Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Response: D.L. Dusenbury on Paolo Di Leo on David van Dusen, The Space of Time. Response to 2016.04.08

Response by D.L. Dusenbury, De Wulf–Mansion Centre for Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Philosophy, University of Leuven (davidlloyd.dusenbury@kuleuven.be)

Version at BMCR home site

In his review of my book, The Space of Time, Paolo Di Leo commends my use of the philological method; he then states blankly, however, that my philological proofs "do not hold." Di Leo selects out three failed proofs.

Ad 1. "At p. 57 n. 102 and then again at p. 74 n. 52," Di Leo reports, "van Dusen underlines the fact that in his opinion Ep. 1 would show that Augustine was much more under the influence of the Academic than of the dogmatic Platonists, as the author defines them, such as Plotinus. Unfortunately, Ep. 1 does not support van Dusen's conclusion …"

The problem here is quite simple. I never state or insinuate that Augustine, post-Milan and post-conversion, was—as Di Leo claims—"much more under the influence of the Academic than of the dogmatic Platonists."

Di Leo has perhaps confused me with Joseph Finaert, whom I quote at p. 74 n. 51. Finaert insisted in a still-useful 1939 dissertation, but only regarding Augustine's literary style: "Cicéron est son maître incontesté."

What I claim on p. 57 is rather that Augustine was "originally and lastingly influenced by the Academic Platonism of Cicero." Augustine's Ep. 1 is cited in support of this point at p. 57 n. 102—and supports it.

At p. 74 n. 52 (beneath Finaert's line), Ep. 1 is cited as evidence of "Augustine's self-avowed debt to the 'Academics' … in 386/7"—and gives evidence of that debt.

Di Leo has misrepresented my claim—which is why Ep. 1 does not support it.

Ad 2. "At p. 83 n. 106," Di Leo continues, "we find another baffling list of supposed textual parallels, which are in fact linked only by the fact of presenting identical words. These words, however, are so common and of such general use that it is unthinkable to ascribe to them any systematic value ..."

Now, the texts that I have tabulated at p. 83 n. 106, and that I analyze in some depth on pp. 80–87, are taken from Cicero's De Natura Deorum I and Augustine's Confessions XI.

Any commentator on the Confessions and its scholarly literature should, it seems to me, be pretty closely acquainted with Maurice Testard's Saint Augustin et Cicéron (Paris 1958) and Harald Hagendahl's Augustine and the Latin Classics (Göteborg 1967). These are indispensable source-critical studies.

And it seems highly doubtful—to me at least—that anyone who has tarried with those studies would rush to conclude that texts from the De Natura Deorum and Confessions are "linked only by the fact of presenting identical words" (in Di Leo's phrase), when:

(i) In both columns of text, the topic is the same: Cicero and Augustine are alike concerned with an Epicurean polemical question,1 'Why not before?' That is to say, if God (or the gods) created the world-system at some time, then why did he (or they) not create it before that time?

(ii) In both columns of text, this question leads our authors to introduce the curious—and indeed, ludicrous—image of demiurgic 'machines'. This is hardly a stock image. First, Cicero's Epicurean speaker Velleius asks: "What method of engineering was used [by Plato's demiurge]? What instruments, what levers, what machines (quae machinae) were used? What agents carried out so vast an undertaking (tanti muneris)?" Then Augustine asks: "But how did you make heaven and earth [o God]? And what was the machine of your so vast operation (quae machina tam grandis operationis tuae)?"

(iii) In both columns of text, the 'Why not before?' question is elaborated in prose that seems to contain echoes: First, Velleius probes his Stoic interlocutor: "Why did these deities suddenly awake into activity as architects of the world (mundi aedificatores) after countless ages (innumerabilia saecla) of sleep? … What I ask you, therefore, is why did your providence remain idle (cessaverit) through such a vast space of time?" Then Augustine cautions: "But if anyone's weightless sense roves over the images of past times, and he marvels that you ... architect of heaven and earth (caeli et terrae artificem), remained idle for countless ages (per innumerabilia saecula cessasse) and refrained from so vast an undertaking, let him awake and consider that he marvels falsely."2

(iv) And finally, in both columns of text, the argument closes with the same analytic proposition—yes, put to disparate ends—regarding the origin of time:

Velleius: "It is inconceivable that there was ever a time when time did not exist (fuerit tempus aliquod nullum cum tempus esset)." Augustine: "But there was no 'then,' when there was no time (non enim erat tunc, ubi non erat tempus) … nor in any time was there no time (nec aliquo tempore non erat tempus)."

