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Monday, April 9, 2012

Confessions of a Rhetorician: 'Increasing and Multiplying' Augustine's Interpretive Sacrament

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Window of St. Augustine...
In the Spirit of Easter and Rhetoric I have chosen Saint Augustine’s Confessions to trace, erase, critically re-assemble and deconstruct. Augustine proves to be the ideally, impossible ascetic.

At the beginning of Book IV, about half way through the autobiographical portion, Augustine tells us:
“I used to teach the art of rhetoric. Overcome by greed myself, I used to sell the eloquence that would overcome an opponent…Without any resort to a trick I taught them the tricks of rhetoric, not that they should use them against the life of an innocent man, but that sometimes they might save the life of a guilty person. God, from far off you saw me falling about on slippery ground and in the midst of much smoke (Isa. 42: 3) discerned the spark of my integrity which in my teaching office I manifested to people who ‘loved vanity and sought after a lie’ (Ps. 4: 3) (Conf. IV: ii [2]).

St Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine’s torturous, yet joyous relationship to rhetoric and the polysemous nature of truth is narrated in depth throughout Confessions. While the first 9 books are a retelling of his past sins and path to faith, the last 4 books turn to a present expounding upon the nature of the subconscious, textual interpretation, the Manichees and the book of Genesis. Though Augustine narrates his struggle to find faith ‘on slippery ground and in the midst of much smoke’ as a story of overcoming, even in the penultimate chapter of his confession, even with eyes aimed on the light of the sun itself, Augustine's rapturous enchantment with rhetoric remained.


In Book XII Augustine seriously engages the question of the proper interpretation of the Bible, of God’s Word as disclosed through God’s servants on earth, most notably Moses and the meaning of Genesis. From the very first sentence, ‘In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth,’ a multiplicity of interpretations abound, surrounding what Beginning means for a God existing outside of Time, or what making means, whether something was made ex nihilo, or if there was the creation of unformed matter and then later formed. After considering many interpretations Augstine writes:

After hearing and considering these views to the best of my weak capacity…I see that two areas of disagreement can arise, when something is recorded by truthful reporters using signs (Conf. XII xxiii [32]).

The translator’s footnotes this sentence writing: “Augustine was very aware that words mean different things to different people; the ‘signs’ which are words are ambivalent. His theory of signs enabled him to integrate principles of biblical interpretation with ideas about grammar, rhetoric, and logic; but biblical signs convey sacred mysteries and therefore are particularly open to varied interpretation” (Fn. 22).

Augustine sets up a binary between the truth of a text and the intended meaning of its author. He writes:
It is one thing to inquire into the truth about the origin of the creation. It is another to ask what understanding of the words on the part of a reader and hearer was intended by Moses” (Conf. XII xxiii [32]).
So with biblical interpretation can the distinction between the plain meaning of a text and its intended meaning hold? From this binary Augustine claims he will not doubt either the truth of the text nor associate with those whom entertain the thought that Moses could have said anything untrue. Could the binary itself ever even hold as an analytic category for theological interpretation?
Among many truths which are met by inquiring minds in those words which are variously interpreted, which of us can discover your will with such assurance that he can confidently say ‘This is what Moses meant and this was his meaning in that narrative’ as confidently as he can say, ‘Whether Moses meant this or something else, this is true’?”

Augustine reconciles the apparent contradiction between the eternal, immutable Truth of the Word of God and the plurality of truths it yields through interpretation by means of another binary: that between a private truth and a public truth. Critics whom claim that their interpretation is the truth to the exclusion of another interpretation “love their own opinion not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they would equally respect another interpretation as valid.” And furthermore, “anyone who claims for his own property what you offer for all to enjoy…is driven from common truth to his own private ideas, that is from truth to a lie. For ‘he who speaks a lie’ speaks ‘from his own’ (John 8: 44).

Yet directly following this critique of interpretive audacity Augustine writes:
“Listen, best of judges, God, truth itself, listen to what I say to this opponent, listen, Before you I speak…Listen to what I say to him… ‘If both of us see that what you say is true and that what I say is true, then where, I ask, do we see this? I do not see it in you, nor you in me, but both of us see it in the immutable truth which is higher than our minds. If then we do not quarrel about the light from the Lord our God, why should we quarrel about the ideas of our neighbour, which we cannot see as clearly as the immutable truth is seen. If Moses himself had appeared to us and said, “This is my meaning”, even so we would not see it but believe. Therefore “let no one be puffed up for one against another beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4: 6).

