Per Caritatem

Augustines Invention of the Inner SelfThe “book plug” below was written by Dr. Gary R. Brown, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Dallas. Many thanks to Gary for his contribution.

Is Augustine’s Invention Illusory?

In Phillip Cary’s little book, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self[1], we have that rare thing, an elegant, clear, and significant study of an overlooked but nonetheless important topic. But can the inner self, so familiar and intimately a part of us moderns, be called an invention? Cary himself asks this question in the introduction, where he defends his minor disagreement with Saint Augustine by rejecting the reality of this invented inner self—hence Cary does not call it a discovery—a disagreement he describes as placing him in a better position to unfold from Platonist sources an accurate genesis of Augustine’s invention. By defining his authorial position as a Christian but not Platonist, Cary indicates the complications of explicating Augustine’s view, for the first Church fathers and earliest interpreters of the bible used Platonic concepts, which therefore cannot be historically separated from Christianity. Yet Cary’s rejection of Platonism neither dampens his understanding of Platonism’s influence on Augustine nor aligns Cary with the hackneyed Christian view of worldly pagans. Cary claims, rather, that Platonism is more spiritual than Christianity in that “it is more resolutely focused on the [immortality of] the soul and its relation to eternity,” as opposed to “Christianity’s proclamation of the resurrection of the dead.” Cary further opposes this-world Christological fleshliness to Platonic otherworldliness and asks “why should we want to turn to our inner selves if God is to be found in something external, the flesh of Christ?” Despite Cary’s confession of faith (perhaps differing also from Aquinas), he argues that he is best able to defend the actual unfolding of Augustine’s thought. He writes, he tells us, not only for specialists in Augustine, but for those concerned with philosophical and intellectual history and for those in theology and history of Christianity.

The core of the book is, of course, the etiology of Augustine’s positing of the inner self. The topic is especially timely for those who follow Martin Heidegger’s intense efforts to undermine the subjectivity of this inner self in its modern Cartesian reformulation. If we wonder what is at stake in Heidegger’s war on the closeted inner self, this beloved staple of modernity, Cary’s insightful study of its invention by Augustine from Christian, but mostly Platonist, sources is made to order. Charles Taylor has claimed in Sources of the Self that “On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine.” Augustine, Taylor argues, interiorizes Plato’s intellectual understanding of the soul into an immediately present inward self, so that the universe becomes the external realization of God’s order that can be held in rational inwardness. This, Cary argues, is precisely Augustine’s invention. The relevance of Cary’s book is indirectly made even clearer by Ryan Coyne’s recent, Heidegger’s Confessions (2015), named for Heidegger’s repeated revisiting of Augustine’s Confessions as he refined his notions of Dasein and Sein, mainly in the early 1920’s, then again in 1930-1, and again in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism.”

Clearly, Cary’s book will plunge the thoughts of those interested in the basic questions, “what is man?” How should she live?” into an insightful ferment.


[1] Cary, Philip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000. Augustine’s journey led him to God in whom he found a home, nonetheless, he neither achieved nor claimed to have achieved complete self-knowledge or an existence free of suffering and struggle. Consider the following examples interspersed throughout the Confessions and reflecting different periods in Augustine’s life:

Book 2: “I had become to myself a land of famine” [factus sum mihi regio egestatis].[1]

Book 4: “a human being is an immense abyss”[2]

Book 10: Following his contemplation of the nature of memory, self, and mind, he writes: “[i]n the end, who can fathom this matter, who understand how the mind works? This much is certain, Lord, that I am laboring over it, laboring over myself, and I have become for myself a land hard to till and of heavy sweat” [factus sum mihi terra difficultatis et sudoris nimii].[3]

Later in book ten, which of course is subsequent to the famous conversion event recounted in book eight of the Confessions,[4] we find Augustine the bishop still wrestling with the “danger of sensuality” and “temptations of the flesh,” praying and seeking God’s mercy. “But you, O Lord my God, hear me: look upon me and see, have mercy upon me and heal me, in whose eyes I have become a puzzle [quaestio] to myself and in this puzzling am wearied [est languor meus].”[5] Even after he abandoned his former way of life and had gained a deeper understanding of God and of himself, Augustine in no way claims to have achieved complete self-transparency or self-mastery; rather, mihi quaestio factus sum is his constant refrain.

