Novak (novak) wrote,
Novak
novak

Theological Notebook: Cavadini's Brilliant Article "Reconsidering the Self in Augustine's Thought"

John Cavadini, my mentor as a Master's student at Notre Dame and now the Chair of the Department of Theology there, has written what Michel Barnes said might be the best thing he's ever written on Augustine. The two of them are both Augustine scholars, and John seems to be here in much the same L'Enfant terrible mode I've seen Barnes and his collaborator Lewis Ayres of Emory University: shaking up the field of Augustine studies by doing something startlingly radical – reading Augustine.

Seriously.

I was shocked to discover from studying with Barnes just how much this field – of the man arguably still the most foundational thinker in the West, even in our secularized thought-systems – has for decades been perpetuating inaccuracies due to the simple fact of scholars quoting one another rather than reading Augustine closely. Augustine was so huge, and so given to being summarized by other thinkers, that the accepted summaries really began to distort people's readings of the text. So the paradigms have been falling of late: Augustine the Neo-Platonist; Augustine the guy who made everything go wrong about sex in the West; and here with John, Augustine the founder of the Western notion of the Self. In Cavadini's "The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine's Thought" in the last volume of Augustinian Studies, John challenged the standard "Augustine and the Creation of the Self" line which I too had obviously ingested over the years. Cavadini's attention to the detail of the Latin text, where I've generally been using the Boulding translation that makes use of the English word "self," was a great caution. There is no equivalent word to "self" in Latin. But the "English Augustine," where that word is written into texts, ends up lending Augustine's language to be related to Descartes and Locke and other modern theorists of the Self. My self. Your self. Our selves. The English gives a possessive note to it, too. And why not? Because everyone translating and reading has been told: Augustine creates this concept of the Self: so we expect to find it.

Enter Augustine: in the Latin, he speaks not of an "inner self," as the translations go, but of an "inner man," possessing five "inner" versions of our same senses. We translate this idea accurately in someone like Origen of Alexandria (d. 254), because we don't expect the "self" idea in him. Rather than concretizing a self that stands apart from the world and our actions, inviolable, Augustine actually portrays the "inner man" – humanity's innermost reality – as created and derivative of the existence of the Triune God who is living interpersonal Love. Flawed by sin, anything that appears to be an independent "Self" is in fact the decaying human beings who cut themselves off from the fundamental reality of God on which all people depend, whether they want to admit that or not. I was very interested to see Cavadini's attention to the program of the De Trinitate (Augustine's still brilliant and pertinent book on the Trinity), which gave me an increasing sense of the unity of the vision of Love in Augustine. That particular unity, I think, is going to be fertile ground for teaching, as a motif that I think students can apprehend and process profitably, that they can use as an organizing principle for Augustine's actual teaching, and use in comparison to other forms of thought or perspective.
Tags: academia, augustine, augustine's de trinitate, barnes, course articles, mysticism/spirituality, nonsense in academia, notre dame, patristics, philosophical, psychological, theological notebook, trinity
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