Augustine: De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1

I’ve started up on Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana now, which is basically about how to read the Bible. Because it’s relatively short (four books, 160 pages), I thought I might actually do a quick wee series discussing each book in turn, and what it’s got to offer. It’s of particular interest to me, because it’s a theory of reading – of reading the Bible, sure, but it’s still a theory of interpretation, which makes it interesting to me as an English major. This is the last of Augustine’s actual works that I’m going to be writing on – I’m doing a bit of reading around the guy, to make sure I actually understand what’s going on, but I don’t imagine too much of that will spark over into posts. At least, not unless somebody says something really interesting. So basically what that means is that we’ve got four more posts on Augustine, focusing on On Christian Doctrine, with maybe the odd little post trailing along behind, and then we’re on to Hannah Arendt! I am very keen to read Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Augustine begins with a Preface justifying a book on learning how to read Scripture. He points out that yes, technically the Holy Spirit is the main thing, but the fact is that there’s nothing wrong with traditional learning and study. I’m not sure it’s really an argument that needs much supporting in this day and age, because I doubt it’s something anybody would get up in arms about. He points out that Divine Grace is all well and good, but you were taught how to read by humans, so shut up and humble yourself to the task of learning from other humans about how to read the Bible. This is actually kind of interesting in that it also maintains the importance of Christian community – we don’t learn about the Bible in isolation from our heritage and/or the wisdom of our elders.

In the first book, then, Augustine starts off by making a distinction between ‘things’ and ‘signs’. Things are things, like rocks or bricks or whatever – the objects themselves – and signs refer to those things without actually being the objects. The word ‘cat’ refers to cats, but is not itself a cat. This is cool, by the way, because it’s a 4th century version of Saussure’s theory of the sign. Saussure’s basically the father of modern linguistics, having pointed out that words are made up of the signifier (the word itself) and the signified (the thing it’s referring to). Augustine doesn’t quite get there, but he skirts around it: he writes that signs are used to refer to something other than themselves, and that they are also things – words have a physical material existence, they have a shape and a form, and so they qualify as things. The only extra step Saussure takes is to note that the thing-qualities of a word (the shape, the sound, etc) are separate to the sign-qualities of a word (the word ‘cat’ doesn’t really resemble the animal).

Augustine also points out that things (as in rocks and stuff) can sometimes be used as signs (symbolism), but that’s not necessarily like their full time job, as it were. Throughout the rest of this first book, he sets about breaking down things into their three different types: things to be used, things to be enjoyed, and things which are both. I’m not entirely sure why he goes in this direction, because it doesn’t directly further the discussion of interpretation, but we may as well touch on it anyway. One guy I read suggested that Augustine was building this theory of interpretation around the theme of love, but I’m still uncertain as to why it exists. Part of that simply comes down to the fact that the Roman idea of a well-constructed text is different to ours.

Okay: so three types of things. Basically Augustine argues that the only ‘thing’  which should be enjoyed in and of itself for its own sake is God. This is kind of clunky to explain using direct translation – I suspect some of the meanings of words might have changed. Basically Augustine is trying to say that God is our goal, in the sense that the end-goal of life is to reach God and spend the rest of eternity in His glorious unmitigated presence. Everything that exists can help us on that journey, but nothing else is the end-goal in and of itself. Thus God is ‘enjoyed’, and everything else is ‘used’ as a method of coming closer to that end-goal. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but this kind of seems like an overly convoluted way to explain idolatry.

So there’s a couple of issues I have with this theory, and they’re mostly in terms of things that it seems to disallow. In the first place, it seems like you’re not allowed to have friendships, because you just have to ‘use’ other people to get closer to God. Similarly, it seems like you’re not allowed to enjoy your dinner, because food is to be ‘used’, rather than ‘enjoyed’. Let’s set aside Augustine’s terms of ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’ for now, because I think they cloud the matter. If we do that, and introduce love as an organising theme, things become a bit clearer. We might say that we love God in and of Himself (‘enjoyment’), but we love everything else with reference to God (‘use’). You might have a really tasty dinner, and be like “Fuck yeah, great dinner!”, but we enjoy that great dinner because it’s a great dinner that God has created for us to enjoy – so it’s enjoyed with reference to God.

That might seem like an unnecessary extra step, but it’s actually pretty important as a way of regulating the ways in which we enjoy certain pleasures. Most people would agree that sex is great, for example, but if it’s enjoyed without reference to God, then it’s actually bad. I’m not necessarily talking about sex within the boundary of marriage – there’s a much simpler example if you think about consent. If we say that ‘doing sex right’ (ie with reference to God) is getting consent, then sex without reference to God (ie without consent) is an abhorrent perversion of ‘pleasure’. Thus, when we say that sex should not be enjoyed ‘in and of itself’, that’s just a really misleading way of saying ‘with no regard for how it’s got’.

So that’s Book One. The language stuff is great, the idea of these three types of things seems to have aged badly. I feel like I don’t want to condemn it out of hand though, because I’m not convinced I’ve read it sensitively enough or with enough understanding of what Augustine’s actually trying to do. It does seem very Platonic though, so we’ll blame Plato and move on. Next week, Book Two!



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