Furthermore, Augustine’s existential awareness of himself as incomplete, wanting, and yet an ongoing poiēma of divine artistry is evidenced in his prayers interspersed throughout book ten.[6] “Do not, I entreat you, do not abandon your unfinished work, but bring to perfection all that is wanting in me.”[7] Augustine then adds a few paragraphs later, although it is true that a person knows his thoughts and motivations better than others attempting to interpret him, nonetheless, “there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit.”[8] Commenting on this passage as well as others in book ten with similar themes, Jean-Luc Marion relates human incomprehensibility to God’s incomprehensibility—that is, our inability to comprehend fully all that we are is a consequence of our status as image bearers of God. As Marion observes,

[I]f God is incomprehensible, then humankind, who resembles only Him (and above all not itself), also will bear the mark of His incomprehensibility. […] To know human beings demands, therefore, referring them to God as incomprehensible, and thus by derivation to establish an incomprehensibility in relation to image and likeness (my translation).[9]

Accordingly, given our essence as image-bearers of the incomprehensible God, it should come as no surprise that our own self-understanding and self-knowledge will always be incomplete. Knowledge of self and knowledge of God are both shrouded in mystery.

Marion develops a theological and exegetical argument based on Augustine’s own claims (see, for example, Conf. 13.22.32) and on the fact that in the Genesis text, humans, unlike the other created entities (birds, cattle, and other non-rational animals etc.), are created not according to their own kind or species but according to the image and likeness of God. Marion interprets this as indicating a “place” of unknowing or incomprehensibility at the center of humans following from the substitution of creation according to a human essence or species (“secundum suam similitudinem”) with creation according to “its resemblance to an other than itself; or rather, to an other of maximum alterity, since God is in view (my translation).”[10] In other words, any “definition” that might be attributed to humans is referred to our having been made in the image and likeness of one whose essence cannot be comprehended exhaustively. We are the image and likeness of an Other of “maximum alterity.” Consequently, interpreted within this larger theological framework, Augustine’s ongoing struggle (even as a mature Christian) to understand himself and his remaining a quaestio sibi is reasonable—even if, and necessarily so, mysterious. Accordingly, Augustine concludes this section with a prayer, which reflects well his status as a questioning, relational self-on-the-way: “Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know.”[11]


[1] Conf. 2.10.18; 74 [CSEL 33, 43]. The image in book two of “a land of famine” comes from St. Luke’s account of the prodigal son. A famine had spread throughout the land, and the son, having squandered his father’s gift, now found himself in great need (Luke 15:14); the image in book ten of “a land hard to till and of heavy sweat” refers Gen. 3:17, 19. Following the first pair’s disobedience, the Lord cursed the ground; consequently, human labor from this point on would be wrought with a level of difficulty and strain presumably absent in the prelapsarian state.

[2] Conf. 4.14.22, 106.

[3] Conf. 10.16.24-5, 253 [CSEL 33, 244].

[4] On the historicity of Augustine’s description of his conversion, see Courcelle 1963, “Historicité de la scène du jardin,” 193–97. Courcelle discusses how Augustine combined literary, symbolic, and allegorical images with historical facts to communicate his conversion experience with Christ; moreover, Courcelle concludes that what we have in the literary historical narrative of the Confessions is not “a simple adherence to a system of thought,” but a “a revelation of Christian ascetic philosophy” (ibid., 197; my translation).

