Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

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

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]


[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.


Part II: Divjak Letter 10* and St. Augustine as Socio-political Activist

In epistle 10*, addressed to Alipius, the bishop of Thagaste, Augustine brings to Alipius’s attention his concerns regarding the activities of slave dealers in his region. As Augustine explains, these “businessmen” are “draining Africa of much of its human population and transferring their ‘merchandise’ to the provinces across the sea.”[1] These traders and their hired thugs preyed upon the poorest of Roman citizens, kidnapping them and then selling them as slaves.[2] As he emphasizes throughout the letter, the situation at Hippo Regius had become increasingly violent. With the most vulnerable terrorized, and receiving little or no protection from Roman officials, they turned to the church for help.

In the midst of this violence, Augustine and his church intervened. Not only did Augustine investigate Roman law in order to find potential loopholes to help put an end to this criminal activity,[3] but he and his church actually physically rescued captives from slave ships and hid them away—actions which put their own lives at risk. Augustine recounts to Bishop Alipius one such rescue mission, in which over one hundred individuals captured by Galatian merchants were rescued by parishioners from Augustine’s church.[4]

There was not lacking a faithful Christian who, knowing our custom in missions of mercy of this kind, made this known to the church. Immediately, partially from the ship in which they had already been loaded, partially from the spot where they had been hidden prior to boarding, about 120 people were freed by our people […] Your Holy Prudence can imagine how much similar trafficking in unfortunate souls goes on in other coastal areas, if at Hippo Regius, where in God’s mercy, the great vigilance of the church is on the watch so that poor people can be freed from captivity of this sort and these people who carry on such a trade, though far from suffering from the severity of this law, are nevertheless punished, at least by the loss of the money they originally spent, so great is the greed of these people.[5]

Even though prior to the discovery of Divjak epistle 10* scholars such as Claude Lepelley and Peter Brown have argued, drawing heavily on Augustine’s homilies and Scripture commentaries, that Augustine evinced extraordinary concern for the downtrodden and destitute,[6] the Divjak letters provide additional strength to such claims and reveal the degree to which Augustine and his congregation were actively involved in socio-political projects on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and exploited. In addition, Divjak letter 10* reveals Augustine’s concern for political or citizen freedom—even though incomplete and in need of revision. This suggests that Augustine was not unaware of the connection between political freedom and metaphysical freedom—a connection commonplace in Franciscan tradition.[7] (In future posts, I hope to revisit, in particular, John Duns Scotus’s views on freedom and slavery).


[1] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 75–6.

[2] For additional study of the social setting of Augustine’s day, see Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty.” Lepelley discussion how the status of the coloni had become de facto (though not de jure) “a kind of serfdom” (ibid., 6). See also, Brown, “Augustine and a Crisis of Wealth.” Brown argues against two common misconceptions of modern historians regarding the socio-political and economic constitution of the Catholic church of Augustine’s day.  First, Brown contends that the Catholic church at that time “was not a rich church, nor was it necessarily a church exclusively of the rich. It was not until the early sixth century that any church in the Latin West came to hold properties which equaled in their extent and income the estates of the great secular landowners. Up to then, the Catholic church had remained overshadowed by the truly wealthy—and the church of Africa seems to have been no exception to this rule. Second, […] the Catholic church in Africa was not a state church, securely established by imperial fiat at the top of African society. […] The newly-discovered Divjak letters, in particular, tell a dismal story. Bishops frequently found themselves unable to protect those who had fled to sanctuary in their churches. There was a constant shortage of clergymen. Heavy taxation had impoverished the urban classes from whom the clergy was most often recruited, and the imperial government systematically restricted the tax benefits of those who served the church. Rather than being a church of the upper classes, the social composition of the Catholic church was little different from that of its Donatist rival” ibid., 6–7).

[3] In paragraphs three and four, Augustine informs Bishop Alipius that he had come across a law decreed previously by emperor Honorius to suppress these activities and to punish the perpetrators (see, Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” 77–8). Chadwick conjectures that Augustine perhaps learned of this decree through his friend Eustochius. The latter is the addressee of Divjak letter 24*, whose content focuses primarily upon complex legal and practical questions Augustine had to address with respect to children sold into slavery (“New Letters of St. Augustine,” 433).

