Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text

Article excerpt

Ancient and Medieval

After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text. By Brian Stock. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. viii, 132. $32.00.)

Despite its diminutive size, this recent volume by Professor Brian Stock exhibits enormous learning in its efforts to uncover the patterns of relations between reading, writing, and the search for self-understanding during the Middle Ages. As the title suggests, the book presents a number of studies of what medieval readers made of Augustine's presentation of reading and writing as ways of achieving self-understanding. Though, as Stock points out, medieval authors may have gone considerably beyond Augustine in their hermeneutics and the extent to which they perceived literary activities as ends in themselves, their indebtedness to the Bishop of Hippo's ideas is always the starting point for understanding their contributions.

In the first chapter, Stock outlines Augustine's own ideas and practices regarding reading and writing in search of self-knowledge. What is distinctive about Augustine and what sets him apart from many of his late ancient contemporaries and near-contemporaries is his conviction that we can come to understand ourselves best through the narratives, always incomplete, of our own lives and the lives of others. To be sure, this orientation toward narrative was derived from the practice of reading and reflecting upon biblical narratives, but Augustine's incorporation of the narrative approach within the Neoplatonic theme of rising from the sensible realm to the supersensible realm inspired many of the approaches to reading and writing throughout the Middle Ages.

In the second, third, and fourth chapters, Stock makes a number of acute observations regarding the different forms and approaches found within medieval literature. In these chapters, he traces out why ancient philosophical dialogues and treatises gave way, in the course of the Middle Ages, to literature as the preferred vehicle for exploring ethical positions and counterpositions. The main cause for the shift in both literary form and the mode of questioning is to be found in the influence of Augustine's Confessiones and its stories, including Augustine's own story, of moral reform and spiritual renewal. Connected with this encouragement to medieval readers to engage in self-discovery through narrating lives are two other ideas: the notion that the self is never fully revealed through language and the idea of elevating the emotions so as to have them function as markers of spiritual progress. …

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