Readers of this blog, if there be any such, will know that St Augustine (see sidebars ‘Questioning Back’ and ‘Augustine’) and Jean-Luc Marion (see ‘Fundamental Theology’ and ‘Grace’) are among the figures to whom I frequently refer. Now Marion has developed his Etienne Gilson lectures of 2004 into a full-scale study of the Confessions under the title Au lieu de soi: L’approche de Saint Augustin (PUF, 2008). The encounter of the two thinkers is quite a fascinating spectacle.
Marion’s phenomenological arsenal, built up in an array of books, including notably Réduction et donation and Etant donné, stands him in very good stead as he elucidates the fundamental phenomena with which Augustine’s thought and writing are concerned. These phenomena include such basic structures of human existence as temporality and its temptations and dispersals; the elusive depths of the self as we try to seize it in memory; the weakness of the divided will and the power of love; the encounter with Truth as enlightening and accusing; the confessional structure of existence as a response of praise to the prior divine call. Marion presents them in a tight and lucid synthesis that also reveals the deep coherence of the Confessions as a literary project.
My own approach to Augustine, beginning with a doctoral thesis on ‘Methods and Structures in the De Trinitate’ (Maynooth, 1976), focuses on the plurality of approaches in Augustine’s texts, noting especially tensions between the arguments shaped by Greco-Roman metaphysical thinking and the effort to retrieve biblical phenomena using biblical language. I would tend to speak of les approches rather than l’approche de Saint Augustin. Like the other great thinkers among the Church Fathers, Augustine, in my understanding, labored on a synthesis of metaphysical wisdom and biblical revelation, and this synthesis is not without fault-lines and flaws.
Even in his most biblical and phenomenological aspects, Augustine represents a Western inculturation of the biblical message, which we need to interrogate critically in order to be skillful in inculturating that message for the global cultures of today. Marion sees the antipathy of the Eastern Churches to Augustine as stubborn closed-mindedness, but it could equally be seen as an index of the limits of Augustinianism and of the ‘introspective conscience of the West,’ a resistance in the name of a broader biblical and ecclesial vision.
Both Marion and I espouse the Heideggerian idea of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ in Augustine. But whereas I see Augustine as a solidly metaphysical thinker who is also something more or other than that, Marion sees Augustine as one who has left metaphysics behind from the start, so that there is nothing to overcome except the metaphysical misunderstandings of his modern interpreters. Anything that looks like metaphysics in Augustine’s discourse, as Marion reads it, shows itself on closer inspection to be a phenomenological testimony to biblical truth. In contrast.
I find, however, that even at his most biblical, even in his accounts of grace or of the mystery of the divine idipsum, Augustine is shadowed by the terms and methods of metaphysical thinking. I count Augustine among the great masters of the metaphysical theoretization of Christian doctrine, with all the questions that this implies, whereas Marion would reduce all the appearances of metaphysical theoretization to an underlying level of discourse in which Augustine is no longer theorizing about God, but addressing God in the existential situation of grace-enabled confession.
Marion does recognize the force of Heidegger’s view that Augustine was impeded in his phenomenological or existential thinking of the realities of faith by an attachment to Greek theoretical methods of thinking that he was not able to overcome. This force comes from Luther and Harnack, whose texts, carefully studied and annotated, were a powerful influence on the young Heidegger, inspiring his project of overcoming metaphysics, initially within theology, and then within philosophical thinking. But Marion has little interest in following this up. He believes that the philosophical thought of antiquity had little impact on Augustine’s mind.