[4] Commenting on this remarkable event, Lepelley notes that the gangs employed by the Galatian slave traders often had as their target peasants—in this case, impoverished Numidian peasants. Appealing strategically to Roman law and employing Roman honor and freedom rhetoric (see paragraphs 5 and 6 of “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 78–9), Augustine intercedes on their behalf. As Lepelley observes, “[t]hese peasants, Augustine said, were still Roman citizens and had the right to be protected by the imperial authorities. Unfortunately for them, in 428, when this letter was written, the Western Roman Empire was collapsing” (“Facing Wealth and Poverty,” 7).

[5] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,”in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 79–80.

[6] See, for example, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 4–10; Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, esp. 63–4.

[7] This is not to suggest that Augustine’s notion of metaphysical freedom, or political freedom for that matter, is precisely the same as, for example, John Duns Scotus’s notion.


Part I: Divjak Letter 10* and St. Augustine as Socio-political Activist

Does St. Augustine’s theology make him a socio-political passivist?  Many assume it does. However, the fairly recent discovery of almost thirty previously unknown letters of St. Augustine by Johannes Divjak in the early nineteen eighties shows that picture to be false. Moreover, what emerges is a saint, no doubt influenced by his socio-cultural milieu—but then again, if we accept social conditioning, who isn’t influenced in such a way?—nonetheless, Augustine’s relationship to slavery and citizens’ rights manifests itself as a complex, multifaceted, conflicting and even at times contradicting position, yet in no way is it a position of passive resignation to the social evils of this world.[1]

Although scholars disagree over the precise dates of some of the letters, most believe that they were written during the last fifteen years of Augustine’s life (415-430 A.D.).[2] In particular, epistle 10*, written as early as 422 or 423 or, as Claude Lepelley estimates, as late as 428 A.D., sheds light on Augustine and his parishioners’ active involvement in thwarting the lucrative “business” of slave dealers (mangones) in Hippo.[3]

Before discussing passages from epistle 10*, I want to be clear as to the specifics of my claims. Although the contents of the letter reveal that Augustine condemned the kidnapping, violent treatment, and enslavement of free persons in North Africa—most of whom were peasants, women, and children—he does not explicitly speak out against the institution of slavery per se. Nor do Augustine’s rescue operations, as recounted in this letter, seem to include those who are born slaves or those non-Roman citizens enslaved as a result of Roman war victories or other violent means.[4] In other words, Augustine, consonant with the social mores of late antiquity, accepted the institution and its legal distinctions of slave and free citizen.[5] Slaves were, as Peter Brown explains, “seen as objects of compassion by Christians”; however, “[t]he destiny of slaves was held to rest in the hands of their masters and mistresses. It was for the owners of the slaves, and for no one else, to ensure that slaves were fed, clothed, and protected.”[6]

Brown further adds that Christian morality taught that masters ought not treat their slaves with cruelty, nor should they exploit them sexually (both of which were common practices).[7] Likewise, Christian masters were encouraged, if not expected, to manumit their slaves.[8] In sum, qua institution, Augustine and the Christians of his day by and large did not directly challenge slavery, and in that respect were very much products of their social environment. In fact, it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century that slavery as an institution “came to be regarded as a moral evil of a peculiar kind.”[9] For Augustine, slavery is an unnatural, prelapsarian institution, which God permits as a form of either “reformatory” or “retributive” punishment for sin.[10] Sometimes cultural blindness has a particularly enduring staying power.

Conceding all of the above, nonetheless, what we find in Divjak letter 10* is an Augustine who actively works to subvert the trafficking and enslavement of some of the most vulnerable, albeit free Roman citizens in Hippo. That is, even though our modern and postmodern sensibilities find highly problematic Augustine’s failure to condemn the institution of slavery, nonetheless, his theological commitments—imperfectly inflected and at times refracted through distorted cultural biases rather than theological truth—compelled him to intercede in word and deed on behalf of the poor and powerless.[11] As we shall see, he and his parishioners were willing to risk their lives in order to subvert the violent, self-serving practices of slave-traders in North Africa.[12]


[1] Divjak had been engaged in a project to catalogue all Augustinian texts in France—a significant undertaking, given Augustine’s output! While working in a library in Marseille, he discovered a fifteenth century manuscript of both known and previously unknown letters. As a result, in one unexpected and fruitful finding, almost thirty new letters were added to the Augustinian corpus. The Divjak letters were originally published in 1981 in volume 88 of the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL). (Eno, “Introduction,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, 4). For a detailed discussion of the Divjak letters, see Chadwick, “New Letters of St. Augustine.”

