Per Caritatem

Anyone who has studied with care Augustine’s masterpiece, City of God, particularly the first five books as well as book nineteen, would, I believe, see a very socially engaged, politically astute theologian qua social critic. As I have noted in previous posts bringing Augustine and Foucault into dialogue with one another, both thinkers share a number of structural overlaps and common concerns—concerns for the poor and marginalized and suspicions about hegemonic discourses and narratives.  This is not, of course, to claim that Augustine was without his faults or that he was unaffected by his own cultural context—like all finite, historical human beings, he was socially conditioned and held certain beliefs about, for example, women that moderns and postmoderns would find problematic (at least I do). Nonetheless, the North African saint (faults notwithstanding) has much to say to us today.

For example, Augustine’s socio-political—and, of course, theological—critique of Roman glory narratives, in particular, the ways in which these narratives function as veils to mask what in any other context would be considered unjust, criminal activity are highly instructive.[1] As R.A. Markus explains, Augustine understood the term “institutions” broadly. Institutions, for example, consisted of “various customs, rites, arrangements, arts and disciplines in use among men.”[2] These institutions, of course, may be used for good or evil purposes.  Although critical of discourses and practices which inculcate desires and beliefs antithetical to key aspects of Christian faith and praxis—humility, truth-speaking, relational dependence, an acknowledgement of our finitude, and so forth—Augustine understood the need to develop institutions beneficial to society as a whole and which would promote as much harmony as possible among its various members.[3] Concomitant with this constructive social project, Augustine also engaged in a deconstructive project. That is, he was acutely aware of the need to critically examine the accepted political and religious narratives of the day, narratives whose incandescent surfaces dazzled, concealing the often violent, greedy, self-serving agenda of the political elites. Like Foucault, Augustine employs his own variant of reverse discourse and counter-hegemonic narratives in order both to unmask the ideologies at play in Roman political discourse and to put forth alternative ways of being in the world with others.

The first five books of the City of God, as Robert Dodaro observes, “constitute the core of Augustine’s critique of Roman imperium”;[4] in these opening books, Augustine analyzes “the ideology of Roman literary and ceremonial forms,” whose theoretical foundations “were found primarily in Sallust, Cicero, and Varro.”[5] In light of his own training as a rhetor and his service at the imperial court in Milan prior to his baptism and later ordination to the priesthood and bishopric, Augustine was thoroughly versed in the art of persuasion and the various ways it was used to further political objectives.  As Dodaro explains, Augustine understood that “Roman society was founded upon an extreme patriotism, a love for the patria above all else, which was promoted by means of Roman education, folklore, literature, civil religion, and theatre.”[6]

Like Augustine, Foucault also manifests concern for the marginalized of society, devoting himself to the study of prisons and mental institutions and to the ways in which these structures and their associated discourses, disciplines, and practices produce new, characteristically modern subjectivities. As Schuld explains, rather than uncovering how “rhetoric of imperial glory” masks the reality of violence and self-interest, Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[7] With the transition from a sovereign-based political model wherein power is centralized and associated with the person of the king to a modern context wherein power is dispersed and diffused in a netlike fashion, a more “neutral,” “objective” discourse comes into play.  That is, in contrast with, for example, Roman glory narratives and their overt conspicuous appeals to the political realm, modern scientific narratives present themselves as apolitical and unbiased.[8] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[9] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[10]

Notes


[1] This post is indebted Robert Dodaro and Joyce Schuld’s work.  See, for example, Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies, Just Wars and the Politics of Persuasion,” and Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection.”

[2] Markus, Saeculum, ix.

[3] Ibid., ix.

[4] Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies,” 80.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine’s classical influences, see Cameron, “Cicero and St. Augustine”; Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin dans la tradition littéraire; Bennett, “The Conversion of Vergil”; Markus, Saeculum; Bonner, “Vera Lux Illa Est Quae Illuminat: The Christian Humanism of Augustine,” in Renaissance and Renewal in Church History; Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; MacCormack, “Sin, Citizenship, and the Salvation of Souls.”

[6] Dodaro, “Pirates or Superpowers,” 14.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 17.

[8] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as theUnited States’ inflated talk of spreading democracy worldwide. Foucault would, presumably, recognize modern glory narratives as one of many discursive tactics employed to further the rhetoric of progress.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

 

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