Mary Agnes Edsall

title.none: McMahon, Medieval Meditative Ascent (Mary Agnes Edsall)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.021 07.10.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Agnes Edsall, Bowdoin College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Robert, McMahon. Understanding the Medieval Meditative Ascent: Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, and Dante. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 284. $59.95 0-8132-1437-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.21

Robert, McMahon. Understanding the Medieval Meditative Ascent: Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, and Dante. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 284. $59.95 0-8132-1437-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary Agnes Edsall
Bowdoin College

In Understanding the Medieval Meditative Ascent: Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, and Dante, Robert McMahon returns to topics that have been perennial in his work. Yet while drawing on earlier books and articles, this book seeks to draw specific attention to the "meditative ascent" as a literary form, arguing from the examples of Augustine's Confessions, Anselm's Proslogion, and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy that "each of these works is simultaneously literary and philosophical, and its philosophical meanings cannot be separated from its literary structure...A meditative ascent is a literary-and-philosophical unity. It is intended not merely to be read through but also to be meditated on. Hence its meanings derive not only from what is said but also from what is implied, such as the relations between the unfolding stages of the ascent" (viii). Furthermore, each work is said to contain a "pilgrim figure" constructed to narrate the meditative text, with the figure shifting perspectives as he grows in knowledge while moving upwards in a Neo-Platonic return to the One. Dante enters the text mainly to provide a more familiar paradigm of "meditative ascent" in the descriptive section of the first chapter.

The preface is followed by five chapters. The first, "The Meditative Ascent: Paradigm and Principles," provides an overview, after which, McMahon tells us, the other chapters can be read in any order. It is followed by chapters entitled: "The Unity of Meditative Structure and Texture in Augustine's Confessions;" "A Moving Viewpoint: Augustine's Meditative Philosophy in the Confessions;" "Meditative Movement in Anselm's Proslogion;" and "Recollecting Oneself: Meditative Movement in The Consolation of Philosophy." McMahon wrote the book for an audience of specialists and non- specialists. He warns, therefore, that the specialist "may find a point belabored" at times and that the book "deals with some long- standing scholarly debates, and its attempt to open up new ways of understanding these works may exceed a nonspecialist's familiarity with them" (xiii). Hence, the chapters are divided into many sub- titled sections, ostensibly to enable readers to skip sections according to interest. An unfortunate result of this plan is the need to repeat material in different chapters and sections, something useful for the browser but potentially vexing for those reading through the book.

The opening chapter, as its title implies, is meant to describe the characteristics of the meditative ascent, which McMahon eventually defines as the "Christian-Platonist Ascent." This long chapter contains some valuable points, such as the analogical quality of the stages of the progressive ascent (hence the importance of reflecting back on earlier stages once the end has been achieved) and the fact that the meditative work that a person does while reading such a text is intended to transform her or him (here McMahon makes a useful link to the methods and aims of the lectio divina). Furthermore, he rightfully stresses the essentially dramatic character of the works under consideration, and he argues for the philosophical significance of the numerological structures in the works considered, paying special attention to chiastic (crossing) patterns.

McMahon's insistence that readers see the narrators of The Confessions, The Proslogion, and The Consolation of Philosophy as "pilgrim figures" created by Augustine, Anselm, and Boethius for literary/philosophical reasons is a salutary reminder that the literary craft of the authors should be kept in mind. Also salutary is the reminder that these texts are, each in its own way, spiritual exercises. The argument, however, would have been richer and more convincing had the author contextualized both the works and his findings more broadly. This chapter (not to mention the rest of the book) is almost relentlessly ahistorical. For instance, Christian- Platonists are referred to frequently, but never really defined, and no Christian-Platonist writer outside those in the book's title is mentioned. There is also a lack of rigor in defining the terms "meditation" and "meditative." For instance, to define meditation solely as "intensive reading" and "deeply reflective rereading," while not essentially wrong, is to convey a relatively impoverished sense of a word that, as Leclercq puts it (on pages cited by McMahon), "is rich in meaning." [1] It is as if repetition alienated from context was intended to reify the terms. Also disappointing is McMahon's lack of engagement with scholarship related to late-antique and medieval practices of reading and meditation. An historicized account of these practices should be part of an argument that the authors designed these books to enact meditative ascents. For instance, Mary Carruthers' demonstration in The Craft of Thought of the close connections between the "rhetorical ductus and the meditational 'way'" would have served McMahon's argument well. [2] And Brian Stock's Augustine the Reader is referred to only once in a footnote in the next chapter, and there only in order to say that the book under review defines the term "meditation" differently.

