From Hippo to Nashville

The quest for authenticity, cast as psychological well-being, is inwardly directed in the modern human.

There is major difference between Augustine’s journey inwards and the journey that has characterized Western thinking since Rousseau. For Augustine, the journey inwards is ultimately the journey outwards. When Augustine probes to the depths of his soul, he finds memory and the existence of memory—the fact that he is able to know at all. This fact carries him outwards to God, his creator and the auditor of his great monologue.

 

n lectures over the last couple of years, I have frequently mentioned Philip Rieff’s Psychological Man as a helpful concept for explaining the state of sexual identity politics in the West. To find fulfillment, Psychological Man looks not to social relations, nor to religion, nor to his placement in the economic structure. He looks inward.

My assertion of the novelty of Psychological Man has elicited the understandable response that one precedent for the phenomenon is Augustine, whose Confessions is an extended monologic prayer addressed to God. Augustine’s probing of his inner motives and his relentless self-analysis mark a dramatic break from all prior ancient literature, anticipating the modern genre of psychological autobiography. Is it not the case, then, that Psychological Man is not really a modern phenomenon at all, but one with clear precedent in the late classical world?

There is some truth to this challenge. But there is major difference between Augustine’s journey inwards and the journey that has characterized Western thinking since Rousseau. For Augustine, the journey inwards is ultimately the journey outwards. When Augustine probes to the depths of his soul, he finds memory and the existence of memory—the fact that he is able to know at all. This fact carries him outwards to God, his creator and the auditor of his great monologue.

Modern identity, however, knows no such outward turn. The quest for authenticity, cast as psychological well-being, is inwardly directed. My reality is my experience. My happiness is my sense of safety and well-being. Transposed into politics, this model conceives of oppression in psychological, rather than more traditional economic or legal, categories. Hence the current hoo-hah about micro-aggressions and word crimes, and the angst about the legitimacy of freedom of speech on campuses.

Augustine is thus not a man of our age, even in the Confessions. He sees God as the foundation of who he, Augustine, is—and the foundation of his knowledge of all he knows, even his knowledge of himself. Augustine’s identity is not a psychological construction at all. In this, he differs radically from the denizens of our current political culture.

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