‘The very long and rich debate on the supposed Neoplatonism of St. Augustine, even as conducted by such eminent savants as P. Courcelle, no longer appears today as decisive as it seemed when it begun; not that the question lacks interest, but it can seem less central, if not marginal: first because St Augustine does not use the fundamental concepts of Neoplatonism or rather of the Neoplatonisms (if only because God is not identified with the One, or with a Principle, or even with the Good); next because one author may influence another without passing through explicit readings; finally because we should take seriously his judgment on those doctrines, which is unambiguously negative’ (p. 19). Against this, I would say that God is indeed identified as ipsum bonum or the Good in Augustine (De Trinitate VIII); that God is as much a Principle as in Origen; that Augustine does use fundamental concepts and structures of Plotinus, with clear influence of particular Plotinian texts, in discussing God (Confessions VII) and the soul (De Trinitate IX-X); that the influence of Neoplatonism and the wider middle Platonist streams is indeed mediated not only by explicit readings (Augustine quoted Plotinus on the last day of his life) but by the diffuse Platonist conceptions in the philosophical culture of the time and in the leading Christian thinkers of the early centuries (Origen and the many Fathers he influenced, including Augustine’s mentor Ambrose, Marius Victorinus, the Cappadocians), which strengthens rather than weakens the pregnant quality of the theme ‘Augustine and Neoplatonism’; that Augustine’s critique of Neoplatonist doctrines is associated with an enthusiastic appropriation of other Neoplatonist doctrines, notably at the close of Confessions VII, an utterly central text. The encounter with Plotinus -- a true meeting of minds, a 'transmission from mind to mind' as Zen masters say -- was indeed the central event of Augustine's life and is set at the geometrical center of the Confessions.
‘The privilege so long accorded to the question of the supposed Neoplatonism of St Augustine (and of the Church Fathers in general) witnesses perhaps as much to the preoccupations of the period and the interpreters as to an obvious trait of one who found his roots rather in the practice of the Enarrationes in Psalmos’ (ib.). The ‘period’ in question stretches from 1521 (Melanchthon’s Loci Communes) to 2008. Documented studies such as R. Arnou’s survey ‘Le Platonisme des Pères’ (Dictionnaire de théologie catholique) make it indisputable that the use of Platonist concepts by the Fathers, or rather their internalization of Platonist thought-forms, is a major and unavoidable historical reality. Augustine certainly found his spiritual roots in the Psalms, but he orchestrates a harmony of this experience with the revelation of the reality of God and the soul occasioned by his reading of the Enneads in 386. Platonic thought-forms do not disappear when he reads Scripture.
One is free to bypass the way in which Augustine’s concepts, vocabulary and methods and structures of argumentation are informed by frequentation of philosophical thinkers such as Cicero, Plotinus, Porphyry and the general doxographic tradition, as well as by the Christian metaphysics of his predecessors among the Fathers. But such a choice abstracts from the real-life context of Augustine and his predecessors, as intellectuals in the Roman Empire, engaged in an apologetic debate with classical thought. It produces an ‘ahistorical’ and ‘utopian’ reading, as Marion actually confesses.
Building on Heidegger’s exploitation of Augustine in his early existential phenomenology, though giving it a more theological cast, this reading salvages a perennial Augustine, freed from the limits and contingencies of his historical context. Marion corrects a ‘detheologization’ of Augustine by Heidegger (p. 213), but in doing so he risks burying Heidegger’s philosophical project of a fundamental ontology, as if Augustine could legitimately inspire only the tradition of religious thinking whose most illustrious representative is the Pascal of the Pensées.
Marion’s reduction of Augustine to his phenomenological quintessence is a construction firmly grounded in Augustine’s texts, translated and commented on with great skill and imagination. But even in its biblical dimension this vision of Augustine forgoes engagement with historical judgment. There is no effort to develop a hermeneutic awareness that Augustine’s readings of Scripture are not a transparent rendering of a timeless core of biblical revelation, but rather a reception of Scripture under particular late 4th century and early 5th century conditions.
