BMCR 2008.09.21

Herméneutique et subjectivité dans les Confessions d’Augustin. Collection Monothéismes et philosophie

, Herméneutique et subjectivité dans les confessions d'Augustin. Monothéismes et philosophie. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. 451 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 2503518435. €85.00 (pb).

This book reexamines the relationship between the autobiographic account of Augustine’s Confessions (B. 1-9) and the remaining four books, which concentrate largely on the interpretation of the beginning of Genesis. Unlike many scholars who have addressed this question previously, Jeanmart (henceforth J.) does not merely intend to show that there is no disaccord between the two parts, but that they are instead linked by a necessary tie. Her main thesis is that according to the model of the Confessions suggests that it is not the account of one’s life, but the exercise of reading and interpreting the Bible that constitutes the primary mode of Christian subjectivation (a Foucauldian term for the formation of the subject). In this perspective, the exegesis of Genesis in Conf. 11-13 is not an appendix to, but the actual culmination of the Confessions. This thesis intends to modify the picture given by Michel Foucault, who — in line with his main source, Cassian — privileges the role of the confession (aveu) in the Christian mode of subjectivation Anyone who is interested in the Confessions and/or in Foucault’s views on early Christianity will find this study highly stimulating and engaging. Its critical thrust notwithstanding, the book largely operates within a Foucauldian framework and thus pays a tribute to the French scholar and his lasting impact on the perception of early Christianity.

The book is divided into five parts followed by a detailed bibliography (the absence of indices is regrettable). The short introduction (I) sets out the basic questions and contentions of the book with exemplary clarity. The point of departure is the emergence in early Christianity of a new culture of reading and commenting, made necessary by the holy text of the Bible. Reading and commenting, which become essentially silent and solitary practices, are here understood as practical, psychagogical activities (not as the means of establishing a body of doctrine). The practical function of Biblical exegesis, J. submits, consists in enabling a relationship with the self, which is in turn the necessary presupposition for an account of the self. This view is clearly inspired by Foucault’s contention that the subject is constituted by discourse (not vice versa), but with the important specification that it is above all the engagement with scriptural discourse that shapes the Christian subject.

The first part (II) delineates some broad contrasts between Greek (largely Platonic) and Christian anthropology. A close reading of the portrayal in the Confessions of childhood and its sinfulness leads to a consideration of Augustine’s account of the fall, which informs his view of human nature. The corrupted state of human nature after the fall accounts for the Christian ideals of passivity and humility, which are in stark contrast to the Greek epistemological model of an active ascent towards cognition. The Augustinian privation-theory of evil (adapted from Plotinus and Porphyry) is set forth, which does not locate evil in matter and thus enables the model of Christ descending and illuminating the human being. The latter is not idle, though: s/he engages in the purifying exercise of reading the Bible, which represents a ‘mirror’ of the self (119). On a stylistic level, the role of Scripture as a mirror expresses itself in the incorporation of Biblical discourse into the texture of the Confessions from the very first sentence.

The next part (III) explores the difference between ancient (especially Platonic and Stoic) and Christian spiritual practices in more detail. In particular, J. stresses the point that Augustine rejects the ideal of enkrateia or self-domination (148, cf. 44). Christian spiritual practice does not aim at autonomy, but at a firm anchoring in God. The exercise of reading the Bible is central in this endeavour precisely because it is conceived of as an act of complete subordination to God’s text. By fostering a passive, receptive attitude of the subject, reading functions as a ‘cure of the will’.

In part IV J. develops the idea of a specifically Christian ‘libidinal education’, in which sexual desire is transformed into a desire to read. It is characteristic of Augustine’s Christian faith that (unlike in the Stoa) passion is not condemned; it is instead directed away from bodily objects toward God and the ways in which the relationship with God is established. Hence the strong notion of a ‘plaisir du texte’ (which J. hardly ever references, but is in fact pervasive, see e.g. Conf. 11.2.3). J. shows furthermore that the pleasure found in reading is not in contradiction to the idea that reading is hard work; instead, Augustine develops precisely the new concept of ‘intellectual work’ as pleasant ( qua useful). This part contains particularly sophisticated discussions of the interplay among desire (for reading), time, delay and hope, taking up stimuli from Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard (though the notion of a “désir différé” [317, 333] is confusing: it is not the desire that is deferred, but its fulfillment; a certain slippage between the notions of desire and pleasure is at work here and throughout this part).

