Masthead Image

Per Caritatem

Category » Medieval Philosophy/Philosophical Theology



Foucauldian Strategies for the “Non-Purist” Contemporary Augustinian with Feminist and Social Justice Sensibilities or Deploying Foucauldian Insights to Problematize Alleged “Naturals”

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 20, 2012

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.

Notes

[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.

A Way Into Scholasticism: A Companion to St. Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God by Peter S. Dillard

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 20, 2012

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 Amazon.com.

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.

Augustine and Co-laboring With Like-minded Others for the Common Good

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

April 12, 2012

Oliver O’Donovan lays out an extremely helpful overview of the structure of City of God 19, which includes an explanation of why Augustine must 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]

Notes


[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.

Gregory on the Compatibility of Augustinian Liberalism and a Feminist Ethic of Care

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 25, 2011

I have been reading Eric Gregory’s excellent book, Politics & the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship.  Although I do not have time to give a full review of the book, I want to summarize and highlight some of the themes that I have found intriguing and noteworthy. First, besides chapters devoted to Augustine and modern liberalism, Arendt’s Augustine, and Augustine’s relation to the Platonists and the Stoics, Gregory devotes an entire chapter to Augustine and feminist political theory (chapter 3). Augustine, of course, was not a feminist, and his views on women have been criticized on multiple occasions.  Nonetheless, Gregory shows how his variant of Augustinian liberalism and certain emphases in feminist theory are compatible and how bringing the two into conversation offers significant advances to current socio-political theory. In particular, Gregory believes that a feminist “ethic of care” provides needed correctives to deficiencies in liberal political theory, especially those social contract theories which tend reduce politics to mere (self-serving) interests.

Gregory engages several feminist theorists; however, I shall focus on his treatment of Joan C. Tronto. Rather than dismiss liberalism as yet another failed modern project, Tronto seeks to complete and correct its shortcomings. While Tronto advocates for care as a moral ideal for citizens, she does not argue for some naïve, overly sentimentalist notion of care blind to the evils and injustices of our concrete existence. As a feminist theorist, Tronto is acutely aware of the various asymmetrical power relations constituting the body politic and how dominant groups employ “race,” class, and “gender” for oppressive purposes. Her awareness of an ongoing interplay between, as Gregory would put it, love and sin is “relevant  for Augustinian civic liberals who draw upon Christian love and keep realist observations about power and sin in full view” (167). Unlike antiliberal critics, Tronto does not disparage rights-talk and the importance of political equality, nor does she promote a political theory that flattens all diversity and otherness. Rather, her ethic of care “emphasizes the values of attachment, community, and social responsibility,” while condemning the fictive main character of liberal theories, namely, man as autonomous, detached, and (purely) rational.  Like other feminists, Tronto criticizes

this fiction in terms of a hypermasculine understanding of autonomy linked to an abstract account of freedom as sheer power to initiate action. But, for Tronto, this fiction already is premised on a false choice between autonomy and dependence within the liberal imagination. The need for care does not fit into liberal models that see only autonomy or dependence. In reality, she claims “since people are sometimes autonomous, sometimes dependent, sometimes providing care for those who are dependent, humans are best described as interdependent” (Moral Boundaries, 162).[1]

In short, Tronto brings to the fore failures in the liberal imagination, yet her solution is not to give up on liberalism as a viable political theory or condemn it as somehow inherently flawed and destined to produce nihilism. Rather, she unmasks the false dichotomies and choices liberalism creates—either pure self-interest or social responsibility—and argues for a non-naïve political theory that values cooperation, solidarity, and interdependence. In other words, she argues for an ethic of care with the potential to transform liberal thought and praxis; a care that “can help change the way we see the political world” (171). Even so, like many Augustinians, Tronto recognizes that an ethic of care can be abused, misused, and employed for unjust purposes. This should come as no surprise to Augustinian liberals, who, following the lead of the North African saint, hold no utopian views regarding political regimes, democratic or otherwise. That a rhetoric of care can be used for exploitative purposes “should not mean that liberal democracies can proceed as if care is not necessary for a political practice responsive to injustice, persons in need, and the social conditions that frustrate human flourishing” (171).

Tronto’s focus on care and creating new values for democratic citizens is consonant with Gregory’s larger project of promoting “an Augustinian ethic of citizenship for the morally ambivalent conditions of liberal democracy”(13)—an ethic which takes seriously the need to cultivate virtuous citizens whose various loves respect the dignity and difference of others.

I hope to blog more on Gregory’s insightful book in the months to come, as it has given me much food for thought.

Notes

[1] Politics and the Order of Love, 167.

Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 25, 2011

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.

 

Part I: Un-Masking Marauders à la Augustine and Foucault

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 2, 2011

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.