Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation

Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation

Fodor, Jim

Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. By Brian Stock. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. 463 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Brian Stock’s latest contribution continues a tradition of scholarly excellence, erudition and open, lucid prose already established in The Implications of Literacy (Princeton, 1983) and Listening for the Text (Johns Hopkins, 1990), albeit with a more focal and sustained interest in Augustine. That Augustine should serve as the central figure in Stock’s most recent work comes as no surprise, given the former’s renowned status as one of the founding fathers of Western book culture and the latter’s long-standing interest in not only cultural history, orality and linguistic theory, but also literacy and textuality. As a religiously and morally formative activity, reading serves as the central organizing motif coordinating Augustine’s diverse reflections on memory, time, narrative, the self, moral reform, and the ethics of interpretation. Perhaps the singular benefaction of Augustine the Reader, then, is Stock’s ability to correlate and reconcile, and thus make sense of, Augustine’s diverse philosophical, linguistic, psychological and literary insights in terms of a spiritual ascent the key to which is reading.

The book falls into two major divisions. The first concerns Augustine’s own spiritual progress as a reader as recounted in Confessions 1-9. The second division shifts the discussion from autobiographical reflections to various topics connected to Augustine’s philosophy of mind. Inasmuch as these “narrative” and “analytical” types of discussions operate interdependently, rather than sequentially, Stock proffers and insightful “reexamination of the narrative about reading in Confessions 1-9 . . . in light of the various analytical statements on the subject” found elsewhere in Augustine’s writings from 386 onwards (p. 19). What emerges is a fascinating account of the Christian life understood in terms of re-reading and self-redefinition through Scripture. Spiritual ascent, in other words, is unintelligible apart from scriptural reading, even though spiritual ascent is not finally reducible to such reading.

At all stages of spiritual progression reading plays an indispensable role: from its most basic level as an empirical activity involving the senses of hearing and sight; to its cognitive and interpretive level, where “the reader engages in intentional thinking and utilizes memory while forming an understanding of what is signified by verbal and written signs”; to its more advanced stage where reading is a stimulus to meditation, a prelude to mystical experience: “The reader, focusing on the sensations from his or her thoughts about them, is ‘taught from within’. The reader thus follows a purely intellectual trajectory which leaves the physical text far behind.” (pp. 1718). Reading and writing arise within time and are destined to disappear at the end of time, according to Augustine, when the soul is restored to unity with God. Which means that although the “blessedness” the student of scripture gains necessarily lies along the road of reading, it is always something of “a postreading experience” (p. 245).

If Augustine holds the honor of providing the Western world with its earliest synthetic statement on reading, inwardness and transcendence, thereby making his design for reading “one of the distinguished intellectual achievements of his age” (p. 2), then Stock’s singular accomplishment is to have enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the role of reading in the life of faith by articulating that design in light of contemporary social, political and philosophical-but also literary and theological-considerations. This makes Augustine the Reader more than an exercise serving antiquarian interests but a remarkable study in hermeneutical appropriation. If there are any shortcomings in Stock’s fascinating study, it is his failure to elaborate, beyond one or two tantalizing suggestions, these possibilities of appropriation. That said, Stock’s magisterial study affords a rich mine to work for those who wish to develop these resources further.


Duke University

Durham, North Carolina

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 1997

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