- Once Out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body
In this groundbreaking study, Andrea Nightingale complicates many of the commonly accepted understandings of Augustine’s ideas and does so with excellent reasons. Taking on Platonic/ Plotinian dualisms, Nightingale rethinks the ways in which Augustine works through human embodiment and time by placing them on new sets of axes. Rejecting the easy polarities of mind/body, heaven/earth, and time/eternity, Nightingale tracks the human journey from the Garden of Eden to the resurrection of the bodies of the saints in the heavenly city. Along the way, a number of surprising twists and turns appear in which Nightingale investigates the deep ambivalence that Christians (with much help from Augustine) had toward the earth. Although the human status on earth remains fundamentally questionable, Augustine’s project is a far cry from the Platonic ascent out of the Cave or the Plotinian “flight of the alone to the alone” (Enneads VI, 7, 34). While using language about the body that strikes strong Platonic notes (the body as “burden” and “prison”), Augustine’s full song presents the human body as an essential, though lesser, partner in salvation history. Christ’s incarnation is the wrench in the Platonic works, as Augustine and others mine that philosophical paradigm in late antiquity and use it for their own purposes.
Augustine was the leading thinker of his day, who superimposed an entirely different grid on the Platonic worldview and in so doing both subsumed and radically altered it. Nightingale unearths the earlier Platonic foundations, while also complicating the narrative by placing the predicament of the human body and our experience of time at the heart of the matter. With ample and adroit use of Augustine’s voluminous writings, Nightingale claims that the human journey presented by Augustine leads to a “transhuman” state—one first experienced by Adam and Eve in the Garden and one that will be achieved by the resurrected saints in heaven (complete with their perfected bodies). In both cases, they are, in fact, “out of nature” (52).
Of the many innovative insights presented I focus on three: the relationship between the human self (including the body) and Augustine’s analyses of time; his view of the natural world; and Augustine’s development of a new practice of asceticism, which Nightingale connects to the cult of the martyrs (including the enshrining and venerating of their bodily remains). First, Nightingale argues for the inclusion of the body in Augustine’s understanding of time that illuminates the significance of each for the other. Augustine has been accorded a singular place in ongoing philosophical discourses about time in the Western tradition. In contrast to the Greek and Roman views of time in the cosmos or in the history of human deeds, Augustine brings time into the human mind with his proto-phenomenology of time. What is new in Nightingale’s analysis is the centrality of the body in this project and its implications for Augustine’s way of dealing with the self. After the fall, humans are scattered and decentered and lose an integrated self-presence. As Augustine discovers, “I have become a question to myself” (Confessions X, 16). Nightingale demonstrates that the reply to the question of the disintegrated self is only achieved by the resurrected saints in the heavenly city. Back on earth, Nightingale neatly links dispersion in the memory to the unruliness of the human body through the interactions of “earthly” and “psychic” time. Humans are uncomfortably housed in nature and are never fully at home in the world. [End Page 119] The horrors of the human being’s place on the “food chain” can never be fully overcome in this life. Even though the focus is primarily on the human self and its problematics, the human relationship to nature is also deeply ambivalent. If, Nightingale suggests, “in Augustine’s thinking, only human matter matters” (17), investigating the workings of nature and even its aesthetic appreciation become deeply suspect. Although Augustine writes poetically about the...