Reconsidering the Sources of the Self in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Periods

Augustine and the Origins of the Self
Catherine Conybeare
Bryn Mawr College

Much has been made of the radical reflexivity of Augustine’s notion of the self. ‘Don’t go outside; return into yourself,’ he famously writes (De vera religione 39). Charles Taylor emphasizes this aspect of Augustine’s thought, not least because it fits well into Taylor’s narrative arc from Plato to Descartes. However, there are two further aspects of Augustine’s ideas about the self that have garnered less attention. One is that, for Augustine, the self is always formed in what Taylor calls ‘webs of interlocution.’ The self occupies moral space through its interlocutionary engagement with others. The other idea is a lifelong preoccupation of Augustine’s: the combination of soul and body to form the individual human person. He uses this quotidian event to illuminate the miracle of Christ’s being (e.g. at Epistula 137.11). But he also sees it as a miracle in itself. He reverts repeatedly to the mystery of the formation and animation of the child in its mother’s womb. This paper will examine the consequences of this preoccupation for Augustine’s wider notion of the human self as it exists in relation to others.

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