Chapter 2, "The Unity of Meditative Structure and Texture in Augustine's Confessions," resumes McMahon's argument in Augustine's Prayerful Ascent: An Essay on the Literary Form of the Confessions for the formal unity and coherence of plan of The Confessions; but it does this in order to foreground the argument that the text's "meditative structure" is that of a "Christian-Platonist ascent" and that this text written as a prayer spoken to God has a "meditative texture" (65). The seeming planlessness of The Confessions is, on this view, the plan itself; for Augustine the author designed an "Augustine the narrator" persona whom readers accompany on his "oral dialogue with God, recorded in its unfolding" (79-80). Furthermore, this narrator "never recognizes that his Confessions unfolds as a return to the Origin, even though Augustine the author designed it as a Christian- Platonist ascent" (90). Thus, the argument goes, the book reveals God as the author, for the narrator is explicitly unaware of the implicit "providential order" shaping his prayed narrative. Due, then, to the fact that the ascent is not "explicitly remarked," the book is argued to have a "meditative structure, because it can only be discerned by meditating on relations between parts of the work" (74). The final section presents an argument for reading the allegory of the church in Book 13 as "the climax of the narrator's ascent." McMahon also summarizes here the argument made in Augustine's Prayerful Ascent (as well as in his contribution to a recent collection of essays) that the exegesis on the nine acts of creation in Book 13 provides the paradigm for the nine books in which Augustine the narrator describes his past life. [3] For commentary on some problems with this argument I refer readers to Karl Morrison's judicious review of Augustine's Prayerful Ascent in Speculum 67.1 (1992): 191-193.

The third chapter, "A Moving Viewpoint: Augustine's Meditative Philosophy in the Confessions," turns to the ways that Augustine the author planned the meditative structures of his narrative. In particular, McMahon writes, he created a moving viewpoint, characteristic of the Christian-Platonist ascent, in which a "ladder of analogies" prompts dialectical reading and generation of understanding in the reflective reader. This chapter provides a readable and useful reminder of how sophisticated the intratextual networks of themes and symbols are in Augustine's text.

The chapters on Augustine, however, stress the distinction between author and narrating persona almost to tautology, even if the needs of the non-specialist are kept in mind. I question whether the distinction needs to be drawn so sharply, something that McMahon alludes to in passing when he allows that author and narrator "should be distinguished, but not separated" (83). As a genre, autobiography asks that a writer see her or his past self as a character in the dramatic process of becoming the person who writes the story. Augustine--whether he is writing an autobiographical confession or just posing as doing so--seems to have been aware of the perspective that autobiography entails. In Book 10 Augustine writes, "What profit is there, I ask, when to human readers, by this book I confess to you who I now am, not what I once was" (10.3.4; trans. Chadwick). The following sections dwell on this fact, and a bit later Augustine even describes his memory as a place where he encounters his past self (10.8.14). As Brian Stock puts it, Augustine "distinguished between the simple reliving of an episode in the past and fitting such an episode into a schema, that is, a pattern of information already shaped in discursive or narrative form in the mind." [4] Again, engagement with the literature on reading, memory, and rhetoric could have bolstered this argument for how a supreme rhetorician crafted a narrative of himself. Also, more substantial engagement with other arguments for the unity and pattern of ascent in The Confessions would have been welcome. These topics are addressed, for one example, in James O'Donnell's "Introduction" and in his commentary on The Confessions, where he offers the view that the text only becomes an ascent in Book 10, and proposes, suggestively, that collapsing together of experience between narrator and reader only happens in the last three books (Vol. 3, 150-151; original emphasis). This complicates McMahon's assertion that the status of the text as a first-person prayer forces the reader to "impersonate the narrator's 'I,'" thus she or he "necessarily becomes Augustine the narrator making his Confessions" (92). I would also add that in neither of his chapters on Augustine does McMahon discuss any of the well-known scenes describing meditative ascents, either flawed (the encounter with Cicero's Hortensius in 3.4.7- 8), partially successful (the Platonic ascent of 7.10.16), or more successful (the vision at Ostia in 9.10.23-25).