A lot is happening in this passage which seems to unravel the clear binary oppositions Augustine had set up between the Truth/Intention, Private/Public, Truth/Lie.

Firstly Augustine claims that his interpretation of how to interpret texts on a meta-level is correct, nay is superior to other more particular and exclusive interpretations of how to deduce the truth of a Biblical text. By means of a subtle trick, Augustine raises his particular methodological interpretation of texts to the status of a universal, by affirming all interpretations of the text as true. While his interpretation of the Bible affirms the others as true in themselves, his interpretation does come at the exclusion of other interpretations that claim to exclusively true.

Secondly, while Augustine denounced those that would claim possession over their interpretation, he begins expounding upon his personal interpretation by claiming possession, asking, even begging, to be listened to, ‘Listen to what say to him’ and so on. Ought he not do away with the entitlement and claim rather that we ought to listen to the Word of God, to the scripture, to the text itself? But that would be just as ambiguous would it not? We’d be left in the same place, no?
St Augustine of Hippo


Thirdly, how can Augustine know what the intentions of his fellow interpreters are? Augustine claims that ‘the ideas of our neighbour…we cannot see as clearly as the immutable truth is seen.’ If the meaning of the immutable truth is already opaque and uncertain and our neighbours’ meaning is even more indeterminate how is it possible to interpret the intention or even plain meaning of an interpretation of a text that is the translation and interpretation of God’s word by another neighbour.

One aspect of deconstructive criticism is to read with the grain of a text or author, which is also what Augustine attempts to do and I think that this might perhaps be a good place to do so.
Perhaps Augustine’s trick is not really such a trick, just like the curricula of his rhetoric classes. Perhaps he is merely multiplying the Truth of God from singularly confined and contained essence into an immanently unfolding play of many truths.

Yet on the other hand Augustine writes:

“God has tempered these sacred books to the interpretations of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths...If I myself were to be writing something at this supreme level of authority I would choose to write so that my words would sound out with whatever diverse truth in these matters each reader was able to grasp, rather than to give a quite explicit statement of a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views-provided there was no false doctrine to offend me.”

While earlier Augustine claims that we cannot deduce whether the writer of God’s word had proper intentions here he asserts that the writer has autonomy over what sort of words he would use to convey God’s Word. Furthermore, while earlier he asserts a claim to possession a certain mastery over language to be able to discern between words that “sound out with whatever diverse truth” versus “a quite explicit statement of a single true view.” Yet earlier he claimed there were no statements that had an explicit or singularly true interpretation. And finally he claims he would not exclude any other views so long as they did not offend him in their falsity.

One of the origins of the problems Augustine sees in others’ interpretations is that:

“When they hear ‘God said, Let there be that, and that is made’, they think of words with beginnings and endings, making a sound in time and passing away. They suppose that after the words have ceased, at one there exists that which was commanded to exist, and have other similar notions which they hold because of their familiarity with the fleshy order of things…in their state of weakness they are carried as if at their mother’s breast by an utterly simple kind of language.”

The words of God exist in a world unknown to man. Augustine notes that there is an impossible gap between the language of the divine and the language of the ‘fleshy order of things.’ Because of this impossibility of pure resemblance within symbolic language there are a number of techniques, stylistics devices, and linguistic inventions (such as the depth of figurative language) that mark this ‘difference.’

In Book XIII Augustine speaks of the resemblance and difference contained within figurative language:
To whom can I communicate this? How can I speak about it? For it is not about literal places where we sink down and rise up. This symbolic language contains a resemblance, but also a difference…In this still uncertain state of human knowledge, you alone mark thedifference between them and us. You test our hearts (Ps. 16: 3) and call light day and darkness night (Gen. 1: 5). Who can distinguish between us except you (Conf. XIII, emphasis mine)?

It is precisely because of the uncertainty and finitude of human knowledge that man must appeal to a divine source which makes and marks the differences between self/other, truth/lies, day/night.

Furthermore, the authority of divine scripture is multiplied as a result of the death of its mortal authors.

Your divine scripture has more sublime authority since the death of the mortal authors through whom you provided it for us…Indeed, by the very fact of their death the solid authority of your utterances published by them is in a sublime way ‘stretch out’ over everything inferior.