The fact that Augustine easily modulates from philosophical lines of argument to biblical ones and finds biblical verses to warrant all of his philosophically shaped thoughts in no way entails a total overcoming of metaphysics by scriptural phenomena (or by what Augustine understands scriptural phenomena to be); rather his approach to these phenomena is shaped by his metaphysical thought-forms. His exegesis of John and the Psalms is guided and framed by his homely Platonist ontology, his philosophical notions of God as being and the ground of beings, of the soul and its capacities, and of the goals of human life conceived in terms of a quest for beatitude.
Marion claims that the word ‘metaphysics’ does not apply to ancient thought at all – despite the fact that Heidegger regularly cites Aristotle as exemplifying ‘the onto-theo-logical structure of metaphysics.’ Scholars such as P. Aubenque, J.-F. Courtine, T. De Koninck, F. Nef have shown that Aristotle's plural and aporetic investigations do not constitute an ontotheology in the sense developed by the commentators such as Alexander of Aphrodisias and Simplicius, or by Avicenna, a theory in which the notion of being, whether analogical or univocal, acts as a pivot in a systematic ontology of universal ens commune grounded in the divine summum ens. But in a broader, simpler and more radical sense, Aristotle is surely a metaphysician, identifying being as ousia, substance, and grounding beings causally in the supreme being, the divine 'self-thinking thought.' Let us not forget the phenomenological bearing of Heidegger's thought. It is from the intellectualization of the phenomenon of the ontological difference between beings and their being that metaphysics emerges; and metaphysics from the start is ontotheology, that is a logos about being. Heidegger wants to return to a different kind of logos, a legein that sets forth being and beings in their primary phenomenological senses, before the construction of a metaphysical logos.
Marion's position has the effect of cutting off Augustine from the history of metaphysics, and situating him in an extraterritorial realm of purely Christian thought. With the phenomenological purism that is his hallmark, Marion can thus clear the ground for a ‘reduction’ of Augustine in terms of a number of ‘saturated phenomena’ such as divine truth that enlightens conscience or the ineffable divine ultimacy. These phenomena are severed from their close relationship to Neoplatonic experience of similar realities, or rather, in Augustine’s own view, of the same realities.
It is true that at the center of Augustine’s thought lies an experience and discourse of Grace, which can be developed autonomously without reference to philosophy. Marion, though he pays little attention to the tracts on Grace, well clarifies this dimension of Augustine’s thought. But it is a pity that he misses the fascinating spectacle of how a radical thinker of grace engages the heritage of philosophical wisdom, critically reshaping it, first in the early philosophical musings, and then in the ripe treatments in Confessions, De Trinitate and The City of God. If one feels that Augustine’s metaphysics threatens to encumber or occlude his vision of grace, the way to tackle this is to espouse and carry through more fully the partial overcoming of metaphysics operative in Augustine’s texts. Impatience with metaphysics and refusal to recognize the extent of Augustine’s investment in metaphysical discussion and reliance on basic metaphysical notions, such as Being, Mind, Soul, the Good, foreclose other interesting paths to retrieving Augustine in a contemporary critical key.
Augustine’s language is ‘irreducible to the lexicon of metaphysics’ (p. 11); yet it certainly contains the vocabulary of metaphysics, even in passages that seem purely biblical or inspired by purely Christian insight; when, for example, Augustine says that God is totus ubique he is echoing Plotinian accounts of the omnipresence of the One. It is good to sight the dimensions of Augustine’s language that exceed metaphysics. But it is also good to tease out tensions between Augustine’s metaphysical and transmetaphysical registers, undermining their harmonization in Augustine by practicing a deconstructive reading that goes against the grain of the text.