[5] Conf. 10.33.50, my translation. Tu autem, domine deus meus, exaudi: respice et vide et miserere et sana me, in cuius oculis mihi quaestio factus sum, et ipse est languor meus [CSEL 33, 264].

[6] In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul, writes: “For we are God’s work of art [poiēma] created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10, my translation).

[7] Conf. 10.4.5, 240. Here Augustine paraphrases and personalizes St. Paul’s words in Phil. 1:6.

[8] Ibid., 10.5.7; 241. See also, Marion, Au lieu de soi: l’approche de saint Augustin, esp. 350–52.

[9] Jean-Luc Marion, Au lieu de soi: l’approche de saint Augustin, 350–51. [S]i Dieu reste incompréhensible, l’homme, qui ne ressemble à rien d’autre qu’à lui (et surtout pas à soi-même), portera aussi la marque de son incompréhensibilité. […] Connaître l’homme demande donc de le référer à Dieu en tant qu’incompréhensible et donc d’en fonder par dérivation l’incompréhensibilité, au titre de l’image et de la ressemblance,“ 350–51.

[10] “[…] selon sa ressemblance à un autre qu’elle-même ; plus encore, a un autre d’une altérité maximale, puisqu’il s’agit de Dieu ” (ibid., 343).

[11] Conf. 10.5.7; 241. See also, Marion 2008, esp. 342–65.


Travis E. Ables’s book, Incarnational Realism. Trinity and Spirit in Augustine and Barth, takes as its point of departure the late 20th century claim that Latin Christianity lacks a robust pneumatology, and this dismal state of affairs is due to Augustine’s problematic trinitarian theology. Ables, however, rejects this reading of Augustine and Latin Christianity and argues convincingly that Augustine is not guilty of the alleged Geistvergessenheit. However, this is not merely a book championing Augustine’s teachings; rather, as the book’s title indicates, Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, contrary to charges that his overemphasized Christology eclipses pneumatology, likewise has a role to play. In other words, Ables argues that both Barth and Augustine provide us with theologically rich teachings on the Holy Spirit that, when read together and properly synthesized, offer important correctives to contemporary trinitarian theology.

In particular, Ables focuses on the shortcomings of trinitarian personalism and trinitarian idealism. Ables worries that both contemporary expressions of trinitarian teaching are too reductionistic and thus ultimately fail to maintain “the integrity of God’s reconciling act in the economy of salvation” (180). On the one hand, Ables’s concern regarding trinitarian personalism is that it diminishes the essential character of God’s act in history, rendering it as “an accidental occasion or concrete illustration of what is essentially a purely metaphorical relationship between human community and divine community” (ibid.). In other words, the metaphorical relationship becomes so primary that it downgrades the revelatory significance of the Triune God’s work in salvation history to Jesus’s “exemplary relational existence as Son to the Father” (ibid.). On the other hand, trinitarian idealism is overly smitten with Hegel’s Geist. Here “God’s self-revelation in the economy is only possible as a result of the necessity of God’s self-alienating otherness internal to Godself” (181). In this narrative, God is not depicted as pouring out his love in history but rather as incorporating “history into Godself in what sometimes begins to look like a startlingly narcissistic picture of self-reflexivity” (ibid.). Finding neither account satisfactory, Ables argues for a trinitarian theology wherein “the singularity of divine self-donation in Jesus Christ is the material content of trinitarian doctrine as such” (181). This claim is, in fact, what Ables has in mind with the term “incarnational realism.” For not only is the incarnation the “material content of trinitarian doctrine,” but it is likewise “the measure of our knowledge of God, [and] the agent of our redemption” (189).

In short, on Ables’s historically rich reading coupled with his own constructive contributions, there is no lack or absence of the Spirit in Latin theology owing to an fatal Augustinian misstep, nor does Barth privilege Christology to the detriment of pneumatology; rather, when the best insights of both theologians are synthesized, what we have is doctrine of the Spirit that emphasizes our participation in the mystery of God as dramatized or performed in the life of Christ. Since there is one work of God, Christology need not compete with pneumatology; rather, as Ables has shown, “[t]he stronger one’s Christology, the stronger one’s pneumatology” (186).

