restricted access Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation
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Reviewed by
Brian Stock. Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 463. $39.95 hardcover.

Brian Stock’s profile of Augustine as a reader offers a history of what Augustine read and what influence it had over him. But welcome as such a history is, it is only the beginning, for Stock’s major concern is to introduce us to Augustine as a theoretician of reading, and even more: someone who had “spiritualized reading” (p. 129) so that it became a “symbol of conversion” (p. 24). It could become such a symbol because, for Augustine, it is “a plan of living . . . evolved from . . . reading which redirects behavior in the long term” (p. 55). Still, reading remains a symbol of conversion and not conversion itself. Augustine’s view of reading is ultimately “anti-utopian” (p. 278), a “vehicle” or “means,” not a “cause” or “end” (p. 205f., etc.); grace remains the cause. From De magistro to De Trinitate, Stock finds an unwavering skeptical attitude about the ability of signs to teach anything of permanent value about reality (p. 278).

These limitations on reading notwithstanding, under Stock’s patient analyses the symbolic dimensions of reading become a key for interpreting an Augustinian spirituality. The Neoplatonic spirituality of ascent is “domesticated . . . by uniting its goals to those of christian reading and meditation” (p. 65). By the end of Book 7 of Confessions, for example, Augustine “wants us to be students of scripture like himself, not neoplatonic mystics” (p. 69). That is because one gets a better “understanding of the self and its relationship to God through the [End Page 165] medium of scripture” (p. 243). In fact, the process of understanding the self is itself a kind of “reading” of a text. Our selves are present to us in memory, in an inner narrative which does not require contemplation so much as interpretation: “Texts and selves interpenetrated: it became possible to look upon the building of a new self as an exegetical and interpretive process” (p. 54); again, “Every understanding, therefore, is a reading of ourselves, every genuine insight, a rereading, until, progressing upwards by revisions, we have inwardly in view the essential source of knowledge, which is God” (p. 111). Our inner narratives become repatterned away from despair and pride onto the template of the hope and humility revealed in the Scriptural narrative of God’s Incarnation.

I find this a brilliant and subtle analysis; among other things, it helps us understand Augustine’s modifications of Neoplatonic spirituality in a way that differentiates his spirituality from strict Neoplatonic practice and ideals without disavowing its debts. Still, one wonders in the end if the case for the centrality of “reading” is somewhat overplayed. It is not “reading” per se, as an activity, that displaces the Neoplatonic ascent, but the reading of Scripture. Nor do the benefits necessarily accrue only to readers of Scripture; there is no reason why hearers of Scripture should be excluded from the same dynamic of ascent through transformation of the self based on patterning after the Scriptural narratives. These narratives were not only read aloud and preached; they were also embedded in so many ways in the liturgy. To put it in the words of the Confessions, Augustine does not only read about his salvation (pace p. 197), he “eats” it and “drinks” it and “administers” it to others (Conf. 10.71).

Also, one wonders whether Stock is right about the inability of signs to convey anything of permanent value about reality, even for the Augustine of De Trinitate. Stock’s reader, for all that s/he is reading Scripture, never seems to find out much about God. The final chapter of the book, on the De Trinitate, is titled “The Self,” a tell-tale change in emphasis from Augustine’s own title. We learn that the reader both of the De Trinitate and of Scripture is engaged on a quest for “religious enlightenment” (p. 276); we discover with fascination and approval that as Augustine “domesticates” the process of ascent, he “undomesticates” its objective; but we never really learn what this means. Fascination...