St. Augustine and The American Apocalypse

Alexander Earl on Erik Kenyon

Erik Kenyon. Augustine and the Dialogue. Cambridge University Press. 250 pgs. $99.99.

If there is one word that captures the situation of “the West” it is crisis. The political crisis, the ecological crisis, the crisis of the Middle East, the refugee crisis, the crisis of liberal hegemony, the crisis of conservative bigotry, the crisis of identity in its kaleidoscopic variety (racial, ethnic, national, sexual, gendered), the crisis of church decline, the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, the opioid crisis, the crisis of higher education; the list trails on. With each crisis there streams the ever-abundant polyphony of expert opinions heralding its causes in perfect Aristotelian fashion: material, efficient, formal, and final. In a word, there is an acute sense of our historical moment as apocalyptic—as any cursory glance at popular literature and media will demonstrate—yet despite the sounding of the trumpets, and contrary to its etymology, we are not quite sure what this apocalypse is revealing to us. While our senses have been activated, we still cannot see.

But perhaps the ubiquity of the term is enough to give us some indication as to what exactly we should be looking for. An intuitive definition of a crisis is that it has something to do with a choice in light of immense difficulties. But a choice is the purview of an agent, an agent that has encountered a reality which demands response, and, moreover, the response prompted of the agent must be made in full light of that agent’s contingency: their history, personality, and the circumstances of space and time. In the classical philosophical tradition, psuche, or soul, is the principle of life and motion of an organic body that brings that plethora of contingency into a real unity, manifesting the depths of its being in its activity; for humanity, this unity consists of properly ordering the faculties of reason, concupiscence and irascibility, or the classic tri-partite soul. To encounter an agent-in-act is inevitably to evaluate and judge what that action is manifesting. Through such indicators as intention, means, circumstance, and end, we work to understand an agent’s hidden character.

Thus, any crisis is because it is a crisis for an agent, and to be an agent entails moral evaluation, more boldly, moral judgment. But it would be misleading to use the singular here. Human beings are social creatures. In fact, there is no such thing as a human being simple and alone. We exist in relation; we are constituted in relation. Thus, moral judgment is always political, must always make reference to the polis to which the agent belongs and in turn constitutes.

The ramifications of this claim are great: individual moral judgment is always and already a kind of collective moral judgment. It is perhaps such an insight that made Aristotle, and Plato before him, think of ethical life and political life as inextricably linked. No matter which side of the relation you begin with, you must inevitably make a synthesis. If you want to ask the question, what does it mean to flourish? You must simultaneous ask the question, what is the flourishing polis? If you want one you need the other; there is a paradoxical feedback loop. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that Aristotle prefaces the Politics with the Nicomachean Ethics. We need to know what the nature of the human being is before we can know its proper end, and we need to know its proper end before we can know what the good state is such that it cultivates the conditions for producing that kind of character.

The crucial question becomes: how do we cultivate those kinds of people, and how do we cultivate them amidst the indefatigable difficulties and shortcomings of political life? Here we arrive at some clarity; perhaps the root of these various crises is one of education, and the question of education is not just a question of content, but of pedagogy. But what does that mean?

Perhaps aid can be found in late-antiquity. Augustine of Hippo, a man as controversial as he is influential, wrestled with similar questions. While many are familiar with the Augustine of the Confessions and the City of God, fewer are familiar with his dialogical works. Not long after Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, he retreated to a villa in Cassiciacum in 386 with some close friends to live in a philosophical community. It is around this period that we have his earliest works, which by and large are all in the form of the dialogue. Contra Academicos (Against the Academic Skeptics), De Beata Vita (On the Happy Life), De Ordine (On Order), De Musica (On Music), Soliloquia (Soliloquy), De Immortalitate Animae (On the Immortality of the Soul), De Quantitate Animae (On the Soul’s Greatness), De Magistra (On the Teacher), and De Libero Aribitrio (On Free Choice of the Will) make up a fascinating collection of works engaging an almost endless variety of philosophical questions, as the titles themselves suggest.

Yet within Augustine scholarship, there has always been a debate about the unity of the man, and not just in terms of developmentalist versus unitary accounts (i.e. did he change his mind about anything, and so on). Some of his most popular works have always garnered questions about textual coherence. For example, how do Chapters 10-13 of Confessions, which are extensive philosophical reflections on memory, time, and biblical exegesis, relate to the first nine, which are overwhelmingly personal and autobiographical? This issue is even more prominent in these dialogical works. On Free Choice of the Will, for example, begins with a question about whether evil can be taught, jumps into a discussion on the difference between temporal and eternal law, traverses an extended demonstration of God’s existence, pitstops to reflect on varieties of determinism, and slowly grinds its way to the problems of infant death, animal suffering, and reflections on the fall of Adam and the devil. To the reader, it can all seem a bit scattered. Hence, it is not uncommon to find an undergraduate philosophy class focus on the first two books to the neglect of the third, where all the luscious philosophical quandaries of the first two books suddenly shifts into quotes of scripture, theological problems, and reflections on the demonic.