[2] Eno, “Introduction,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, 5.

[3] Ibid., 75. See also, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 28. Lepelley also discusses the social landscape of Hippo and its rather large population of beggars; see, ibid., esp., 4–5.

[4] Garnsey enumerates three defining features of slavery: “the slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied the capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance” (Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, 1). See also, Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. Patterson gives the following as a preliminary definition of slavery with respect to personal relations and then devotes his first chapter to an elaboration of that definition: “slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (ibid., 13, italics in original).

[5] As Weidemann explains, several factors, including new restrictions on “the exploitation of peasant labor,” as well as terminating the practice of debt enslavement, contributed to the formation of more rigid social divide.  “The consequent clear and sharp distinction between the rights of citizens, no matter how lowly, and the rightlessness of chattel-slaves was codified and reinforced by the developments of Roman law” (Slavery, 6). Thus, previously understood intermediate statues were increasingly obliterated, making it all the more urgent to stay on the free side of the divide. As Garnsey explains, although both Athens and Rome were chattel slave societies, one must avoid the temptation to flatten out their differences. On these differences, see Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, esp. 2–9.

[6] Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, 61.

[7] For a detailed and informative study of the violence enacted upon slaves in the ancient period, see Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity. Glancy’s analyses emphasize the “corporeality of ancient slavery,” showing the various ways in which “the bodies of slaves were not themselves neatly bounded nor defined entities. The bodies of slaves were vulnerable to abuse and penetration” (ibid., 3, 12). On the commonly held view that male slaveowners had a “right” to engage in sexual relations wit their female slaves, see Corcoran, Saint Augustine on Slavery, esp. 29–30.

[8] Ibid., 61, 62. Brown further adds that some of the freed slaves were, after careful scrutiny and sufficient time, “received into monasteries or as members of the clergy” (ibid., 62). On the actual frequency of manumission in Rome generally speaking, see Wiedemann, “The Regularity of Roman Manumission.” Wiedemann concludes that though the ideal was that a faithful, loyal slave ought to be freed after a relatively short term of service—perhaps six years with ten years considered rather long—this was not the case in actual practice; rather, “the real world was ruled by self-interest” (ibid., 175). Given Wiedemann’s conclusion, it would be informative to compare, if such is possible, the manumission rates among Christians and non-Christians.

[9] Wiedemann, Slavery, 1.

[10] For this reason, as well as what he believes to be the authoritative teaching of St. Paul (for example, 1 Cor. 7:21–24), one can find many instances in Augustine’s writings where he exhorts slaves unable to obtain their freedom to remain in their condition and to serve their masters “loyally and with a good will” (City of God, 19.15; 944).  One should, however, keep in mind that the New Testament itself presents contrasting and conflicting views on slavery. For example, several scholars interpret St. Paul as exhorting Philemon to manumit Onesimus, Philemon’s slave (and perhaps a fugitive slave), who had converted to Christianity. I describe the latter as a “contrasting case of sorts,” because, depending upon how one interprets these passages, one could argue that the New Testament itself is ambiguous and that those early Christian communities were still very much working out how to deal with the issue of slavery in light of the Christ-event and its individual and socio-political ramifications.

[11] See also, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty.” Drawing upon the contents of Divjak letter 20*, Lepelley highlights Augustine’s institution in Hippo of a “matricula pauperum, i.e., a list of poor persons supported by the church,” most of whom were “widows and orphans” (ibid., 5).

[12] Against the charge by modern historians that Augustine cared little for the poor, enslaved, and powerless of society and that he was a promoter of colonialism and imperialism, Lepelley argues convincingly based on Augustine’s sermons, letters, and other primary sources that such theories are prime examples of anachronistic readings that have failed to wrestle with Augustine’s texts and the framework of his historical context.  See Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 5–10. See also, Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire.


