After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

Synopsis

Augustine of Hippo was the most prolific and influential writer on reading between antiquity and the Renaissance, though he left no systematic treatise on the subject. His reluctance to synthesize his views on other important themes such as the sacraments suggests that he would have been skeptical of any attempt to bring his statements on reading into a formal theory. Yet Augustine has remained the point of reference to which all later writers invariably return in their search for the roots of problems concerning reading and interpretation in the West.

Using Augustine as the touchstone, Brian Stock considers the evolution of the meditative reader within Western reading practices from classical times to the Renaissance. He looks to the problem of self-knowledge in the reading culture of late antiquity; engages the related question of ethical values and literary experience in the same period; and reconsiders Erich Auerbach's interpretation of ancient literary realism.

In subsequent chapters, Stock moves forward to the Middle Ages to explore the attitude of medieval Latin authors toward the genre of autobiography as a model for self-representation and takes up the problem of reading, writing, and the self in Petrarch. He compares the role of the reader in Augustine's City of God and Thomas More's Utopia, and, in a final important move, reframes the problem of European cultural identity by shifting attention from the continuity and change in spoken language to significant shifts in the practice of spiritual, silent reading in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A richly rewarding reflection on the history and nature of reading, After Augustine promises to be a centerpiece of discussions about the discovery of the self through literature.

Excerpt

During late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the spiritual exercises that were associated with self-improvement were normally based on extensive periods of reading and meditation. As a consequence, the reshaping of ethical values in these exercises became a part of the subject’s inner experience. The present volume is an exploration of this theme.

The figure who appears most frequently in these pages is Augustine of Hippo. This is understandable, since he is the most prolific and influential writer on reading between antiquity and the Renaissance. It is clear to all who have studied Augustine that his writings on the topic have important implications. But he refused to spell these out in detail, perhaps deliberately, and as a result his statements were occasionally quoted by opposing sides in medieval debates involving principles of interpretation, as they were by Berengar and Lanfranc during the eucharistic controversy. It can be argued that medieval and Renaissance thinkers were sometimes too systematic in their presentation of Augustine’s views on reading and interpretation. He did not write a treatise on the topic like the Didascalicon of his twelfth-century admirer Hugh of St. Victor. His reluctance to synthesize his views on other important themes, such as the sacraments, suggests that he would have been skeptical about any attempt to bring together his statements on reading as a formal theory. Yet, despite the unsystematic nature of his writings on the subject, he remained the point of reference to which later writers invariably returned in their search for the roots of problems concerning reading and interpretation. They were fascinated by his story of how he had sifted through the doctrines of ancient schools of phi-

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