Marion claims that Augustine cannot be categorized as a philosopher or a theologian (something one is tempted to say of Marion himself). Augustine understands philosophy as love of wisdom, and Christianity as the true philosophy. But need this forbid a commonsense categorizing of Augustine as a theologian, who uses philosophical lore and arguments when needed and whose vocabulary shows a steady presence of philosophical culture? Marion, conversely, can be categorized as a philosopher, who draws on theological sources to enrich the philosophical palette, and who sometimes navigates into straight theology (wherein he uses a largely philosophical vocabulary). Augustine is quite unambiguously a theologian in his sermons, scriptural commentaries, anti-Donatist and anti-Pelagian writings, and clearly so as well in the De Trinitate and City of God, which use philosophical lines of argument within a theological project, and come back again and again to Scripture as the primary authority. The Confessions chronicle and enact a religious quest which draws on philosophical argument within an overall context of grace and confession. In all these cases the philosophical sources, arguments and tenets are not reduced to a ‘love of wisdom’ that is no longer recognizable as part of the culture of classical metaphysics and ethics. Augustine discusses the usual loci of classical philosophy, on topics such as friendship, beauty, the origin of evils, cosmic order and Providence, the being of God and the soul, the freedom of the will, time, etc., though his engagement with philosophy is always led by his ultimately theological purpose.
‘In the strict sense, that is in the sense in which he himself understood it, Augustine is not, even very marginally, working as a theologian’ (pp. 25-6). This astonishing claim is based on a kind of terminological fetishism. ‘In the strict sense’ refers to the idea of theology as ‘a reasoning or discourse about the divinity’ (City of God VIII, 1, 34) or ‘the rational theology that pleased not only him [sc. Varro] but many philosophers’ (ib. VII, 6, 24). ‘Rigorously speaking, Augustine would be working as a philosopher, in the strict sense of amator Dei’ (p. 26). Perhaps Augustine would be equally happy to be called a Christian philosopher as to be called a church theologian. Augustine ‘ignored in advance a distinction [between theology and philosophy] that Heidegger tried to discuss after the fact’ (p. 27). But Heidegger upholds the distinction between theology and philosophy very rigorously, as Marion also attempts to do in works such as Étant donné. The autonomy of philosophical reason is not a concern of Augustine’s. This entails not only that he can see his own theological thought as the true philosophy but also that he can find true theology in the philosophical thought of Plotinus. It is not so much that his thought lies beyond the philosophy-theology divide, or at a level of integral unity - or blurry fusion - before the division arose, as that he combines the two paths of thinking in an economy in which the philosophical discussions ultimately subserve a theological intention.
Even for many classical metaphysicians the autonomy of philosophy is an ideal not fully realized in practice, given their tendency to draw on religious traditions. However, phenomenology owes a debt to that ideal, so firmly upheld by Husserl and even by Heidegger. ‘The theological turn of French phenomenology’ (Janicaud) has enlarged and enriched philosophical discourse, but at the risk of making it indistinguishible from theological discourse. Marion’s discussion of Augustine is largely a theological phenomenology, a demonstration of how theological thinking can challenge philosophy to tackle human existence in greater depth. The autonomy of philosophical reason was fundamentally upheld by the medieval universities through the structuring of their faculties, and even though in the Summa Theologiae Aquinas integrates philosophical reasoning into a wide theological framework, he also set aside much space in his Aristotle commentaries to develop philosophical questions purely on their own terms. He did so out of a concern for the integrity of human reason, at a time where it was menaced by other thinkers who flooded it with premature appeal to theological insights.
Marion again gives excessive weight to terminology when he claims that Augustine did not know the words ‘metaphysics’ and ‘ontology’ and that his thinking is thus foreign to the concerns of these disciplines. Gilson’s critique of the relatively undeveloped state of Augustine’s ontology is countered by the objection that he fails to query ‘the legitimacy of speaking of ontology in the case of St Augustine (or indeed in that of St. Thomas also), who not only did not know the word (which appeared some ten centuries later), but would never have used it, since for him Sum qui sum does not even pertain to a questioning on beings’ (pp. 413-4). But in Confessions VII Augustine is involved in a questioning about beings – that is, to overcome Manichean dualism he needs to grasp the nature of spiritual being and also the unity and goodness of being, and his reading of the libri Platonicorum, culminating in the revelation Ego sum qui sum, brings him this double insight. That his questioning does not proceed in the academic mode of Scotist or Wolffian ontology is not a good reason for denying that a thinking about being and beings is afoot in this text. ‘Even when he sometimes uses the expression ipsum esse Augustine is never preoccupied with being. It could be that, along with many others, he is an exception to the rule perhaps imprudently fixed by E. Gilson: “There is only one God and that God is being; such is the cornerstone of Christian philosophy”’ (p. 414). Marion’s text is peppered with ‘perhaps’ and ‘it could be,’ which may indicate a consciousness of the strained character of his suggestions.
