The Medieval Review 17.11.11

Stock, Brian. The Integrated Self: Augustine, the Bible, and Ancient Thought. Haney Foundation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. 269. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4871-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Leonard Koff
 UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

This is a highly engaging book intended to help establish what Stock calls an Augustinian tradition about the nature of the self, the full historical context of which has not, according to Stock, been traced before, although significant aspects of Augustine's ideas about the self have, and by Stock himself. The book's chapters are individual case studies that, taken together, make Stock's argument for an Augustinian tradition about the self, a tradition that Stock argues should be acknowledged as standing alongside already recognized traditions to which--and against which--the Augustinian tradition is said to speak. As Stock puts it, Augustine replaces "a dualistic view of the self, which he took over from Platonic and Neoplatonic sources, with a view...largely inspired by the Bible, in which mind and body are given roughly equal roles in the self's makeup" (1). Moreover, according to Stock, Augustine's "attitude to questions involving the self, personal identity, or the notion of the individual is on the whole practical rather than theoretical, and even when theoretical, for example in speaking of will, memory, and time, [Augustine] is strongly influenced by his personal experience" (1) revealed through his intellectual and religious history as narrated in the Confessions in particular.

In defining an Augustinian tradition about the nature of the self, Stock argues that reading and meditation together are the source of knowledge for the self whose existence depends on the soul, "the source of life in all living things" (130). The soul is "eternal…nonmaterial and not subject to extension or division" (129), and the "awareness" of the "permanence" of the soul--the permanence of life--is a "product of self-consciousness" (130), as is the certain notion that the self "is finite and subject to ineluctable demise" (131). Although "like ancient authors in general," Augustine has "no specific term for designating the self" (129), he nonetheless distinguishes it from the soul on which it depends:

[The self] has a clearly material component, consisting in embodiment, and a less clear, presumably nonmaterial component, in which it acts as a framework or container for the mind and its products. As such, it is subject to extension and division between birth, when its corporeal encasement is initiated, and death, when the body dies. Moreover, unlike the soul, which is essentially good, as created by God, the moral condition of the self depends on the exercise of the will in combating evil and embracing high ideals (129).

Because the Augustinian self is the impermanent but a continuously willed component of identity--in this way it exists--the title of Stock's book is misleading. The self is not an integrated component of identity, a final and stable center of identity, if this is what Stock means, but an ongoing, integrating component that requires self-clarifying attention through the strategies of self-examination and interior dialogue that reading and meditation, from religious to nonreligious contexts, provide: from lectio divina, to lectio spiritualis, to lectio saecularis, modes of reading that define an historical continuum of practical meditative praxis. Augustine's self is brought to self-awareness through its meditation on texts.

In lectio divina, in which the text was read, recited, or committed to memory, the consideration of the self came about within the same period of time in which the oral reading was taking place.... [Moreover,] the guidelines for lectio divina, that is, for noninterpretive sacred reading and self-direction, remained relatively stable throughout the Middle Ages.... [But] by the fifteenth century the branch of sacred interpretive reading known as lectio spiritualis, which developed out of lectio divina, had been expanded to cover a wide range of reading, writing and contemplative strategies in the field of religion. These interpretive procedures were eventually codified, as in the case of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.... In the practices or exercises involved in lectio spiritualis, the question of the self was addressed locally and pragmatically in a textual context (as later in Montaigne, who practiced a secular version of this type of meditative read [lectio saecularis]) (67).

The Augustinian self, as an embodied dimension of self-awareness, needs texts for its continuous coming into being. But is the self ever integrated in any stable or final sense? Stock suggests that it isn't. Can--should--an integrating self ever value a fixed or final state of being? Stock suggests that it shouldn't--and can't. So how should we talk about a dynamic component of identity that continues to be created out of its engagement with texts? Isn't a text the affirming object, a permanent but changeable object, through which a self comes into being? Indeed, Stock suggests that it is through narrative, history, and memory that the self is continuously present to itself in religious and nonreligious contexts, but never resolved in the world: lectio saecularis, as Stock defines it, "refers to writings...composed by lay persons, dealing with religious topics, as well as the nonreligious contemplative practices accompanying the premodern reflective study of literature" (212)--for Stock, the Augustinian secular is an extension of the religious.

In writing about the range of medieval to early modern meditative and non-meditative approaches to texts, Stock suggests that they all put the reading self at the source of its own moral and spiritual life:

If the goal was meditation, then reading was considered to be a means to an end, and if ethical questions arose during the reading process, the answers were to be sought during a period of post-reading meditation, not during the reading itself. On the other hand, if the goal was the understanding of the text, then the reading was an end in itself; there was no post-reading, cognitive experience, except that which pertained to the explication of the text. If ethical questions arose, the answers had to grow out of the acquaintance and re-acquaintance with the text; through its rereading, and from the search for meaning within a philological framework, which could of course continue after the text was put down. These differing configurations of the reading process, the one subjective, the other largely objective, were conceptualized at a time when reading was ceasing to be a mind-body exercise and beginning to become a philological discipline. In order to establish empirical, observational, and philologically defensible standards in interpretation, humanist readers, following the suggestions of Petrarch, had to assume that reading was an independent activity. Humanists were no less concerned with the care of the soul than the ancient and medieval thinkers. But it was difficult for them to combine the two objectives in the same activity…As a consequence, the certainty of the premodern reader, who knew that the solution to ethical problems lay outside the reading process, was replaced by the uncertainty of the early modern reader, who was committed to finding ethical values within the autonomous world of reading and interpretation (214-215). For Augustine, reading and meditation functioned together: Reading proceeded from the outside, through the sense of hearing, into the interior of the mind, while meditation, originating in the mind, proceeded toward outer expression in prayer, liturgy, or oral reading. Under the influence of medieval liturgical and devotional practices, the periods of silence associated with meditation and the interior life of the mind increased in length in many religious communities...and these were linked in turn to the benefits of solitude and the exploration of subjective states of mind. As this type of reading and meditation evolved, the ancient Socratic program of questions and answers, which had, before Augustine, been devoted to the exploration of philosophical questions, became, partly under Augustinian influence, a series of inquiries into relations between mind and body (212).

