The Integrated Self

Augustine, the Bible, and Ancient Thought

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Brian Stock
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , December
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brian Stock’s recently released volume, The Integrated Self: Augustine, the Bible, and Ancient Thought, is a refreshing and exciting literary exploration of the title’s subject, the “integrated self.” Stock models the ongoing importance of engaging with thinkers such as Augustine, Plotinus, and Paul as he cuts through disciplinary propriety in order to think with the ancients. The driving forces behind Stock’s study are questions of enduring human interest: Who are we? How do we form ourselves, and one another, as happy, ethical selves? What resources does the ancient world offer to us for understanding ourselves?

Stock’s style of argumentation is both artful and associative. He argues that the notion of the “integrated self” is the result of a combination of theoretical and practical developments in late ancient thought—rather than a series of “purely conceptual advances” (5). The central figure of Stock’s study is, as the subtitle suggests, Augustine. Stock reads Augustine, not through the lens of his outsized influence on the generations that would follow him, but as a participant in the elite, educated class of ancient and late antique Roman society. In continuity with his volume Augustine the Reader (Harvard University Press, 1996), Stock sees Augustine as a reader of Cicero, Seneca, Plotinus, and the Bible whose own project receives and transforms those sources into a unique vision of the self that might, even today, aid us in articulating the importance of a holistic education that aims not only for epistemic but also for ethical integrity. The text consists of an introduction and six chapters.

In chapter 1, “Reading with the Whole Self,” Stock argues that the reading convention known as lectio divina was practiced by Augustine, and was formative for Augustine’s thought, particularly with respect to the self. Stock turns to Cassian and Benedict in order to get a sense of the flavor of lectio divina in Augustine’s personal use, and concludes with a reflection on the “textual community” fostered by group reading in the collective pursuit of virtue and eventual happiness (46). In this chapter, the “integrated self” consists of the body and soul, while somehow persisting after the separation of body and soul in death. Stock’s discussion of community is promising, but does not appear later in the study.

Stock turns, in chapter 2, to “The Contemplative Imagination” to argue that the soul’s imaginative powers are foundational for Augustine’s theological project. Stock argues that Augustine, in the account of his conversion in Confessions 8, deploys imagination not only for theological ends, but in order to justify the use of imagination as a legitimate source of theological insight (62-63). Augustine constructs a narrative that is a fiction in order to show how a “false story” can lead to a “true conversion” (65). The argument is challenging to follow at some points in this chapter, partially given Stock’s non-systematic approach, and partially due to his boldness in transgressing disciplinary conventions. Stock describes Augustine’s narrative in the Confessions as both autobiographical and fictional. It seems that, by “fictional,” Stock means that the narrative does not meet the standards of historical reporting, though he does not specify what such standards might be, or whether they would have applied to any writer in Augustine’s time. Stock also deploys the terms “false” and “true” as though they are Augustine’s own, but does not provide discussion of Augustine’s insistence on truthfulness in rhetoric in, for instance, On Christian Teaching 4. The chapter concludes, however, with a compelling outline of the role of sacred reading in shaping the creative imagination by which the self is configured (65). In this chapter, the self is that which others—including God—see. It can be both “effaced” and “constructed” (68), and it is, in some sense, what is “in [one’s] heart” (71).

Chapter 3, “The Philosophical Soliloquy,” illustrates Stock’s argument that Augustine’s embrace of the imagination results in “an entirely new type of theological literature” (97). Augustine internalizes the Platonic dialogue format and coins a term to describe the resulting genre: soliloquy. As a result, Augustine creates a role for rhetoric and creative imagination in the Christian tradition (120).

In chapter 4, “Self and Soul,” Stock reads the Confessions as an inner dialogue, arguing that Augustine’s encounter with the New Testament shifts the emphasis on the self in Plato from “know thyself,” to Jesus’s call to “leave self and follow me” (138-39). The creative imagination makes it possible for Augustine to shed his pre-conversion self and acquire a replacement by “clothing himself in Christ,” as Paul exhorts in his letter to the Romans (142-43). Stock does not comment on how Augustine’s conversion connects with the themes of self-effacement and self-construction, which Stock develops in chapter 2.

Chapter 5, “Rhythms of Time,” is the strongest of the volume in that it provides the most compelling exploration of Stock’s central aim: to show how theory and practice relate in the development of the concept of the “integrated self.” Stock makes the startling argument that the Platonic concept of anamnesis is transformed by Augustine into what Stock calls “literary anamnesis,” in which “the soul is replaced by the text and the notion of transmigration by that of commemorative reflections in the mind of the reader” (150). Stock charts an Augustinian approach to both text and reading practices by drawing on the understudied De Musica to show how the sensory world is necessary for the insight that “God has not abandoned us” (191).

Stock’s study culminates in chapter 6, “Loss and Recovery,” which focuses on contemporary meditative practices and “mindfulness” as a way of understanding the practices of reading and study that undergirded ancient theoretical discussions of the self—as soul, or mind, and body.

The result is an intellectual history of the “self” that makes an implicit plea for the value of humanities curricula in an era which instrumentalizes the formation of the self through study—whether for vocational purposes or for prestige attached to institutions of higher learning—without prioritizing wholeness or integrity.

This volume assembles many previously prepared and published pieces. Stock’s exploration of the “integrated self” could have been better integrated. There are many different, and compatible descriptions of “self,” “soul,” “body,” “faculties,” and “integrated self” throughout the study that could fruitfully be drawn together in a short, synthesizing conclusion. Nonetheless, the chapters stand alone and could each be read or assigned without requiring orientation to the argument of the book as a whole. Stock is successful in achieving his central aim: demonstrating how theoretical insight, and the habits and practices of ancient thinkers—especially Augustine—develop in tandem.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melanie Webb is visiting professor in the Augustine and Culture Seminar Program at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Stock is Senior Research Associate at Victoria College, University of Toronto and Honorary Fellow at Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto. He is author of After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text and Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past, both available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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