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On Christian Asceticism: Spiritual Exercises in Saint Augustine's Confessions

The present article seeks to address an important point of contact between early Christian ascetic practice and the heritage of pPlatonism through the end of the fourth century AD. In short, I find marked similarities between Pierre Hadot's
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  Studies in Spirituality   25, 21-43. doi: 10.2143/SIS.25.0.3112887© 2015 by Studies in Spirituality. All rights reserved.  J OSEPH  G RABAU ON CHRISTIAN ASCETICISMSpiritual Exercises in Saint Augustine’s Confessions  * SUMMARY – The present article seeks to address an important point of contact between early Christian ascetic practice and the heritage of Platonism through the end of the fourth century     AD . In short, I find marked similarities between Pierre Hadot’s reading of Plato’s Phaedo , for example, and that of St Augustine’s personal prayer book, the Confes-sions  . After outlining essential characteristics of Hadot’s take on spiritual exercises and Augustinian anthropology, I subject the text of the Confes-sions   to critical examination in order to determine whether an emphasis on ‘spiritual exercises’ is indeed present. I argue that similar spiritual practices may be clearly discerned. First, I discuss the distinct ‘Christian’ and Augustinian character of ‘spiritual exercises’ which incorporate bibli-cal typology of Adam and Christ as paradigmatic for the spiritual life. Next, in terms of concrete practices, I then discern from the first four books of the Confessions a series of exercises through which such a path of spiritual progress ( i.e.  from ‘Adam’ to ‘Christ’) may occur. Of note, I consider the dialectic  praxis of 1) contemplative reading, 2) prayer- writing and 3) prayer itself, or ‘pure’ prayer – distinct from Augustine’s  written reflections; 4) the role of lectio divina or meditation on Scrip-ture; and, finally, 5) meditation on death. In addition to developing these individual practices, it is the traditional Augustinian anthropology (rooted as it is in a theology of divine grace) that reveals the essential ‘Christian’ contribution of Augustine’s. Pierre Hadot, the late French philosopher and historian of late antiquity, understood ancient philosophy not simply as an academic discipline but rather as a disciplined way of life. 1  As such, philosophy for Hadot consists of specific *  With a number of relatively minor revisions, this paper represents the third and final chapter of my 2009 master’s thesis directed by Prof. dr. Matthias Vorwerk in The Catholic University of America’s School of Philosophy, Washington, D.C. 1  Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault   (trans. Michael Chase), Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995, parts of which were previously published in 1993, now available in the updated edition, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique   (rev. ed.),  22  JOSEPH   GRABAU practices, which are what the author called ‘spiritual exercises’. Plato’s Phaedo , the Letter to Menoeceus  , and the short treatise ‘On Attention’ – each an example of the practical meditations characteristic of Hellenistic philosophy – together serve to demonstrate the value of Hadot’s  praxis  -hermeneutic. I would like to extend this interpretation the Frenchman had applied to those texts now to consider also the Confessions   of Saint Augustine (written 397-403  AD ). With a view to these ‘spiritual exercises’, I note in particular the dialectic at work between Augustine and others in the late Roman Empire, as well as Augustine’s own indebtedness to the previous philosophical and theological tradition. 2  In so doing, we may gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of Christian ‘asceticism’ at its srcin. In the fourth chapter of Philosophy as a Way of Life  , Hadot explored how these themes of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ and the essential practice of ‘spir-itual exercises’ in fact continue beyond the Hellenistic period in the history of philosophy, even to appear in Christian writings. 3  Yet Hadot carefully distin-guished the spiritual exercises of ancient Greek philosophy from those of Saint Ignatius, the 16 th  century founder of the Jesuit order. Augustine stood between these two strands in the history of Western spirituality and philosophy, and one may find continuity between Greek and Christian thought, which Hadot Paris: Michel, 2002. On the point of view of the author in his treatment of philosophy, see Pierre Hadot, ‘There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers’ (trans.  J. Aaron Simmons), in:  Journal of Speculative Philosophy   19 (2005), 229-237. For critical reception, see also Alven M. Neiman, ‘Self examination, philosophical education and spiritu-ality’, in:  Journal of Philosophy of Education  34 (2000), 571-590; Thomas Flynn, ‘Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot’, in: Philosophy & Social Criticism  31 (2005), 609-622; François Renaud, ‘ Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault  , and: Qe’est-ce que la philosophie antique?  [reviews]’, in:  Journal of the History of Philosophy   35 (1997) no.4, 637-640; Pierre Hadot, What is ancient philosophy?  (trans. Michael Chase), Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002; and Alexander Nehamas, The art of living: Socratic reflections from Plato to Foucault  , Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. On the late antique situation of Augustine’s own reflection and use of the spiri-tual exercises in rhetorical training, see also Paul Kolbet,  Augustine and the cure of souls: Revis-ing a classical ideal  , Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. 