Augustine's Four Rules of Reading A Book
Today I learnt how Augustine read.
His style of reading reminds me of Dante's letter to his patron Can Grande - no doubt Dante learnt to read through Augustine. But what I was unprepared for was how very wide the gap between Augustine's view of reading and the modern view.
Augustine's rules for reading are (to me at least) still relevant. They are four, and I state them as principles rather than practices because of their general usefulness:
1. PURITY - reading that subserves cravings and appetites distorts the mind's ability to read the text. Maybe a text serves the lower appetites; nevertheless, the meaning of it can only be got at with a mind free of bias and a pure appetite to understand.
2. FAITH - You must suspend disbelief, but you must not suspend belief, in reading. That is to say, faith must be present in reading, and cynicism must be suspending in reading, for comprehension to occur.
I would add that faith can be conditional on historical context or limited to the space of the reading of the text, but it must be present according to Augustine in order to read well.
Faith in the text is primary in making sense of it. Why? Because reading is an inclination of the will and appetite towards clarity and freedom, therefore right from the start the will must be freed from doubt, the enemy of good faith.
These two rules for reading, purity and faith, pertain to the appetites and the will. Purity of appetites and a faithful will are the ends of their application.
3. LOVE - I read Harold Bloom's criticism from love of his mind. Why do I love Bloom's work? Because he has taught me that only by love can I win access through the text to another person's consciousness. For me, as for Bloom, Augustine and Dante, love is the only entree into the mind of greatness. A strong love will take you to the heart of any text.
Simply put, love makes reading and writing worth while. Since reading involves the love of that which reads - in other words, reading is intellectual vanity - the most literate books win the greatest love, since they most intimately put us in contact with that quality of intellectual vanity which does reading. Even more deeply, the love that creates a text and the love that reads the text are the one substance, and the love that carefully appreciates a text arises from the same kind of love as that which created the text. Love is the common human factor in reading and writing.
Criticism without love is worthless. A critic without love, even in the form of courtesy, respect, or polite restraint from abuse, is not worth a hearing. Any misreading (in the sense of Harold Bloom's map of misreadings) that adds love to the text is good or at least harmless.
4. MULTIPLICITY - Simple, clear passages of a text offer a meaning which is unarguably revealed by purity, faith and love. The consensus of informed opinions around a great text is fairly fixed, and there is little freedom in it. But Augustine offers a view of free interpretation of the text in the case of ambiguous passages.
Multiple readings, imagined, invented and supposed, are good and useful when the text is ambiguous and poetic, and when they do not violate the good faith of the text. Obscure passages provide freedom to play and explore the text more fully.
These are Augustine's four rules for reading a book, then. Let's put them in their historical and intellectual context now!
Augustine came to value the pagan tradition negatively, as an example of ignorance and error in human thinking. So much of his rules for reading concern the Christian and Jewish religious writings of his time, many of which came to be our present day bible. Augustine's reading was informed by a deep seriousness or purpose, and a moral and devotional aim.
Perhaps the primary challenge to we moderns is Augustine's stark vision of the human good to be got from reading. But Augustine differs not greatly in this from Samuel Johnson, who read voraciously and judged by very high standards of moral purity.
I suppose the biggest difference from we moderns is the more broad sense of what is proper in books - we are less offended and less corrupted, I suppose, by impure and appetite-stimulating images or words. Perhaps it is because we are so constantly overfull with stimuli, that we end up becoming accustomed or unaffected to the tides of vicious and sex-loaded content or screens and pages wash up. Certainly we seem to inhabit an alien and noisy world compared to the agrarian north African environment of Augustine.
Take these rules, then, as you will... a stimulus to your reading more spiritedly, or a window on a kind of reading past and long gone.