An Augustinian Improvisation on Bakhtin’s Two Categories of Discourse

Throughout his narrative in the Confessions, St. Augustine brings to our attention the ways in which his social context shaped him. In other words, although an actor in an unfolding drama, Augustine also recognized that his decisions were influenced by cultural discourses, contingent events, his particular educational background, and so forth. Surveying his past, he traces multiple intersecting events in which the discourse of others—everything from Monica’s prayers to Ambrose’s preaching—had a transformative impact on his life.

Improvising somewhat on Mikhail Bakhtin’s two categories of discourse—“authoritative discourse” and “internally persuasive discourse”— having earlier rejected the “authoritative discourse” of the Catholic Christian tradition, Augustine now had come to embrace it. In other words, the authoritative discourse of the Catholic tradition became an internally persuasive word for Augustine because Augustine himself through social, self, and divine “construction,” had changed. With a new openness and a willingness on his part to seek truth wherever it might be found, Augustine’s hermeneutical horizon expands. This broadened interpretative horizon creates a reconfigured background “space” in which his former questions can be engaged from a new perspective. For example, when Augustine sits under St. Ambrose’s instruction and learns how to read Scripture allegorically and spiritually, he is able to address, in a way previously unimagined, his concerns about how to reconcile God’s character with divine moral directives that change over time.[1]

Bakhtin’s explanation of authoritative discourse emphasizes its dangers and abuses and issues a warning against unreflectively embracing such discourse. However, authoritative discourse can also have a positive side; that is, it can be true, salutary, and beneficial both individually and communally. Through Augustine’s eventual acceptance of the Catholic Christian tradition, we gain insight into the double-sidedness of authoritative discourse. Again, to use Bakhtinian language, in Augustine’s process of “ideological becoming,” he learned to reconfigure various strands of the philosophical, socio-political, and religious authoritative discourses of his day. Just as with Foucault’s notion of reverse discourse, authoritative discourses can be used to construct counter-discourses.  Thus, there is a sense—even for Bakhtin—in which the calcification of authoritative discourses can be broken, softened, and ultimately reconfigured.[2] Nonetheless, Bakhtin emphasizes the productiveness and flexibility of the internally persuasive word. Stated otherwise, though both discourses have some degree of flexibility, internally persuasive discourses are more readily “available” for alteration because their “center” hovers around the subjective and, thus, individual side of the individual-community symbiotic relationship. This availability should not, however, be equated with ease. A person can maintain and be internally persuaded by a false belief for many years—as was the case with Augustine—or for the entirety of his or her life. However, generally speaking, because authoritative discourses hold sway over societies, nations, disciplines, and so forth, their “lifespan” both antedates and postdates the individual. With these factors in mind, we can see how authoritative discourses have a tendency toward greater solidification, whereas internally persuasive discourses are, generally speaking, more permeable.

None of this is meant to imply that an individual herself, through accepting an internally persuasive word, can then single-handedly change authoritative discourses. The two discourses are always socially-oriented, intertwined, and always act on one another even when reharmonized. Moreover, for authoritative discourses to change substantively, numerous socio-political, cultural, economic, and institutional factors must converge—factors involving yet transcending an individual or small group of individuals and their beliefs. Because of its greater flexibility and “space” for personal assimilation, internally persuasive discourse is capable of a greater dynamism. As Bakhtin explains, it possesses an openness “to new material, new conditions; it enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts.”[3] But, just as the more stable authoritative discourses possess some degree of flexibility, so too the more open internally persuasive discourses possess (or at least can possess) a staying power. The stability of the latter discourses, however, is not to be equated with mathematical certainty. Rather, it has more in common with the constancy and trust one experiences with a friend of good will.

Chapters seven and eight of the Confessions provide us with a few concrete examples to illustrate these slightly modified Bakhtinian categories. For instance, in chapter seven, Augustine recounts his unsuccessful struggles to understand the origin of evil theologically.

Yet you allowed no flood of thoughts to sweep me away from the faith whereby I believed that you exist, that your essence is unchangeable, that you care for us humans and judge our deeds, and that in your Son, Christ our Lord, and in the holy scriptures which the authority of your Catholic Church guarantees, you have laid down the way for human beings to reach that eternal life.[4]

In the passage above, both Scripture and the Catholic tradition function as authoritative discourses, which, in the following chapter, Augustine tells us he had come to accept. That is, he explains that he had come to a place where he was, on the one hand, convinced of Christianty’s truth, yet on the other hand, he was comfortable with the mystery inherent to the faith and no longer sought the mathematical certainty for which he longed in his youth.  As he puts it, he no longer desired to attain a “greater certainty” about God “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him.[5] Embracing at this point in his life what Schuld calls an “ethic of humility,” Augustine accepts his creaturely limitations, which in this life include not only finitude but fallibility. Thus, even with the ever-present open-endedness and amenability to change of his faith-discourse—or to use Bakhtin’s language, his own internally persuasive word—Augustine, nonetheless, has found an abode in God whose self-giving love surpassing human reason transforms the silence of Augustine’s soul into prayerful wonder.