Augustine, we are told, was ignorant of the usage and significance of the term ‘metaphysics’ like all the philosophers who preceded him (p. 403); but qui nimis probat nihil probat. If Aristotle and Plotinus are not doing metaphysics, then one is not saying anything substantial in claiming that Augustine is not doing metaphysics either. The vast historical project of Marion and his disciples, wherein they seek to show that metaphysics, ontology, and onto-theo-logy are modern constructions, with the results that a Heideggerian ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ would have pertinence only for modern times, and not for Plato, Aristotle, the Fathers or Thomas Aquinas, seems to me misguided; in any case, even if one regards metaphysics as coming to full fruition only in the wake or Scotus, or of Descartes, one could still regard the ancient philosophers as belonging to the ‘incubation period’ of metaphysics, to use an expression of Heidegger in Der Satz vom Grund. Heidegger provides an arsenal of methods for the critical interrogation of ancient as well as modern philosophers (and theologians insofar as they make philosophical investments); the peremptory declaration that the ancient world did not even know what metaphysics was makes Heidegger’s critical strategies inoperative and provides no others to take their place.
Though obliged to concede that Augustine is an ontologist at least to the extent of identifying God as essentia, as ‘qui est’ or simply as Est, Marion plays down the significance of this in an implausible way. Augustine’s discussion of ‘Ego sum qui sum’ in no less than forty-seven places makes little impression on him. He notes the association of divine being with immutability, and suggests that the phenomenon of God as unchanging somehow surpasses or relativizes the identification of God as Being. ‘God calls himself Sum qui sum because he attests himself first as immutable, and not the contrary. Whereas in the system of metyaphysics eternity follows on the being of God among other properties, here the divine difference over against the world is marked in the first place by immutability, which determines originarily their difference in the manner of being entities, and in consequence their difference of being (leur différence de manières de l’étant, et donc l’être). Aeternum determines esse and not vice versa’ (p. 411). In fact the stereotyped characterization of divine being as immutable seems rather to betoken a certain dullness in Augustine’s handling of the notion of being, a captivity by the conceptual opposition of mutable and immutable. When Marion takes it up he sounds as if he is reducing discourse on God’s being from the ontological to the merely ontic.
In the long list of titles of praise at the start of the Confessions (I, 4, 4) the word ‘being’ never appears; ‘Augustine always denied that God that God can be determined by substance (ousia as the first meaning of on): “Manifestum est Deum abusive substantiam vocari, ut nomine usitatiore intelligatur essentia, quod vere et proprie dicitur; ita ut fortasse solum Deum dici oporteat essentiam. – It is manifestly abusive to call God a substance, so that he is better understood him by the more usual name of essence, an essence that he truly and properly is; so that perhaps it is fitting only for God to be called essence” (De Trinitate VII, 5, 10)’ (pp. 393-4). Augustine indeed objects to calling God substance, since it entails that there would be something in him as in a subject, whereas God is the same as anything said of him, and the attributes do not impugn the simplicity of the essence (whether Augustine can consistently keep substance language at bay in the development of Trinitarian discourse here is another question). But in calling God essence, or being, Augustine is by no means stepping away from metaphysics; even the scriptural proof-text, Exodus 3:14, had already been solicited by Greek metaphysical thinking in the Septuagint translation. The non-occurrence of ‘being’ in the doxological passage is probably due to the fact that such an expression as qui vere es would be obscure without further elaboration; Augustine may be holding the language of Exodus 3:14 in reserve until he can use it with its full force at the end of Book VII.
