in which issues of gender and sexuality do not appear. In some ways, this is an Augustine presented moving with an almost eery tranquility from one disembodied position to another.

In the same way, the Augustine of his pulpit and his episcopal audience room, Augustine the pastor and politician, is missing as well, and there is the greatest remaining field to be explored. There is a vast trove of information in Augustine about the textual and cultural practices of his time, never adequately extracted and interpreted, certainly not by Stock. Neil McLynn's Ambrose of Milan has gone a good distance in showing incidentally Ambrosian textual practices of great interest and originality; Augustine went far further in writing, speaking, publishing, promoting publication, and deploying the powers of the written word in a hundred ways to his advantage. (When he had public disputations with theological adversaries, he would have them transcribed and the transcriptions read publicly at what must have been sometimes preposterous length to congregations needing, as he saw it, to be influenced.) J. Scheele, 'Buch und Bibliothek bei Augustinus,' Bibliothek und Wissenschaft 12(1978), 14-114, is probably the best single study we have, but it is more mechanical than interpretative and far from exhaustive.

But to see and appreciate what remains to be done only makes Stock's contribution clearer again. It is undeniable that the "reader" that Stock has uncovered, rooted in Augustine if not identical with all the Augustines there were (or all the Augustines that read), resonates powerfully with many other readers before and especially after his time. The focus on the figure of the "great man" allows this image to emerge with great clarity. What remains unclear is how far the kind of reader that the Augustine Stock follows could be is a function of technologies (the written word, the codex page, the Christian deployment of word and text), how much is a common cultural achievement of late antique Latin Christians, and how much is owed to the personality of a single figure. Stock clearly emphasizes the hero's contribution and in so doing poses a challenge to others who come and go through these and congruent texts to read harder themselves and juxtapose late antique with contemporary reading practices as thoughtfully and fruitfully as he has done.


  • [1] See J. O'Donnell, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford 1992) 2.339ff. The rough facts of the matter seem to be that incidental silent reading was not unknown from very early in classical antiquity, but that on the other hand habitual silent reading dates to the late middle ages.
  • [2] Aug. ep. 23A*.3 (from the new "Divjak letters" first published in 1981) has Augustine reviewing his literary production from the 13th of September to the 1st of December in a single year and finds that he had dictated approximately 6,000 lines of text (about 45,000 words) -- not an immense amount if averaged out seven days a week, but remarkable as a sustained rate of productivity. (One scholar has suggested that this attention to numbers is best explained by assuming that Augustine paid his stenographers by the line.)
  • [3] Giuseppe Mazzotta has shrewdly pointed out that the very last word of the Confessions, "aperietur" (echoing the scriptural "knock and it will be opened") has ironic point just at the point of closing a book and getting on with whatever it is we get on with when we are not reading.