Augustine’s ethic of humility flows out of his having embraced what, he claims, the Platonists could not—the incarnate, crucified “humble Jesus.” Commenting upon his own pride, which, given his appraisal of what was lacking in the Platonists’ writings,[6] is likewise a fitting description of their condition, he writes, “[n]ot yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach.”[7] Continuing this strain, Augustine stresses how Jesus receives those who, having been brought low, turn to Him. For example, Augustine writes:

He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even further away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up.[8]

Again, we see Augustine’s emphasis on the dependent, heteronomous self—the self as, to employ Schuld’s term, “antihero” whose weakness paradoxically becomes strength when it passes through the cross.


[1] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions 6, esp. 6.3.3–6.4.8; 137–42.

[2] Although, because Bakhtin’s emphasis is on the dangers of authoritative discourse, he highlights, and understandably so, the resistance that such discourse evinces to change.  My comments here on authoritative discourse are, as I note, improvisations; thus, I am focusing on minor, almost imperceptible themes in Bakhtin’s conception of authoritative discourse and developing them in conversation with Augustine’s experience.

[3] Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 345–46.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 7.7.11; 168.

[5] Ibid.,; 184. For a more detailed and decidedly theological discussion of this topic, see Nielsen, St. Augustine on Text and Reality.

[6] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions, 7.9,13–14; 169–70.

[7] Ibid., 7.18.24; 178.

[8] Ibid.


An Interview: Approaching Texts as Philosophical Improvisations

For those interested, I was interviewed recently by a colleague, fellow philosopher, and friend, J. Douglas Macready, who blogs at The Relative Absolute. In the interview, we discuss informally, what I have called in the past, an “improvisational” approach to texts.  You can access the interview here. The prelude to the interview reads:

Every philosopher eventually stumbles upon the question of method. How should philosophical texts be approached, read, interpreted, and assimilated into one’s philosophical project? How should philosophical inquiry proceed? What are the sources of a genuine philosophical method? Conversely, is method even necessary, or does it impede philosophical reflection?

Recently, I have been thinking through these questions with my colleague Cynthia R. Nielsen, who blogs at Per Caritatem. We have been exploring the methodological potential of jazz improvisation. The possible relationship between jazz improvisation and philosophical methodology arose during a discussion of Nielsen’s dissertation and her forthcoming book titled Foucault and Self-Writing: On the Art of Living as Improvisation (forthcoming, Wipf & Stock 2012.) Nielsen, who is both a philosopher and a jazz guitarist, has been writing at the intersection of music and philosophy for some time (see her “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart: The Dynamism and Built-in Flexibility of Music,” Expositions Vol 3 No 1 (August 2009): 57-71,) but recently jazz improvisation has begun to inform her approach to philosophical inquiry in a fresh and innovative way.

In the following interview, Nielsen explains her “improvisational approach” to philosophy, and sketches out the practical application of this approach, it benefits, and its limitations.

Part III: Augustine and Anti-Modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

As I have discussed in previous posts, Foucault’s later works focus on how subjects actively transform themselves through various self-imposed disciplinary technologies and other practices. Foucault describes this active self-modification as a way to live one’s life as a work of art; hence, the title of his essay on the topic, “Self-Writing,” which speaks of a kind of self-composition or an ongoing improvisational elaboration of the self. In his analyses of self-writing, Foucault examines both Greco-Roman and Christian technologies of the self, pointing out that both engage in ascetical practices. That is, they purpose to live a certain kind a life—a beautiful life—which requires intentional choices and the practice of specified activities in a regular and goal-directed manner. Writing, as Foucault observes, plays an important role in this self-training or askēsis broadly understood. For example, in Epictetus, Foucault highlights the central role of writing in the process of self-fashioning. “As an element of self-training, writing has, […] an ethopoietic function: it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos.[1]

