BMCR 2021.03.32

Augustine and the dialogue

, Augustine and the dialogue. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 250. ISBN 9781108422901 £67.00.

Erik Kenyon, who teaches Latin and Humanities at Friends Academy in Dartmouth, MA, is a robust defender of Augustine’s dialogues. “Appearances to the contrary,” he writes, the eight or so surviving dialogues that Augustine wrote from A.D. 386 to roughly 395 “are literary triumphs of sophisticated philosophy, truly worthy of a god and bursting with figures of virtue inside” (2).[1] Kenyon holds that these early works— the Contra Academicos, De beata vita, De ordine, Soliloquia (the so-called Cassiciacum dialogues), De immortalitate animae, De quantitate animae, De musica, and De libero arbitrio—are not only relevant to contemporary philosophical debates and the secular academy but also provide a valuable user-friendly introduction into how to engage these debates.

Kenyon’s Augustine and the Dialogue, a reworking of his 2012 dissertation at Cornell University, aspires to extricate Augustine’s early works “from the brambles and preoccupations of the last century’s debates” and to “bring about a shift in perspective” so that the genius of these works may be reassessed and applied to today’s educational needs (23). It is because scholars have been distracted by the dialogues’ historicity, doctrinal purity vis-à-vis Augustine’s conversion, and fixation on particular passages to the exclusion of the “big picture” that their true worth has not been appreciated. Kenyon advocates a “holistic reading” of all of Augustine’s dialogues save one. The De magistro is excluded on the grounds that it “is not terribly noteworthy… when it comes to philosophical method or literary form,” and it even “represents a methodological step backward from the innovations of Sol. + De imm. an. and De Mus.” (22, fn 57).  Kenyon therefore passes on the opportunity to provide the first comprehensive monograph on the dialogue genre in Augustine’s corpus.[2]

To read holistically, Kenyon focuses on the overall rhetorical strategy and argument unifying the entire dialogue rather than its constituent parts, and he seeks to make sense of the dialogues on their own native terms (see 9-11). Kenyon is also more interested in what Augustine does as an author than in what he may or may not have thought as a historical individual (9).

With these hermeneutical lenses in place, a new vision of the dialogues emerges, one which consists of two levels of meaning or “orders”: the “first-order debate” is a dialogue’s ostensible topic (skepticism, happiness, theodicy, etc.) while the “second order” consists of an “inquiry into inquiry” (30). Of the two orders, the second is more important to the Augustine who penned these works. The dialogues, Kenyon charges, “look foremost” not to a set of answers but “to the act of inquiry itself: The fact that we can inquire at all tells us various things about ourselves. By reflecting on our own act of inquiry, we are put in a position to improve how we go about inquiring” (12) because reflection on our inquiry yields a discovery of “cognitive norms of thought” (34) operative in “most if not all acts of rational inquiry” (40). Such a discovery clears the mind of errors such as materialism and serves as a guide for further philosophical investigation.

Augustine’s principal engine for introducing his interlocutors and readers to this “inquiry into inquiry” is a three-stage method that Kenyon calls ARP:

(A) aporetic debate, when the interlocutors’ discussion stalls or fumbles in perplexity;
(R) reflection on the act of debating, when Augustine “reflects on these debates as instances of rational activity… and draws various conclusions about human nature as a way of expanding his interlocutors’ stock of self-knowledge” (12); and
(P) the revelation of a final plausible conclusion, usually in the form of an interrupted oration or oratio perpetua containing a richly explanatory account that is probable but not necessarily true.

Proceeding more or less in chronological order, Kenyon goes on to locate numerous ARP’s in the dialogues, especially in the Soliloquia, which consists of an advanced lesson for inquiring into the act of inquiry. He also does a marvelous job demonstrating how all of Augustine’s dialogues and not just the Cassiciacum tetralogy build upon each other and evince more continuity than disruption in Augustine’s thought and practice.

Kenyon adroitly sets his discovery of the ARP method against the backdrop of Augustine’s literary predecessors, especially Cicero. In many respects, the Ciceronian philosophical dialogue serves as the template for Augustine’s early works, but with one key difference. Because Cicero aimed to carve a niche for philosophy among the Roman political elite, the order of his dialogues is APR: by ending on a reflection filled with indeterminate arguments pro et contra, Cicero resonates “with the Republic ethos of stating opposing views and then letting free citizens make up their own minds” (78). “Rhetorically,” Kenyon concludes, “Cicero is writing philosophical court cases; Augustine is writing philosophical whodunits” (79).

