Augustine on the Self

In his wonderful biography of St. Augustine, the noted historian of the late antique world, Peter Brown, claims that Augustine has "come as near to us . . .

as the vast gulf that separates a modern man from the culture and religion of the later empire can allow" (1967: 181). How so? One reason, surely, lies in Augustine's complex ruminations on the nature of selfhood. This is a theme close to our own preoccupations. Augustine, in fact, anticipates postmodern strategies in dethroning the Cartesian subject even before that subject got erected. For Augustine, the mind can never be transparent to itself; we are never wholly in control of our thoughts; our bodies are essential, not contingent, to who we are and how we think; and we know that we exist not because "I think, therefore I am," but, rather, "I doubt, therefore I know I exist." Only a subject who is a self that can reflect on its-self can doubt. His Confessions is a story of a human being who has become a question to himself (Augustine 1961).

Augustine begins the story with an infant - unlike so many who, over the years, begin with adults: in political theory the image of adults signing social contracts pertains, as if human beings sprang full-blown from the head of John Locke! Augustine, however, starts with natality and intimates a developmental account featuring a fragile, dependent creature who is by no means a tabula rasa, but, rather, a being at once social and "quarrelsome." Each child enters a world whose Creator declared it good. Each child enters a world as the heir of Adam's foundational sin. Each child, therefore, is in need of God's grace and forgiveness. All human beings are driven by hunger and desire and experience frustration at their inability to express themselves fully and decisively, in a way that prompts others to respond, to be at one's beck and call. Becoming an adult does not mean jettisoning such emotions - these are key ingredients of our natures and our ability to understand - but is, rather, about forming and shaping our passions in light of certain presuppositions about human beings, human willing, and our faltering attempts to will and to act rightly. Augustine's awareness of the sheer messiness of human existence lies at the heart of the withering critical fire he directs at Stoic apatheia. For the mind to be in a state "in which the mind cannot be touched by any emotion whatsoever, who would not judge this insensitivity to be the worst of all moral defects?" (Augustine 1972: 565). We begin as, and we remain, beings who love, who yearn, who grieve, who experience frustration. The most important point here is Augustine's insistence that thought can never be purged of the emotions, and that the thinking self expresses complex emotion through thought and in a language that is, hopefully, up to the task.

This leads directly to Augustine on language and the constraints imposed on us by language. As par excellence the language users among God's creatures, we bump up all the time against opacity and constraint. In Book XIX, chapter 7, Augustine muses about the ways in which humans are divided by linguistic differences. These differences make it very hard for us to understand one another.

The diversity of languages separates man from man. For if two men meet and are forced by some compelling reason not to pass on but to stay in company, then if neither knows the other's language, it is easier for dumb animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than these men, although both are human beings. For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language, all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship. So true is this that a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner. I shall be told that the Imperial City has been at pains to impose on conquered peoples not only her yoke but her language also, as a bond of peace and fellowship, so that there should be no lack of interpreters but even a profusion of them. True; but think of the cost of this achievement! Consider the scale of those wars, with all the slaughter of human beings, all the human blood that was shed. (Augustine 1972: 861)

Here Augustine moves from the murkiness of language, how it divides us despite our common human nature, to the imposition of a language on diverse peoples but at a truly terrible price. We find, then, a drawing together of notions of human nature, language and its centrality in constituting us as living creatures; the complexity of a search for fellowship; and a pithy critique of the enforced homogeneity of empire. Augustine's powerful theological anthropology compels attention to the ways in which human beings, created in God's image, communicate. Unsurprisingly, given original sin, language necessarily reflects our division - the ways in which the self is riven by sin; the ways in which human societies, too, bear the stain of sin and sinfulness. Human beings can achieve only what Augustine calls "creature's knowledge." Full knowledge is not available to human knowers, no matter how brilliant and learned they may be. We are both limited and enabled by the conventions of language. No one can jump out of his or her linguistic skin. We are obliged to bow to "normal usage" if we hope to communicate at all, and we are driven to communicate by our sociality, a sociality that goes all the way down. This sociality lies at the basis of Augustine on the nature of human societies.

0 0

Post a comment