Foucault also elaborates the ancients’ use of the hupomnēmata or notebooks as part of their self-technologies. These notebooks contained collections of wise sayings, literary fragments, accounts of virtuous deeds worthy of imitation, and so forth.  A person not only turned to these notebooks as aids for his guiding his own actions, but he might also use them to advise a friend. If we consider what we said above regarding the crucial role of writing in one’s self-formation, bearing in mind the character and use of the hupomnēmata, several connections with Augustine’s project in the Confessions begin to surface.  For example, the text of the Confessions is a tightly woven fabric constructed from at least three traditions:  classical, biblical, and philosophical.[2] Augustine’s initial conversion to the good comes through his reading of Cicero’s text, the Hortensius, which incited in him a longing for true wisdom. Likewise, his reading of the Platonists, whose teachings he references at length in book seven, enable him to take further steps toward the kind of life he desires. For, according to Augustine, through his study of the Platonists’ writings, he gains not only a better understanding of God’s nature and his own mind as non-corporeal, but likewise he learns that evil is not a substance but rather a privation. The latter insight allows him to embrace matter, including his own body, as something good. Because the entire created order receives its existence from God, who is existence and goodness, matter per se cannot be evil. For Augustine, this truth has existential import, as he can no longer, following Manichean doctrine, blame his sexual wanderings solely on his alleged “evil” body. Lastly, as we have seen in our analyses of Augustine’s narrative, his text is saturated with biblical quotations, allusions, and paraphrases. Similar to the way the ancients’ collected philosophical fragments and other bits of wisdom—what Foucault calls the “already-said”[3]—appropriating them as standards and principles to guide their actions, so too, Augustine weaves together the wisdom of various traditions as he narrates his new subjectivity in Christ.

In his discussion of the hupomnēmata, Foucault stresses that these are not simply external memory devices; rather, the truths they contain must be internalized; they, in effect, must become one with the person such that they flow naturally from him and shape his actions in manifest ways. As Foucault puts it, the hupomnēmata function as a “framework for exercises to be carried out frequently […] with oneself and with others. And this was in order to have them […] prokheiron, ad manum, in promptu.[4] Once again, especially when we focus upon Augustine’s use of scriptural truths and sayings, we find significant overlaps with Foucault’s analyses of ancient technologies of the self.  It is evident when one reads the Confessions that Augustine has poured over Scripture in a contemplative way, familiarizing himself not merely with its words but with its narrative, which in a very real way has become his narrative. That is, Scripture has become second nature to Augustine; he knows it so well that he is able to use it creatively, improvising with it for purposes of his own self-narration and in order to guide others.  In short, like the aim of the hupomnēmata, Augustine’s Confessions likewise takes the “already said […] for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.”[5]

In addition, Foucault describes how the act of calling to mind the “fragmentary logos” serves as a “means of establishing a relationship of oneself with oneself, a relationship as adequate and accomplished as possible.”[6] In other words, when made part of oneself through practice, this disparate collection of wise-sayings helps to facilitate a more unified self. Both Foucault and Augustine agree that a perfectly unified self is unattainable.[7] Even after his conversation, as I argue below, Augustine the Bishop refers to himself as a puzzle, a question (quaestio).[8] This puzzling of which Augustine speaks is not due to his inability to uncover hidden thoughts and desires—what Foucault calls exposing “the arcane conscientiae.”[9] In fact, Augustine seems fairly clear as to the nature of his particular struggles and misguided loves. As he contemplates the purpose of his confessions, which he says are, on the one hand, confessions to God “in silence”; yet, on the other hand, “not altogether silent,” he shares some of Foucault’s own concerns about the dangers of confessing one’s deeds to others. “What point is there for me in other people hearing my confessions? Are they likely to heal my infirmities? A curious lot they are, eager to pry into the lives of others, but tardy when it comes to correcting their own.”[10] Recognizing that some will turn Augustine’s narrative against him, distorting it for their own selfish purposes, Augustine, nonetheless, decides to make his narrative public, realizing that some—those made good through charity—will be encouraged in their faith.[11]

Similarly, the ancient notebooks were used not simply for one’s own self-training but were also used via epistolary correspondence to counsel others as to potential courses of action; consequently, we need not view the hupomnēmata in an overly restricted, self-focused light. That is, the truths they contained were not limited in their applicability to the development of one’s own self-fashioning, but were likewise means through which one influenced the subjectivity of others. Of course, by corresponding with another on matters such as dealing with grief or persevering in one’s duty, the writer’s own subjectivity is affected. In light of these comments, we can claim in a non-contradictory way that, one the one hand, Augustine’s narrative is theologically focused having as its center, the Trinitarian God and by implication the Christian faith. Yet, on the other hand, as an historical, socio-political being, whose own nature as an image-bearer of God (imago Dei) suggests a relationality at the core of his (Augustine’s) and human existence in general, we can also speak of Augustine’s narrative as an exercise in self-writing inflected in the grammar of (written and thus public) prayer.



[1] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 209.

[2] For a detailed study of the relationship between Augustine’s Confessions and the early Dialogues, see Courcelle, Rescherches sur les Confessions de Saint Augustin.  Rather than approach this issue by way of the well-worn methods of doctrinal history, Courcelle develops and applies a philological and an historico-literary method of analysis. In so doing, he is able to bypass the impasse of deciding once and for all whether Augustine was first converted to Neoplatonism or to Christianity; rather than an either/or solution, Courcelle opts for a both/and position, arguing that through Ambrose’s influence Augustine was exposed to both Christianity and Neoplatonism simultaneously. See esp., Appendice IV, “Aspects variés du Platonisme Ambrosien,” 311–82.