The last part is dedicated to a ‘dialogue with Foucault’, prompted by J.’s fundamental disagreement with Foucault in respect of the primary mode of subjectivation in early Christianity. A comparison between Augustine and Foucault’s main source, Cassian, shows that in fact Cassian does not credit reading with any special role (which lets Augustine’s thought on the topic stand out even more). The book closes with a final assessment of the relationship between reading and subjectivation as portrayed in the Confessions : The Christian subject appears as basically isolated from the surrounding world, engaged in the interpretation of the Bible alone, allowing himself to be dominated and instructed by it and, finally, letting it speak through him. Reading aims at forming a subject that dissolves, as it were, into another voice.

This summary does not do justice to the wide range of questions and topics the book addresses and to its high level of argumentation. Generally speaking, J. is (avowedly) interested in bringing out the great lines: her focus is on the differences between Augustine on one side and (Neo-) Platonism and Manichaeism on the other; possible continuities (e.g. with Cicero or Seneca regarding the role of authoritative texts in the constitution of the self) are left aside (19 f.). Her account clearly and consciously favours a model of discontinuity; the newness and otherness of (Augustine’s) Christianity is emphasised. Thus in its own way, the book makes for an interesting contribution to the renewed debate on continuity and change (or decline?) in late antiquity, addressing the question from the perspective of a philosopher schooled in French theory and focusing on the notion of the Christian subject. J. does not refer to the current debate (for which see e.g. C. Ando, Journal of Late Antiquity 1 [2008] esp. 35 f.), perhaps not only because she comes from a different disciplinary background, but because the very model of subjectivation she identifies in the Confessions prevents her from placing the subject within a larger social context. However, her study deals precisely with the question Ando puts on the agenda at the end of his essay (ibid., 51), namely the relationship of late Greek and Latin readers to the Hebrew Bible.

On the negative side, the interest in the broad contrasts risks at times yielding a picture that is too black and white. The wide scope of the study makes this perhaps inevitable (after all, 800 years separate Plato, who often serves as a foil, from Augustine). But at times, the portrayal of Augustine’s relationship with Platonism seems simplistic. In the discussion of evil (67-81), for instance, J. argues that Augustine turns the Neoplatonic privation theory of evil against the Neoplatonists by opposing their depreciation of the body. But while it has long been seen, on the one hand, that Augustine allows for entirely positive uses of the senses and the emotions,1 he does not, on the other hand, let go of the idea of matter as (almost) non-being ( Conf. 12.6.6) or of the body as a burden ( Gen. ad litt. 12.35.68). Also, there can be no question of an “aesthetic solution” to the problem of evil in Plotinus (343 n. 504). As for Plotinus’ philosophical method, it is inaccurate to say that while Augustine proceeds from the particular to the universal, Plotinus does the opposite (253 f.). This is clearly not the case in a treatise like 5.8 ( On intellectual beauty), which develops its theme by examining beauty in the material world first (one regrets that pride of place in this section is given to Arnou’s Le désir de dieu dans la philosophie de Plotin, first published in 1921, rather than the Enneads themselves). When describing the Platonic attitude to the emotions and desire, J. repeatedly uses the metaphor of “uprooting” (for example 72, 79, 133, 148, and 251). But this metaphor is actually attested much more often in Christian writers than in Platonist ones (by contrast, Plotinus’ famous “let go of everything” [end of 6.9] seems much less violent).2

A certain penchant for metaphor, aphorism and word play (with a wink toward the master himself: 146) is characteristic of the whole book (see, e.g., the observations on the etymologies of se-ductio [147 ff.] and de-sidero / sidus [288 ff.]). But occasionally the metaphors J. employs can be misleading. For instance, much is made of the “formula” of the “penetration” of the reader by the text (409 f., 421 f.), but no proper evidence is provided for it (the passages quoted limit themselves to words for ‘receiving’, which is certainly less unequivocal, or else do not talk about the experience of reading). Similarly, J. refers to the image of the reader as a woman in love, waiting for her husband (259, 409), without making it clear whether it can actually be found in Augustine.3 Thus it remains questionable whether so much stress should be laid on the assertion that Augustine shapes the act of cognition on the model of the sexual relation, associating cognition with the passive, female part in the relation (421). The picture is further complicated by two factors: not only is the idea that the reader is penetrated and dominated by the text essentially a Greek one (as J. shows, 410 f., with J. Svenbro), but so is (obviously) the very model of this idea, namely that the ‘active’ (penetrating) sexual partner ‘dominates’ the ‘passive’ partner. Now, it is precisely the latter idea that, on Foucault’s reading, is modified by Augustine, who conceives of the erection itself as a passive experience (409), so that the poles of domination (active, male) and subordination (passive, female) are necessarily altered. Under these circumstances, it seems contradictory to regard the traditional model of the sexual relation as the chief matrix for Augustine’s concept of cognition (with the attendant attributions of ‘female’ and ‘dominated’ to the cognizant subject). The assumption that underlies J.’s interpretation can be found on p. 252, where J. denies that there is “a possible explanation of desire outside the synthesis of body and soul”, an assumption that should certainly be examined. In this context, it also seems important to me to acknowledge, as J. rightly does, that even though the language of desire pervades Augustine’s description of the relationship to God, the misguided and the directed desire (désir égaré — désir ordonné) are not simply two equivalent alternatives; rather, they express themselves in quite different ways (306, 310).

