Tag Archives: st augustine

On Christian Teaching

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana) by St Augustine.

St Augustine On Christian Teaching

There are two possible aims implied in the title of this work: “On Christian Teaching”: to distinguish the Christian from the pagan—“a manifesto for a particularly Christian culture” (translator Green, viii, dismisses this idea—but see my remarks below on Book III), OR “On Christian Teaching”: to identify and communicate the pedagogical process (per Augustine’s preface). Augustine here works in four connected fields of thought, roughly one in each of the Books I through IV of the treatise: ethics, semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric.

The treatise is sometimes understood as consisting of two parts, according to its compositional history. There was an interruption of two or three decades at III.78. Green indicates “a certain bittiness” in the later part of Book III (xi). Many readers, including Green, seem to understand the first three books as properly about learning rather than teaching, while leaving the real doctrina to Book IV. They take that division as reflecting Augustine’s initial distinction between discovery (inventio) and presentation (I.1, IV.1).

I seem to detect a tension between the conception of evil as absence/nonquality on the one hand, and the implication of (original) sin as a positive condition on the other.

At the end of Book III, Augustine credits Tyconius (and downplays the latter’s Donatism), but his frequent citations from Cicero are all tacit. Is this discrepancy in his treatment of Christian and pagan sources a demonstration of how to “spoil the Egyptians”? [via]

The Darkness of God

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism by Denys Turner.

Denys Turner The Darkness of God

This 1995 monograph is by Denys Turner, then on the faculty of the University of Bristol, now holding an endowed chair for Historical Theology at Yale. He characterizes it as “An essay in the philosophical history of some theological metaphors … of ‘interiority’, of ‘ascent’, of ‘light and darkness’ and of ‘oneness with God,’” and his primary materials range from Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.

Turner proposes an understanding of mysticism at odds with 20th-century formulations, and founded in the etic sense of late antique and medieval Christian usage, in which (he maintains) the mystical per se was directly opposed to the reduction of God to “experiences.” He designates as “experientialism” the positivist, psychologizing approach to religious experience characteristic of (and limited to) modern thought, that results from (or corresponds to) the fragmentation of religious knowledge in the later middle ages. The Darkness of God suggests a greater kinship between the old mystical theology and deconstructivist philosophy, than between the former and its experientialist—and all too often anti-intellectual—progeny in modern “mysticism.”

I really enjoyed the book because of Turner’s challenge to commonplace formulations in the field of the history of mysticism, and because of his impressive job in making sense out of some extremely challenging primary materials. However, I’m not entirely sold on his meta-narrative of the ruination of mystical philosophy. His desire to make “experientialism” into a (relatively) late development leads him to neglect the medieval affective tradition that is exemplified in the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. It may be that Turner could argue that such works are not really “mystical,” but he doesn’t even make the effort, and leaves a wide and important hole in his historical treatment.

To be fair, Turner is more of a philosopher than an historian. Contemporary mystics and magicians willing to give serious intellectual consideration to the limits of rationality, the nature of experience, and the ultimate goals of mystical understanding should be able to benefit from this difficult but engaging book. [via]

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna, translated by another fellow Joscelyn Godwin [also] from Thames & Hudson:

Francesco Colonna and Joscelyn Godwin's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili from Thames & Hudson


For half a millenium, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has been one of the great literary enigmas of the Italian Renaissance. This book, the title of which is translated as “The Strife of Love in a Dream,” was written by the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna in the late 15th century. It consists of the amatory adventures of one Poliphilo, who dreams of a search for his love Polia among spectacles of ancient buildings, sculptures and gardens frequented by the gods of pagan antiquity.

Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia does in fact constitute a “missing link” between two critical antecedents of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema: Saint Augustine and Francois Rabelais. Augustine, who wrote “Love, and do what thou wilt,” proposed that the spiritual trinity within the human soul was composed of memory, understanding, and will. In the Hypnerotomachia, Poliphilo represents memory, and he is given two guides: Logistica (understanding) and Thelemia (will). Eventually, when forced to choose between their counsel, he follows Thelemia in deciding upon the path of erotic fulfillment over the options of worldly glory and ascetic contemplation. Florence Weinberg has suggested that Rabelais, who certainly read Colonna and explicitly acknowledged him, was inspired by Colonna’s Thelemia in assigning the name Theleme to his utopian abbey.

The Hypnerotomachia was written in a curious and largely impenatrable “pedantesca,” supplementing the Tuscan vernacular with many Greek and Latin neologisms. One partial translation into English by “R.D.” was published during the Renaissance, when it was also translated into French. The book aroused the most interest in French readers of the 16th and 17th centuries, who usually understood it as an alchemical allegory. Anglophone scholars tended to concentrate attention on the innovative woodcut illustrations, rather than the text. Since 1999 Joscelyn Godwin’s complete and lucid English translation (now available in a more economical second edition) has made it available to readers in a new and powerful way. [via]



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