[3] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 211.

[4] Ibid., 210.

[5] Ibid., 211.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Perhaps Augustine would advocate for a perfectly unified self in the next life; however, in this life, which for Foucault is the only life, such a state is never fully realized.

[8] See, for example, Augustine’s Confessions, 10.33.50; 270 [CSEL 33, 264].

[9] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 210.

[10] Augustine, Confessions, 10.3.3; 238.

[11] Ibid., 10.3.3; 238–39.


Part II: Augustine and Un-Modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

Contrary to the common interpretation of Augustine as precursor to the modern introspective subject, Augustine’s confession of his various misdirected loves is not an early form of psychoanalysis geared toward finding his true self or unleashing his repressed desires so that his unfettered, liberated self might emerge.[1] Instead, his account, although personal and existentially informed, is motivated by theological aims and is meant to have both personal and transcultural yet non-univocal application. Like the icon whose visibility must become invisible, pointing us not to itself but to God, so too, Augustine’s confessions, his narrations of embodied struggles and misdirected loves are meant to direct us to God. Augustine does, of course, describe in detail events from his own life; yet, the events are focused, arranged, and organized with theological goals in view. As Augustine recounts his own straining to hear the “inner melody” [interiorem melodiam] of God’s “sweet truth” [dulcis veritas],[2] his hope is that we, too, might follow suit.

In many ways, Augustine’s confessions stand in stark contrast with what Foucault would label as secular variants of confessional technologies with their promises of peace, increased self-knowledge, and freedom.[3] For example, Augustine characterizes his former self-absorbed life as delusional. In other words, rather than provide him with the answers to his most pressing questions, Augustine the narrator describes his autonomous life, his life lived as though his own soul or reasoning abilities were sufficient unto themselves, as akin to a pathology. “What could be prouder than my outlandish delusion, whereby I laid claim to be by nature what you are?”[4] Although this passage is found in the so-called “autobiographical” portion of the Confessions—books I-IX—Augustine here likewise engages philosophical concerns. He interprets his wanderings as in part due to his failure to understand his own as well as God’s nature. Continuing his reflections, he focuses first on his own mutable nature. “I was subject to change, as was obvious to me from the fact that I was clearly seeking to be wise in order to change for the better.”[5] Then he states that he was willing—presumably because of his pride—to “think you [God] changeable rather than admit that I was not what you are.”[6] Again, we see that Augustine’s text does not conform readily to the mold of modern autobiography. Not only does he engage in philosophical and theological investigations in the latter books of the Confessions, but his narrative from the very beginning is saturated with contemplative musings—all of which have as their goal a theocentric focus.

Chloë Taylor likewise contends that something is amiss in labeling Augustine’s narrative as a forerunner to modern autobiography. In her book, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, Taylor observes that the Confessions fall outside of Foucault’s “dichotomized presentation of early of Christian confession.”[7] That is, Augustine neither engages in a ritual showing of his being as sinful (exomologesis) nor does he give us an account of his past verbal confessions to a spiritual director, who then interprets the inner movements of his soul (exagoreusis). Yet, in light of the fact that Augustine penned his text in the fourth century—a time frame to which Foucault devotes special attention—it is all the more surprising, given the widespread view of Augustine as the father of introspection, that Foucault fails to interact with Augustine’s work.[8] Although for my purposes, it is not necessary to elaborate Taylor’s proposal in its entirety as to why Foucault omits Augustine in his studies, I shall summarize one aspect of her thesis given its relevance to my argument in this chapter. As Taylor observes, Foucault was most interested in later transformations of Christian confessional technologies, that is, confession as a verbal hermeneutic activity of “telling the truth of the self.”[9] Since Augustine’s narrative does not have as its main focus confessing the truth about himself but rather “confessing the truth of the Christian faith,” perhaps, Taylor suggests, this plays into Foucault decision not to analyze Augustine’s text.[10]

In order to substantiate her earlier claim regarding the theological rather than anthropological thrust of Augustine’s narrative, Taylor draws attention to the first few lines of the Confessions, where Augustine states that the intense longing of the human heart is to praise God.[11] This initial paragraph concludes with the familiar lines mentioned earlier in our analysis, namely, our heart is unhinged or restless until it rests in God. With these verses in mind, Taylor writes: “[t]he human heart is […] described as anxious or ‘unquiet,’ as in the modern confessional, and yet the appeasement that it seeks does not seem to be sought in self-revelation, but in the opportunity to praise God, and ultimately to return to Him.”[12] Augustine continues his prayer to God, asking various questions about God’s nature and how one might call on Him, wondering also whether one can speak properly of God. All of these elements—prayer, praise, lengthy philosophical and theological ponderings—suggest something outside the characteristic form (and content) of modern autobiography.

