The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions
by John Peter Kenney
Routledge, 160 pages, $115.
FOR MANY, AUGUSTINE’S City of God seems a more difficult book than the Confessions . It is very long, and its architectonic structure demands that one hold in mind ideas from earlier chapters to negotiate the final stages of the argument. And, of course, it is filled with digressions that seem to wander off in unpredictable directions. But the Confessions is surely the more subtle and challenging work, and its autobiographical style can easily lead one astray. This is especially true on a first reading. Captivated by Augustine’s mesmerizing prose, the unsuspecting reader can easily become oblivious to his rhetorical strategies.
But it is not only first readers who find the Confessions baffling. Even seasoned interpreters have trouble agreeing on basic questions of interpretation”for example, on the book’s unity and the relation between the final books and the autobiographical books one through nine. One issue of interpretation that has vexed scholars is whether, and in what sense, Augustine is a mystic. This topic was first raised in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it has been debated on and off ever since. As is often the case in scholarly debates, the positions staked out by the experts turn as much on how one understands mysticism as they do on texts from Augustine’s writings.
The person who lurks behind the modern discussion of Augustine’s mysticism is William James, the American philosopher and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience . Like many American religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, James was suspicious of collective religious rituals and institutions. Genuine religion was thought to be a deeply personal experience, a sense of being visited by an ineffable spiritual reality. Mysticism, in this view, is an affair of the individual soul, the subjective feelings of a solitary person.
A Jamesian approach to Augustine was popularized early in the twentieth century in books such as Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and Dean Inge’s Christian Mysticism . But it gained scholarly support in the writings of distinguished Augustine scholars who were also students of the great Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. Every reader of the Confessions knows the famous passage where Augustine acknowledges his debt to the Platonic books, by which he meant the writings of the Neoplatonists. For generations, scholars have debated Augustine’s relation to late antique Platonism.
Scholarly attention came to focus on a series of texts in books seven and nine that contained ascension narratives, presumed accounts of the soul’s journey to God. Read with spectacles colored by the sanctioned pieties of our age, it seemed possible to strip the texts of their Christian features to disclose an underlying structure common to all mystics. The effect was to remove Christian theology and practice from their interpretation and to see the Platonic language as more authentic, more capable of depicting a universal religious experience.
In The Mysticism of Saint Augustine , John Peter Kenney writes on the far side of two generations of scholarly debate about Augustine’s relation to Platonism. He knows the arguments about Augustine’s dependence on the Neoplatonists, what he calls an effort to move away from denominationally based analyses (theological interpretations), but he believes that the only way beyond what has become a sterile debate is to view the Confessions from the vantage point of a live spiritual tradition, that is to say, Catholic Christianity. His aim is to see the books of the Platonists as a point of theological departure rather than merely a source.
This is a challenging agenda, especially when one recalls that a friend of Augustine once wrote of his great delight in reading Augustine’s letters because they speak to me of Christ, of Plato, and of Plotinus. So Kenney’s first task is to attend to Plotinus, whom he knows very well. By training, Kenney is a scholar of ancient philosophy, and it is a pleasure to read his exposition of Plotinus’ ideas in clear, intelligible language. This is particularly welcome because Plotinus is notoriously difficult. In a few compact chapters, Kenney provides a penetrating account of the central elements of Plotinus’ thought.
For Plotinus, human beings are never fully part of the temporal and spatial world. There is always some of the [soul] in the intelligible realm. Through contemplation, the soul can uncover within itself the presence of a transcendent reality, what Plotinus calls the One. The One, however, is not, as in the biblical tradition, simply an other: It stands at the apex of a descending order of being, a plurality of divine manifestations that derive from the first principle and share to a degree in its life. In Plotinus’ crisp language: The one is all things and not a single one of them.
Although Plotinus does separate the One from all things derived from it, so that, as Kenney puts it, the central insight of monotheism is secured, nevertheless the separation is not clean. A subtle ontological link remains. Further, the One is not, as in the biblical tradition, an active agent. Hence the importance of contemplation as the instrument by which the self, recognizing its place in the eternal order, achieves cognitive disclosure and insight. The One, however, remains serenely passive, always present to the soul but neither taking notice of its striving nor lending its aid.
In Kenney’s view, Plotinus was the first to give a coherent account of ancient pagan monotheism. This is no small achievement when one considers the history of ancient philosophical thinking about God. Plotinus thus represents a unique understanding of the monotheism that grew in the soil of the Mediterranean world, with its distinctive religious sensibility, vocabulary, and intellectual framework. When Plotinus speaks about religious experience, it is mediated through a particular language and conceptual system. Platonism is as much an interpretive language as Christianity is.