Academic Biography

Travis Ables is an independent scholar working in historical and systematic theology. His research interests focus on Christology, trinitarian theology, and anthropology in Augustine and his readers. He is the author of Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth (Bloomsbury, 2013), and is currently working on a theological history of the cross within political, cultural, and artistic contexts (forthcoming from Fortress Press, 2017), as well as an introduction to the Victorines in the Cascade Companions series (forthcoming from Cascade Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University.


I recently finished an essay on Augustine and Foucault that brings both thinkers into critical dialogue.  Although in the essay itself I highlight strengths and weaknesses of both Foucault and Augustine, the excerpt below (taken from my concluding section) focuses primarily on how a contemporary Augustinian of a particular sort might benefit from a dialogue with Foucault.[1]

What might a dissatisfied, contemporary Augustinian gain from a conversation with Foucault? First, Foucault’s conception of power relations are immensely valuable to Augustinians with feminist sensibilities and interests in peace and conflict studies as well as, those who desire to expand and develop Augustinian trajectories that might speak to contemporary social justice issues. Embedded in Foucault’s conception of power relations and resistance possibilities is his insight that freedom must be expressed bodily. As many critics of Augustine have pointed out, his position is wrought with dualistic tendencies,[2] which are then appealed to in order to defend a status quo position. For example, Augustine encourages slaves to submit to their masters and women to submit to their husbands even when both master and husband violently abuse them (see, e.g. City of God 19.16.) Such exhortations and calls to obedience are based, among other things, upon commitments to various dualisms. For example, spiritual freedom is touted as superior to bodily freedom just as the spiritual is superior to the material. In addition, the call to accept violent relations (such as slavery and spousal abuse) is often undergirded with an appeal to a future other-worldly justice where all wrongs will be set right.  If the Augustinian were to appropriate Foucault’s insight that freedom in this life must be expressed bodily, she could avoid some of the problematic dualisms that surface in Augustine and at the same time highlight the in-breaking of God’s transformative grace in this life.  That is, just as the redemptive power of the Christ-event irrupted into Augustine’s life, removing his bonds and re-integrating his life, so too can divine grace work through Christians and all people of good will to change unjust social structures and thus to bring healing to exploitative and violent human relationships. Of course, the Augustinian need not adopt false utopian hopes for a perfect society; Foucault had no such pseudo-hope.

Most Augustinians today readily acknowledge that relations of violence such as slavery and domestic violence hinder human flourishing and are incompatible with the Christian call to love and to promote human dignity for all. In light of these contemporary commitments, adopting some variant of Foucault’s critical philosophy of ongoing critique would be a helpful “tool” in reassessing gender relations, stereotypes, and other concepts that we have been conditioned to see as universal and necessary but which are in fact particular, historical, and contingent.