Having in these initial paragraphs set forth many of the main themes to be developed as his composition unfolds, Augustine then turns to God in prayer once more and rhetorically asks: “[w]ho will grant me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you would come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you”?[13] Although Augustine mentions his own struggles—those “evils that beset” him—, nonetheless, as Taylor notes, “he does not suggest that it is introspection which will cure him of his psychological torment, but rather that he will drown out his woes by becoming drunk with God.”[14] Neither introspective analysis of secret thoughts and tangled desires nor confession to a spiritual “expert” (as Foucault might put it)—but rather worship is said to bring peace to Augustine’s soul. In other words and stated somewhat provocatively: Augustine’s angst is alleviated through a kind of divine inebriation, a divine drunkenness. “The Confessions are the process of becoming drunk, of self-forgetting.”[15]

Taylor highlights another crucial point about Augustine’s text often overlooked in the literature. When we consider the personal landmark events that Augustine includes in his narrative— his mother Monica’s death, his faithful fourteen-year amorous relationship to an unnamed woman, his son Adeodatus—what we find in “his criteria for inclusion […] is that the event be relevant to a declaration of his faith.”[16] With respect to Monica’s death, Augustine wants to show how his faith and his new ability to love Monica in God allow him to deal with grief and loss in a way that had previously eluded him. His account of his long-term monogamous, romantic relationship, the termination of which he describes as extremely painful,[17] is mentioned so that Augustine can stress how his self-absorbed wanderings had ensnared him and how God was, nonetheless, working through these experiences to woo Augustine to himself.[18] Along the same lines, we hear nothing of his son Adeodatus’s birth and growth into adulthood; however, we get a detailed account of Adeodatus’s baptism and his growth in the faith fostered in part by Augustine’s instruction. With respect to his relation with his son, we have a counter-image of Augustine’s relation to his own father, Patricius. That is, as a result of Augustine’s conversion to and abiding in Christ, he is compelled to encourage his son to live virtuously, which for Augustine requires engaged and purposed moral and spiritual training—the two areas in which Patricius failed Augustine. In light of the theological aims of these carefully selected narrated events, we can substantiate further our claim that Augustine’s project neither serves as a prototype to modern autobiography nor do his interests lie in psychoanalyzing the soul; rather, “Augustine is writing his faith, not his life, and his life is recorded only in so far as it is a vehicle, among others, for writing his faith.”[19] Stated slightly differently, because Augustine’s faith has now so permeated his life, he structures his story intentionally to reflect his new relational, dependent, unfinished subjectivity in Christ—itself a chapter in a wider-reaching, even cosmic redemptive historical narrative into which Augustine was written in medias res.

This notion of belonging to and thus understanding one’s identity or subjectivity in relation to a narrative much larger than one’s local story in no way negates or overrides an individual’s desire for developing his or her subjectivity through specific, voluntary ascetical practices and other self-technologies. In contrast to Taylor, I argue that Augustine’s project in the Confessions and Foucault’s understanding of self-writing or self-fashioning share a number of similarities.[20]


[1] Augustine offers, as it were, his own critique of the “repressive hypothesis.”

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 4.15.27 [CSEL 33, 85]; my translation.

[3] In a subsequent section, I discuss these secular confessional technologies in more detail; thus, I simply mention them here in passing.

[4] Ibid., 4.15.26; 108.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 26

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Augustine begins the Confessions with the following prayer: “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1.1; 39).

[12] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 39.

[13] Augustine, Confessions, 1.5.5; 41.

[14] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 39.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 44.

[17] Recounting this event, Augustine says that she was “ripped from my side,” to which he adds, “[s]o deeply was she engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded and trailing blood” (Augustine, Confessions, 6.15.25; 156).

[18] Summing up this period of his life and returning again to the restless heart theme, he writes: “[w]oe betide the soul which supposes it will find something better if it forsakes you! Toss and turn as we may, now on our back, now side, now belly—our bed is hard at every point, for you alone are our rest [et tu solus requies]. But lo! Here you are; you rescue us from our wretched meanderings and establish us on your way; you console us and bid us, ‘Run: I will carry you, I will lead you and I will bring you home’” (ibid., 6.16.26; 157 [CSEL 33, 139–40).

[19] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 44.

[20] See, for example, Taylor’s comments at the end of her section on Augustine, ibid., esp. 45–6.