LANGUAGE, THEN, IS at the heart of the argument of this book. When Kenney turns to Augustine, he introduces the reader to a quite different vocabulary from that employed by Plotinus. He acknowledges, of course, that by reading the Platonic books Augustine was able to think his way out of the crude materialism he learned from the Manichees and to conceive of God as a transcendent spiritual reality.
But if one turns to the famous ascent passage in book seven of the Confessions , it is Romans 1:20”his invisible nature has been perceived through the things which are made”that dominates (it is cited twice) the description of his experience. What hinders Augustine from knowing divine truth is not embodiment but the inner disposition of the soul. It is the darkness of my soul that stood in the way of closer contact with God. I was puffed up with knowledge says Augustine, again citing St. Paul (1 Cor. 8:1). And then, after more biblical citations, he says that none of these things is found in the Platonic books, not tears of confession, your sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a contrite and humble spirit, the salvation of your people, the espoused city, the guarantee of your Holy Spirit, the cup of our redemption. There one does not sing, Surely my soul will be submissive to God. From him is my salvation.
Although Augustine acknowledges his debt to Platonism and shows the congruence of Platonism and Christianity on certain points, when he comes to speak of his conversion he does so in Christian language. Augustine says yes to Platonic transcendentalism, but he does not see it as a religious option, nor does he interpret his own life in Platonic terms. The Confessions gives us not a Platonism baptized but an alternative theology. It is, in short, a work of apologetics.
And the apology has to do not only with religious ideas but also with the practices of a concrete community. Kenney shows that the Confessions displays a self-conscious ecclesiology, that Christian contemplation is rooted in the Church’s Scriptures and life. Which leads him to the neglected final books of the Confessions , which seem to have little to do with the Platonism of the central books. By the time Kenney has finished his analysis, the ascension passages in the middle of the book seem less the fulcrum of the Confessions than one piece in a much fuller argument whose meaning is discovered only at the end. In the latter books, the vocabulary of audition anchors contemplation more explicitly in the Scriptures. I listened, Lord, my God; I sucked a drop of sweetness from your truth. The delights of contemplation can be achieved, says Augustine, by adhering to the solid firmament of your Scripture, for there God holds conversation with us.
In book thirteen, the final book, the Church, your spiritual people, is the vehicle and context for Christian contemplation. But it is Augustine’s treatment of Monica that seals the argument. She is, writes Kenney, an unpromising candidate for high contemplation in the Plotinian style. The famous vision at Ostia was not that of the solitary seeker”it was an experience shared by Augustine and Monica. And the reason Monica was capable of intense and total concentration was that she had made continual confession of her faults and of her Savior. Her contemplation, writes Kenney, is an ecclesial moment that emerged in the schoolhouse of souls that is the Church.
FINALLY, TO BRING the argument back to where it began, Kenney notes that Augustine ends his book with a discussion of creation. This is most un-Plotinian. For Augustine, the fault line of reality is drawn at a quite different place than for Plotinus. Creatures are brought into being by an act of divine will and always will remain distinct from the one who created them, whereas in Plotinus the intelligible world comes about by a process of self-manifestation. For Augustine, the sharp divide between creator and creature can never be bridged, and Christian contemplation takes the form of confession and praise, not assimilation.
The Mysticism of Saint Augustine is, as the subtitle suggests, a rereading of the Confessions. By rereading, Kenney means a reinterpretation of this ancient and enduring Christian classic. Yet, as should be apparent from the way he lays out his argument, the book has more than a historical agenda. To be sure, it is a contribution to the understanding of the early Augustine that offers a fresh and, to this reviewer, convincing interpretation of a set of issues that has shaped Augustine scholarship in the latter half of the twentieth century.
But Kenney has another agenda. In the preface, he cites Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade: Religion . . . / That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die . Larkin’s world seems a long way from Augustine, but Kenney knows how hard it is to shed the common sentiments of our age when reading the Confessions . If it is read through a culturally established prism, the temptation is to focus on the experience itself, not the reality to which it points, emptying the narrative of its cognitive claims. But when Augustine speaks of transcendence, it is not to describe his subjective feelings or chronicle his elation but to reveal what he has come to know of the living God. His aim was not to achieve ecstasy but to describe his encounter with the truth. This fine book gives us an Augustine who is not captive to the vapid spirituality of our age.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.