In this big book, Jérôme Lagouanère examines Augustine’s psychology in the conviction that it originates an approach to self, consciousness, subjectivity and personhood that is fundamental for later Western thought. His method is heavily philological, with extensive discussion of Augustine’s vocabulary and its background, as well as of texts that may be sources for his thought, including especially Cicero, Plotinus and Porphyry, in addition to the Bible and church fathers. At the center of attention are three sets of Augustinian texts: the early philosophical dialogues (most prominently Soliloquia, De Immortalitate Animae, De Quantitate Animae, and De Magistro), the Confessiones, and De Trinitate. The last is the most important, because its investigation of analogies of the Trinity in the soul provides the deepest link between the twin themes of interiority and reflexivity, as well as the most mature Christianization of Neoplatonist schemas of interior ascent to the divine.
The examination proceeds in four large chapters devoted to (1) the structure of interiority or “topography” of inner space, (2) the “dynamism” of inner ascent to the divine, (3) the self as image and likeness of God in De Trinitate and (4) the self as mirror in which we see God “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). The investigation thus moves broadly from interiority to reflexivity.
The first chapter, which is much the longest, treats psychic functions as places in inner space, designated by a coherent (or at least coherently evolving) vocabulary. This is an ambitious and largely successful attempt to overturn Étienne Gilson’s judgment that “ la terminologie d’Augustin. . . est assez flottante.” For example, Augustine consistently uses anima for the whole soul, including vegetative and sensitive functions, while animus is restricted to specifically human functions that presuppose rationality.
Mens also is specifically human, connected especially to the epistemic functions of ratio and intellectus, the former discursive, the latter intuitive and therefore superior, being the site of divine illumination and ultimately the vision of God. When ratio is at work in ratiocinatio, its aim is intellectus, the direct vision of intelligible truth. So ratio is like looking for the truth and intellectus is like seeing it; they are related as seeking and finding, or inquiring and enjoying. Both are possible only because God is related to the mind as an interior light or illumination by which it judges what is true.
Spiritus is a particularly interesting term because it incorporates the tension between the Porphyrian and the Pauline usages of pneuma, the former associated with imagination (leading to Augustine’s remarkable account, in the twelfth book of De Genesi ad Litteram of “spiritual vision,” which is a function of imagination inferior to intellectual vision) while the latter indicates the highest aspect of human being, superior to the life of the “psychic man” in 1 Cor. 2:14-15. Strikingly, in this case Biblical usage corrects a materialist element in Platonism, as Paul gives Augustine reason to reject Porphyry’s conception of pneuma as the heavenly material composing the astral vehicle of the soul.
Augustine is most original in his elaboration of memoria and voluntas. He develops Platonist notions of recollection into a vivid account of memory as inner space in which to find God in Confessiones, book 10, which leads to a conception of memoria Dei that anchors his account of the triads of the soul in De Trinitate. Even more, voluntas grows into a distinctively Augustinian concept as it comes to explain the origin of sin, offering in his early works an alternative to Manichean notions of evil as uncreated substance, and functioning later as the central locus of his psychology of grace in polemics against the Pelagians. Lagouanère’s work supports Hannah Arendt’s description of Augustine as “the first philosopher of the will.”
The second chapter examines three forms of spiritual ascent in Augustine’s texts: the seven-step ladders for the soul found in several of his early writings, always culminating in the intellectual vision of God; the mystical experiences described in Confessiones, books 7 and 9, with their brief moment of inner vision; and the extended anagogy in De Trinitate, books 8-15. All are deeply indebted to Neoplatonism, but Lagouanère discerns a “complexification” of Augustine’s early intellectualism as the hope of attaining an unwavering intellectual vision of God in this life fades from view, and the problem of sin comes to the fore in his readings of Paul in the 390s, and the exegesis of Scripture becomes increasingly central to his Christian spirituality.
The third chapter focuses on triadic analogies of the Trinity in the human soul. Augustine’s investigation of these analogies in De Trinitate is founded on notions of imago and similitudo derived from Genesis 1:26 (where human beings are created “in the image and likeness” of God) but also shaped by Platonist notions of participation and the project of “assimilation to God” stemming from Theaetetus 176a. The analogies support an anagogy, a spiritual ascent elaborated in the second half of the treatise. In contrast to the intellectualist framework of Augustine’s early writings, however, there is no hope of attaining an intellectual vision of the Trinity here. Our souls are always an inadequate image ( imago impar) of the Trinity, in contrast to the eternal Son of God who is co-equal with God the Father and thus his perfect image ( imago par). But precisely this inadequacy built into the very structure of the self means it is constituted by the desire to become more and more like its model. The Augustinian inner self is thus “ une intériorité transitive ” (p. 610), always in motion toward God, precisely because it is “ une intériorité iconique ” (p. 375).
