“New territory beckons” – Daniel Napier on Augustine’s anthropology (TLS 2014)

[Untitled], The Times Literary Supplement (25 July 2014), 27. A review of D. A. Napier, En route to the Confessions: The Roots and Development of Augustine’s Philosophical Anthropology (Leuven 2013). An excerpt from the author’s typescript is copied below:

saint-augustine-1477-1485-by-bartolome-bermejo-art-institute-of-chicago
St Augustine by Bartolome Bermejo, ca 1480 – Art Institute of Chicago

It should be commoner knowledge than it is that René Descartes’s epoch-making “I think, therefore I am” is originally Augustine of Hippo’s, but with a critical difference. Augustine says “I live, therefore I am”. Descartes takes the clear perception that thought can think itself as philosophy’s unbreakable kernel. Augustine, on the other hand, takes life’s indistinctness to thought as a positive datum. It is certain that I am alive, says Augustine; but it is also certain that much of my life is uncertain. And thus – as he states categorically in Book X of the Confessions – “No one should feel secure in this life”.

Augustine’s mature anthropology begins with this sense of human insecurity and “by any standard”, as Daniel Napier writes in his book’s first sentence, that anthropology “casts an imposing shadow”. Napier is unconcerned with Augustine’s afterlife, however. He asks how Augustine’s anthropology evolved in the period between his self-dramatized conversion in Milan, in 386, and the year or so after his instalment as a Catholic bishop in Hippo Regius (present-day Algeria) in 395, when he wrote the Confessions.

Napier himself firmly dates the Confessions to the single year 396, which neatly limits his study to the decade 386–396; but there is no consensus on the Confessions’ date (or dates) of composition. Since no scholar would argue that the last books of the Confessions were produced any later than 403, and most would close the work by 400, Napier has not taken on a span of much more than fifteen years in any case. And as he re-plots Augustine’s philosophical itinerary in these years, Napier manages to convince us that “new territory beckons”. …

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