Book Notice: James Wetzel

How do you introduce a mind as cavernous as Augustine’s to those unversed in the terrain of his literature? Answering this question is the task James Wetzel sets himself for his contribution to Continuum’s series on Guides for the Perplexed. It may be worth noting that Wetzel’s Augustine (2010) is not his first venture into Augustine studies. Quite the opposite is the case. Wetzel holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair in the Thought of St Augustine at Villanova University. Augustine, the point is, is a specialty of Wetzel’s. In fact, he has already offered the well-received Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge, 2008), and more recently Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine, (Wipf&Stock, 2013). Both of those volumes, however, are more specialized in focus. For that reason, it will serve my purposes better if we simply consider Wetzel’s Guide, which works as a general and more accessible introduction to its subject matter. Wetzel selects as his point of departure Augustine’s moral psychology. It makes for demanding reading. But I would be quick to add that your efforts will be abundantly rewarded. The results of Wetzel’s account are soul-stretching. Wetzel’s Guide doesn’t just introduce you to Augustine, it is itself an exercise in Augustinian spirituality.

What Wetzel so helpfully brings to view is the character of Augustine’s theology as a “great refusal” — the refusal of a lie (125). “The lie is that he [Augustine] is most himself when he is nearest a self-contained intelligence” (126). The truth, however, so often lost amidst our aspirations to a god-like epistemic self-sufficiency, is disclosed in “Augustine’s ideal of a life,” namely, that “of a life confessed” (8). It was a trail of trials and tears that taught Augustine how to surrender his self-definition to others (35); he had to learn that perspicacious self-perception is a fruit of friendship, divine and human. Even in matters of self-knowledge there can be no elimination of truth’s character as a gift received, extra nos, and not the product of an individual’s genius.

Augustine’s insight points to a critical moment for theology and philosophy. Augustine is building to the conclusion that an ingredient of either enterprise is the pursuit of a right spiritual posture. Wisdom is with the humble, we’ll remember (Pr 11:2). The truth is, the blind spots in the field of our self-vision are not exceptions to our general epistemic condition. Rather, they’re indicative of the fundamentally cooperative and dialogical character of all inquiry (i.e., bringing into view some of the moral liabilities of intellectual endeavor). Wetzel is alert to the significance of this consideration, and he aims to practice what he finds Augustine preaching: “I respect and share his [Augustine’s] view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self” (10). Here Wetzel reminds me of another philosopher (Joel Backström) who’s made a similar point about this reflexive dimension of inquiry, “Winning arguments and proving others wrong is quite useless. The promise of philosophy is that one may come to prove oneself wrong, to see through one’s own illusions.” Surely theology would applaud this sentiment with a hearty Amen. It’s been a defining task of theology to bid us to mind our sins — even in our theologizing. For theology’s promise, at the end of the day, is the divine unmasking of our idolatries, to have our own unconfessed reserves of faithlessness disclosed.

We, however, Augustine has been cautioning us, ought not to presume to be experts in self-diagnosis (37). We stand in need of a Confessor. “I beg you, God of mine,” prays Augustine, “show me me, that I may testify to what I find mangled in me” (Conf.10.37.62). The truth we can apprehend, we learn, is a measure of the company we keep. This is the difference a student’s spiritual state makes in their intellectual formation. Our temptations to distort or refuse friendship will figure into our capacity to discern truth. But if we would follow Augustine, it will become our prayer that our as-yet disparate spiritual, moral, and intellectual labors would begin to image the integrity of the one God.

So who do I think would profit from spending some time with Wetzel’s Augustine? Well, if you’ve had trouble “subordinating [your] responsibility for sin to [your] more fundamental responsiveness to God” (9); if you’re someone who questions “the value of the life that makes a person liable to grief” (17); if you’ve found yourself tempted by the desire for knowledge that “banks on the notion that knowing the good and being willing to live by it are entirely separate things” (52, 67); if you’re curious as to how the Christian religion functions as a map of the human soul (51); then to you I would suggest letting Wetzel be your guide to both Augustine and Augustine’s God. May they impress upon you the integrity of truth and love. Rest assured, Wetzel knows better than to “stay too long with a negative moral” (111).

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