By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Augustine & Intimacy

Philosopher Julián Marías
Philosopher Julián Marías writes the following in his History of Philosophy:

St. Augustine's [354-430 A.D.] thought contains something characteristic not only of Christianity but also of the modern epoch: intimacy. We have seen how he bases his philosophy on the inner man. He asks man to enter the interior of his own soul in order to find himself, and with himself, God. This is the great lesson which St. Anselm [1033-1109 A.D.] will learn first, and through him all Western mysticism. . . . The Confessions represents man's first attempt to approach himself. Until the advent of idealism--that is, until the seventeenth century--no one will achieve anything comparable. And when modern man, guided by Descartes, returns to himself and remains alone with his ego, St. Augustine will again acquire profound influence.

Marías, History of Philosophy (Dover Publications, 1967), p. 121 (emphasis added).

I am now plowing through the above book and highly recommend it.  Interestingly, the well-known historian Garry Wills seems to say the exact opposite about Augustine:

It is hard to imagine how Dreyfus and Kelly [authors of a book reviewed by Wills] could get sillier about Augustine, but they meet the challenge. They say that he invented the inner life of the mind. “Augustine had to get people to realize that they had an inner life.” . . . . Apart from the inner life of Homer’s heroes, how can professional philosophers think that Plato and his followers (down through Plotinus) needed to wait for Augustine to reveal the reality of inner moral choice?

Garry Wills, source link.

(I deleted the part of the above excerpt from Wills in which Wills claims, in my opinion, too much certainty about the reading habits of the ancients because I have already discussed that narrow issue in another post.)

Well, the mocked Dreyfus and Kelly are apparently joined by Marías in celebrating Augustine's turn to the inner life. Wills claims that "the reality of inner moral choice" was already a matter of discussion by Plato and his followers. But, Marías is not speaking of the mere, bare concept of "inner moral choice." 

What Marías is getting at is that in the Confessions we have an intense, dramatic preoccupation with an individual man's inner life, memories, formative influences, successes, and failures. In the Confessions, Augustine creates an autobiographical classic of self-discovery and self-examination in a way not found in Plato himself, whose dialogues do not focus directly and explicitly on the personal crises and transitions of Plato's personal life. (As to Plotinus, whom Wills mentions, I cannot opine because of my lack of familiarity with the scope of all the writings of Plotinus.) 

Yet, even if, for the sake of argument, we concede that some of the ancients before Augustine also penned "confessions" revealing their personal intellectual and spiritual crises and development, the dramatic, masterfully eloquent way in which Augustine accomplished his "confessions" still stands out as a turning point in Western thought. You do not have to be first in order to mark a turning point. To mark a turning point in thought, you have to be the one who is most memorable in articulating the turning point. 

We see this reality in other areas of thought. For example, before Adam Smith, other writers analyzed the market (see, for example, Bernard Mandeville and Richard Cantillon).  But, in his classic The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith "hit it out of the park," so to speak, so that, today, we see his work as a major turning point in economic thought. Likewise, Augustine's Confessions is seen by many as the most memorable articulation in the ancient world of human self-consciousness as it meditates on very particular and specific autobiographical circumstances. (The closest ancient competitor to the Confessions of Augustine, in my view, are The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, another favorite of mine and of many others.) No one is claiming that Augustine first raised the issue of inner moral choice. That is a straw man target not worth attacking.

Again, I highly recommend Marías' History of Philosophy (which is listed in the Logos Book Store link under the "Ortega y Gasset" category). The book can help us discern truth from the trite exaggeration sometimes found in book reviews.