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.


4 thoughts on “An Augustinian Improvisation on Bakhtin’s Two Categories of Discourse”

  1. Thanks for posting this. It is an interesting read.

    As you’re exploring Augustine’s concept of the self, if you have not already, it may be helpful to read an article written by John Cavadini (Notre Dame) in 2007: “The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine’s Thought”; Augustinian Studies 38 (1):119-132. The article particularly notes how careful we must be when approaching Augustine’s concept of the self since it isn’t an exact copy of our contemporary conceptualization of the individual self. Anyhow, I’ve found it quite helpful when taking the jaunt into the world of Augustine and “selfhood”.

    Thanks again for this writeup. I’m always looking out for posts such as this one.

  2. Hi Cynthia

    Loving this blog. You have made Foucault accessible and stimulating. I love the improvisational narration of self. I’m looking at using Foucault’s ideas of the technology of the self as a form of spiritual askesis applied to moral practices with young people who have committed offences. A kind of moral discussions to get them to reflect on their attitude to offending. I would be interested to know what you think?

  3. Hi Gary, Thanks for your kind words. What is interesting about Foucault’s reflections on self-technologies is that
    he is drawing upon ancient Greco-Roman ideas–the idea of self-mastery through various self-imposed disciplinary
    practices. Those practices have been used for moral and ethical development for centuries, so applying and
    developing them in a postmodern format to help young people as you have suggested sounds very interesting
    to me.

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