Bradley M. Peper on Jennifer V. Ebbeler’s Disciplining Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine’s Letters
The late David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), arguably one of the most innovative and poignant literary voices of the last twenty-five years, was instrumental in the formation of “New Sincerity.” This multidisciplinary movement in music, film, literature, and philosophy directly challenges the postmodernist anomic embodiment of irony and ridicule. In his seminal essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993), Wallace calls out into the cynical wilderness for a literary rebellion against the toxicity of ironic postmodern self-reference and a movement toward sincere reverential conviction. He answered his own call with his prodigious pièce de résistance, Infinite Jest (1996), which is often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses in its scope and transformative potential. Infinite Jest is a complex interplay between literary fiction and sociopolitical commentary. Set in an absurd future revolving around the search for a master copy of a film so entertaining that its viewers stop living, the book is a semi-parody about entertainment, addiction, and the pursuit of happiness in America. It is funny, sad, quirky, and at times a bit abstruse, but ultimately it is earnest and avoids the trappings of postmodern mordancy. The work is an ambitious attempt to develop something more sincere out of a genre flagging under the weight of its own irony. Some literary and cultural pundits, however, doubt the extent to which Wallace succeeded beyond his own oeuvre.
Parallels drawn between Wallace and Augustine are neither historical nor ideological but may be illustrative, stimulated by the approach and broader issues raised in Jennifer V. Ebbeler’s recent study, Disciplining Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine’s Letters. Ebbeler focuses on Augustine’s epistolary practice of friendly correction through a literary lens. By treating his epistles as a distinct literary form to be studied in its own right, rather than as sources to be mined for biographical information about Augustine, Ebbeler seeks to advance Augustinian scholarship both in methodology and understanding of Augustine’s strategies for unity. Her argument is that Augustine attempted to Christianize the conventional epistolary practice in order to cultivate and sustain interpersonal relationships in absentia. The text allowed participants who had never met one another to openly and acceptingly exchange corrective rebuke (correptio), each participant serving as God’s corrective instrument for the purpose of growing in divine truth and progressing toward salvation.
Prior to Augustine, epistolary correspondence was principally aimed at cultivating social networks. Letters of rebuke or correction, while they certainly existed, were not written with the intent of building a relationship between the addressor and addressee. Augustine broke these mores of his literary culture to develop what he considered to be a more authentic Christian community. His conception of the ideal Christian community was informed predominantly by his reading of Paul — specifically Paul’s correction of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 — and by his experience at Cassiciacum, where he participated in a community of like-minded individuals pursuing truth per colloquium. Augustine was able to establish this ideal locally by organizing a monastic community in Thagaste (395/6) and subsequently penning The Rule (397); he based both efforts on the apostolic model of community found in Acts 4:31-5 and the caritas-inspired form of correptio found in Matthew 18:15-20.
Augustine experimented with epistolary forms of correction in the years 388-400, promoting his notion of a true Christian community more globally. In his earlier letters, Augustine began to introduce corrective features to the conventional friendly form of letter writing (epistula ad familiarem). While various forms of corrective letters were considered an acceptable form of rebuke among ancient rhetoricians such as Pseudo-Demetrius, Augustine included rebuke in friendly letters and expected something quite unconventional from his addressees: a response. Such an expectation was unprecedented in a format traditionally reserved for cultivating amicitia. It also would have been regarded as an antagonistic breach of standard etiquette, which is certainly what Jerome thought when Augustine challenged his interpretation of Galatians 2:11-14 (ep. 68).
Augustine’s style lacked precedent among ancient Greco-Roman rhetoricians and Christian writers alike. Neither Paul nor Cyprian, for instance, expected their correspondents to respond warmly and openly to their corrective admonishments; they simply expected the behavior or thought under question to change. Augustine was attempting nothing short of transforming a well-established genre. For him, epistolary correspondences became a tool for building a more authentic Christian friendship, a friendship not based merely on mutual accord but one that functioned correctively for each participant in order to build a deeper relationship with God and the self.
