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

The Sinful Self: locating and relocating responsibility for sin

Abigail Firey, University of Kentucky

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor traces historically the evolution of perspectives on the moral self. In that summary, Taylor places Augustine as the essential and sole pivot between Plato and Descartes, ascribing to Augustine “a turn to radical reflexivity” that “made the language of inwardness irresistible.” That inwardness, Taylor observes, for Augustine “is a step toward God.” This position opens two areas of enquiry. First, as an exploration of the moral as the good we can be, rather than what it is right to do, Sources of the Self largely sets aside problems relating to what is not good. Second, the standard canon of philosophers who figure large in Taylor’s account omits swathes of traditions generated and transmitted by writers who were either anonymous or less towering in intellectual stature than Augustine. This paper tests some of Taylor’s observations about the boundaries, or boundedness, of the self by probing Scriptural and late antique traditions about sin, with particular attention to the concept of vicarious assumption of sin that transposes guilt from the self or community to another, as when the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 bore sin into the desert, or when the crucified Jesus took on himself the sins of Christians.


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