BMCR 2012.02.18

Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body

Andrea Nightingale, Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xiv, 244. ISBN 9780226585758 $39.00.


Once Out of Nature is a remarkably learned and interdisciplinary study of Augustine’s views on time and the body that should quickly become a standard addition to bibliographies of both Augustinian and early Christian thought. Nightingale considers a wide range of subjects including individual and collective memory, space, relics, hagiography, martyrdom, and textuality, and thereby grounds otherwise abstract views in the mundane concerns of early Christianity. In this way, the book contributes to a number of scholarly disciplines while serving as an excellent introduction for newcomers to Augustine and Christian antiquity.

Nightingale’s principal contention—self-described as “radically new” (7), and perhaps rightly so—is that the body and mind participate separately in two distinct types of time, to which she refers as “earthly” time and “psychic” time (cf. 7-9 and 56 for a definition of these terms). Earthly time is that in which the body participates and is roughly equivalent to the commonplace notion of time as a linear sequence of change (though Nightingale (56 and n.6) rejects the conflation of “earthly” time with “objective” time). Indicative of this participation are bodily activities such as birth, growth, death, decay, procreation, ingestion, and excretion. Thus, the earthly body participates both actively and passively in what Nightingale calls the food chain (cf. especially 24-5). Furthermore, a central component of this interpretation is her claim that in earthly time a body exists only at an ever-changing present ‘now’—a claim that her exegesis of Szymborska’s poem, “Tortures,” nicely accentuates (1).

By contrast, Nightingale’s psychic time—which corresponds to the phenomenon that Augustine (in)famously describes in Confessions 11 as a distentio animi —is that in which the mind is drawn away from the present into the past via memory and into the future via expectation. However, participation in psychic time is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we function in the world because of it, e.g., by being able to perceive changes that occur in earthly time, find meaning in language, and make informed decisions about the future. Yet on the other hand, this participation results in a feeling of estrangement from ourselves, from God, from the earthly world in which we live, and from the spiritual world to which we belong. In Nightingale’s words, the embodied soul lacks self-presence (passim, but cf. 1) because it is unable to experience either the physics or the metaphysics of presence (cf. 8, though precisely what she means to express through the use of these terms remains somewhat unclear).

Nightingale begins in chapter 1 with an account of ‘transhumanism’, the state of minimal participation in earthly and psychic times (cf. 4, 26) that is enjoyed by Adam and Eve in Eden at the beginning of human history and by the saints in the City of God at its end. Thus, this chapter nicely frames the rest of the book, which explores various effects of heterochronic participation on the human response to the earthly world and earthly things. But Edenic and saintly transhumanism differ in slight yet significant ways. According at least to Augustine’s later thought (26ff.), Adam and Eve participated in earthly time, but they were not subject to it. For instance, they ate food and could engage in sexual intercourse, but their bodies neither aged nor decayed. The resurrected saints, however, will do neither: even in the City of God the saints will have bodies, yet these will be ‘spiritual’ bodies (i.e. perfect versions of the bodies to which their souls are wed on earth, cf. 42ff.). With respect to psychic time, Edenic and saintly transhuman minds are distended (albeit minimally) for slightly different reasons. Adam and Eve retained memory of God’s commandments, and the resurrected saints will retain memory of their past sins, though there is for neither a future to anticipate. Thus, for Nightingale’s Augustine, transhumanism is a state characterized by either partial (as in Eden) or complete (as in the City of God) removal from earthly time and nearly complete removal from psychic time. And because Christian teleology was progressive rather than regressive—in other words, directed forward toward the City of God rather than backward to Eden (42)—human behavior should be guided by the prospect of attaining saintly (as distinct from Edenic) transhumanism at the end of time.

