Part I: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

In my first post of this series, I focus on Augustine. Then in my subsequent posts, I bring in Foucault as a dialogue partner. In chapter eight of the Confessions, Augustine tells us that he had come to a place where he was both convinced of Christianity’s truth yet released from a previous need for certainty of a mathematical sort. That is, his desire was no longer to attain a “greater certainty” about God “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him.[1] 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, according to Augustine, 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,[2] 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.”[3] Augustine adds that Jesus receives those who, having been brought low, turn to Him.

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.[4]

Repeatedly we see Augustine the narrator’s emphasis on the dependent, heteronomous self—the self as antihero whose weakness paradoxically becomes strength when it passes through the cross.

Here I want to bring to fore, by way of Schuld’s work, how Foucault “can be constructively used to broaden Augustine’s analysis of the desires for an illusory human perfection.”[5] Foucault, like Augustine, is acutely aware of human finitude and regularly confronts his readers with the reality of our frailty, the contingency and historical specificity of our personal and social identities and founding myths, and the vanity of our attempts to build a utopian society. Although Foucault’s embrace of human finitude shares certain similarities with Augustine’s, there are, of course, significant differences, namely, Augustine’s position is radically theocentric, whereas Foucault’s is not. Even so, both thinkers are aware of the many ways our social milieu shapes us and how difficult, though not impossible, it is to resist these social forces. Perhaps in a future post, I shall discuss in more detail Augustine’s socio-political critique of Roman narratives. For the time being, I want to briefly comment upon some of the ways in which both thinkers analyze and critically engage cultural norms and how these norms feed into socio-political narratives, institutional structures, and the body politic at large.

As Schuld observes, in the Confessions Augustine recounts his own process of socio-political “naturalization” in which various accepted norms of what it meant to be a successful adult conditioned him.  For example, Augustine characterizes his education as a mis-education given the lack of concern on behalf of his teachers and parents for his moral development. For instance, Augustine criticizes his father, Patricius, for failing to guide him in matters of sexual intimacy and for having a misguided, instrumentalized view of education as a mere means on the way to the real end, namely, a prestigious political career.[6] Neither Patricius, nor his teachers viewed education as an ongoing conversion of the soul to the good; rather, Augustine’s education was geared toward making him “successful” as defined by cultural norms of Roman society. He was to obey his schoolmasters in order to “get on in this world and excel in the skills of the tongue” so that he might become wealthy and attain a position of “high repute.”[7] To learn to speak elegantly, irrespective of the content, became one of the chief goals of his instruction. For the rhetorician, style was everything; in fact without it, one could not ascend the Roman social ladder.[8]

Along with his parents, teachers, and the “success” narrative circulating in the Roman culture of his day, Augustine speaks against certain ecclesial practices that had become social norms. For example, Augustine laments the fact that his baptism was postponed until later in life. As he explain, his baptism was “deferred on the pretext that if I lived I would inevitably soil myself again, for it was held that the guilt of sinful defilement incurred after the laver of baptism was graver and more perilous.”[9] Reflecting on this as a mature Christian, Augustine the narrator believes that it would have been to his benefit to have been baptized, as he was his wish at the time, when he was a young boy.[10] Augustine reasons that just as we do not put off medical treatment when one is ill, how much more should we not delay spiritual healing for the soul. “How much better it would have been if I had been healed at once, and if everything had been done by my own efforts and those of my family to ensure that the good health my soul had received should be kept safe.”[11] Although Augustine adds the caveat that God’s providence was at work in these and other wrong turns, nevertheless, he is aware and readily acknowledges that the trajectory of his life was shaped and molded by familial, social, and institutional practices and decisions made on his behalf which were outside of his control. “Woe, woe to you, you flood of human custom! Who can keep his footing against you? Will you never run dry? How long will you toss the children of Eve into a vast, terrifying sea, which even those afloat on the saving wood can scarcely cross?”[12]


[1] Ibid.,; 184. For a more detailed and decidedly theological discussion of this topic, see Nielsen, St. Augustine on Text and Reality.

[2] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions, 7.9,13–14; 169–70.

[3] Ibid., 7.18.24; 178.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 124.

[6] Monica, Augustine’s mother, receives some criticism; however, he is generally speaking less severe with her because of the positive role her faith played in his life.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, 1.9.14; 48.

[8] See, for example, Confessions 1.18.28; 57–8.  Here Augustine’s criticizes the textual content used for his Latin instruction, which he claimed incited his sexual desires. (This is not unlike Foucault’s critique of the confessional manuals and confessional technologies used by priests which actually worked to incite their sexual longings). The content, however, was not the focus of his teachers’ evaluation; rather, he was praised for proper diction and elegant delivery. For a detailed analyses of the genealogy of confession, see Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the ‘Confessing Animal’.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 1.11.17; 51.

[10] In his childhood, Augustine had fallen ill and nearly died.  As a result, he asked to be baptized; however, because he recovered more rapidly than had been expected, his mother decided to postpone his baptism given the commonly held practice to defer baptism as long as possible so that one might “sow one’s wild oats” and not commit a “graver” offense (ibid.).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 1.16.25; 55–6.

* The image used in the post is by Craig Smallish and is entitled, “Patient & Therapist.” More details of his work can be found at