Part I: Augustine and Un-modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. […] Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing; I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me, “Look, here he comes!” as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away. I had become a great enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer.[1]

In this passage, Augustine the narrator reflects upon the all-consuming grief coloring his world following the death of his beloved friend. Here Augustine pours out his heart to God as he does throughout the book, confessing his sorrows and his struggles, posing philosophical and theological questions to God, himself, and his readers. Augustine’s soul, however, when it comes to providing the answers for which he longs, has no idea how to respond [nihil noverat respondere mihi]. That is, contrary to commonly accepted modern and postmodern interpretations of Augustine, painting him as the precursor to psychoanalysis, I argue that Augustine’s multiple confessions were not primarily about himself; rather, his narrative, which no doubt includes soul-searching, personal stories, and so forth, was first and foremost about God, the unfolding narrative of redemption, and how the self, left to itself, turned in upon itself does not give rise to greater self-revelation and liberation; rather, Augustine’s confessions announce repeatedly that the self-absorbed, incessantly introspecting self—the self whose inward turn does not have as its goal a deeper union with the Christian God—is ultimately left famished, speechless, and restless—“inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te” (“Our heart is unhinged, forever moving to and fro, until it finds in You a peaceful, resting abode”).[2]

Against the rather entrenched view that a more or less straight line can be drawn from Augustine to Cartesian inwardness and thus to the modern introspecting subject, in this post I offer a counterargument, based upon a reading of select texts from the Confessions, that Augustine’s narrative and his understanding of the self has little in common with modern autobiography, autonomous notions of the self, or staticized views of selfhood and subjectivity.[3]

Returning to the passage from book four, we have Augustine’s phenomenological description of grief, his own grief over the death of his beloved friend. “Black grief closed over my heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum], and wherever I looked I saw only death.”[4] As O’Donnell points out, Augustine draws upon language from the Old Testament, specifically Lamentations 5:17,[5] where we read: “Because of this our hearts [cor nostrum] are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim [contenebrati]” (NRSV).  In a way similar to the New Testament authors’ appropriation of the Old Testament, Augustine weaves together Scriptural fragments and metaphors, expanding their meanings and applying them for his present purposes. In context, the Lamentations passage speaks of the suffering of God’s people as a result of their turning away from God. Their sins, as Lamentations 5:16 explains, are the cause of their heart sickness and lack of vision. In both the Old and New Testaments, descriptions of darkened eyes and obscured vision are often used metaphorically to connote negative spiritual and moral conditions. Thus, in Scripture we find images depicting a lack of sight and consequent dwelling in darkness set in contrast to living in the light—itself a metaphoric description of God. Whether penned by the Psalmist or St. John the Apostle, to dwell in the light is to live in God and to see oneself, others, and the entire created order in his light.[6]

With the Lamentations connection in mind, that Augustine chose the Scriptural image of a darkened, grieving heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum] suggests a desire to communicate something more than his own pain.  In fact, as the chapter unfolds, Augustine the narrator states explicitly that his sorrow had become excessive and self-focused. In addition, he loved his friend without taking account of the latter’s finitude, and he failed to acknowledge the friendship as a gift which must some day return to its Giver. Discussing why his grief had so overwhelmed him, Augustine asks rhetorically: was it not “because I had poured out my soul into the sand by loving a man doomed to death as though he were never to die?”[7] Then in the following paragraph, Augustine highlights the proper way to love another deeply, namely, the other must be loved in God. “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you […] He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost. And who is this but our God.”[8]

Here we should note that Augustine affirms the value and goodness of friendship. Loving others deeply is not in itself problematic or to be avoided.[9] Rather, Augustine is at pains to stress that only God, given his nature and character, can provide the solidity we seek, the abode for our unhinged hearts. On the one hand, that all creation, including human beings, is good, Augustine in no way denies. It must be good because its very existence comes from a God who is good.[10] On the other hand, our loves must be properly ordered, and when we love the creature in place of the Creator—that is, as the final goal or ultimate meaning of our lives—we set ourselves up for sorrow upon sorrow. Whether or not we agree with Augustine’s assessment of his grief is beside the point. Perhaps he is at times too hard on himself when it comes to his emotional life. What is to the point given our present purpose is to foreground Augustine’s primary aim in recounting and analyzing his grief over the loss of his friend.


[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. by Maria Boulding), 4.4.9; 97 [CSEL 33, 70]. Unless noted, all subsequent references are to this edition. As Boulding explains in her Introduction, the earliest manuscripts of the Confessions were simply divided into thirteen chapters. Then in the fifteenth century chapter numbers were added, and finally with the Maurist edition of 1679 paragraph numbers likewise were added. Boulding’s translation includes all three sets of numbers; thus, I have adopted the following system to reflect all three numbers and to conform to Boulding’s text:  4.4.9; 97 means book 4, chapter 4, paragraph 9, page 97. My Latin citations are from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 33, which shall be abbreviated, CSEL 33, followed by the corresponding page number.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1 [CSEL 33, 1]. My translation. We find variations on Augustine’s “enigmatic self” theme, at 4.4.9 [CSEL 33, 70] (factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio), 2.10.18 [CSEL 33, 43] (factus sum mihi regio egestatis), and 10.33.50 [CSEL 33, 264] (mihi quaestio factus sum).

