Augustine’s Virgilian Retreat: Reading the Auctores at Cassiciacum by Joseph Pucci (review)
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Joseph Pucci Augustine’s Virgilian Retreat: Reading the Auctores at Cassiciacum Studies and Texts 187 Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2014 Pp. xvi + 192. $80.00.

How should a Christian read Virgil? Joseph Pucci argues that Augustine wrangles with this question as early as the fall and winter of 386/7, when he teaches his students at Cassiciacum how to read pagan authors for philosophical and spiritual benefit or, to use Pucci’s term, how to “recuperate” them. The approaches to literature in De doctrina christiana and Confessions are grounded in this reading culture developed years earlier by a recently retired professor of rhetoric seeking [End Page 144] a place in his understanding of Christian paideia for the authors whom he had so often studied and taught.

After a preface in which Pucci inter alia signals his debts to other scholars’ studies (especially those of Brian Stock, Camille Bennett, and Sarah Spence), the author opens his introduction by examining Confessions 1.13, where Augustine describes his early encounters with the Aeneid, quoting from the poem while apparently deprecating its study. Pucci argues that this contradiction may be resolved by applying a hermeneutic developed at Cassiciacum. He points to a passage from Contra Academicos 2.4.10 whose importance has been underrated. There Augustine indicates that the discourse had just resumed after a six-day break that the interlocutors had partly spent in learning how to recuperate passages from the Aeneid through reviewing, pondering, and “fitting” them into philosophical debate (recensere, tractare, congruere). Pucci argues that scholars of Augustine have misunderstood the meaning of these verbs and have thus failed to appreciate that Augustine chose them carefully in order to articulate his systematic approach to reading pagan authors. Such reinterpretations of key Latin words occur throughout the book, but given these detailed philological analyses, it is surprising that the Oxford Latin Dictionary, which offers little coverage of Christian authors who postdate 200 c.e., is the only lexicon cited. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae and the Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiennes, for example, are not cited. The approach in the Introduction is similar to that employed in the next three chapters (each treating one of the three Cassiciacum dialogues), in that Pucci offers close readings of passages where ancient authors are quoted and interstitial sections that seem nugatory but are significant. Chapter One explores Contra Academicos, wherein Augustine’s students Licentius and Trygetius quote inappropriately from Virgil—they fail to recuperate him. Meanwhile Augustine shows them how it is done. His quotations offer fresh perspectives on the issues discussed; they also serve variously to assert authority, chastise errant disputants, and signpost important moments in the debate. Chapter Two considers De beata vita, which is set during the six-day hiatus. Here Augustine gives his struggling students a master class in “philosophical best practices” (72), offering remedial examples of how to quote rightly—this time from Terence, an author more easily recuperated than Virgil. Augustine again provides quotations to mark milestones in and comment on philosophical discourse. In Chapter Three on De ordine—which also takes place during the hiatus after De beata vita—Licentius and Augustine expand the scope of recuperation. They “turn” (vertere) quotations from ancient authors not just to “burnish a philosophical point” (88) but “to make sense of [their] own spirituality” (103). Some of the exegeses of individual passages in these three chapters are more persuasive than others, but they are cumulatively convincing: they demonstrate that developing an interpretative approach to ancient authors was indeed an important component of the retreat at Cassiciacum.

The philosophical underpinnings of this hermeneutic are found in Soliloquia, the subject of Chapter Four. There Augustine considers mimetic forms like literature, which mix truth and falsehood; the Christian reader must distill the [End Page 145] former from the latter. This process is limned in De doctrina christiana, treated in the fifth and final chapter. Following Spence, Pucci argues that this text’s model of reading scripture with love may be equally applied to pagan authors. Its charitable hermeneutic is not a rejection of the reading culture of Cassiciacum but rather its elaboration. A text’s obscurities and...


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