In line with the basic assumption that the narrative of the Confessions is informed by the Biblical text, J. suggests that Augustine’s interest in human sinfulness is conditioned by the necessity of interpreting the Bible (39 f.). But why does Augustine privilege this theme, and why does he look at it the way he does? J.’s account risks at times following Augustine’s footsteps too closely, instead of looking from a distance and analysing them. In general, reading and exegesis are understood as spiritual exercises, rather than made to account for certain thematic choices. The focus is on the relationship between reader and text, in which the obscurity of the latter fosters the humility of the former. Thus little is said about the actual modes of interpretation and the resulting comprehension of the text. Indeed, even the question of why it matters that the text to be read is the Bible (not any other difficult text that could likewise exercise the reader’s humility by confronting him/her with a wealth of possible interpretations) must remain unresolved (197), except for the fact that the Bible is simply credited with the necessary authority (208); by contrast, its content seems to make little or no difference (208 f.). Instead, J. shows that Augustine proposes his reading of the Bible as an exemplary encounter with the Bible, a particular experience, whose account may direct his readers toward their own encounter with the Bible. The experience entails a permanent effort, a constant exercitatio animi via the text, which leads to self-discovery (197-210), as long as one is prepared to commit oneself wholly to the text (230). J. emphasises in particular that the reader must face the exercise of reading on his/her own, as if to leave room for the work of illumination to take place alongside (195, cf. 184, 201, 407 f.). However, it must be noted here that the idea of the commentator who works in complete segregation from society is only one side of the coin. The beginning of De Doctrina Christiana makes it clear that Augustine believes the dialogue with other commentaries to be useful, and we know that this kind of mediation corresponds to his own practice as a reader (given, for instance, the importance for him of Ambrose’s interpretations of Plotinus). To be sure, J.’s interest is in the role of reading as portrayed in Confessions, but on the other hand she credits the picture given in Confessions with exemplary status.

The criticisms advanced here should not impair the overall impression of a thorough, interesting and well-argued study. On the whole, J.’s case for the priority of Scriptural exegesis in relation to the account of oneself is convincing and often illuminating, although in my view the neglect of the content of the Bible is problematic (not only within the Confessions themselves, but because Augustine’s rich exegetical oeuvre, including twelve books of ‘literal’ commentary on Genesis, cannot be brushed aside so easily). The question of how the practice of reading as an exercitatio animi affects Augustine’s understanding of Scripture awaits further investigation. J. is familiar with an impressive range of philosophical and scholarly works (which are sometimes quoted at great length, e.g. 131 and 326). On the scholarly side, J. is indebted above all to the work of I. Bochet, E. Dubreucq, and B. Clement, though she often relies on older ‘milestones’ like Arnou or Marrou (it is probably due to this indebtedness to older scholarship that once or twice J. falls into the unacceptable stereotype of the ‘African’ as undisciplined and sensual: 260, 266). The book is carefully produced and contains relatively few typos 4. In sum, it offers an intelligent, sophisticated interpretation of the Confessions and Augustine’s views on reading, from which many scholars of Augustine and late antiquity will undoubtedly profit.


1. See, for instance, S. MacCormack, Shadows of Poetry. Vergil in the Mind of Augustine (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1998), pp. 105 f.; F. Crosson, ‘Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions’, in: G.B. Matthews (ed.), The Augustinian Tradition (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1999), pp. 27-38 (here 34).

2. The relevant sections of the entries eradico and exstirpo in TLL yield one passage each from a pagan writer, but many more from Christian writers (see, e.g., Tert., Pudic. 16: Si vis omnem notitiam apostoli ebibere, intellege quanta secure censurae omnem silvam libidinum caedat et eradicet et excaudicet, etc.). Given the importance attributed to metaphors in J.’s argument, I do think this matters.

3. The quote in Conf. 11.8.10 from John 3:29, “we ‘rejoice greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice’ ” (418), does not refer to the act of reading, but to the subsequent stage of hearing truth itself (nor is, for that matter, the subject in John 3:29 the bride, but the friend of the bridegroom).

4. 15, 31, 146, 220, 224, 275, 315, 318, 348, 381, 444; Greek words: 46, 58, 72, 110 and 126.