Is Augustine’s Invention Illusory?
In Phillip Cary’s little book, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, 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.
 Cary, Philip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.