The chapter on the Proslogion, while focusing on it in isolation from Anselm's other meditative works, demonstrates effectively that this text as a whole was designed both as a devotional and philosophical work. Especially welcome is Mc Mahon's attention to the pacing of and shifts in the narrator's voice; and because Anselm makes explicit the fact that he writes in the guise of a person who seeks to raise his mind to God and to understand what he believes, the argument here for distinction between author and narrator convinces. The dramatic quality of Anselm's other devotional texts are well known, and McMahon persuasively shows that a careful reading of the Proslogion also needs to take the moods and changes in perspective of the narrator into account. This chapter also makes the point, one that would have been well worth developing further and that works for this text in ways that it does not for The Confessions, that one "cannot read the Proslogion without praying his prayer. Every reader necessarily impersonates Anselm the narrator, and hence we do not merely follow his journey, as in reading a third-person narrative, but we also make it ourselves" (161). While one might have phrased this differently (is the impersonation necessary, or just potential?), the fact remains that even Anselm's contemporaries recognized how these works draw the reader in and engage the emotions--as is seen in the letter of Durandus to Anselm (Letter 70: Schmitt, vol. 3, 190-91). Again, scholarship such as Carruthers' on the rhetorical ductus and its use of colores (emotional shadings) could have added to the argument. The chapter stands, however as a useful contribution to scholarship on the rhetorical artistry of Anselm's devotional and theological/philosophical works.

The final chapter turns to Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Here, McMahon is sensitive to the ways that autobiographical writing employs a double view of the past and the past self as both continuous with and different from the person looking back in writing, and he is able to abbreviate the description of its structure as an ascent--for these features of Boethius' text have been established by previous scholarship. The chapter first argues that "the hierarchy of cognitive acts in Book coordinate with the therapeutic program stated by Philosophy at prominent places on each book" (214). It then analyzes patterns of circle imagery from the wheel of Fortune (Book II), to the circle of divine simplicity (Book III), to the contrast between the circles of Fate and the indivisible center of Providence (Book IV), contending that each new image reconfigures understanding of the previous ones as the narrator's perspective is reoriented, that is until images can be abandoned in Book V. During the process of Philosophy's healing therapy, he has been turned from earthly concerns to the reality of the unchanging good.

The chapter ends with speculation on the numerological structure of the Consolation. The argumentation in this section may strike readers as ingenious, since, to solve the difficulty that sections are not equally distributed across the five books and that the thematic center of the text is not the mathematical center, McMahon proposes that the first book of the Consolation of Philosophy be seen as a "Prologue" and that the numerological analysis be based on Books II- V. This allows Prose III, 9 to be both the thematic and the mathematical center. He then proposes thirteen (there are thirteen lunar months in a year, symbolizing the reconciliation between the changeable lunar and stable solar movements) and nineteen (the number of years between dates that Easter falls on the same date, symbolizing the reconciliation of sun and moon in the nineteen-year metonic cycle) as the important numbers in the design, revealing the relation between regular solar movements (symbolizing "God governing the cosmos") and erratic lunar movements (symbolizing Fortune) (251). McMahon demonstrates that thirteen is numerologically important in other regards in the text. But does nineteen have to mean something because that is the remaining number of sections in each half of the Consolation after Book I is disregarded and III, 9 is regarded as the center? McMahon does allow that the numbers thirteen and nineteen are " the Platonist cosmological tradition" (261). The larger argument (too complex to summarize here) is hermetic, folding in on itself and reinforcing itself by reference to correspondences to the pattern of ascent previously described. It was not, however, wholly unpersuasive.

Understanding the Medieval Meditative Ascent: Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, and Dante does refresh conceptions of the complexity of these texts and the genius of their writers. But the tendentious defining of terms and the abstraction of the texts from their historical (and to some extent their critical) contexts are troublesome flaws in a book that is otherwise useful example of what can be gained from attention to character, voice and mood as well as from close reading of patterns in these texts.


[1] Leclercq, Jean, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catherine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982): 16.

[2] Carruthers, Mary, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 80; McMahon lists the earlier The Book of Memory in the bibliography, but not Carruthers' more recent book.

[3] "Book Thirteen: The Creation of the Church as the Paradigm for the Confessions. A Reader's Companion to Augustine's Confessions. ed. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003): 207-223.

[4] Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1996): 13.