[3] For an argument in favor of the Augustine-Cartesian continuity thesis, see Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine. For an argument against Menn’s continuity thesis, see Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity. See also, Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, esp. 26–46. In addition to her helpful discussion on Augustine and interiority, Taylor offers her thesis for the absence of Augustine in Foucault’s writings.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 4.4.9; 97.

[5] O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, commentary on 4.4.9, (accessed 3/11/11).

[6] Thus, the Psalmist writes, “in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9, NRSV).

[7] Augustine, Confessions 4.8.13; 100.

[8] Ibid., 4.9.14; 101.

[9] Schuld elaborates Augustine’s position as follows: “[e]ven the most intimate and heartfelt affection between friends or lovers can remain viable only if it continually streams through and is by the love of God […] To love something other than God for its own sake as a solitary entity does not allow a circular form of love but only a stagnated one that cannot move far from itself, caught up, as it always becomes, in the standing pools that collect around self-absorbing persons and ends” (Foucault and Augustine, 40).

[10] Cf., Augustine, Confessions 4.12.18 for a similar description of Augustine’s view of the created order as good.


Part IV: Fanon’s Complex Relation to the Négritude Movement: Césairean Echoes, Inflections, and Reharmonizations

Undoubtedly, Fanon greatly admired Césaire and the Négritude writers. Césaire, in fact, had influenced not only his own thinking about the need to develop a positive, black social identity, but he helped to inspire countless young Antilleans, as Foucault would say, to imagine themselves otherwise, that is, black-wise. Fanon, of course, did more than merely drink deeply from Césaire’s intellectual well, he likewise put his teacher’s ideas into practice. After all, Négritude was set on bringing about social change. “Négritude was a theory that promoted praxis toward the end of transforming [various socio-political, cultural, and economic] aspects of African life worlds in the best interests of persons of African descent” and beyond.[1] Like Césaire, Fanon was a Pan-Africanist, although his version of Pan-Africanism often brought him into conflict with activists of various stripes.[2] Nonetheless, he shared with the Négritude writers a desire to recover African values and to share those values with the world.

However, as Rabaka observes, although “Negritude […] was the very foundation upon which Frantz Fanon developed his discourse on decolonization,” from the beginning “Fanon was not an uncritical disciple of Cesairean Negritude.”[3] Fanon’s appreciation of the movement was not without misgivings and sharp criticisms. For example, through the influence of his brother, Joby, came to see Césaire’s “cultural nationalism” as promoting a “vanguardism and top-down” approach that Fanon would later attack in his book, The Wretched of the Earth.[4] Likewise, although reluctantly, Fanon concluded that some (but not all) aspects of Sartre’s critique were correct.[5] As Memmi explains, Sartre had argued that Negritude a mere weak phase in the black emancipatory struggle; consequently, Négritude is reduced to mere negativity.[6] Fanon agrees that Négritude is a response to the violence of colonization; however, he does not agree that Négritude is mere negativity. Consequently, I find Memmi’s criticisms of Fanon overly severe and driven too much by his particular psychological reading of Fanon’s failure to return to his West Indian roots. On my interpretation, Fanon’s relation to the Négritude movement and his acceptance in part of Sartre’s critique is ambivalent and more multilayered than Memmi is willing to grant.[7] On the one hand, Fanon chides Sartre’s view of Négritude for having forgotten that “the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”[8] On the other hand, Fanon’s agreement with Sartre’s assessment that Négritude was a phase through which one must pass rather than abide, might be interpreted as something akin to akin to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism.”[9] According to Spivak’s account, the subjugated group, in order to move beyond binaries such as colonized/colonizer, develops an essentialist identity to promote group pride and unity, to advance and achieve specific, socio-political goals, and to foster healing. This stage thus has a decidedly therapeutic function; once its purposes are accomplished, it (qua essentialist narrative, not qua positive social identity narrative) is altered and expanded in order to address new historical contexts and conflicts; hence the denomination, strategic essentialism. In other words, Fanon can reject essentialzed notions of blackness and still affirm the crucial aspects of Césairean Négritude—the development and continued fostering of a positive, black, social identity, a non-repetitive “return” to and ongoing reappropriation of African values, and a revolutionary call to decolonization and a historically attuned humanism.


[1] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 171.

[2] See Rabaka’s discussion on Fanon’s Pan-Africanism, ibid., 167–68.

