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.