IN THE SELF'S PLACE
The Approach of Saint Augustine
By Jean-Luc Marion
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2008 Presses Universitaires de France
All right reserved.
Chapter One Confessio
§2. What praise means
The point of departure most often decides the point of arrival, for the target depends on the aim and the aim on the sight and the angle of the shot. The exercise of thought makes no exception to this rule; it even makes it all the more imperative, since, in this case more than in any other, nobody can turn back once out of the gate or take back the shot once fired. And, for that matter, there is no second chance at a first beginning.
Now (as we will see little by little) the Confessiones do not take place in any site known or defined before them. According to the evidence (provided that one sticks to precise terms), they are not inscribed within a metaphysics, still less within a metaphysica even specialis, the definition of which, even just the notion of which, they would know nothing about. But this absence of philosophical determination does not lead them toward a theological determination, if one means by "theology" a speculative discourse about God, as modern usage would have it. For if their text treats of almost everything, and therefore of nothing precisely, it never busies itself with the object of one of the classical treatises of dogmatic theology—neither with the divine unity nor with a trinitarian god, no more with Christology than with the sacraments, the Church than last things. In other places it certainly will fall to Saint Augustine to write as such about the Trinity and the city of God (though it remains to be seen if he treats them as one speaks about and on the subject of the one and the other, or rather by becoming himself the subject submitted to what he evokes). In others it falls to him to comment on the book of Genesis, the Psalms, and the Gospel of John (but commenting is not equivalent to treating a question, for the interpreter must, or should, always first let him- or herself be interpreted by the text, which no longer has anything like an object or a subject). Here, however, in the Confessiones, something else is going on: Saint Augustine does not comment on the text, does not treat any object, for, it could be said, he does not treat anything at all. Even when he comes around to analyzing the will, time, truth, the first verse of Genesis and even the vicissitudes of his turning around to God (what is called a bit too quickly his conversion), he never broaches them for themselves, as autonomous and objectifiable questions, but always inscribes them within a first-person narrative. And this narration itself constitutes the problem: who speaks, about what precisely, and to whom? Confronted with the difficulty of responding to these questions, the most common and (we will see) the most inadequate solution consists in falling back on something apparently obvious, by assigning the Confessiones the status of an autobiography, without worrying anymore about the autos, the self, of the question.
How are we to break free of this aporia? From what place are we to define the point of departure and therefore what is at stake in the Confessiones? If it is about neither philosophy nor theology, must we have recourse to autobiography (itself too indeterminate to be reassuring), indeed "mysticism" (final recourse of the interpreter who no longer wants to understand anything)? One senses that this would be just a trompe l'oeil, without any real relevance. But it could be that the aporia is born from the very formulation of the question. That is, wanting to assign a site to the Confessiones already supposes a conviction: that they need a starting point outside themselves and prior to them; in other words, that they cannot themselves offer the starting point on the basis of which they would be delivered. For what is proper to a starting point consists precisely in that it starts by starting from itself and that nothing else precedes it. But then would the Confessiones give to themselves their own starting point? Would they assign to themselves their place and their goal? If this was the case, they should say it clearly and at the outset. As is often the case when real difficulties are at issue, an indication of a solution comes from a commentary on scripture. "'Quoniam cogitatio hominis confitebitur tibi et reliquiae cogitationis sollemnia celebrabunt tibi.' Prima 'cogitatio'; posteriores 'reliquae cogitationis.' Quae est 'cogitatio' prima? Unde incipimus: bona illa 'cogitatio' unde incipies confiteri. Confessio adjungit nos Christo. Jam vero confessio ipsa, id est prima 'cogitatio,' facit in nobis reliquias cogitationis.... Prima 'cogitatio' confessionem habet" ("For man's thought will confess you and the rest of this thought will solemnly celebrate you." First, at first, a "thought"; then, afterward, the rest of this "thought." What is the first "thought"? That from which we take our starting point: good is the thought from which you begin to confess. Confession joins us to Christ. For confession itself, namely the first "thought," already performs in us the rest of thought.... The first "thought" possesses the confession). Here confession (and in the sense of confessio) appears as first thought, prima cogitatio. The first thought does not think that it thinks; still less does it think of itself as a self, but it thinks insofar as it confesses: thinking amounts to thinking in the more originary mode of confession of ..., toward ..., for ... —an other instance besides myself, besides the self. In the beginning is the confessio, first cogitatio and therefore first place.