2  See Plato’s Phaedo , trans. G.M.A. Grube in Plato: Complete works   (ed. John M. Cooper), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997; Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus in: Hellenistic philosophy: Introduc-tory readings   (2 nd  ed.; trans. Brad Inwood & L.P. Gerson), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997, 28-31; and the Discourses   of Epictetus in Stoic and Epicurean philosophers: The complete extant writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius   (ed. Whitney J. Oates), New  York: Random House, 1940. For secondary literature on Hellenistic philosophy beyond the  work of Hadot, the place to begin is Martha C. Nussbaum, The therapy of desire: Theory and  practice in Hellenistic ethics  , Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 3  Pierre Hadot, ‘Ancient spiritual exercises and “Christian philosophy”’, in: Philosophy as a way of life  , Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995, 126-144.    ON   CHRISTIAN    ASCETICISM   23 demonstrated by citing Clement of Alexandria and the subsequent synthesis of Stoic, Neoplatonic and Judeo-Christian elements in the third, fourth and fifth centuries of the common era. St. Augustine himself received notice in Hadot’s  work primarily for the former’s affinity to the Platonic separation of the soul from the body, a feature shared by the bishop of Hippo with early Christian monasticism as well as the ascetic theology of the Cappadocians. Yet rather than dwelling upon a single author, Hadot’s focus in the present context was to sketch how spiritual exercises occur in Christian writings and how these compare to the earlier tradition. For its value both in describing the author’s own conversion and as a pro-treptic designed with intent to bring about the conversion of others, I will focus specifically on Augustine’s Confessions  . Not only the general concept but also even individual spiritual exercises, such as attention  to the present moment and meditation  on death (analyzed elsewhere in the Platonic and Stoic sources above), reappear in Augustine’s thinking. Accordingly, I will provide a brief overview of how Hadot deals with Augustine, and, with this orientation in place, I will apply the model of spiritual exercises given in Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life to a handful of passages in the Confessions  , presuming that my reader has some basic knowledge of ancient philosophy. In the end, I hope not only to demonstrate the value of Hadot’s understanding of spiritual exercises for reading the Confessions  , but also how this concept can be extended to include distinctly   Christian spiritual exercises, to be found particularly in the ascetic theology of the fourth (and fifth) century. In what is arguably just as true of the Cappadocians, Augustine of Hippo writes both as a philosopher and as a Christian, and my proposal is to launch an attempt to reconcile the two modes of authorship. 4 In that respect, one must reckon with a central debate in Augustine’s own lifetime, namely the Pelagian controversy and its insistence on the integrity of human action. In opposition to claims of ‘srcinal sin’ from the side of  Augustine, Pelagianism would defend the nobility of human nature in line, so it seems, with the legacy of Greek philosophy. That Augustine would adopt any form of spiritual exercise or technique of philosophical and spiritual ascent must, in the end, also come to terms with an apparent discontinuity between the human ‘effort’ entailed in the exercises, and the unearned merit of free 4   On this issue, Peter Brown, ‘Introduction’, in: Augustine, Confessions  . 2 nd  ed. (trans. F.J. Sheed; ed. Michael P. Foley), Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006, xxv writes, ‘Augustine remained to the end of his life an unreconstructed ancient philosopher. He believed that human beings should take their lives in hand, and that no training of the self could hope to succeed if it were not grounded in reality – that is, in as true a view as was possible for humans to attain of the nature of God, of the universe, and of the human person’.  24  JOSEPH   GRABAU divine grace. Nevertheless, because Pelagianism became an open issue for  Augustine only well after the publication of his Confessions  , the criticism that ‘spiritual exercises’ are fundamentally Pelagian is probably insensitive histori-cally, despite the apparent attractiveness of such an interest. Beyond mention of the problem in its general outline, I must unfortunately limit myself to raising possible avenues of response – mainly to acknowledge the central role of grace (or  gratia  ) in the thought of Augustine, most of all in the contexts of human salvation, theological anthropology and any Augustinian spirituality that takes account of the author’s entire corpus  . When Hadot begins to address the Confessions  , he wonders how a reader should even approach the text. After all, it transcends the narrow categories of patristic authorship, or even ancient philosophy, to become what is well recog-nized for its standing among the most influential pieces of world literature. 5  Relying upon the scholarship of one of his primary influences, Pierre Courcelle, Hadot suggests that the Confessions   should not be read as an autobiography but as theology in the strictest sense. 6  For example, when Augustine describes the moment in which he sat beneath a fig tree weeping, Courcelle interprets this as a symbol of the destructive effects of sin; and it is in fact an example of the typology at work in the Confessions  . 