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Reviewed by:
  • The Irrational Augustine
  • David Vincent Meconi S.J.
Catherine Conybeare The Irrational Augustine New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 Pp. xvi + 223. $85.

Twentieth century scholarship, exemplified perhaps by Prosper Alfaric's 1918 L'évolution intellectuelle de saint Augustin, has tended to read the Cassiciacum dialogues as a gradual and rather antiseptic pursuit of reason. Over and against the more intimate tone of the Confessions, for example, most have argued that these early treatises lack any sort of the messy distractions of humanity so wonderfully representative of that later text. These dialogues are therefore presented as pre-Ad Simplicianum pieces of pure philosophy in which Augustine has more in common with Plotinus than with Paul. Enlarging her earlier concept of liminality, Bryn Mawr's Catherine Conybeare here argues that the first writings of Augustine were never meant to be philosophical treatises desperately seeking ratio but as spectacles holding up the indeterminability and the destabilization inherent in the human quest for wholeness. Conybeare's fine study is a very close reading of the earliest Augustinian texts. Divided into three main parts, her arguments are provocative and persuasive throughout.

Part 1 (9–59) addresses an often overlooked question, i.e., why dialogues anyway? She emphasizes the noisy interruptions, the laughter and the silence, the side entrances and exits in order to show why Augustine was motivated to adapt this rhetorical style. Such paralinguistic cues help him to show the mutability of dialectic and the inadequacy of language. The gaps in any dialogue are the "liminal spaces" between res and uerba, between speaking and writing, between the audience directly before Augustine and those he knew would come chronologically [End Page 432] after. Since Plato, the dialogue is the genre with which to demonstrate such aporia, and in Conybeare's estimation Augustine exploits such irresolution stupendously. In effect, the dialogues are used as spectacula that play out the drama of perfection through which the reader is invited to participate.

By cleverly entitling Part 2 (61–138) "Women Doing Philosophy," Conybeare holds up Monica as a symbol of those formative months in Cassiciacum. While the men are so often depicted as locking horns and competing causa gloriandi (ord 1.10.29), Monica—feminine, catachrestic, detached—questions, suggests, and initiates conversation that leads to greater insight than dialectic alone could have achieved. In this light, likening Monica to Diotima takes on a new cogency: not only biological mother but also a figure of mater ecclesia—the bearer of true wisdom, the mother of Christ. Over and against the way that leads to God through learning, there is another (if not superior) way, i.e., nesciendo. Monica can grasp spiritual truths not because of her education but because of her gift of faith. Finally, the lack of closure found at many various turns within the dialogues, as well as the solecisms, barbarisms, and ellipses relied on throughout, only reinforce Conybeare's thesis that the uir sapientiae may not appear to be either!

Part 3 (139–72) turns with clearer focus to the role of ratio. Here the argument is that reason is not the terminus of the dialogues but one of the interlocutors also caught up in the search for ultimacy. Among the discussions here is how this understanding of reason affects Augustine anthropologically since he is now able to include infantes and ignorantes in those who image God because humanity is no longer measured by rationality but by the capacity for reason inherent in every soul. Ratio's relationship to authority (as well as to corporeality) is also taken up here. Finally, dissecting some early letters from this period allows us to see how Augustine becomes incertior by destabilizing "the traditional foundations of his knowledge, to dislodge Ratio a little from her position of primacy—and to see what comes to take her place" (172). Only by wrestling with such "irrationality" is Augustine now able to see what or who shall take Reason's place.

A helpful epilogue, "Exploiting Potential" (173–91) stresses the significance and consequences of the preceding insights. Conybeare writes that the relational character and the inconclusiveness of this period allowed Augustine to mature as a thinker with a more nuanced...


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