Brian Stock, After Augustine, The Meditative Reader and the Text. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001. 132pp. ISBN 0812236025.

Gary Kuchar
University of Victoria, B.C

Kuchar, Gary. "Review of Brian Stock, After Augustine, The Meditative Reader and the Text". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 9.1-6 <URL:>.

  1. While Brian Stock's 1996 study, Augustine the Reader. Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation, examined Augustine's view of interpretation as an ascetic and ethically oriented discipline aimed at self-transformation, this more recent work explores the effects the bishop of Hippo's reading practices had on the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly as exemplified by Petrarch and Sir Thomas More. Unusually compact and rather sparsely argued, Stock's book offers an account of the interpretive practices grounding the forms of self-narration characteristic of the Augustinian meditative tradition and its main Renaissance offshoots. Stock's central claim is that the Augustinian tradition of reading as an existentially committed form of self-contemplation (referred to after the thirteenth-century as lectio spiritualis) constitutes a significant and currently underappreciated genre of ethical thought and practice. At its heart, Stock's book is a plea for the recovery of the Augustinian tradition of reading as meditation - that is reading not for mere intellectual edification but for the ethico-spiritual advancement of the interpreter.

  2. Arguing that the lectio spiritualis played a central role in the development and consistency of European thought from Augustine to Pascal, Stock forwards the view that it was not only the Latin language that informed the cultural identity of late medieval and Renaissance Europe, but also a common set of reading practices. The book's erudite history of these practices and some of the central elements inherent in them are of genuine scholarly value to those concerned with the relations between reading and meditation in the Western tradition. However, Stock's nostalgic emplotment of the history of lectio spiritualis, in which modern forms of reading and self-narration are configured as a fall from the edenic moment at which Augustine unified inward experience with outward representation, is of less value.

  3. Stock begins by pointing out that although Augustine did not systematize his views of reading, his works, particularly The Confessions, became the focus of subsequent debates on the topic. He then traces the unsystematized but nonetheless consistent theory of reading in Augustine in relation to Augustine's philosophy of language, his method for interpreting the Bible, and in his personal account of his spiritual education. These three elements come together, Stock explains, in shaping Augustine's narrative of the self and the interpretive practices upon which this narration is predicated. The key point in Stock's initial analysis, and one that is developed throughout the book as a whole, is that Augustine's formation of a self-reflective reader offered an historically unprecedented approach to ethical thinking through acts of reading and interpretation. What is new about this approach, Stock claims, is that it posits a view of the literary imagination in which the interpretive and creative faculties can work to not only express a philosophy of life, but can play an active role in sustaining such a way of life. What thus distinguishes Augustine from previous Christian philosophers according to Stock is the existential dimension of The Confessions - the fact that Augustine seeks to not merely describe the self but to transform the self through the very act of self-description. This regime of self-transformation through reading operates, Stock argues, insofar as Augustine connects intentions and ethics through narrative. By conjoining will with ideal through story, Augustine sets in motion a reading practice that will have an enormous impact on the Western tradition of self-narration and self-understanding.

  4. Exploring the history of this reading practice, the first main chapter in Stock's work outlines the general characteristics of Augustine's inaugurating of the soliloquium which Stock defines as "a type of discourse in which a person and his rational spirit entered into debate in the interior of the soul on the preconditions and limitations of self-knowledge" (11). While the chapter offers a useful introduction to some of the genre's major elements, including the importance of silence, will, and emotions, its historical trajectory and anti-modern polemic is not compelling. At the end of the chapter, Stock makes it clear that his history is an attempt to distinguish the lectio spiritualis from twentieth-century forms of interpretation (assuming for the moment we can even speak of such a grouping) which, according to Stock, "considerably obscured the relationship between reading and contemplative practice that was deliberately incorporated into many late ancient and medieval writings on the self. As a result, a new generation of readers has largely been deprived of the historical disciplines that are needed to attain an understanding of [Augustine's] poetry of the inner life" (23). While I think most scholars of early modernity share Stock's concern with the loss of historical consciousness characteristic of the last century, there is nothing redemptive (or philologically compelling) about remaining melancholically attached to an Augustine who is portrayed as the specific moment in history when an ideal unity of the inner nature of the self and its outward literary articulations was realized. The problem here is not simply ideological, it is methodological. Although Stock's study demonstrates an enviable grasp of medieval and Renaissance traditions, it remains disengaged from recent analyses of the rhetorical procedures by which Augustine formally predicates the continuity between being and time in the Confessions. In short, Stock's account of how Augustine's texts work to fashion an existentially committed reader remains aloof from questions of the philosophy of form --- questions which seem essential to any book seeking to make a case for extending the Augustinian tradition into post-modernity.