Augustine says that Scripture only rarely uses words that are said properly of God (quae proprie de Deo dicuntur) and that the key instance of such is Exodus 3:14; he adds that while bodies and souls are also said to be, only God can be said to be in the proper sense (proprio modo) (De Trinitate I 2). Could anything be clearer? But Marion, convinced that Augustine has no interest in being as such, comments on this text as follows: 'However, since it is a question first of all of a biblical name, even if it takes an ontological sense by attraction with Plato and Aristotle, this argument cannot suffice to impose being itself (in the sense of philosophy) as a divine name' (p. 396). Marion seems to forget that in De Trinitate, the last of the great anti-Arian treatises, Augustine is making his contribution to the controversy on precisely the being (ousia) of God that had obsessed Christian theologians since Nicea in 325, some 90 years earlier. Nor was this discussion sealed off from metaphysics or, if that word be disallowed, from hê theôria tôn ontôn (Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium II, 572), hê peri tôn ontôn philosophia (In Eccl. VII, 7).
Marion is silent about the immediate connection between that language about divine being and the comprehensive vision of the being of beings which is equally part of the yield of insight brought by the encounter with Plotinus in Confessions VII, 16. Marion does talk about being and nothingness in connection with God’s creative activity, but not about such metaphysical theses as the convertibility of being and goodness and the characterization of evil as lack of being – both formulated by Augustine as a metaphysical correction of Manicheanism. Marion stresses that Augustine never explicitly poses the Seinsfrage, ‘what is Being?’ and this leads him to play down the fact that Augustine’s talk about the being of God and of beings in general brings him into more intimate engagement with the tradition of ontological questioning than any other of the Fathers.
‘It may be that St Augustine. who does not pose the question of Being, or even that of beings, who therefore does not name God beginning from Being, or as the being par excellence, who does not speak the language of the categories of the entity, nor beginning from the first of these categories, ousia, who does not inquire after a first foundation, nor seek it in the least subject (whether understood as substrate or as ego) does not belong to metaphysics, neither explicitly nor implicitly’ (p. 27), Now Augustine does discuss beings and being in Confessions VII, does name God as the one who truly is, does discuss the Trinity in terms of ousia (essentia) and relations (another of the categories) (though trying to recall that the divine simplicity entails that divine essentia means the only true Being) , does see God as the first foundation of the world, and in general builds on the standard lines of Christian metaphysics as developed in the Apologists and Origen, deepening them through his more radical thinking of being and of the soul and the mind (which is a subject). Marion’s suggestion is paradoxical and counter-intuitive in the highest degree, and I do not see that his subsequent argumentation bears it out. Marion expounds an Augustine who is other and perhaps greater than Augustine the metaphysician, but the metaphysician remains a solid reality that cannot be whisked away. Yes, Augustine is not an autonomous metaphysician but an ‘embedded’ one. But this does not entail that all his thought can be cleanly reduced to the categories of a theological phenomenology, that metaphysical ‘essence’ becomes biblical ‘spirit’ without remainder. There is a tension in such texts as the De Trinitate between the dynamic of metaphysical thought, focused on being and mind, and the dynamic of biblical thought; to interrogate this tension allows a more differentiated and interesting reading of the text than approaches which stress only one side (as I argued, rather simplistically no doubt, in ‘Dieu-Esprit et Dieu-Substance chez saint Augustin,’ Recherches de science religieuse 69 :357-90).
