Augustine, Divine Agency, and Therapeutic Change
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Augustine, Divine Agency, and Therapeutic Change

Augustine of Hippo, agency, psychotherapy, theology

Suggesting that underlying some violent behavior is an unhealthy identification of one's self with one's behavior, such that there is no reflective space between the acting self and unwanted or violent action, Alexandra Pârvan echoes many contemporary psychotherapeutic models in suggesting that a central goal of psychotherapy for perpetrators and recipients of violence should be to encourage clients to distance the acting self from the self's experience and behavior (Pârvan, 2017). Pârvan observes that this is already a feature of "attachment-informed psychotherapy," but she argues that "the distinction between self and action can only be effectively established from outside strictly psychological perspectives" (p. 243) and that, specifically, the metaphysics of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) is not only 'compatible' with these psychotherapies but can confer a 'healthy stability' to revised internal working models of the self. Pârvan makes two broad claims about the usefulness of Augustine's thought for modern psychotherapy with perpetrators and victims of violence. First, she highlights Augustine's position that the human, as existing substance, is good, and that this substantial goodness persists even when he or she acts contrary to the good. She suggests that this metaphysical claim can help clients in therapy to distinguish the substantial, acting self from unwanted or vicious action, which is not properly a substance. People are substances, that is, but actions are not. The self (Pârvan's term for the human being) has ontological value in itself and can never be "reduced to its psychological or moral functioning" (p. 245). But second, and in contrast, Pârvan asserts that neither can vicious actions be split off entirely from the individual's agency and responsibility. People are still responsible for their vicious actions, even if they are not to be identified with them. But if a will is defective and formed in vice, it can be restored by 'cooperation' with the will of another—and Pârvan suggests that therapists might serve as just the sort of 'external aid' that would enable clients' wills to be formed in a way that "enables [them] to perform good actions" (p. 246).

What is most notable about Pârvan's creative, hypothesis-generating reflection, particularly given her strong claim that "the distinction between self and other can only be effectively established from outside strictly psychological perspectives" (p.243), is precisely how psychological, and how similar to existing models of therapy, her solution remains. Pârvan is correct that dominant psychotherapeutic models like dialectical behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) do not posit an ontological 'self' that is [End Page 257] metaphysically distinguished from the self's action. It is nonetheless the case, however, that like Pârvan's proposed model, each of these therapies seeks to create space for the observing, acting self to gain distance from his or her unwanted behavior to gain more control over it. Whereas Pârvan would have clients to envision an ontologically stable 'self' separable from behavior, and thereby to gain distance from the behavior, ACT therapists might engage clients in exercises to encourage self-awareness and the emergence of a healthy 'observing self,' also enabling psychological distance necessary to commit to intentional action (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999, pp. 180–203). Does Pârvan's metaphysical model really 'effectively establish' a self-action distinction in a way that the ACT approach would not? Furthermore, Pârvan's proposed therapeutic model entailing "intellectual understanding contextualized in clients' biographical experiences and facilitated through practical exercises and relational experience in therapy and outside it" (2017, p.251), sounds a lot like the basic template of many successful psychotherapies. Her proposal for 'self-soothing' through statements like "What the other is doing (to me) is not a reflection of what I am" (p. 252), in the context of a larger effort to expose initial judgments as "incorrect and damaging" and then to show "why and how they would help to be corrected by . . . new judgment[s]" (p. 252), sounds a lot like cognitive–behavioral therapy. Indeed, it does not seem like...