[3] Ibid., 171.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example, Sartre, “Orphée Noir,” dans Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, esp. xli. In addition to his claim that Négritude is a “weak stage” [le temps faible], an antithesis in the dialectic of which “white supremacy is the thesis” [la suprématie du blanc est la thèse] and that which “exists for its own destruction” [est pour se détruire], Sartre also claims that Négritude is intended as a preparatory stage for the ultimate synthesis, namely the “realization of a human in a society without races” [réalisation de l’humain dans une société sans races] (ibid.). As Rabaka points out, particularly with respect to the idea of a postracial society, Sartrean Négritude is at odds with both Césaire and Senghor’s articulations of Négritude. See, for example, Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes,” esp. 112–19. Rabaka also underscores how Sartre and the (white) Marxists generally speaking have failed to see the connection between capitalism and colonialism and capitalism and racism, whereas Césaire and other black radicals, having lived an exploited existence, refuse to make colonialism and racism secondary issues (ibid., see esp. 116–19).

[6] Memmi, “La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon,” 255. Regarding Sartre’s influence on Fanon, Memmi writes: “[Sartre] déclarant que la négritude n’est jamais que le temps faible dans la dialectique de libération du Noir. Fanon a fortement été impressionné par Sartre, jusqu’a la fin de sa vie, […] Et lorsque, dan Orphée noir, Sartre a tente de réduire la négritude a sa négativité […] Fanon en a été bouleverse; il a eu le sentiment d’avoir été expulse de lui-même. Il a ce sentiment, il est bouleverse, mais il accepte les conclusions de Sartre” (ibid.). (“[Sartre] declared that Négritude was nothing but the weak stage in the dialectic of Black liberation. To the very end of his life, Fanon was greatly impressed by Sartre, […] And when, in Black Orpheus, Sartre attempted to reduce Negritude to its negativity […] Fanon was shattered; he has the experience of having been expelled from himself. He has this experience, he is shattered, yet he accepts Sartre’s conclusions.” My translation).

[7] Ironically, aspects of Memmi’s critique of Sartre, on my reading of Fanon, are harmonious with Fanon’s own position on Sartre. For example, Memmi states that even if one concedes Sartre’s point about Négritude as a negative phase in the dialectic, one must still understand the historical and embodied significance of this phase. The existential process of black people forging their own identity invests this negative stage with a positivity overlooked by Sartre. “ […] s’il est permis de penser avec Sartre que la négritude […] est un temps faible, et même relativement négative, ce temps-la, il faut bien le vivre, avant de passer au suivant; et du fait qu’il est vécu, il acquiert son poids, très lourd, de positivité. L’erreur de Sartre, toujours la même, est de ne pas assez voir que même la négativité, le malheur, vécus, deviennent en quelque manière chair et sang, en somme positivité ” (256). (“ […] if it is permissible to think with Sartre that Négritude […] is a weak stage, and even relatively negative, nonetheless, that phase must be lived through in reality before passing to the next; and from the fact that it was experienced, it gains an enormously profound weight of positivity. Sartre’s error—always the same—was having failed to see that even negativity and misfortune when experienced in real life, in some way become flesh and blood, in short, positivity. ” My translation.

[8] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 117. Fanon makes similar remarks earlier in the chapter. For example, before quoting a long paragraph from “Orphée Noir,” where Sartre elucidated his view of Negritude as a weak stage that must self-destruct, Fanon writes, “I wanted to be typically black—that was out of the question. I wanted to be white—that was a joke. And when I tried to claim my negritude intellectually as a concept, they snatched it away from me.  […] We had appealed to a friend of the colored peoples, and this friend had found nothing better to do than demonstrate the relativity of their action” (ibid., 111, 112). For a more detailed discussion of the tense yet fecund relationship between Fanon and Sartre, as well as their theoretical and socio-political similarities and differences regarding decolonization, see Jules-Rosette, “Jean-Paul Sartre and The Philosophy of Négritude : Race, Self, and Society,” esp., 276–81.

[9] See, for example, Spivak, In Other Worlds, 205. Cf. Memmi, “La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon.” Memmi’s assessment of Fanon’s relation to Négritude is cast in a mostly negative light and for the most part does not seem to allow for the possibility of Fanon coming to understand the movement along the strategic lines I have outlined in this chapter. According to Memmi, after first showing great excitement about Césaire’s project, Fanon became an ardent critic of the movement. “Il affirme qu la négritude est une fausse solution; après l’erreur blanche, il faut se garder de céder au mirage noir. Et le voici à tirer à boulets rouges sur la négritude, dont on trouve dans son oeuvre la condamnation la plus radicale” (ibid., 254). (“He affirmed that Négritude was a false solution; after the white error, one should beware of succumbing to a black mirage. Thereupon, he lays into Négritude, condemning it in the most radical way in his work.” My translation).