Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Deformation of ReformationThe Deformation of Reformation

The Deformation of Reformation

Convivium reviewer Graeme hunter, after reading John rist's Augustine Deformed: love, Sin and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition, explains why you shouldn't

Graeme Hunter
8 minute read

Augustine Deformed is a book of immense learning by a distinguished scholar. It is unfortunate, however, that John Rist has crafted it on purpose as a contribution to a narrowly conceived "history of ideas" of a kind that is intentionally divorced from, even opposed to, the history of philosophy. Philosophical histories are cognitive in character; histories of ideas, even moderate and useful ones, are more like family trees. They deal more in the hard facts of historical antecedents than in the currency of demonstration and argument. Rist's ambition is to provide a family tree for contemporary moral philosophy, or rather for one species of contemporary moral philosophy that he understandably fi nds objectionable. It is the moral philosophy that accompanies secular, naturalistic, scientistic accounts of human life, so fashionable now among thinking people and which some of its dogmatic advocates believe ought to be mandatory for them. For brevity's sake I shall call Rist's project "the genealogy of secularism."

Rist points to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age and Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation as examples of the kind of book he is trying to write. Both these works are histories of ideas, but neither is as rigidly historicist as Augustine Deformed. That is to say, neither Taylor nor Gregory tends as much as Rist to see the positions adopted by philosophers as being caused by the context in which they found themselves rather than by philosophical reflection. Still, they will be a useful comparison set in situating Rist, and even more so if we add two other recent histories of ideas he doesn't mention, namely Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God and Peter Watson's The Age of Atheism: How We have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.

Each of these genealogies of secularism has a different point of departure. For Taylor it is the year 1500. For Brad Gregory it is the Reformation. Eagleton and Watson both begin with Nietzsche. Rist's book starts with Augustine of Hippo, and so has by far the widest field to cover.

A casual look at the four authors being compared would lead you to think that, among them, they cover the field. They appear to occupy every possible attitude toward secularism: Gregory's attitude is conservative, Taylor's whiggish. Watson's book is celebratory, while Eagleton's is arch, ironic or perhaps even satirical. It is hard to imagine Rist's book finding a place not already occupied by one or another of them in the logical and attitudinal space open to genealogies of secularism.

But here Rist surprises us. He is no more interested in redirecting contemporary moral developments than in cheering them on. He has no interest in doing anything with them except depicting their depravity. As its title suggests, Augustine Deformed is a thoroughly reactionary genealogy of secularism. It advances the prima facie implausible conjunctive claim that our collective moral compass began to fail after Augustine and that we must therefore return to Augustine if we are ever to get it working again. Neither idea is very plausible taken alone; taken together they are incredible. And here are Rist's words: "To have any hope of reversing the process, [we] must begin not at the end but at the beginning of the chain to see if more authentic progress is possible, and at what price." This is what happens when the genealogical approach characteristic of histories of ideas is conjoined with rigid historicism.

To say that much of what passes for moral philosophy today is questionable is to make a true, if unexciting, claim. Nor is it difficult to believe that there are forgotten resources of moral insight in Augustine that could set us on a better course. But it is not even sensible, let alone plausible, to say that the only way forward is to go back 1,600 years. It is like saying that shipbuilding took a terrible turn around 1900 and it is now necessary to return to the age of steam to set things right.

I am sorry to begin this review in such negative terms. But it is important to understand from the outset how wrong-headed Rist's premise is. Even if we are prepared to entertain the claim that the last 1,600 years have been nothing but a sorry history of moral decline, why should we consent to accompany Rist on the 400 pages of penitential pilgrimage from Augustinian probity to secularist depravity, which he somehow thinks he has to inflict on us in the name of the history of ideas? Cut to the chase, we long to tell him. If Augustine has moral insights we need to hear, then by all means let us have them. It would make a shorter, clearer and more compelling book. Why instead do we get Augustine Deformed?

Rist answers this question. To write the book we would much prefer reading, Rist would need to traffic in what he calls "naked ideas," by which he means propositions that are simply formulated as truth-claims without elaborate contextualization. "I have [no] time for so-called naked ideas in philosophy," he tells us. And indeed each key idea in Rist's book is cloaked in so much context that its naked form is for the most part hidden.

To be plain, it is very difficult to discover what position exactly he attributes to any of the innumerable philosophers on whose work he touches in his gallop through the history of thought. Nor is he repentant about this. He confesses that he would have liked to provide even more context, had he only been allowed to swell the book to twice its length. The combination we have here of brittle historicism in its purest form added to the genealogical approach of the historian of ideas is the antithesis of the history of philosophy. It yields a book that will interest neither historians of the discipline nor general readers who are after the substance of history, rather than its accidents.

