Sunday, November 1, 2009

Teaching Augustine Humility: Margaret Miles, Feminist Criticism, and Augustine's Companion

In her essay, “Not Nameless but Unnamed: The Woman Torn from Augustine’s Side,” Margaret Miles attempts to reconstruct some sense of the historical presence of Augustine’s longtime concubine by way of understanding her social-historical context and her place within it. This method consciously eschews an unrealistic expedition in reconstituting or imagining (or creating ex nihilo) a subjectivity for a historical person whose actual and legitimate subjectivity is truly lost to history—and lost, not unimportantly, by decision of a man whose pen does not name her, concretely representing the power exercised by men over women. When placed in context, her singular choice—the vow of celibacy—reveals “all that can be known about Augustine’s partner” (Feminist Interpretations of Augustine [ed. Judith Chelius Stark; University Park: Pennsylvania University State Press, 2007], p. 171).

Instead of focusing on texts from Augustine that might offer evidence about his companion, Miles seeks to frame her in relation to the other women in Augustine’s life, as well as in the context of the church’s ascension and the empire’s sexual practices (p. 172). The other women include Monica, Augustine’s beloved Catholic mother; the second concubine, taken after the first left, in capitulation to Augustine’s sexual desires; and the young heiress to whom Augustine was engaged to marry. All three represent the extremely limited power of women at the time, and even more, how their social identity was defined by relation to men. Although Monica used “strategies ... [to] optimize women’s positions on the margins of male culture,” at most this amplifies their profound powerlessness “to change dominant male assumptions and institutions” (p. 175).

The effect of the rise of the Catholic Church on the status and lives of women was, according to Miles, ambiguous at best. Augustine not only lived through the rapid changes in the empire and its relation to Christianity, he “participated in, and narrated, [these] cultural excitements” (p. 176). And while Augustine’s companion was able to vow celibacy without social ostracization, the decision, and even Augustine’s admiration of it, are implicated questionably by its subservient role to Augustine’s narrative and by its significant cost in comparison to the benefits of Augustine’s similar choice (p. 177).

According to Miles’ analysis, concubines were basically tolerated at the time as non-marital expressions of male-female cohabitation, while contraceptive methods such as abortion, exposure, and the rhythm method were strategies for engaging sexually without procreation as a goal (pp. 177-82). Both practices were condemned by Augustine and by the rising authority of the Catholic Church, though it is important to note that each condemnation was mutually informed and strengthened by the other. Miles notes especially Augustine’s privileging of virginity/celibacy for Christians, as well as his disdain for sexual practices not directed toward procreative purposes—the latter being something with which Augustine was intimately acquainted as a former Manichean.

The approach Miles takes in her essay is admirable for its restraint as well as its excellence in constructing the world of which Augustine’s companion was a part. Miles’ willingness to approach both the powerlessness and the subjectivity of the companion with equal seriousness, neither making her someone she patently could not have been nor spinning a yarn for the sake of a fuller account. What is odd, then, is Miles’ apparent unwillingness to treat Augustine with the same precision and care. While this is understandable, since he is not the primary subject of the essay, Miles makes assumptions and comments that reveal a significantly less careful approach with Augustine.

One example is Miles’ account of Augustine’s views on sex. Augustine “largely reduced his relationship with his partner to sex” and “includes neither love nor marital friendship with the three goods of marriage” (p. 171). Why is this so? Miles offers answers in the form of questions: perhaps to “alleviate his despair at losing her,” or to “feel less guilt about dismissing her,” or to “feel no responsibility” for the consequences of his actions (pp. 171-72). Yet this is psychologizing in the extreme: not only are there significantly more complex reasons for Augustine’s narration of his companion and his account of the goods of marriage, it presumes both that Augustine did not feel remorse for his actions and that there is a one-to-one correlation between his negative sexual experiences and his theological account of sex. But Augustine is explicitly sorrowful—for the inappropriateness of the relationship, for the taking of another concubine immediately following, for the way she was torn from his side. Miles notes the passive language of Augustine’s description of the companion’s departure (p. 167), but goes on to speak as if Augustine dismissed her summarily, committed to a young girl who would offer a brighter future, and took another woman in the meantime just because (p. 174).

Moreover, while Miles acknowledges that Augustine “admired and extolled…as exemplary” his companion’s vow of celibacy, she interprets the woman’s actions as the “required living sacrifice” for Augustine, in essence, to become Saint Augustine (pp. 176-77). Only by her dismissed exclusion—“at greater cost” than his own—could he “benefit … socially from his vow” (p. 177). Yet this is to read Augustine’s later life backwards into the story: he was not looking to become celibate, nor were his resignation, withdrawal from the engagement, conversion, vow, or move back to Africa designed for his social benefit! On the contrary—and even as Miles notes—Augustine’s radical decisions reveal the extraordinary extent to which his companion influenced him, and indeed, taught him the meaning of the humility revealed in the Incarnation (pp. 182-83).

No comments:

Post a Comment