In other words, the Augustinian might engage in a type of “theologico-philosophical interrogation” that problematizes our current understanding of gender relations (or other dominating relations), re-tracing how its own tradition has come to its present position and how its past views were historically conditioned and shaped. Here the tradition asks itself:  How have we—for example, through formulating our own erroneous views (of women or slaves), adopting false views from other traditions, or misapplying our own principles—created a trajectory in the tradition that has diminished biblical emancipatory insights or worse has offered spiritualized interpretations of relations of violence that encourage their continuance rather than challenge their existence? For example, given our present understanding of slavery as intrinsically unjust and our rejection of women as rationally or morally inferior to men, what might a re-reading of St. Paul’s—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”[3] and Genesis 1:26 look like? A Foucauldian-inspired genealogical study of power relations and relations of violence between husbands and wives and masters and slaves yield significant analytical and socio-political insights. Employing Foucault’s critical philosophy, what we find, for example, are alleged universal, “natural,” and necessary concepts of women and what it is to be a woman or a wife (e.g., receptive, passive, docile, submissive, morally or intellectually inferior—interestingly, these are more or less the same concepts regularly used to describe the “essence” of a slave) are in fact particular, contingent, and socially constructed concepts.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, for Foucault, there is no outside to power relations; however, given his understanding of the correlativity of power and resistance, neither is there an outside to resistance. In other words, resistance possibilities always exist so long as genuine power relations obtain. Given the contingent, historical character of power configurations and the ever-present possibility of resistance, change over time is possible.  Thus, there is room for hope and a cautious, but in no way naïve, optimism. Rather, as Foucault himself explains, “[t]here’s an optimism that consists in saying that things couldn’t be better. My optimism would consist rather in saying that so many things can be changed, fragile as they are, bound up more with circumstances than necessities.”[4]

Analogous to Foucault’s claim regarding the ubiquity of power, for Augustine there is no outside to sin. But as Augustine’s own story testifies, God’s grace is also operative in this world. Just as divine grace transformed Augustine, healing him and bringing him into intimate union with God, so too can God’s grace transform individuals and groups today, working through and with them to change institutional structures, legislation, cultural practices, and political and religious narratives so that they might better respect human dignity and foster human flourishing. Eschatological perfection is not the goal for this world; however, a communal striving with all people of goodwill to bring into being proleptic glimpses of the world to come is completely consonant with Christian hope.


[1] The arguments for my conclusions are given in the full essay; however, the complete essay is far too long for a blog post.

[2] Augustine does, of course, proclaim the goodness of creation, employing both philosophical (e.g. goodness and being are coextensive) and theological arguments (e.g., creation comes from God and thus must be good). Nonetheless, dualistic tendencies remain.

[3] Gal 3:28; New Revised Standard Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

[4] Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” 156.


It is my pleasure to post the following book promotion for my very good friend and colleague, Peter S. Dillard. Below is Peter’s brief academic biography and a short summary (originally posted here) of his recently published book on St. Bonaventure. You may purchase the book from the Wipf & Stock website or from

Academic Biography

Peter S. Dillard received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Heidegger and Philosophical Atheology: A Neo-Scholastic Critique (Continuum: 2008) and The Truth about Mary: A Theological and Philosophical Evaluation of the Proposed Fifth Marian Dogma (Wif & Stock: 2009), as well as articles in philosophy and theology. Currently he is working on a book about the Christian Platonism of Hugh of St. Victor.

Brief Book Summary

St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s The Soul’s Journey into God is a masterpiece of thirteenth-century Scholasticism. Unfortunately no comprehensive analysis of Bonaventure’s seminal treatise exists that is accessible to contemporary audiences. Reinvigorating the medieval tradition of critical commentary for the twenty-first century, Peter Dillard’s, A Way into Scholasticism: A Companion to St. Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God, introduces readers to basic Scholastic concepts and arguments by expounding and evaluating Bonaventure’s speculative system. Dillard also highlights the relevance of Bonaventure’s thought for contemporary philosophical theology. The book will appeal to a wide audience including seminarians, clergy, brothers and sisters of religious orders, students at the advanced undergraduate or graduate levels, professional scholars, and anyone seeking a better understanding of the Scholastic intellectual tradition.