On the first page, Rist announces what I suppose is the chief axiom of his theory of decline: "Clearly, as each generation passes, the number of false problems and false assumptions will increase exponentially."

This axiom is clear, but it is clearly false. An exponential increase of anything over many generations would soon fill the world with such a multitude of its kind that there would be room for nothing else.

But Rist, you will say, was speaking in a figurative rather than a strictly mathematical sense. Perhaps, but even the comparatively temperate assertion that confusion increases with time is far from clear. Does confusion not increase in some times, places and respects while decreasing in others? Can it not find some natural and lasting equilibrium with order and clarity?

On Rist's telling, there is a one-way ratchet of deformation that began operating after Augustine and continues today, as is indicated in his first brief statement of his thesis: "Once upon a time, the moral philosopher or the moral theologian offered guidance for the good life, and beyond that for salvation. Later he forgot about salvation or was unwilling to pay the price he apparently had to pay to retain it. Finally he lost sight of 'truth' and had to content himself with ideologies."

One-way decline, then, is the first background axiom and it is a dubious one, far from necessarily true. The second, already quoted, to the effect that we must not begin where we find ourselves, at the end of the story, but must return somehow to its beginning, employs the genealogical conception of history but draws a false inference from it.

The genealogical position, as applied to Rist's subject, holds that, even after centuries of deformation, the original Augustinian structure, like a great-great-grandfather in your family tree, still underlies all its successors and is indispensable for understanding their genetic configuration. Today's moral house may be grotesque and inefficient, full of useless additions and unsound walls, a sick building for sick minds and serving purposes Augustine would have abhorred. But all the new additions built over the centuries are still standing on their original Augustinian foundation and dependent on it.

Not everyone would think this to be true, but it is by no means an unreasonable assertion. Something of this sort is how the history of philosophy typically appears when we take the metaphor of genealogy seriously. Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation is a good example of how fruitful and plausible the genealogical approach can be.

It does not follow, however, as Rist thinks, that the only way to achieve moral excellence today is to go back, as if in a time machine, to Augustine and begin again, using hindsight to help us tie up Augustine's few loose ends so that our descendants will find no means of escape from the Augustinian path. That this is what we can and must do is, however, Rist's unsupported claim, and it arises from his strange refusal to deal in what he calls "naked ideas."

The ideas Rist traffics in are emptied of content and only connected by context. They resemble a series of connected pipes. If there is a leak somewhere far back in the series, you must return to that leaky pipe and replace it. The same would be true of ideas, if ideas were pipes. But philosophical ideas have important cognitive relations among themselves. Deliberately to ignore those relations is to produce the unproductive mixture of brittle historicism with the genealogical approach to the history of ideas that we have before us.

The ambition of Rist's book is to provide a genealogy taking Augustine's account of moral action as its point of departure. In Augustine's account, morality is to be understood as motivated by love, sufficient both for leading the good life and for finding salvation at the end of it. Rist's book purports to lay bare the sequence of positions (which he elaborates with much context and little content) proving that Augustine's position is the ancestor of certain amoral practices of deceit that today we confuse with morality and make available in both a democratic and a totalitarian form. Linking the beginning and end of this story are stages in which morality and salvation come apart, succeeded by various versions of "lopsided Augustinianism," followed by the rise of the independent faculty of will and the cult of autonomy, and eventually giving rise to the absurdity of "atheist freedoms" and making straight the way for the morality of deception.

There is an abundance of erudition involved in Rist's construction of this genealogy and many sage, illuminating and witty observations about the philosophers and philosophies he causes to pass in review. Anyone willing to toil through it would also add a wealth of useful anecdote to his store. The sheer number of philosophers with whom Rist must speedily deal, however, means that specialists will have many objections to his often-glib dismissals of great minds.

At the end of this peculiar and unsatisfying book, Rist considers writers such as John Milbank and Jean-Luc Marion, who find, even within the postmodern context, "more or less authentic" ways of appropriating Augustine. Two pages of examination suffice, however, for Rist to assert that they, like all the rest of the history of philosophy, offer no real alternative. "In sum, the selective Augustinianism of the postmodernists is wholly inadequate to accomplish my hoped-for restoration of the premodern tradition."

The kindest way I can think of to end this review is to allow Rist to have that last word.

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