In chapter 2, Nightingale explicates her heterochronic interpretation of Augustine’s conception of time. As I have outlined this interpretation supra, I shall make only a few additional remarks here. A large portion of this chapter is devoted to Augustine’s account of memory and recollection in Confessions 10, for, as Nightingale notes (15, 58), Augustine used it as a foundation for his discussion of time in Confessions 11. Because memory is unceasingly flooded with new images ( imagines) of things experienced, and because these images can themselves be a blur, memory denies the self any lasting stability: the self is, in Nightingale’s words, “riddled with absences and lacunae” (105). However, in a welcome discussion of Augustine’s rather perplexing use of tendere verbs, Nightingale suggests that, for Augustine, intentio (or “active-attention,” as she defines it, cf. 63) counteracts—although does not overcome— distentio by reducing the sense of fragmentation caused by participation in time, by giving order to images scattered in memory, and by focusing the mind’s attention toward God (99). Thus, while memory is perhaps the place where the fragmentation caused by heterochronic participation may be seen most clearly, it is also in memory that this fragmentation may be at least somewhat reduced.

Nightingale considers Augustine’s view of the disunited self most directly in chapter 3. Doubtless, Augustine is best known as the first truly introspective thinker in the Western literary tradition. But the subject (the mind) and object (again, the mind) of this introspection are elusive things, for they are so mired in time that the self never stands sufficiently still to be viewed as a unified whole. Moreover, as it was Augustine’s view that neither the body nor its necessary earthly associations were evil per se (cf. 114 and the Appendix), Christians must inevitably attend to the body, though in moderation (here, perhaps our Edenic predecessors serve as a model to be followed, for while Adam and Eve ate food, they did so not out of hunger or desire). As a result, as long as the mind dwells on earth, in time, and in an earthly body, one can never ascend to God.

In Chapter 4, Nightingale explores a number of issues concerning textuality. Texts (and language in general) involve both earthly and psychic times to operate, for, qua material object, a book exists in earthly time, but the words contained within it have meaning only to a distended mind. Furthermore, as some texts (esp. Scripture) aim beyond the earthly world toward God, a book may also be a place where the earthly and spiritual worlds converge and a means by which God may enter into a human soul (152). Therefore, it is no surprise that the conversions described within the Confessions —including Augustine’s own—came about by means of books (132, 150), and that Augustine used the Confessions to present himself as a model for conversion. Yet, he did so in a way that is starkly different than Athanasius did Antony in his Life of St. Antony, for while Antony removed himself from the public sphere as far as possible in order to forget his past, Augustine did quite the opposite by openly memorializing his own.

Chapter 5 will be of particular value to those interested in the history of Christian asceticism and the cult of martyrs. As Nightingale explains, ascetic practices such as fasting and celibacy were intended to decrease the body’s participation in earthly time and remove it momentarily from the food chain. Thus, Augustine considered asceticism a form of “bloodless martyrdom” inasmuch as it makes the body “less earthy” (194-5). While ascetic practices attempted to raise the body up toward heaven, relics and holy places were a means of bringing heaven down to earth. The martyr’s body and its location became an earthly intersection of both God and humanity and the past, present, and future: localized in the present, these places commemorate the past and anticipate “the divine removal of all human bodily matter from earth on Resurrection Day” (171).

A short Epilogue and Appendix nicely complement the book. The former presents three modern literary responses (by Melville, Thoreau, and Çapek) to earthly time and the food chain that help counterbalance Augustine’s own response. The latter discusses Augustine’s use of the Pauline distinction between sȏma and sarx (Latin corpus and caro, respectively) in his response to the Manichees and Pelagians. Augustine walked a fine line between these two opponents, arguing that, while the flesh ( sarx, caro) was condemnable, the body ( sȏma, corpus) was “an essential part of the human being” (213) and could only achieve perfection in the City of God.

It is worth addressing a concern about Nightingale’s heterochronic interpretation of Augustine’s account of time. Augustine appears to have presented two different accounts of time in his work, one “subjective” and the other “objective,” and whether the two are mutually exclusive remains a debate. While Nightingale convincingly argues that they are complementary rather than contradictory accounts, it is unclear whether her earthly and psychic times are different perspectives rather than ontologically distinct things. Nevertheless, Nightingale’s description of these unique temporal experiences greatly contributes to our understanding of Augustine’s views on time, the body, and embodiment.