Hands-Together-by-June-Pauline-ZentOliver O’Donovan lays out an extremely helpful overview of the structure of City of God 19, which includes an explanation of why Augustinemust wait until book 19 to return to themes discussed in book 2.[1] As he observes, Augustine used the “space” to develop and to make clear his distinction between true, perfect peace attainable only in eschatological fulfillment and earthly, imperfect peace attainable in part in the present age.[2] More specifically, O’Donovan contends that from the start, it was Augustine’s intention “to develop his discussion of the social coherence of the two cities around their respective ideas of peace into thoughts on the status of the earthly commonwealth.”[3] Regarding the imperfect earthly peace, Augustine instructs the “pilgrims” of the “Heavenly City” living in this world not to destroy the particular “customs, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained,” but to uphold these so long as they do not hinder the Christian’s ability to worship God.[4] In fact, Augustine acknowledges, and by implication affirms, the Heavenly City’s employment of “earthly peace” and the co-laboring with likeminded others “in the attaining of those things which belong to the mortal nature of man.”[5] Once again, the only caveat given is that these joint efforts and common pursuits do not harm the pilgrim’s pursuit of “true godliness and religion.”[6] Whether we have in view Augustine’s political setting or our own, this striving toward “earthly peace” involves working together with like-minded others (both inside and outside the Christian tradition) to promote human flourishing. In a contemporary setting, such shared activity might include deliberating about current and future legislation on important issues such as healthcare, education, racial profiling, affirmative action, child welfare, incarceration, social assistance programs for the poor, underprivileged, and undereducated, and so forth. Augustine’s own affirmation of the value of those “customs, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained” suggests that he also recognizes that non-Christian others possess intellectual and moral virtues and have something worthwhile to contribute to the public good.

O’Donovan continues his analysis and cautions against overemphasizing idealist and realist interpretations of Augustine. The former tend to place too much stress on the Augustinian impulse regarding the impossibility of a perfectly just society in this world. The latter tend to accent the Augustinian impulse regarding the possibility of cooperation between the two cities constituted by different and competing ultimate loves.[7] When either position is pushed to its extreme, O’Donovan argues, Augustine is misrepresented. My own impulse desires a third way, comprised of elements of both views and which upholds, as Eric Gregory puts it, “the dialectical relation between love and sin.”[8] That is, even if Augustine does not advocate for a purely “neutral” public square, I see no reason why a contemporary Augustinian could not appeal to areas of ethical and socio-political overlap between those whose hold different and even conflicting comprehensive views of the world and humanity. For example, both the secular humanist and the Christian may share common views about a civic right to marry, universal human rights, and the need to protect exploited and marginalized groups. Even if their ultimate, rock-bottom reasons for their views are motivated differently, nonetheless, they can and do work together in common pursuits advancing human flourishing and freedom.[9]


[1] See, Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God,” in Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics Past and Present, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004): pp. 48–72, esp. pp. 52-9.

[2] Ibid., p. 54.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Augustine, City of God, pp. 946–47 [De civ. Dei,19.17].

[5] Ibid., p. 947 [De civ. Dei,19.17].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God,” 55–6.

[8] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, p. 21. See also, James Wetzel, “Splendid Vices and Secular Virtues: Variations on Milbank’s Augustine,” Journal of Religious Ethics 32 (2004): pp. 271–300. I resonate with Wetzel’s aim, “to transform a dramatic choice—pagan or Christian—into a common hope for better wisdom” (ibid., p. 283).

[9] John Duns Scotus, an heir of the Augustinian tradition, continues and develops this Augustinian motif. That is, Scotus articulates a robust, multidimensional view of freedom, which not only promotes human flourishing but also condemns oppressive practices that hinder one’s ability to develop one’s moral and intellectual capacities. In particular, in Ordinatio IV.36.1 Scotus argues that slavery as described by Aristotle in book I of the Politics is incompatible with natural law (see Wolter, Will and Morality, 325; Scotus, Ord. IV, d. 36, q. 1. [Wolter’s translation is based on his transcription of the authoritative Codex A; the critical edition for this text is not yet available]. Scotus’s position is not without its problems—particularly his statements toward the end of the article in which he affirms the status quo based his interpretation of certain biblical texts—nonetheless, it is a Christian position within the Augustinian line voicing clear moral and intellectual dissatisfaction with its own tradition’s, as well as previously held (Aristotle et al.) dominant discourses on slavery.