When comparing the two orders, Augustine and the Dialogue tends to deprecate the first. Augustine, for example, is portrayed as not really being so much “against the Academics” as he is against materialism because the latter denies intelligible cognitive norms (see 51). It is true that Augustine is not as opposed to the Academics as is commonly supposed, but in some respects he is against them—or at the very least, against some of their public teachings. Rather than seeing the first order as a mere pretext for the second, it seems to me that the stronger case is to state that the first order exists for the second and vice versa. Discussions on skepticism and theodicy become the occasion for reflecting on our rational, inquiring minds, while reflecting on our rational, inquiring minds enables us to overcome obstacles such as skepticism and evil’s existence by equipping us with certain norms for thinking things through. There is a healthy symbiosis between the two orders: first-order issues lead to second-order reflections while the second-order retrieval of the inquiring subject leads to a greater objectivity regarding first-order issues.

Since Kenyon thinks of the dialogues in terms of two orders, I too will follow this distinction. The analysis of first-order topics in Augustine and the Dialogue is generally solid and even brilliant at times but not entirely free of error: the character Trygetius may be a veteran, but it is Licentius who is the “budding poet” (24). And one can always quibble over some of the interpretations. It was refreshing to see a scholar take seriously Augustine’s “secret history” of the Academics in Contra Academicos  3, even though Kenyon’s map of that history does not seem to me to be entirely accurate.[3]

It is in Kenyon’s work on the “second order” of the dialogues that the real value of Augustine and the Dialogue lies. There are a few infelicities. Kenyon’s explanation of Augustine’s inquiry into inquiry is influenced by a body of scholarship that does not sufficiently differentiate between cognition and knowledge. Augustine is indeed exploring cognitional processes and engaged in what today is known as metacognition, but his goal is not the exploration of a res cogitans but a discovery of the knowing subject. Augustine’s goal is not to prove that “cognition is possible” (53) but to help the reader discover his or her own mind as the Archimedean point (or to use Augustine’s image, geometrical center) for knowing reality (see De ordine 1.1.3-1.2.3). And that discovery goes beyond mere “thinking about thinking” (235); it is itself a type of knowing, one that can be grasped, Augustine implies, with the same assurance as a sum of numbers (see De ordine2.7.24). Similarly, although I like Kenyon’s description of Augustine’s approach as “skeptic-cum-Platonist” (19), there is perhaps too much of an emphasis on the skeptical dimension (see 236). It is true that Augustine surprisingly concedes a great deal to Academic skepticism and that he de facto embraces a doctrine of probability or plausibility. However, he does not embrace the Academics’ doctrine of probability, the key difference being Augustine’s conviction that some truths(e.g., those concerning the knowing subject) can be known by the human mind.

These problems, however, do little to detract from the virtues of the project. Kenyon’s thesis of a “second order” is perceptive and astounding, and his excellent articulation of an ARP method not only opens up the dialogues in new ways but also enables Kenyon to offer a plausible account of why Augustine abandoned his project of writing on each of the seven liberal arts (140). Kenyon is not the first to see self-reflection as central to the dialogues. Reading the Cassiciacum dialogues in the summer of 1930 shaped the thinking of theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J. and eventually inspired him to write his magnum opus Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957).[4] But Kenyon is the first scholar outside of Lonerganian circles to focus on this crucial aspect of Augustine’s early work.

Not always eloquent, Augustine and the Dialogue is nevertheless well organized, lucid, and abounding in insight. With his first monograph, Erik Kenyon makes a valuable contribution to the recovery of Augustine’s dialogues that he so rightly esteems.


[1] The final count varies depending on whether one considers De dialectica to be an authentic work of Augustine and whether De immortalitate animae is viewed as a separate work or the unfinished third book of the Soliloquia.

[2] Articles showing the De magistro’s literary value include Frederick Crosson’s “The Structure of the De magistro,” Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes 35 (1989), 120-27, and Douglas Kries’s “Virgil, Daniel, and Augustine’s Dialectical Pedagogy in De Magistro” in Nova Doctrina Vetusque: Essays on Early Christianity in Honor of Fredric Schlatter, S.J. (Peter Lang, 1999), 129-52.

[3] Kenyon’s distinction between the early Platonists and the later Academics in terms of “the public stage” does not seem quite right to me. The real distinction to Augustine’s mind is that the former were merely coy, slowly initiating others into their mysteries like priests, while the latter were outright dissemblers, burying their treasure and throwing others off the scent like pirates. And Kenyon ignores Augustine’s suspicion that the Academics dissemble not only to bring some to the truth but to keep others from it. Augustine’s theory is that Academic esotericism was designed to enlighten the few while keeping the purity of Platonic doctrine safe from “minds ignorant and unpurified” (Contra Academicos 2.13.29)).

[4] See Richard Liddy, Transforming Light: Intellectual Conversion in the Early Lonergan (Michael Glazier Books, 1993), 94.