Unmasking Socio-Political Rhetorical Strategies, Augustine and Foucault on the Rhetoric of Imperial Glory and the Rhetoric of Progress

Like Augustine, Foucault too 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 (which was part of Augustine’s project in the City of God), Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[1] 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.[2] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[3] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[4]

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses at great length how modern scientific discourses (and their attendant practices) are employed to further the rhetoric of progress and to mask new forms of violence inherent in modern socio-political institutions such as the modern judicial and prison systems. According to Foucault’s account, although by beginning of the nineteenth century the great theatrical displays of physical punishment—the tortured body—had disappeared,[5] “a trace of ‘torture’” can still be found “in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice—a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporeal nature of the penal system.”[6] Now that the body is no longer drawn and quartered, on what, if not the body, is punishment carried out? “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[7]

Foucault is not claiming that modern punishment in no way involves the body; rather, his analyses help us to see that the “objects” of punishment have changed and the extent of its reach has been broadened considerably. Crimes are certainly still juridical objects of concern, even if certain former offenses are no longer categorized as crimes (for example, blasphemy). However, from another perspective, our understanding of the nature of crime as an object of concern for penal practice has been transformed radically. That is, we still pass sentences on certain acts defined as illegal and criminal; however, “judgment is also passed on the passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity; acts of aggression are punished, so also, through them, is aggressivity; rape, but at the same time perversions; murders, but also drives and desires.”[8] As a result, judges are no longer competent to pass judgment on their own; they must instead call upon a host of “subsidiary judges” to aid them.  This “scientifico-juridical complex,” including psychiatrists, medical doctors of various sorts, prison specialists, and educationalists, not only helps the judge decide what kind of punishment shall be enacted but whether the act is punishable at all.  In other words, if the person who committed the act is judged mad, then all talk of crime disappears and medical treatment rather than punishment is required.

This modern scientifico-judicial apparatus does much more than simply mete out sentences; it discerns what kind of “soul” a person has, speculates on how one’s past influences one’s present, and then predicts what future actions one is likely to commit. Through the complex interplay of scientific, medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses and their accompanying practices, new subjectivities are produced such as the delinquent and the pervert. Moreover, the production of new subjectivities goes hand in hand with the emergence of new scientific discourses, and the two serve to mutually reinforce one another. Not only is a greater role in the sentencing process given to psychiatric experts, but criminologists likewise come on the scene, defining new subjectivities and new “scientific” objects of study. According to Foucault, those trained in psychiatry, criminal anthropology, and related fields engage in this subject- and object-making activity as follows:

by inscribing offenses in the field of objects susceptible of scientific knowledge, they provide the mechanisms of legal punishment with a justifiable hold not only on offenses, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be. The additional factor of the offender’s soul, which the legal system has laid hold of, is only apparently explanatory and limitative, and is in fact expansionist.[9]

In other words, punishment does not cease with the completion of one’s prison term; rather, one’s new identity remains fixed long after the term has been served via strict monitoring, mandatory medical or psychiatric treatment, counseling, as well as restrictions on living, educational, and employment possibilities. Now that criminals are objects of science and legal punishments are intertwined with “judgments of normality, attributions of causality, assessments of possible changes, [and] anticipations as to the offender’s future,” punishment expands into long-term treatment with the hope of curing the criminal. A new truth game has been born; although bloodless, its rules, discourses, and practices create living subjects as objects. In addition to these embodied subjects, another “body” is formed—“[a] corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses,” which together “becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.”[10] Having broadened its cabinet to including medical experts and specialists of various sorts, the judicial system presents itself as apolitical, dispassionate, and relying upon objective science to render its determinations. Thus, like Augustine, Foucault issues a warning, calling us to be alert to the ways in which the rhetoric of scientific progress is at work in our society where we might least expect it. Although it is highly unlikely that any of us would want to return to medieval torture as a means of punishment for crime, Foucault’s analyses of the genealogy of the modern prison system help us to see that our “contemporary mechanisms of power,” although less spectacular, “are no less coercive. In attempting to rehabilitate the whole individual, the modern judicial system uses its own methods of violence and force, only it administers them in such a way that they no longer appear violent or forceful.”[11]



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

[2] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as the United 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.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 15.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid.  Foucault continues his description of this new phase of a bloodless, less intense yet more extensive punishment on the following page (see ibid., 16–17).

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 18–19.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 19.


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.