The Conversion and Therapy of Desire

Augustine's Theology of Desire in the Cassiciacum Dialogues

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Mark J. Boone
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Company
    , October
     2017.
     202 pages.
     $37.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780227176665.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this fascinating and meticulously researched study of Augustine’s Cassiciacum dialogues, Mark Boone shows Augustinian scholars a productive way forward for better understanding how these philosophical texts can and should be analyzed both on their own terms and as part of Augustine’s evolving ideas about ancient philosophy and Christian theology. This is very much a book by a philosopher, about philosophy, written for philosophers. Still, its arguments will be easily comprehensible to any non-philosopher with a basic grounding in Augustinian thought. Of particular value to the general Augustinian scholar are the excellent close readings of the individual dialogues in the book’s main chapters. 

“Augustine at Cassiciacum,” Boone’s detailed review of previous scholarship on the Cassiciacum dialogues in chapter 1, makes it clear that these texts have not suffered from neglect. However, the scholarship on these early writings has tended to focus almost exclusively on the influence of Neoplatonic and other ancient philosophical thought on Augustine’s still-evolving Christian views. This issue seems especially relevant since any conclusion would seem to illuminate the nature of Augustine’s conversion in 386 CE. Was he really a Christian at this point? Or had he embraced some version of Christian Neoplatonism that only eventually resulted in a kind of second conversation when he finally read Paul in the early 390s? An important exception to this almost exclusively philosophical approach to the Cassiciacum dialogues—and an important methodological predecessor for Boone—is Catherine Conybeare’s The Irrational Augustine (Oxford University Press, 2006) which discerns from these texts a vision of Augustine that is committed to social exchange and community. 

The first chapter provides a rapid but useful overview of earlier scholarship on the dialogues. One of Boone’s most important contributions is his decision to focus less on the debate between the Neoplatonists and the Christians and more on the common philosophical concept of desire as a focal point for untangling the Neoplatonic and Christian elements of Augustine’s theology. Boone is therefore able to demonstrate in a much more thoroughgoing way the extent to which Neoplatonic and Christian ideas interact in Augustine’s early thought. Ultimately, he concludes, Augustine’s theology of desire at Cassiciacum is clearly indebted to Neoplatonic philosophy; yet, in the specific form it takes, it is distinctively Christian. Ancient philosophical schools provided important tools for the Christian who sought a therapy of desire, but they are not meaningful without Christ and Christian grace. As Boone summarizes his argument, “rather than controlling Augustine’s worldview, the concept of immaterial reality is applied to concepts he learned from the Christian tradition so that he can understand them better, and in particular to those things he most wants to understand: God and the soul” (29). In other words, for Boone, the fact that Augustine’s end game is to understand God and the soul assures the reader that Augustine’s aim was to work out a uniquely—if still nascent—Christian conversion and therapy of desire.

Chapters 2-5 offer detailed critical readings of each of the dialogues. Each chapter is devoted to a single dialogue, though Boone frequently brings earlier observations to bear upon discussions in later chapters. These close readings provide an excellent tool for scholars and students to gain a good orientation to their contents and the most relevant scholarship on each dialogue. Although the chapters proceed through the dialogues in their entirety, they each contain extended discussions of the way that desire is treated in the text. Careful attention is paid to the classical philosophical antecedents of Augustine’s thought as well as to the Neoplatonic elements that inform Augustine’s original views. Taken together, these chapters make a compelling case in support of Boone’s claim that Augustine was thinking through ways to adapt his earlier philosophical learning to his growing understanding of the Christian God, the miracle of the Incarnation, and divine grace. Although the chapters work together as a coherent unit by building and nuancing our understanding of Augustine’s Christian theology, they can also be read usefully as individual units in conjunction with the individual dialogues.

The book’s final chapter, “The Love of God and Human Beings,” takes on another very complex issue in Augustinian studies—one that was central to Conybeare’s 2006 study of the dialogues. Specifically, Boone considers the role of humans in the relationship between individuals and God. Are humans mere tools that exist to reach the desired end of loving God? Or, rather, are humans also an end in of themselves and thus an essential part of the process of loving God? The answer to this question determines how we think Augustine viewed the role of community in Christian practice. Starting with the classical philosophers and then moving on to Christian thinkers, Boone makes a compelling case for the view that the love of God and the love of humanity work in harmony. Argues Boone, “a human is created to be a communal being, a friend to God and to other humans. Loving God and man rightly cannot be separated because community with each is our proper good” (173). The challenge, then, is to learn how to love our fellow humans in a proper and orderly manner that leads the community to a proper love of God.

Boone’s work is a valuable contribution to Augustinian studies, and especially to the study of the Cassiciacum dialogues. It is carefully researched, well-written (though, at times, the signposting of the argument seems overdone), and easy to follow even by a generalist Augustinian scholar. It is much hoped that this book will encourage future scholars to focus studies on specific themes or topoi in the dialogues and move away from the ultimately impossible project of disentangling Neoplatonic and other classical philosophical influences from Augustine’s evolving Christian philosophical views.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Ebbeler is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, Austin.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark J. Boone is assistant professor of philosophy at Forman Christian College. He is also an occasional book reviewer, a blog writer and the author of several articles on philosophy and religion.

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