Per Caritatem

In Foucault and Augustine:  Reconsidering Power and Love, Joyce Schuld brings together two seemingly unlikely dialogue partners: St. Augustine and Michel Foucault.  In chapter four, “Fragile Relations and the Price of Perfection:  The Lust for Certitude,” Schuld examines how human pride influences cultural patterns. Augustine and Foucault analyze our obsessive quest for certitude in knowledge and morals, as well as the socio-political dangers that accompany our (de-humanized) attempts to secure an unobtainable, unrealizable, utopian existence.  Surprisingly, although they operate within radically different historico-religious and cultural epestemai and begin from more or less opposed starting points, both thinkers believe that our social and individual maladies in some way correspond to our failure to acknowledge human fragility and finitude.St. Augustine of Hippo

Schuld begins with Augustine, who denies the so-called Socratic claim that genuine self-knowledge precludes moral failure.  That is, if one truly knows what one ought to do and knows that some action is wrong, s/he will do what is right and avoid what is wrong.  Ignorance is the cause of wrong-doing; thus, we must do everything we can to eradicate ignorance so that we will act in accord with our knowledge.  Augustine agrees that self-knowledge is important and should be pursued; however, its possession in and of itself does not remove moral fallibility.  Attempts to secure personal certitude, which for Augustine are manifestations of pride, should be abandoned. Instead we must embrace the “constraining limits of finitude” (112) and acknowledge our need for others.  Contra Kant, acceptance of our heteronomous, rather than autonomous existence, will deliver us from our self-incurred immaturity.

Anyone with a basic acquaintance with Augustine’s work is familiar with his analyses of pride.  Schuld takes up the topic of pride and emphasizes its interpersonal character.  That is, pride “can be exercised only in relation to others” (112); it involves a “relational act of turning away” (113) in which, paradoxically, the desire for autonomy results in the loss of certitude and control.  For Augustine, our “pride problem” began in the Garden when the first pair, dissatisfied with their status as image-bears, attempted to be what they were supposed to reflect.  Rather than freedom, the quest for autonomy and the rejection of finitude resulted in alienation (from God and one another), dis-integration (within their own persons) and oppression (both internally and externally).  Human (postlapsarian) existence is now transposed into a dissonant key.  Sometimes the dissonance is barely audible, faintly perceived; yet, it is never silenced completely.

Next, Schuld cites examples from Augustine which reveal the ways various groups interpret relations between power, wisdom and truth.  The Stoics, for example, so desired “certitude and self-perfection” that they were willing to relinquish their affections, the chief of which was of course love (114).   The Stoics’ obsession to obtain complete intellectual control over their affections and passions results in significant social and relational failures:  lack of compassion for others, a life characterized by non-involvement, a failure to recognize how “power relations unjustly harm the less socially secure” (116), naïve optimism, and an inability to understand that virtue must “engage vices within the constrictions and entanglements of finitude” (116).  According to Schuld, because the Stoics were “unable to grasp this basic reality about embodied existence,” they “deny their own creaturely limits and ‘fabricate for themselves an utterly delusive happiness’[City of God, 19.4] that can never be achieved ‘for all our wishing’ [City of God, 19.4]” (116).

In contrast to the Stoics and Manichees who promote human optimism by denigrating certain dimensions of the self (emotional or corporeal), the Romans rely “on the created capacities of the entire person to attain excellence in the pursuit of glory” (116).  Here Augustine’s primary concern is that the Roman vision of glory competes with the glory of God and thus causes confusion as to one’s ultimate allegiance. Likewise, whatever honor one might achieve in the Roman system is transient and can devolve into an unhealthy desire for praise, as well as a passion for domination. In short, for Augustine, the Romans sought an earthly glory that fosters self-reliance and self-sufficiency; consequently, it is false glory that is incompatible with the Heavenly City.

Lastly, we have the Platonist who represent the closest approximation to Augustine’s Christian position.  Augustine admires the Platonists for their “appreciation for relationality and dependence and their corresponding recognition that human creatures are utterly indebted in both being and action to a transcendent glory not of their own making” (119).  However, in spite of seeming commonalities, Augustine highlights the discontinuities between the two positions, of which the chief stumbling block is the Platonists’ pride.  Had they had the opportunity, the pride embedded in their philosophical system would not allow them to embrace the “shame of the cross.” Because Augustine knows that for classical thinkers the shame of the cross overturns cultural traditions about wisdom, truth and virtue, his aim is to show how such unseemly paradoxes actually bestow dignity, power, and even transforming wisdom. He attempts to do this by highlighting the contrast between mere human optimism and genuine God-given hope (120).


3 Responses so far

It has been a long time since I have spent any time with Augustine. I look forward to future instalments and the relationship to Foucault.
Fr. Dan


Dear Fr. Graves, Thank you for your comment and interest. I always seem to return to St. Augustine, so I look forward to this (albeit short) series as well.


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