And here we have the scholarship of Erik Kenyon, which has recently been distilled into his first monograph, Augustine and the Dialogue. His analysis of the situation is worth quoting in full:

Unfortunately, the last 120 years of scholarship have reduced the dialogues to a bewildering mess of fragmented ideas. Philosophers, theologians, historians and literary scholars have all engaged in extreme cherry picking: focusing on individual passages, sentences or even words, while passing over the main bulk of each text. Nor do specialists from these various fields talk much with each other. As a result, the scholarly community has come to view Augustine’s dialogues as juvenilia, which rehash the same tired old points, engage in extraneous exercises, wander off topic, advance flawed arguments, misunderstand Christian doctrine and in general fail to attain any substantial literary or philosophical coherence.

Do not these terms sound familiar? Fragmented ideas, cherry picking, juvenilia, wandering off topic, flawed arguments, and the lack of literary and philosophical coherence looks like our on-the-ground experience in the twenty-first century. So what’s gone wrong here? For one thing, the above indicates a problem is the lack of interdisciplinary engagement, and I would venture to say that this lack is not just a problem in terms of scholars of differing fields failing to work together, but rather the lack of thinking across disciplines. We ourselves have become fragmented. Philosophy, theology, history and literature have been torn asunder. We have trapped ourselves in disciplinary bubbles that are caught in a narrow vision of things, so when we approach texts and thinkers with a grander scheme of the cosmos and its interconnectedness we are bound to be confused and think it all incoherent.

So what is to be done? What might seem like an esoteric crisis in Augustinian scholarship suddenly reflects a crisis about how we think, and how that thinking might give rise to a whole host of other predicaments. In which case, perhaps the resolution of one can aid us in resolving the other. In Augustine’s case, Kenyon argues that we should approach him in a holistic way and cease strip-mining his work for this or that argument or literary trope. We should especially not get bogged down in attempts to historically recreate Augustine’s psyche, but turn to the “overarching arguments and rhetorical strategy instead of individual passages” and “prefer interpretations that make sense of a text as a whole.” What we find, Kenyon avers, are “works centrally concerned with the practice of inquiry. When it comes to finding guidance, the dialogues look foremost to the act of inquiry itself: the fact that we can inquire at all tells us various things about ourselves.” The direction has shifted: what might it look like to view Augustine’s dialogues, and the nature of dialoguing in general, in terms of pedagogy and not in terms of content, as journeys of self-discovery instead of didactic treatises?

Thus, it is the virtues of philosophical inquiry, intellectual charity, coherence over deconstruction, and explanatory power that Kenyon is after, and what we get when we put those together is a profound tool for inquiry and self-knowledge, and Kenyon argues Augustine has done exactly that. Every dialogue consists of a discussion that arrives at some impasse, but this impasse in turn “exposes the shortcomings of the debaters’ various assumptions and modes of thought.” The impasse is akin to the classic Socratic aporia, or puzzle. However, unlike Plato’s Socratic dialogues of the same style, Augustine moves beyond the initial puzzle to reflect on the debate as a whole. In other words, the debates move from general rational activity in pursuit of some discrete answer to an act of meta-cognition, or the process of thinking about thinking. What does the debate up to this point tell us about ourselves as inquirers: our assumptions, our questions, our methods? Our first-order puzzles can platform into second-order knowledge about human nature, expand our self-knowledge, and allow us to reframe and see things in a different way than when we began. This act of reflection opens out into plausible accounts to solve the initial dilemma, “i.e. richly explanatory without being proven true.” These three-stages of aporia, reflection, and plausibility get you a method that Kenyon dubs A.R.P., and ARP, he argues, is what structures and gives coherence to all of Augustine’s dialogues.

If Kenyon is right, it is easy to see how other scholars have gone awry in their readings of Augustine. If Augustine has this rich method in mind that structures the content and progress of his dialogues, then it is not enough simply to point out “Augustine says” in some particular passage, for that passage could contain ideas or methods that Augustine is aiming to purge out of the reader. They are necessary for the journey, but without a bigger picture of Augustine’s pedagogical method, one cannot make sense of how the details fit together.

But this method may strike some readers as foreign. Augustine is often thought of as the dogmatist, the bishop, the defender of the faith, the saint, and so on. How could all of his dialogues be principally about pedagogy instead of content? Is it not watering down the great saint’s work to say he’s after something like probability instead of proof? What ramifications might that have for thinking about his conversion to Christianity and about Christian truth? Such a view is understandable: Augustine’s own intellectual journey is one marked by a series of conversions, first from Manichean dualism, to a period of skepticism, then to Platonist intellectualism and finally to Catholic Christianity. Many scholars have certainly portrayed this series as an abandoning of the prior position in favor of a new one. However, the truth is far more complex, and Kenyon does not ask us to simply trust his reconstruction. He turns to Augustine himself, who he argues gives us an indication of this method in his very first dialogue, Against the Academic Skeptics. In this text, Augustine is tackling the various arguments brought to bear on Stoic cognition from the Skeptics, which leads them to the claim that knowledge cannot be found. Moreover, he’s dealing with the larger question concerning the unity of the historic Platonic Academy itself. After all, how did the tradition of the great Plato, who assured us of eternal truths in an intelligible world, lapse into a full-blown skepticism about knowledge? The answer is profound:

Therefore, since Zeno was seduced by a certain view of his own about the world and especially about the soul, about which true philosophy is ever vigilant, saying that the soul is mortal and that nothing exists beyond this sensible world and that nothing is accomplished in this world unless by a body – for he thought God himself to be fire – and since this evil spread far and wide, Arcesilaus seems to me most prudently and usefully to have hidden the Academy’s view deeply and buried it as though gold to be found by posterity. Therefore, since the common mob is more prone to rush into false opinions and because of the familiarity with bodies believes more easily, but to their own detriment that all things are bodily, that most clear-sighted and humane man decided to un-teach those, whom he endured as being badly taught, rather than teach those whom he did not deem teachable. And from this was born all those things that are attributed to the New Academy (Contra Academicos 3.38.)

Kenyon refers to this passage as Augustine’s “secret history” of the Academy. In light of a ubiquitous materialism, and the tendency of the “mob” to adopt false opinions by putting too unreflective a trust in their common sense, the Platonists adopt a pedagogy that is meant to initiate students into the mystery of Platonic doctrine. But in order to prepare potential initiates, they must be un-taught their harmful opinions and led to see another way of viewing reality as more plausible. As Kenyon summarizes, “for the teacher, it is a process of concealing, un-teaching and eventually unveiling some treasured doctrine. For the student, it is a process of un-learning and self-discovery building to a final revelation. In practice, this plays out through a process of aporetic debate, reflection on the act of debating and the final revelation of a plausible conclusion, i.e. ARP.” In which case, Augustine is not so much rejecting skepticism as appropriating their methods to different ends. In fact, he thinks this posture was what the Skeptics were up to all along!

Unapologetically, I have attempted something like ARP here. An initial inquiry about various cultural crises gives rise to questions about agency and agents-in-relation, and questions about cultivating agency in order to deal with said crises leads to puzzles about education and pedagogy. That aporia moves us into meta-reflection on a seemingly unrelated dilemma about the nature and purpose of dialogues, for which Augustine has served as our concrete aid. What we discover is the nature of a dialogue involves a three-fold process of encountering puzzles, reflecting on the act of being puzzled, and having that self-knowledge lead to plausible accounts forward. This process captures the very nature of inquiry, and thereby enables the inquirer to see reality in unexpected ways.

How might this method transform how we think about the purpose of the liberal arts, an issue Augustine himself tackles in his dialogues? What about the nature of religious belief and practice, and how philosophy and skepticism may be inseparable from it? How might it change how we think of the dialogue as such, and in what ways we might be tackling the crises before us in the wrong way? How might ARP aid us in reevaluating our assumptions, our questions, and our methods? What might it teach us about the relationship between teacher and student, or how the various disciplines in the modern academy can find unity in method, if not in content?

As we continue to think about the ramifications of our own era, we would be remiss if we did not turn to Augustine for aid. His own life was marked by one crisis after another: spiritual, intellectual, personal, and political. His religious and intellectual journey intertwine to form a narrative of various conversions; he had a mistress, a son out of wedlock, and that son in turn died in early adulthood; he participated in various ecclesial controversies, and on his deathbed the vandals were besieging Hippo. The man had some familiarity with the nature of a crisis.

Moreover, Augustine’s pedagogical method, as Kenyon points out, can serve as useful ways for reflecting not just on the role of higher education in the twenty-first century, but what the central feature of the intellectual life even is, which may have more to do with the nature of rational inquiry than in the content of that inquiry. Augustine’s own holistic vision of life—the intricate meeting of nature and grace, religion and philosophy, church and state, which were inevitably to be divided and dichotomized in the medieval period—coupled with his own rich sense of human interiority, may help us see our own issues with new eyes and broach the pre-modern and modern worlds, the division of which has left us with a narrow vision.

Thus, we should heed Kenyon’s call to get past typical readings of Augustine, which inevitably polarize his thought and work, and instead enter into the dynamism of his dialogues. If a crisis involves the unified response of agents in the full weight of their contingency, then it is without a doubt the pedagogical scope of the dialogue that we are most in need of. It is time to engage each other in a spirit of inquiry, embracing the puzzles that face us, allowing those puzzles to platform into meta-reflection on the very act of being puzzled, and searching for plausible ways forward, which always entails an openness to further inquiry and engagement. Here, through the contingency of Augustine the man, the intersection of religious belief, intellectual skepticism, cultic purification, and devotion to the philosophical life can be distinguished only conceptually. Kenyon’s articulation of ARP may be more than a unitive key to Augustine’s dialogues, it may just be one of those fundamental features of being human that we have lost sight of. If that is all true, it is certainly apocalyptic.

Alexander Earl currently teaches theology and philosophy at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California, and holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School. His interests focus on the intersection of Christian theology and Platonic philosophy in late-antiquity, especially combating popular myths that dichotomize the two. He is a contributor to the blog Eclectic Orthodoxy, has a forthcoming article in the International Philosophical Quarterly, and is currently working on writing four-year curricula in theology and philosophy for secondary education. Check out his work at