  5. Unlike Marshall Grossman's recent analysis of the relations between rhetoric and metaphysics in the Confessions, Stock does not adequately address how Augustine's rhetorical procedures reflect and support the historically-specific onto-theological presuppositions grounding the unity of ethical commitment, intentional will and ideal form expressed in the Confessions. To be more precise, Stock does not take into account the extent to which the Confessions is predicated on the way it generates a version of the self, as Grossman puts it, "that is brought into being wholly within a system of signs, yet represents itself as the accurate copy or reflection of an ontically prior and necessarily immutable origin" (Story of All Things 63). While Grossman explains the precise ways in which the rhetorical operations of Augustine's Confessions formally supports (indeed helps generate) its onto-theological presuppositions, Stock uncritically repeats these operations and the metaphysics they support. For instance, in his discussion of Augustine's account of time in book 11, Stock points out that for Augustine, "the present has no existence, since it is all past or future; yet, if the intentional role of narrative is to be realized, the present is everything, since the anxiety about the possible unreality of the self is felt and relieved in the present. For Augustine, this is a meditative present, that is, a presence that absorbs and dissolves all fragmenting time zones" (34). As Grossman's reading of Augustine indicates, this uniting of being and time in an iconic moment that dissolves the conditions of difference and temporality is not simply a "mystical step into self-awareness" that one takes or leaves depending on one's faith (as Stock suggests in the line following the passage just quoted); it is a structural effect generated by and grounded in specific formal features and specific onto-theological presuppositions - presuppositions, need it be said, which have undergone thorough demystification in the last century in a half. In short, Stock's admiration for the way that Augustine connects intentions and ethics through narrative proceeds as though the practice of reading as contemplation were somehow recoverable in its medieval and Renaissance forms without adequately thinking through why metaphysically oriented forms of self-representation gave way to historically and psychologically centered forms in the first place. Stock, in other words, does not fully explain the implications inherent in the fact that Augustine's self-narration relies on an ideological commitment to a meta-narrative and its accompanying metaphysics for its rhetorical efficacy. There are good reasons that Augustine's reading practices have disappeared in favor of the interpretive procedures characteristic of such existentially committed disciplines as psychoanalysis, phenomenology and deconstruction - disciplines which are indebted to the Augustinian heritage even as they depart from it. For Stock's championing of lectio spiritualis to be convincing this larger picture will have to be taken into account and a far more nuanced presentation of modern forms of reading, self-narration, and ethics will have to emerge.

  6. Some of the difficult questions raised by Stock's richly erudite, if methodologically unsatisfying, study of lectio spiritualis are these: Why did this shift from Augustinian iconicity to early modern self-difference happen in the first place? What changes in lived-experience happened to necessitate such a shift in forms of self-narration? What precise forms of ethically committed modes of reading and writing emerged in the wake of this transition? And what sort of legitimacy should we grant to the many contemporary forms of existentially engaged forms of critical reading and expression that have arisen in place of lectio spiritualis? By providing a highly learned discussion of Augustinian reading practices, Stock provides some of the historical contexts needed for further analysis of these broad and important questions.

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