Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader. Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Inter- pretation. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press, 1996. Pp. x + 463. ISBN 0-674-05276-5. UKú25.50.
Andre F. Basson
Rand Afrikaans University
The general aim of the book, as stated in the introduction (pp. 1-20), is to examine Augustine's attempt to develop a theory of reading as an ascetic rather than an aesthetic programme. Augustine proposes reading, the author argues from the outset, as a means to achieve a measure of moral self-reform and consequently as a prerequisite for obtaining salvific knowledge. In the introduction, Stock provides a very helpful overview of some of the issues involved in Augustine's approach to reading that will be touched on in the rest of the book, particularly in part II (pp. 123-278). These include Augustine's theory of signs and the importance he attaches to writing as opposed to spoken discourse, as well as the special role played by the will and memory. The author also maps out the trajectory of Augustine's progress as a reader in Confessions 1-9, the main topic of part I (pp. 21-122) of the book.
In chapter 1 ('Learning to Read', pp. 23-42), the author devotes his attention to Augustine's account of the first phases of self-reform which involved his acquisition of speech as an infant, followed by memorisation of the skills of reading and writing. Through the reading and recall of biblical texts, the young Augustine is able to create a 'plan for living' (p. 29) capable of resisting the attractions of sensory perception, and thus to achieve moral improvement. Stock traces this new type of reading experience which is related to conversion (in this case to pagan philosophy) to Augustine's discovery of Cicero and his reading of the Hortensius. This new type of reading is illumination in the sense that the reader actually participates in the mind of the author which is implanted in the text which he is reading.
In chapter 2 ('Intellectual Horizons', pp. 43- 74), Stock examines the role of Manichaeism, Ambrose, and Neoplatonism in Augustine's narrative of his progress as a reader in the Confessions. The possibility of logical and textual criticism initially attracted Augustine to Manichaeism, but he eventually became disillusioned with the movement's unsophisticated approach to interpretation. His declining interest in Manichaeism went hand in hand with the realization of the importance of reading and interpretation of biblical texts to spiritual progress. Stock attributes to the influence of the Bishop of Milan Augustine's interest in the distinction between the spirit and the letter of the text which he saw as a parallel to the inner and the outer self. Since texts and selves are linked, it becomes possible to create a new self through exegesis and interpretation. To Augustine, self- improvement thus became the 'living out of a story whose meaning he inwardly understood before it was translated into action' (p. 55). Augustine also learnt from Ambrose the value of silent reading as a means of turning from the world to the inner life, from the literal to the spiritual sense of the text. As far as Augustine's indebtedness to Neoplantonism is concerned, Stock points to the distinction between meaning in the reader and the text, relating it to the neoplatonic separation of the thinking mind from the object of thought.
Augustine's treatment of three personal narratives in book 8 of the Confessions, beginning with the story of Alypius and ending with an account of his own conversion, is the subject of chapter 3 ('Reading and Conversion', pp. 75-111). Stock convincingly argues that Augustine recounts these stories to demonstrate the role of reading as an agency of change. Some of the author's quite ingenuous conclusions do, however, require further debate. With regard to the first story, for example, to what extent should the fact that Augustine apparently forgot about his intention to correct Alypius be seen as 'a silent, critical commentary on the narrative in which he has already played a part' (p. 81)?
Chapter 4 ('From Cassiciacum to Ostia', pp. 112- 122) is devoted to Augustine's description of oral reading in book 9 of the Confessions and to the manner in which the communion of minds anticipates the blessed life. As he reads aloud in the garden of Verecundus' villa at Cassiciacum, Augustine approaches reading as an ascetic exercise and attempts to attain the permanent message of the text (the Psalms). Through memory, parallels are established between the text which he is reading and the narrative of the life which he once led. In the process, his past experience is transformed. In the course of their conversation before the window of their hostel in Ostia, Augustine and Monica ascend beyond all corporeal things (including the senses) to the realm of pure mind.