7  The fig tree, according to Courcelle and 5  Arnold I. Davidson, ‘Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the spiritual phenomenon of ancient philosophy’, in: Philosophy as a way of life  , 1-45 (esp. 15-17) notes that Hadot is clearly dependent upon Pierre Courcelle, Recherches sur les ‘Confessions’ de saint Augustin . Nouvelle édition augmentée et illustrée, Paris: Boccard, 1968 (src. publ. 1950), particularly for his view of Augustine’s conception of biblical typology along the trajectory of Adam-David-Christ. On the genre of the Confessions  , see also Charles T. Mathewes, ‘Book One: The pre-sumptuousness of autobiography and the paradoxes of beginning’, in: Kim Paffenroth & Robert P. Kennedy (Eds.),  A reader’s companion to Augustine’s Confessions  , Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, 7-24; and Francis M. Young, ‘“The Confessions” of Saint Augustine: What is the genre of this work?’, in:  Augustinian Studies   30 (1999) no.1, 1-16. Introductions to all standard English translations will likewise address this question of literary criticism that remains perennial for Augustine’s masterwork. 6  Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life  , 51-52. See also Brian Stock, ‘Reading, ethics, and the liter-ary imagination’, in: New Literary History   34 (2003), 1-17, at 8 where the author writes, ‘the Confessions employs a wide range of classical literary devices in telling a good story in which, as Pierre Courcelle demonstrated, the factual record is occasionally altered in order to enhance the theological message’. 7   On the role of typology in the history of (patristic) exegesis, see Manlio Simonetti, Biblical interpretation in the Early Church: An historical introduction to Patristic exegesis  , Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994,  passim ; Peter W. Martens, Origen and Scripture: The contours of the exegeti-cal life  , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 (Oxford Early Christian Studies); Michael Cameron, Christ meets me everywhere: Augustine’s early figurative exegesis  , Oxford: Oxford Uni-versity Press, 2012 (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology), 97-214. Note also Robert Wilken, ‘In defense of allegory’, in:  Modern Theology 14 (1998), 197-212; and idem, ‘Foreword’, in:    ON   CHRISTIAN    ASCETICISM   25 Hadot, represents the shadow of sin; while the voice of the child calling out, ‘Take it up and read’, corresponds to God’s response to Augustine’s inner ques-tioning. For Hadot, this moment signifies a difference in how readers should interpret the relevance of the Confessions  . As he writes, ‘the Confessions   is essen-tially a theological work, in which each scene may take on a symbolic meaning’. 8   Augustine’s theft of pears in Book 2 is a second example of how this difference of genre might affect a reader’s understanding of the text. Because of the obvious connection with Adam’s eating of the ‘fruit’ in the Garden of Eden (Gn 3:1-7), this scene becomes not just an account of Augustine’s life from a historical and biographical point of view, but a meditation on the nature of sin from a theo-logical and anthropological point of view also. In other words, Augustine rises to the level of ‘universal humanity’ – to use the language of Hadot – seeking not so much to dwell on himself as an insolated ego , but rather to offer up a reflection on the nature of humanity in general, especially in relation to God. In his introduction to Hadot’s thought, Arnold Davidson also focuses on the same scene, contemplating how to understand it from the perspective of spiritual exercises. 9  Although Hadot has suggested that the Confessions are theo-logical in nature, not primarily autobiographical, in them Augustine neverthe-less reveals much concerning the ‘mystery of the self’. 10  Davidson writes, ‘Hadot came little by little to realize… that one must not be misled by Augustine’s use of ‘I’, that the autobiographical part of the Confessions is not as important as one might believe’. 11  The reason for this attention is that Augustine speaks not so much of himself but of the universal humanitas  . Thus, he seeks to give expression to what is most human in each individual. Davidson explains how ‘the “I” of Augustine’s Confessions   continues the “I” of Job, David, or Paul, that is, Augustine “identifies himself with the self    who speaks in the Scriptures. Ultimately, the human self who speaks in the Bible is Adam, a sinner without doubt, but converted by God and renewed in Christ”’. 12 Henri de Lubac,  Medieval exegesis  . Vol. 1: The four senses of Scripture   (trans. Mark Sebanc), Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), ix-xii (src. French publ. 1959). 8   Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life  , 52. This language (i.e. symbol  ) is evidence of Hadot’s distinct characterization of Augustine’s reflexive and dynamic use of typological exegesis. 9  Davidson, ‘Introduction’. 10  Ibid., 15. 11  Ibidem. 12  Ibidem. For support of Hadot’s interpretation, see Erich Feldmann’s entry, ‘Confessiones’, in: Cornelius P. Mayer (Ed.),  Augustinus-Lexikon , Vol. 1, Basel: Schwabe, 1986-1994, 1134-1194. I find this author’s concern for Augustine’s as ‘protreptic’, an ancient genre of philo-sophical literature designed in view of the reader’s conversion to a specific school of philoso-phy, and a theme to which I will return below, largely corresponds to Hadot’s views expressed above – cf. Dorothea Weber, ‘Confessiones’, in: Karla Pollmann & Willemien Otten (Eds.), The Oxford guide to the historical reception of Augustine  . Vol. 1, Oxford: Oxford University
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