Why did you do that?

April 30, 2009 at 6:15 am 2 comments

| Gabriel |

In a previous post, I applied diffusion methods to interpret the conversion of the Roman empire, today I’m thinking about the conversion of one particular Roman and what it can teach us about the problem of accounts for action. In Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes his conversion to Christianity and makes important contributions to theology and philosophy. The book is important to the history of Western thought both for its impact on Christian doctrine and (my concern) that it was the first introspective memoir. Augustine tells us much more about how he felt and why he did things than about what he actually did. Most obviously, he frequently laments his lust but doesn’t give us any of the dirt. After an introductory prayer, the book begins by telling us that he’s not completely positive that he remembers it, but he’s pretty sure that he was a sinner as a baby and it goes on like that from there. A typical line about his boyhood goes “For in thy eyes, what was more infamous than I was already, since I displeased even my own kind and deceived, with endless lies, my tutor, my masters and parents–all from a love of play, a craving for frivolous spectacles, a stage-struck restlessness to imitate what I saw in these shows?”

Contrast this with this passage from Gallic Wars, “When Caesar was informed by spies that the Helvetii had already conveyed three parts of their forces across that river, but that the fourth part was left behind on this side of the Saone, he set out from the camp with three legions during the third watch, and came up with that division which had not yet crossed the river.” Caesar’s memoir is an extreme case of all plot, no character, but most other ancient works were similar. Xenophon’s Anabasis is also written in third person and focuses on plot. Xenophon never describes his motives or feelings in the narrator’s voice but only in the dialogue when he answers direct criticisms of his leadership by other soldiers at assembly. (In a few places Xenophon does provide character portraits of other people, most notably a sycophantic obituary for Cyrus and a hilariously nasty obituary for Menon). The closest thing you get to prose emphasizing personality and mental states prior to Augustine are Plutarch’s Lives and 1st and 2nd Samuel but these are biographies not autobiographies and they mostly take a “show, don’t tell” approach.

Anyway, much of Confessions consists of Augustine explaining his actions, which can broadly be categorized as sinning and conversion. His explanation for his sins is primarily concupiscence (i.e., original sin has distorted human nature such that men are depraved) and secondarily social contingencies such that his parents emphasized his social advancement over his moral education or that he was trying to impress other young miscreants. His explanation for his conversion is more complex. On one level he emphasizes social connections to Christianity. His father was a pagan but his mother, Monica, was a Christian and gave him an early education in Christianity which he rejected as a young man encountering the sophistication of pagan philosophy. Later as a young professor of rhetoric in Milan he saw Ambrose preach. Augustine was an intellectual snob who had until then thought of Christianity as embarrassing simple-minded, so to encounter a sophisticated and articulate bishop was very impressive to him and he became close to Ambrose. Meanwhile Monica and some of Augustine’s friends continued to push him to Christianity. It was only after Augustine came under the tutelage of Ambrose and returned to being close to his mother that he heard a voice in the garden saying “Take and read” whereby he opened Paul’s letter to the Romans, read a few sentences, and experienced a religious epiphany after which he consented to be baptized and ordained (dumping both his girlfriend and his fiancee in the process). Although Augustine tells us everything we need to know about the gradual influence exerted by Monica and Ambrose, he emphasizes the incident in the garden as the moment when he was converted.

To me Confessions illustrates both the potential and the problems of methodologies (such as in-depth interviews) that rely on actors giving accounts for the meanings of their actions. Note that Augustine is the best case scenario for accounts of action as he was not your average social science study respondent interviewed over the course of an hour but one of the world’s greatest philosophers who wrote an entire book of profound introspection. Yet even Augustine’s account of his conversion is self-evidently problematic.

Augustine recognizes the influence of his mother and friends. Likewise, he describes the gradual process by which he became intellectually disenchanted with Manichean dualism and interested in Christianity as consistent with neo-Platonist monism. Nonetheless he emphasizes the moment of grace in the garden. I have a feeling that if you put your digital voice recorder on the table and interviewed Augustine he’d give you very different accounts depending on whether you asked “when did you become a Christian,” “how did you become a Christian,” or “why did you become a Christian.” The first question he’d just tell you about the garden, the second question he’d tell you about Monica and Ambrose but still close with the garden, and the third question he’d give an entirely non-biographical answer about neo-Platonism.

One way to interpret Augustine’s emphasis of the garden is that he is following a cultural script. In this interpretation he is trying to make sense of his own religious experience as comparable to the prototypical conversion, Paul hearing a voice on the road to Damascus (which itself echoes such passages from Tanakh as Moses encountering the burning bush). The accepted cultural script of conversion is not to debate religion rationally for decades before finally giving in to it, but to have an epiphany where God’s grace opens your heart. Even if the rational debate was vastly more important to Augustine, that’s not how it’s supposed to go and so he emphasizes the comparatively minor incident in the garden which fits the cultural script much better. In this respect Augustine is like many modern people (especially evangelicals but also other traditions as in Christensen’s testimony affirming his Mormonism) who are raised in their church but nonetheless can construct “conversion” narratives of the point in which they personally affirmed the religion of their upbringing.

Another interpretation (which is compatible with the first) is that Augustine really did have a religious epiphany in the garden but this epiphany was only the final stage of a process overwhelming mundane and gradual. A lot of work on cognition recently has established that, like fortune, insight favors the prepared. We subjectively experience insight as a sudden revelation of an often complex idea with all the parts hanging together fully-formed. However this only comes as the culmination of a long period of rumination. So Augustine had been thinking about Christianity and neo-Platonism for decades before he had an insight that synthesized these thoughts and finally brought him to Jesus. At the moment it probably did feel subjectively to Augustine like his mind had experienced a qualitative shift whereas his previous thinking to that point had been only evolutionary.

The same thing applies to much more mundane insights than the religious epiphany of a saint. I subjectively experience the basic concepts for most of my study designs as conceptual insights rather than things that I develop slowly. For instance, when I was in grad school I experienced a burst of insight of a complete methodology involving (what I later learned already existed and was called) cross-classified fixed-effects model. It subjectively came to me all at once, but this was after I had been thinking fairly intensively about the meaning of fixed-effects for over two years. If I were trained in a theoretical tradition that emphasized cultural scripts of creative genius over the accumulation of knowledge I would probably emphasize the moment of insight when the method came to me and ignore the long period of thinking and tinkering that led up to it.

Anyway, my point is that even someone as brilliant as Augustine is incapable of really completely understanding his own motives, in part because both cultural scripts and the subjective experience of cognition push him to emphasize certain narratives over others. If we can’t take Augustine’s testimony about the most important decision of his life at face value it gets even trickier to interpret transcribed in-depth interviews, let alone closed-form GSS attitude questions that all start out with “do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, …” You can get really cynical about it and adopt a hyper-structural perspective (e.g., early Marxism, exchange theory or networks in sociology, expressed preferences in economics), where the actor’s account of subjective experience drops out almost entirely and all we care about is action. On the other hand even if you are that cynical about the causes of action, the cultural scripts are fascinating objects of study in of themselves. Certainly it’s very interesting that conversion narratives often culminate in an epiphany, even if we think that conversion is actually a process involving influences through social networks and gradual rumination.


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