This first place, the thought of confession, confessio as first cogitatio—could it give the Confessiones their starting point? This seems to be the case, if two conditions are admitted. First, and at the outset, the principle that for Saint Augustine confessio is twofold, confession of sins and confession of praise: "Confessio enim, non peccatorum tantum dicitur, sed et laudis" (Confession is not said only of sins, but also of praise). It follows that praise fully operates the confessio. Next, one must give serious consideration to the opening of book 1: "'Magnus es, Domine, et laudabilis valde; magna virtus tua et sapientiae tuae non est numerus.' Et laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae" ("You are great, O Lord, eminently worthy of praise: great your strength and your wisdom without number." And to praise you, this is what man, one of the parts of your creation, wants) (I, 1, 1, BA 13, 272). Thus, praise launches the Confessiones; or rather, as praise emerges with confessio and puts it into operation, we should conclude that confessio constitutes the first thought of the Confessiones, their place and therefore their starting point.
There is more; for this text is still more astounding, and in several ways. First of all, it is the citation of a psalm, or more exactly the combined citation of several psalms, all of which are focused on a single point: God, "great" by definition, since he passes beyond all number and all measure (strictly speaking, incommensurable and immense), draws one to praise him and deserves that one praise him. In other words, the approach of God can happen only by praise, according to an analytic and necessary connection: if it is a matter of God, then it is from the outset a matter of praising [him], for if praise is not called for, then it is no longer a matter of him, God. Praising does not designate one speech act among others, one that would be equally applicable to God and other similar targets. Praising offers the sole way, the sole royal road of access, to his presence. Next, the composite citation of the Psalms holds as an injunction for whoever wants to draw near to God, since the second part of the text responds to him: man, one part among others in the creation, wants very much to praise God; he, too, indeed he first of all. This consequence can in fact be understood as an endorsement of the first part of the citation, which in retrospect does indeed appear as an injunction. The opening lines of the Confessiones are therefore articulated in a demand (that God give himself for praise), then in a response (in fact man praises him, as does all creation). At the same time, the possibility of a hermeneutic difficulty is outlined: if he who does not praise cannot approach God and if the Confessiones want to approach God, then any reader who would refuse to praise would by that very refusal be blocked from understanding and even reading the Confessiones. The hermeneutic obstacle would therefore stem from a properly spiritual refusal. This will not be the only case of what in fact is practiced as a rule. Finally, this insistence on praise and its function as originary hermeneutic place of the Confessiones should not be surprising, provided, at least, one observes that the same citation of Psalms that opens them also sets the tone for their articulation in book XI: "Numquid, Domine, cum tua sit aeternitas, ignoras quae tibi dico, aut ad tempus vides quod fit in tempore? Cur ergo tibi tot rerum narrationes digero? Non utique ut per me noveris ea, sed affectum meum excito in te et eorum qui haec legunt, ut dicamus omnes: 'Magnus Dominus et laudabilis valde'" (Can it be in any way, O Lord, since eternity is yours, that you do not know what I say to you or that you see temporally what happens in time? Why then do I tell you a list of so many things? Not, to be sure, so that you might learn them from me, but I bestir toward you my affect and that of my readers, so that we all might say, "Great is the Lord, and eminently worthy of praise!") (XI, 1, 1, 13, 270). Here the praise (and the citation) is extended from the ego to the community of readers, or at least of those who accept the call to praise. It is carried out in a church. There is more: this citation returns, in almost the same form, as a conclusion of the entire work and therefore of its journey toward God: "Laudant te opera tua, ut amemus te et amamus te, ut laudent te opera tua" (They praise you, your works, so that we would love you, and we love you so that your works would praise you) (XIII, 33, 48, 14, 516). From now on, praise comes not only from "one of the parts of creation" but from all of creation in its entirety. The praise, which at the beginning is sung by the narrator and in the middle is extended to include the community of believers, is in the end carried out on the scale of all creation. Praise therefore constitutes the starting point of the Confessiones and comes from them in such a way that they can end by carrying it out completely.