Marion (p. 27) claims that Augustine does not speak of God but to God, in contrast to Greek Fathers who speak of God, creation, etc., just as Greek philosophers speak of the soul, the world, even the divine. But of course Augustine, like other Fathers, speaks both of and to God. Many of his works have de in their title, De Immortalitate Animae, De Civitate Dei, and even De Trinitate (as Marion notes). The Confessions, addressed entirely to God, is a unicum in patristic literature, but it is not in contradiction with the discussion of God in other works (though the De Trinitate, too, is steeped in and sustained by a questing pathos addressed to God).
Marion makes much of those texts in which God is called idipsum or ‘Itself.’ This is indeed an apophatic trait in Augustine. A homology with the Plotinian One need not be dismissed as quickly as Marion dismisses it. In the mystical ascent at Ostia (Conf. IX) the divine idipsum is touched with the summit of the mind, as in Plotinus the One is touched (thiggein) rather than seen (in contrast to the language of light in Conf. VII). Marion is right to say that those who translate idipsum as 'true Being' etc. are blinded by metaphysical presuppositions, missing the gap that Augustine signals between the idipsum and the discourse of God as being. The idipsum is 'radically and definitively apophatic, expresses no essence and attains no definition' (p. 406).
But immediately after expressing his inability to say anything about the idipsum Augustine goes on to ask, Quid est ergo 'idipsum,' nisi, quod est ?(Enn. in Ps. 121.5). When Augustine seeks words approximating it or helping to lead the mind to it (quibusdam vicinitatibus verborum et significationum perducere infirmitatem mentis ad cogitandum 'idipsum'), the first words he finds are those of a ‘metaphysics of the Exodus.’ Marion insists that the stress is on the otherness of immutable divine being, not on a definition of God as ipsum esse. 'One notes first that Exodus 3:14 comes into play only after the idipsum and following its apophasis, so that far from identifying with it or vanishing into it, it englobes and gives its meaning to the Sum qui sum. In consequence, one sees above all that Sum qui sum cannot be translated as an ipsum esse, which would make being the most proper name of God, and so it no longer works to establish a "metaphysics of the Exodus," vanishing into the ipsum esse' (p. 407). This is well observed. But even if idipsum transcends and englobes the language of esse, it does not disqualify that language or cause it to vanish into the apophasis of idipsum. A staple account of God as true being seems to survive quite robustly despite the apophatic inflections.
At the end of Book II of the De Trinitate Augustine says: 'That nature, or substance, or essence, or by whatever other name that very thing (idipsum) which God is is to be called, cannot be seen bodily' (II, 35). Marion comments: 'The sequence enumerates, but to disqualify them, the usual ontico-ontological namings, so as to negate them in the same way as every material naming (neither more nor less adequate than they) and to envisage, by a simple designation, in fact empty, the thing itself, idipsum' (p. 399). The bedrock of Augustine's long discussions of the theophanies is that as an invisible substance God cannot appear bodily, so that they must be created signs. There is no suggestion in the text that God is as improperly called substance as he is thought of in bodily terms. Marion seems to be thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius's discussion of bodily names for God such as 'rock,' but this has no relevance to Augustine's discussion. Moreover, while Augustine here again shows an awareness that the divine idipsum is awkwardly designated as essence or substance, he nonetheless also signals the correctness of those names. The phrase appelandum est means 'is to be called.' It does not mean 'regrettably has to be called.' Nor does Augustine content himself with saying 'is called' or 'is conventionally called.'
Marion thinks Aquinas's ipsum esse subsistens is a reimportation of the notion of substance into the notion of God, a notion excluded by Augustine. But is ‘subsistent’ the same thing as substance? Might it not indicate that God is a hypostasis which is not an ousia, as Plotinus says of the One? The idea of esse as act is a refinement on the notion of essentia Augustine worked with; the Thomist identification of God as the subsistent esse is not a reversion to that relatively undifferentiated notion of essentia.
