Review: "Story and Design in Book Eight of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’" by D. Johnson

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Review: "Story and Design in Book Eight of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’" by D. Johnson Empty Review: "Story and Design in Book Eight of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’" by D. Johnson

Post by Nicola Perner on Sat Aug 18, 2018 1:00 am

Review: Johnson, Donovan. “Story and Design in Book Eight of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.” Biography 14.1 (1991): 39-60. JSTOR. Web.
By: Nicola Perner
Word count: 1012
Johnson provides a compelling argument in his article, in which he examines the four stories recounted in Book Eight of Saint Augustine’s Confessions in order to show how that rhetorician uses “the narrative arts of confession and autobiography” to lead the reader to his/her own conversion.
In a rather lengthy introduction, Johnson neatly substantiates his approach to analysing Confessions by making use of Augustine’s own approaches to rhetoric: “[Augustine’s] preference for examples rather than principles suggests that turning to his practice in…Confessions might be a more fruitful way of learning about his rhetoric than making inferences from his implicit theories.” He states that he will examine Book Eight as a rhetoric of persuasion because it suits Augustine’s description (in On Christian Doctrine) of such a rhetorical technique. By effectively using Augustine to understand Augustine’s purpose in and methods of writing Confessions, Johnson secures a solid foundation for his ensuing argument.
This argument is supported by a framework of theories on the power of narrative. Johnson links Paul Ricoeur’s theory, that narrative discourse creates a “second order of reference” that he calls a “projected world”, with Stephen Crites’s theory, that if the narrator and what s/he narrates are relatable to the reader, then the reader can view the narrated events and/or experiences as his/her own. Johnson then connects these two theories to Amos Wilder’s theory that all Biblical stories are “variations on the theme summed up in the formula of “lost and found””, a prime example of which is the parable of the prodigal son. Johnson traces this theme throughout Augustine’s stories in Book Eight, and also states that “Augustine weaves the parable of the prodigal son into the very fabric of Confessions in a way that determines the overall form of his story.” Johnson argues that it is Augustine’s use of these powers of narrative that shape his rhetoric. The structure of Book Eight in particular is also influenced, so argues Johnson, by a specific pattern designed to elicit a response of conversion in the reader: Augustine recounts a story of conversion and then his response to that story. This occurs twice, first with the story told by Simplicianus, then that told by Ponticianus. After the third story, that of Augustine’s own conversion, the pattern is designed to continue with the reader’s conversion. Johnson states: “The rhetorical function of the stories in Book Eight is thus much more to provide a prototype for adopting the confessional stance than merely to illustrate a moral maxim.” This seemingly straightforward insight into Augustine’s rhetoric is pivotal. It looks at Confessions beyond its words and neatly exposes the rhetoricians subtle subliminal techniques of persuasion.
The consistent use of relevant direct quotes from Augustine’s Confessions makes Johnson’s arguments particularly sound, and ensure that his reasoning can easily be followed. His inclusion of the original Latin strengthens his quotations. Not all of the quotations are provided with their Latin version, and a particularly sceptical reader may wonder why. However, Johnson’s argument is directed at the events of Augustine’s stories, the order in which they are told, and their purpose. The minutiae of differing translations into English are therefore not important as far as this argument is concerned.   
It is after Johnson’s introduction that his article becomes somewhat drawn out. A section on each of the stories in Book Eight follows. However, a large portion of each section reads more like a summary of the relevant story than an argument about its rhetorical function. While it is necessary for Johnson to trace the events of each story, and Augustine’s response to them, it would perhaps have been more effective to do so more succinctly. As it is, the reader may question the relevance of what s/he is reading, something which only becomes clear towards the end of each section, and is stated rather more briefly.    
Simplicianus’ story of Victorinus’ conversion serves to demonstrate a “slow and gradual” conversion that comes about through conversation, in which the advisor “is edging on the inquirer closer to the point of conversion.” Thereafter, Augustine recounts his own “theoretical speculations”, drawing on three parables. The second story, told by Ponticianus, is about the agentes and the conversion of Saint Anthony. This story is told with “greater immediacy” than the first, which “leads to the first person story that is the climax of Confessions, the story of Augustine in the garden.” Augustine thereafter tell the reader how he identifies with the struggle that Anthony went through in the process of his conversion. Johnson states that “the function of the story of conversion of the two agents in Book Eight…is that which Ricoeur defines for narratives in general: to offer “the paradigm of a new vision…in order to prescribe a new reading of reality””. Finally, Johnson addresses the story of Augustine’s conversion. This story, he states, is the response to the other two stories, and is the end of the “lost and found” paradigm.
Despite the length of his argument, Johnson does provide solid and convincing reasoning. It is at this point that he addresses the autobiographical nature of Confessions. He states that Victorinus’ “oral confession…is a prototype of the Confessions”. The story of the agentes provides the “plot structure that Augustine’s own story follows in precise detail”. The climax of Anthony’s story of conversion is displaced to the point of the climax of Augustine’s own conversion, drawing an obvious parallel. It is the combination of biography and confessions that make Confessions an autobiographical work, and lends further credence to Augustine as a rhetorician.
Johnson presents a clearly organised, thoroughly researched and substantiated argument. He successfully shows how Augustine uses power of narrative in an attempt to lead his readers to conversion, and lays out the function of each story of Book Eight. Additionally, he aptly links Augustine’s narrative techniques to the auto- and biographical nature of Confessions. Johnson’s article provides valuable insight into Augustine as a rhetorician, and the power of his Confessions.

Nicola Perner

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