That praise can constitute a place, therefore, the place for the hermeneutic of the Confessiones, should not be surprising. First of all, one text explicitly assimilates it to a city, of which one becomes a citizen only by carrying out, in truly believing it, this very praise, which consists only in saying this—that God certainly is worthy of praise: "Haec est civitas, in monte posita, quae abscondi non potest, haec est lucerna quae sub modio non oscultatur, omnibus nota, omnibus diffamata. Non autem universi cives ejus sunt, sed illi in quibus 'Magnus Domine et laudabilis valde'" (This is the city at the top of the mountain, which cannot be hidden; the light, which cannot be hidden under a basket, known to all, spread everywhere. Not everybody is a citizen of it, only those in whom we find "Great is the Lord, and eminently worthy of praise!"). Next, praise, which belongs analytically to God, also defines analytically the heart of man: "De radice cordis surgit ista confessio.... Hoc est enim confiteri dicere quod habes in corde" (This confession springs from the bottom of my heart.... For confessing is nothing other than saying what you have on your heart) (Commentary on the Gospel of John XXVI, 2, PL 35, 1607). The Confessiones are defined in the same way that they are launched: by a confession of praise. It remains to determine what praise means.
The mere fact of praising, provided it is considered correctly, already means a lot. For praise defines by itself a precise and complex language game. It seems somewhat straightforward to say that one can only confess a praise: in order to truly praise what one praises, it is obviously necessary to praise it openly, with an opening that is not only public, before all, but also intimate, with all one's heart, in both cases without reserve or reservation, all the way to the bottom. A praise that would remain unconfessed simply would not be one. Now this rule counts first and above all for God. For, in contrast to all the other cases in which it is always necessary to measure the degree to which the candidate for my praise deserves it (for it never deserves it absolutely), in the case of God the question is by definition no longer posed (if not, it would not be God, but an idol), such that here praising and therefore confessing this praise has nothing optional about it. It is fitting, indisputably, to praise God and to confess before him this praise simply because he is God. If I did not feel this obligation irresistibly, if it depended therefore on my decision to praise or not, that would signify that in fact it is no longer a matter of God but of another myself, more or less dominating, more or less comparable, therefore commensurate to myself—in any case, not God. God, if he reveals himself, reveals himself before being praised, and the praise is deduced from God by his definition, Deus laudandus. "Magnus es, Domine, et laudabilis valde" should be understood, let me repeat, as an analytic judgment: you are God; therefore you are great; therefore you are to be praised. This is not a platitude because the greatness of God defines the incommensurability (sine numerus) between the greatness of God and the tiny narrowness of all the created, in particular of "aliqua portio creaturae tuae ... circumferens mortalitatem suam" (that portion of the created which carries its mortality with it wherever it goes). If I do not praise, I would lack not only respect for the creator, I would lack not only God as such, but I would lack first of all myself. Inversely, if I praise and therefore confess God as such, I also recognize myself as such, as creature that can truly neither speak to him as coequal nor say anything whatsoever about him, but that admits him. It logically follows that the incommensurability between God and myself, his creature, portion of his creation, implies that my praise toward him will have no end:
"Magnus es, Domine, et laudabilis valde." Quantum dicturus erat? Quae verba quaesiturus? Quantum conceptionem conclusit in uno "valde"? Cogita quantum vis. Quando autem potest cogitari, qui capi non potest? "Laudabilis est valde; et magnitudinis ejus non finis." Et ideo dixit "Valde," qui "magnitudinis non est finis": ne forte incipias velle laudare, et putes te laudando posse finire, cum magnitudo finem non potest habere. Noli ergo te putare eum, cujus magnitudinis finis non est, sufficienter posse laudare.
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