Marion finds its surprising that Augustine, in the continuation of his reflection in Enn. in Ps. 121, associates the Ego sum qui sum with Christ; Christ 'in the form of God' is idipsum. But this is straightforward Christian ontology, and Exodus 3:14 is often ascribed by the Fathers to the eternal Logos rather than to God the Father (Origen, De Principiis III, 2, 1; Athanasius, Contra Arianos III, 12-14; Basil, Contra Eunomium II, 18). 'If then the idipsum can be incarnate at the price of kenosis and if it can give itself in participation to humans, then it becomes clear that, for saint Augustine, the function and characteristic of the idipsum do not pertain to being, at least as metaphysics will understand it in its ontology, but to the charity of God' (p. 409). Again, it seems to me that Augustine has a sturdy grasp of the Son's being that is not out of hearing distance of metaphysics, and that he would not oppose the notions of divine love and of sharing in Christ's being.
Marion's discourse of 'God without Being' belongs to a noble tradition, going back to the epekeina tes ousias of Plato, developed by Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius. It excites philosophers in Japan who recall Nagarjuna's demonstrations that no dharma has proper substance, for all are dependently arisen and hence empty, and who are charmed with the notion of a self-emptying God (a notion with poor scriptural foundation). It is true that Heidegger devoted little thought to how the apophatic tradition might be situated in the context of his vision of metaphysics as onto-theo-logy, or how the phenomenon of the One beyond being might be related to the phenomenon of being or the question of being. Marion connects Thomist esse, being as act, with this tradition (and indeed Porphyry, and the later Plotinus as read by Porphyry, may lurk beyond Thomas here).
But to reread Augustine and Aquinas as radically transcending and leaving behind the tradition of Christian ontology founded in the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 is a step too far; the apophatic opening at the summit of their thought does not undo the fact that it is structured as a theory of being. Heidegger was not much concerned with such apophatic leaps beyond metaphysics, being more interested in a step back to the phenomenality of this-worldly being and beings. To say, with Beierwaltes, that Neoplatonism offers the overcoming of metaphysic that Heidegger was looking for is a metabasis eis allo genos, a misprision. The different traditions of Aristotelian onto-theology,
Neoplatonic meontology, Buddhist emptiness coexist in pluralistic tension; I distrust philosophies that iron out this tension.
Nygren’s thesis that Augustine caritas is a synthesis of Johannine agape and Platonic eros gets short shrift from Marion (pp. 368-9). Whether or not Nygren’s arguments are as inept as Marion claims, it remains clear enough that Augustine draws on the Platonic and Plotinian schemata of an ascent of love through beautiful forms to the transcendent invisible beauty. Augustine’s interiorized and spiritualized caritas is not simply identical with Johannine agape. The ideals of enjoying God (frui Deo) and enjoying the neighbor in God are nourished by Platonic and Ciceronian thought and provide an original Augustinian angle on Christian love. Love may be ‘univocal’ as Marion claims, but its languages are surely characterized by a rich historical pluralism, and can be critically played off against one another. Another topic on which Marion might make more of the links with metaphysical tradition (Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, whom he does mention) is that of the desire of beatitude (beata vita). This, too, is not a biblical concept, nor is it simply a timeless, transparent, universal phenomena; it is voiced within a particular and concrete tradition of discourse.
These marginal notes are mere scratchings at the surface of Marion’s vast and far-reaching book, expressing once again a misgiving that I have felt in other forms when reading his previous works (see my remarks in Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, Edinburgh, 1996, ch. 6). The basic issue, it seems, is that the classics of Christian thought are embedded in history, and marked by the strains and limits of history – a specifically European history. One can release them from history by distilling from them a phenomenological vision that is vivid for today (perhaps with the idea of seizing on a perpetual core of phenomenological truth, as no doubt the builder of a First Philosophy in a phenomenological key hopes to do), but I feel it is more fruitful to seek to overcome history in the density of its own texture, and in the awareness that a new trans-European history is currently in formation, which renders critical engagement with our own past and its metaphysical thought-forms an inescapable task, and also an exciting one.