Stock has, I think, described the tradition of reading and meditation in masterful ways. But I am not convinced that what Stock argues for with respect to the tradition of the integrating self in a classical and biblical context that includes Augustine, of course, but also, for example--these are Stock's examples, Seneca and Plutarch, John Cassian, Benedict of Nursia, Cicero and Quintilian, Plotinus and Nebridius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Boethius, as well as authors and philosophers in the premodern and modern world, need be called a specifically Augustinian tradition. As Stock himself explains, in some ways against himself:

In Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius...there are abundant references to the passage of time as a factor in life over which mortals have no control; however, these commentators on the theme do not construct their inner dialogues around the phenomenon of internal time-consciousness itself, as do, in different ways, Plotinus and Augustine, in a distant anticipation of the view of Edmund Husserl, which as later reused in an existential context by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Emmanuel Levinas (118).

Taken together, Stock's contexts provide illuminating analogues for any study of Augustine and the self, but they do not provide sources for what Stock wants to call an Augustinian tradition about the self. Perhaps a tradition of the embodied self, called, say, the self-in-the-world, gets at what Stock wants us to see about textual meditation for the sake of the self. Augustine is, as Stock finally argues, an original, clarifying point of reference--a defining high point--for ideas about the embodied self, anticipated by those who have come before him, by his contemporaries to whom he may or may not have been responding, and a presence for ideas about the self for those who have came after him. Augustine differs from the:

...thinking on the self and that of his Hellenistic what he says about memory, narrative, and history.... His view is not based on naturalism, as in the Epicurean/Stoic tradition, on medical models of selfhood, such as those of Galen and his precursors, or even the Socratic method of self-examination, which regained popularity in late antiquity, but on personal inquiries into the permanence of the soul and the historicity of its origins, as recounted in Genesis. It follows that, in his understanding of the issues, the very idea of the self, considered as an independent object of thought, is a contingent notion. In this view, if a person pronounces the "cogito," and subsequently believes in his self's existence, there must also be, in the background of his subjective assertion, an underlying and objective reality, in which, in principle, all selves inhere. Lacking this, inquiry into the self might deteriorate into a type of skepticism which was well summed up by Hume, who said famously that when he looked into himself he found many perceptions but no self that linked them together (15-16).

Augustine indeed stands as the crown--perhaps the center, but not the beginning or the end--of the very tradition about the self-in-the-world that Stock traces. That Augustine's notion about the nature of the self figured into the Platonic body/soul dualism up to and including the Enlightenment is true enough, but Stock only says, though what he says is true, that "in John Locke, who died in 1704, the notion of the soul was definitively abandoned, and philosophical writing on the subject was subsequently concerned only with the self" (6), and with the self, I would add, as a source of knowledge rather than a source of illusion about the world. I would mention here that Freudian psychoanalysis as a practice speaks to an Augustinian idea of an integrating self that marks Augustine as Freud's intellectual and indeed psychological heir. Stock does not take up this topic, which certainly deserves its own study. The Integrated Self thus offers the insights and, as I've hinted at here, the difficulties of a study of the philosophical mosaic that makes up, for Stock, a cultural tradition about the nature of the self.

The final chapter of The Integrated Self is, I think, of enormous cultural value, though Stock seems at pains to make it an unproblematic part of his book. I'm not sure why. Stock's specific argument in chapter 6 is that healing--bodily healing--can occur through reading and meditation: "Meditation [in the classical and medieval period] was proposed for the treatment of specific conditions, such as melancholy, as well as for creating a general equilibrium in individuals between mind and body" (195). Stock explains that in the classical and medieval period there existed "an the purely naturalistic interpretation of disease" that rested on the distinction between "the cause of an illness and its meaning." The cause was "considered to be natural, but the meaning [was] cultural and perhaps religious..." The cause could be "understood through the analysis of material or physical conditions, but the meaning, however...conceived," had "to be taken up by means of thought and language" (216). Stock's discussion in chapter 6 suggests that the healing that attends the physical experience of "mind-body practices" (205) is the analogue of the psychological and spiritual healing that inner and outer dialogue provides. As Stock says:

the therapeutic uses of confessional, autobiographical, and self- reflective literature can be situated historically in late antiquity. They emerged at the time when meditation was becoming an aspect of sacred reading practices: personal accounts of healing experiences were, so to speak, one of the literary by-products of this connection. The appearance of a specific autobiographical genre is associated with Augustine's Confessions...but the broader relationship between healing and personal spiritual development is touched upon by a variety of Christian writers, who gradually evolved a distinctive approach within late ancient theories of healing (215-216).

Chapter 6 provides The Integrated Self with groundbreaking avenues for further study about the nature of the self, avenues I strongly suspect Stock himself will follow--or at least I hope he will. His argument for the connection between meditation and its religious and cultural developments in religious and nonreligious contexts, on the one hand, and, on the other, the therapeutic implications of meditation in classical and medieval theories about the diagnostic value of reading is extraordinarily fruitful.

Copyright (c) 2017 Leonard Koff

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