Ebbeler informs us, however, that Augustine was not really successful in his endeavor. She demonstrates at great length that, despite Augustine’s innovative efforts, his “bold epistolary experiment failed.” Some correspondents simply refused to respond. A prime example of this is the Donatists, a group of North African Christians who claimed to be the true Church and whom Augustine spent a good deal of his career combating. Augustine placed his Donatist addressees in a precarious position. If they remained silent, their reticence could be construed as an implicit admission of guilt; if they responded, their letters could function as quasi-legal transcripts to be used against them. Rather than verbally sparring with the master rhetorician of their rival party, the Donatists opted not to answer him.
Other correspondents, however, replied to Augustine’s corrective letters with barbed attack. Jerome at one point deemed Augustine’s attempts as nothing more than “a honey sword” written for his own personal gain (ep. 72). While the two eventually resumed correspondence after nearly ten years of silence, it was not the type of friendly corrective correspondence Augustine had originally solicited but proceeded under more conventional terms. The only correspondent that Augustine found willing to engage him deeply and spiritually was the famed poet and letter-writer, Paulinus of Nola. Yet, as Ebbeler points out, their exchange never reached the overt corrective level that Augustine sought but remained “on the Senecan model of epistolary correction” where the correspondents seek advice and direction.
Augustine’s attempts, though, were not entirely in vain. Ebbeler suggests that his form of charitable correction has “strong echoes” in medieval monasticism, especially among epistolary writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux. But she is aware that more systematic work on medieval letters is necessary to evaluate the full impact of Augustine’s influence on the genre.
Writing an original and insightful monograph on Augustine is difficult given the number of studies produced each year. But Ebbeler succeeds. Building on her prior work in this area, she advances our understanding of Augustine’s thoughts on discipline, friendship, and correspondence, and of the innovative strategies he employed in transforming the customary practices in these areas. Most importantly, her use of a literary approach and her emphasis on the independent value of his epistolary correspondences highlights and helps to fill a lacuna in recent Augustine scholarship.
A work this ambitious inevitably contains a few minor problems. For example, Ebbeler claims that “the Africans had no reason to doubt that Innocent’s decision [with regard to Pelagius and Caelestius] would be upheld” by the succeeding bishop of Rome, Zosimus. But this assertion ignores Zosimus’s epistles to the North Africans (Magnum pondus and Postquam a nobis) as well as the secondary scholarship on the matter (see Gerald Bonner, Peter Brown, or J. E. Merdinger). Since this book is not geared for the novice student of Augustine, a longer treatment of Cyprian’s epistles and a deeper analysis distinguishing between Augustine’s use of correptio and correctio would have been beneficial. Nonetheless, anyone looking for a more in depth understanding of Augustine and the development of literary strategies in Late Antiquity will be rewarded by a perusal of this book.
Augustine and Wallace have in common a shared attempt to transform the literary conventions of their own day. Of course, each writer sought something different. Through his practice of epistolary correction, Augustine strove to cultivate what he perceived to be a more scripturally-modeled community, one that was more radical than the genre or its participants would allow. Wallace developed a form of morally passionate fiction to confront a well-established culture of cynicism and disillusionment, a culture still prevalent today. Both Augustine and Wallace tried to promote an ideal of authenticity, or sincerity, and both were seemingly unsuccessful in terms of their immediate impact.
Perhaps it is too hasty to evaluate the influence that Wallace and others in the “New Sincerity” movement have made on transforming literary genre and cultural mores. As it was with Augustine, such transformative attempts take time, even centuries, to succeed broadly. Given the preponderance of nihilistic cynicism in our current popular and artistic culture, hopefully this change occurs sooner than later in the case of Wallace.
Image: David Foster Wallace, 2006, and Philippe de Champagne’s St. Augustine, by MRB. David Foster Wallace adapted from Steve Rhodes via Wikimedia Commons.