In part II of the book, titled 'Ethics of Interpretation', the author examines the role of language in Augustine's theory of reading (chapters 6 and 7) before turning to specific topics such as memory, time, self-knowledge, and the pursuit of wisdom (chapters 8 and 9). In chapter 5 ('Beginnings', pp. 125-126), Stock, by way of introduction, briefly looks at some of the issues related to reading which Augustine discusses in his letters and dialogues written in the period following his resignation from the chair of rhetoric at Milan in 386. These include reading as a spiritual exercise, the importance of both scripture and memory in a programme of self-improvement, and the acquisition of higher knowledge through intellectual ascent. The major part of chapter 6 ('Speaking and Reading', pp. 138-173) is focused on Augustine's theory of signs and signification. The merit of Stock's approach to this topic which has already been the subject of extensive scholarly attention, lies in his attempt to integrate it within Augustine's theory of reading and to relate it to his programme of spiritual progress. Important in this regard is the emphasis on the value of both signs (as the means of gaining knowledge from scripture) and enlightenment (as the means of gaining knowledge from within) in the learning process. The distinction parallels that between the overt (or carnal) and the covert (or spiritual) senses of the biblical text. True understanding of a word is not prompted by the expression of the word, but is rather the result of divine enlightenment. Signs are only useful in conveying guidelines for what is taught within. Self- reform occurs when individuals attempt spiritual ascent through their understanding of selected texts.
In chapter 7 ('Toward Theory', pp. 174-206), Stock turns his attention to the De Catechizandis Rudibus and the De Doctrina Christiana, the two works in which, in his view, Augustine has most clearly outlined his theory of reading. At issue in Augustine's approach to reading in these two works as well as in the De Utilitate Credendi is the problem of reception which arises from the inadequacy of signs. The solution is the creation of an emotional union between the speaker (or text) and hearer (or reader) in the course of which the latter constructs the narrative of a permanent life of the spirit by rewriting, so to speak, his life already lived. The reading of the biblical text is not an end in itself, but rather enables the reader to acquire salvific knowledge, i.e. to enjoy God. But scripture consists of verbal signs (literal as well as figurative) which are ambiguous. The ambiguity of figurative signs involves either the meaning in the reader or the meaning in the text. Augustine approaches the problem by relating the improvable spirit in the reader with the spiritual sense of scripture. It is by eliminating the ambiguity in the text that the reader is able to change.
In chapters 8 ('Memory, Self-Reform, and Time', pp. 207-242) and 9 ('The Self', pp. 243-278), Stock concludes his discussion of Augustine's theory of reading by examining topics such as memory, reform, time and the concept of self, primarily within the context of Confessions 10-13 and De Trinitate 8-15. Particular importance is attached to memory which may enforce habitual patterns of behaviour in the reader and thus become an impediment to self-improvement. However, memory can play a positive role in this process if it is used to create habits that are spiritual and interior by recording and making accessible the beneficial knowledge which is to be found in scripture. Stock also points to the importance of time in Augustine's theory of reading. Time, personal narrative and self-improvement are closely linked. Since our lives unfold in moments we must be fully present for those moments in order to achieve the potential of our personal narratives which have been set up through the spiritual reading of scripture. Mental representations, the proof of the mind's existence and the role of memory in the pursuit of wisdom as they relate to the problems of reading and interpretation in the De Trinitate are the subject of the final chapter of the book (chapter 9). Reading, according to Augustine, Stock notes, is not an end in itself but a means through which the reader is able to obtain a better understanding of the self and of God in the act of contemplation as a postreading experience. It is through reading, Augustine seems to argue in the De Trinitate, that we proceed from the outer words (in scripture) to the inner words that are the imperfect images in man of the original Word of God. Through careful study of scripture, we may eventually attain the highest level of understanding. After discussing his theory on mind and knowledge, and on the relationships of these aspects to self- improvement in the De Trinitate, Stock concludes by outlining Augustine's views on the role of memory in enabling the reader to remember, understand, and love God.
To conclude, through a comprehensive study of the primary sources and skilful textual analysis Stock has succeeded in producing a remarkable piece of scholarship and a very welcome contribution to both augustinian studies and the history of literary theory that opens up some exciting new avenues for future research.