The fourth chapter puts the limitations of intellectual vision front and center by examining how the mens, in this life, is a mirror in which the image of God is seen at best as an enigma ( aenigma being the term used in 1 Cor. 13:12, “ per speculum in aenigmate,” but also a rhetorical term for metaphor and allegory). The most important image of the Trinity in the soul consists of memoria (especially memoria sui, which makes self-consciousness possible) and intelligentia (the power of intellectus), and voluntas (the power whose act is to love). In one sense, the closest likeness in the soul to the self-sufficient relations of the three persons of the Trinity is the mind’s remembering, understanding and loving itself. But such self-directedness—or one could say, self-enclosedness—is ultimately a deformation of the divine image in us, which is inherently directed toward its maker, i.e., toward that to which it is made (as Augustine insists, emphasizing the Latin of Genesis 1:27, in which human beings are made ad imaginem Dei). In a key interpretive move, Lagouanère suggests that this makes the self into a kind of sign, initiating a semiotics of desire for God.
With this move Lagouanère opens up Augustinian interiority to a contemporary hermeneutics of the self, roughly in the manner of Paul Ricoeur. His aim is to renew Western thinking about the self by retrieving Augustine as its source. He wants to think of the inner self as semiotically constituted, a theme he connects also to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s interest in Augustine’s notion of the inner word ( verbum intimum). This word is conceived or begotten in memory when we have true knowledge, analogous to the way the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, is eternally begotten from the Father. Augustine emphasizes that both the inner human word and the eternal divine Word are intelligible rather than sensible, which means they are pre-linguistic, not belonging to any spoken language but only signified and expressed externally by the sound of words. However, Lagouanère argues, despite its pre-linguistic character the inner word can be seen as a text needing interpretation, which is best “read” in light of the exegesis of Scripture.
This is where Lagouanère stretches things too far, in my judgment.1 In Augustine’s semiotics, words are signs, and signs are always external. The inner word is not literally a word, not part of any language or text, but rather something higher and more intelligible, of which external words furnish us only a sensible expression or signification. Contrary to Lagouanère, Augustinian interiority is not semiotically constituted nor does its memory of itself generate a fundamentally narrative identity. Rather, the self gets its identity from the same source from which it gets its origin, its true stability and its ultimate fulfillment—by adhering to the immutable Truth above it, which is God. This Truth is interior because it is intelligible; to see it we don’t look outside ourselves in the sensible world, nor is it revealed in external words and signs. For as Augustine argues in De Magistro, we learn nothing intelligible from signs, but only from the inner Teacher, which is another name for Christ as the eternal Word of God.
This leads to a key omission in Lagouanère’s book: Christ incarnate is nowhere to be found. The inner Teacher, which plays an important role in the hermeneutics of the self proposed by Lagouanère, is not Christ in the flesh; for flesh is external, not something we find by turning our minds inward. In fact Lagouanère’s treatment of interiority has very little to say about its contrast term, exteriority, which is properly the place of signs, words, and bodies in Augustine’s thought. Nor does it include any reference to the church. In that sense Lagouanère’s exposition is almost entirely philosophical rather than theological. The result is a very attenuated conception of intersubjectivity and alterity. The inner Teacher is indeed the constitutive presence of the divine Other in the self, but Lagouanère is mistaken to suggest that this makes dialogue and intersubjectivity essential to subjectivity, for this is a teacher who speaks no human word, and an alterity which has no place for other human beings.
In general, the limitations of this big book stem from the fact that it is more philological than philosophical, and more philosophical than theological or historical. It is such a big book because it is so thoroughly philological. For example, in addition to surveying of the concepts of imago and similitudo in classical rhetoric and philosophy of language, Lagouanère presents a lexicographical study of nearly every usage of these two terms throughout the fifteen books of De Trinitate. Perhaps this is of genuine philological interest; it is certainly much more than is needed to make Lagouanère’s philosophical point. When he thinks in an expansively philosophical manner, Lagouanère makes comparisons that I find a bit of a stretch: as if Augustine’s memoria sui, as the basis of self-consciousness, amounts to something like Kant’s transcendental apperception; or as if the anagogy in De Trinitate, turning from the outer man to the inner man, is something close to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. The contexts of these thinkers are too diverse for such comparisons to be anything more than suggestive.
Meanwhile, Augustine’s own historical context never gets treated, except lexicographically. It would have been helpful to consider Augustine as pastor and preacher, so as to bring into focus how his practice of Christian teaching and Scriptural exegesis supported his investigations of the inner self. This would situate semiotics and hermeneutics in their proper place, which for Augustine is the external life of the church, a community devoted to the God who came in flesh.
1. For the grounds of this judgment, see Phillip Cary, Outward Signs: The Powerlessnes of External Things in Augustine’s Thought (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) and “The Inner Word Prior to Language: Augustine as Platonist Alternative to Gadamerian Hermeneutics,” in Philosophy Today 55/2 (Summer 2011): 192-197.