The increased power relegated to the textual is a move that in some ways oddly mirrors the increased relevance granted to the discursive in the wake of post-structuralists’ ‘death of the author.’ Post-structuralists are referring not to the literal death of the author, but to the death of the assumption of possession or mastery granted to the author’s claim of authority over a text. Nonetheless, the literal death of the divine messengers has the same effect of denouncing man’s claim to transcendence achieved by means of language. The translator notes that the reference to the stretching out of a text like a skin symbolizes ‘a remedy for our mortality.’ Which is similar to the insights of Phenomenology or Deconstruction, that language is a Pharmakon, a contradictory and ambivalent bearer of both life and death, a remedy and a poison. We are condemned to language unto death, life and death have meaning only in so far as the limits of our languages, grammars, and syntax allow.

Within Augustine’s Greek inspired metaphysics of Christ God is not merely revealed to man and woman through a translated text, but is a text even to Angels in the ‘heaven of heavens.’

Your angels…have no need to look up to this firmament and to read so as to know your word. They ever ‘see your face’ (Matt. 18: 10) and there, without syllables requiring time to pronounce, they read what your eternal will intends. They read, they choose, they love. They ever read, and what they read never passes away. By choosing and loving they read the immutability of your design. Their codex is never closed, nor is their book ever folded shut. For you yourself are a book to them and you are for eternity (Ps. 47: 15) (Conf. XIII).

What to make of such peculiar ways of understanding God as a text, a codex, a design, and a book? In a footnote the translator explains:

For Augustine the method is justified by its edifying results, and is in principle a working out of the correspondence or analogy between the physical and ‘intelligible’ worlds. The multiplicity of symbols answers to the restlessness of the human heart and mind, continually desiring change. But these symbols, in which scripture is so rich, point to eternal truths. Allegorical exegesis is the sacramental principle applied to scripture (Book XIII, Fn. 22).

Or again in a later footnote:

Visible signs and sacraments are a necessity because of the fallen nature of humanity. Signs are required by sinful people, but truly spiritual Christians look higher, beyond material means (Book XIII, Fn. 24).

And as Augustine eloquently puts it:

But while the truths of these things remain the same, their embodiments in the physical realm are both many and varied. One thing grows out of another, and so, by your blessing, God, things are multiplied. You have relieved the tedium for mortal senses by the fact that what is one thing for our understanding can be symbolized and expressed in many ways by physical movements (Conf. Book XIII xx 27).

The analogical correspondence between the physical and the intelligible worlds, between the realms of the fleshy order of textuality and the divine Word of God emerges from and is displayed in the depths of the Bible’s ‘figurative words.’

I do not see what objection there is to my thus interpreting the figurative words of your book. I know that at the bodily level one can give a plurality of expressions to something which in the mind is understood as a single thing, and that the mind can give a multiplicity of meanings to something which, at the physical level, is a single thing….at the bodily level it is expressed by numerous sacraments and in innumerable languages and in innumerable phrases of any particular language…Cannot this bear many interpretations, not including misleading errors, but true interpretations of different kinds? In the same way the offspring of human beings ‘increase and multiply’.

“If, therefore, we think of the natures of things not allegorically but literally, the word ‘Increase and multiply’ applies to all creatures generated by seeds. But if we treat the text as figurative (which I prefer to think scripture intended since it cannot be pointless that it confines this blessing to aquatic creatures and human beings), then we find multitudes in the spiritual and physical creations…

“In all these things we find multitudes and abundances and increases. But only in signs given corporeal expression and in intellectual concepts do we find an increasing and a multiplying which illustrate how one thing can be expressed in several ways and how one formulation can bear many meanings...because of the fertility of reason, I interpret the generation of humanity to mean concepts in the intelligible realm. …By this blessing I understand you grant us the capacity and ability to articulate in many ways what we hold to be a single concept, and to give a plurality of meanings to a single obscure expression in a text we have read (Conf. Book XIII).

Humanity’s blessing to multiply the meanings, corporeal expressions, and conceptual forms of intelligibility of a ‘single obscure expression’ is an unlimited endowment that extends beyond Augustine’s intended limits. Even in this turn of phrase, “we find multitudes in the spiritual and physical creations…” we find so many possibilities for interpreting the differing meanings of the spiritual which extend beyond Augustine’s finite glimpse into the heaven of heavens; eyes trained upon the sun don’t know the self-annihilating seduction that knowledge imparts; when one becomes so attached to the stars is when dis-aster is the most painful.

Humanity’s fate is sealed but also saved by the emergence of the sign; the fall unto sin necessitates language. Without the slippery, leaky, surprising play of language the uncertainty between truth and untruth, good and evil, would cease to exist. Without the play of language there would be no need of, nor would there be a possibility for, repentance, confession, or redemption.



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