In his lengthy review of my book for The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition (vol. 9, no. 2), Josef Lössl—a philologist and patrologist of the first rank—cited this as a successful demonstration of Cicero's influence on the argument of Confessions XI. Lössl calls this textual interface, in The Space of Time, a "discovery."

Lössl's verdict may be overly generous. That is not for me to decide. I can, however, say with absolute confidence that the possibility of a direct influence here is not, as Di Leo thinks, "unthinkable."

Ad 3. "Finally at pp. 87-88," Di Leo adds, "we find the quite astonishing statement, according to which: 'Already at line 205 of his first book, Lucretius writes: "Therefore we must confess (fatendumst) that nothing can possibly arise from nothing."' According to the Author fateor becomes synonymous with Confiteor, and with the sense that Augustine, a Christian, ascribes to the word!"

This strikes me as a weird criticism.

Line 205 of the De Rerum Natura I reads: nil igitur fieri de nilo posse fatendumst. This line can be unobjectionably translated: "Therefore we must confess that nothing can possibly arise from nothing."

That being the case, there is nothing astonishing in the statement that Di Leo calls astonishing. The sentence he quotes is blandly factual.

Di Leo has evidently misread the pages of my book that surround the sentence to which he objects. For I have not—as he thinks—conflated Lucretius' use of fateor with the rich and profuse sense that Augustine gives to confiteor. I distinguish these terms in Lucretius and Augustine—and both authors, incidentally, use both terms—and then compute the frequency of these terms.

There is one result of these computations that might be of interest to readers of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. As I write on p. 87: "It should be noted—as to my awareness, it has not—that the language of 'confession' (fateri, confiteri) appears more frequently in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura I and II than in Augustine's Confessions I and II."

Let me underscore that this sentence is strictly factual. It is also unarguably correct. Those who find this lexical observation arresting might care to peruse chapter 3 of The Space of Time.

Incidentally, I also identify in chapter 3 a distinctly Ciceronian—which is to say, a New Academic—mode of 'confession' in Augustine's corpus, namely, the "confession of ignorance" (confessio ignorantiae). Since Augustine writes—definitively, and categorically—in Confessions XII.30.41, that "these discourses would not be my confessions if I did not confess to you, 'I do not know' (non sunt hi sermones confessionum mearum si tibi non confiteor, 'nescio')," this mode of confession obviously calls for further investigation. (Compare, e.g., Augustine's Sermo 117.3.5: ... pia confessio ignorantiae magis, quam temeraria professio scientiae.)

In lieu of a conclusion, I would like to refer the BMCR readership to a recent essay, "New Light on Time in Augustine's Confessions," in which I briefly restate and resituate my findings in The Space of Time.3

I have proposed a novel interpretation of Augustine's concept of time in Confessions X to XII. The evidence for this interpretation is, admittedly, intricate and diffuse.4 The Space of Time is a first effort, and suffers—at many points—from a mandarin style. It nevertheless deserves a more sensitive treatment than Di Leo affords it in his BMCR review.


1.   De Civitate Dei XII.11–12 places it out of doubt that Augustine knew this to be an Epicurean taunt. The Epicureans are not named here, but the doctrines that Augustine rejects in XII.11—the distribution of infinite worlds, the periodic destruction and resuscitation of worlds, and so on—are obviously Epicurean. So is the question Cur non ante?—'Why not before?'—that he turns to in XII.12.
2.   Augustine's admonition—"Let him awake …"—is very plausibly directed at Velleius, an Epicurean spokesman, who asks: 'Why were the divine world-architects sleeping?' Augustine retorts: 'And why are you sleeping? It is you who must awake, and see ...'
3.   I presented a draft of this essay at the XVII International Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford. A revised version is due to be published in a volume of Studia Patristica.
4.   And new evidence is still emerging. See my forthcoming article, "Lucretius Christianus: An Affirmation of the Epicurean Concept of Time in Isidore's Etymologiae," in which I demonstrate that Isidore of Seville approvingly cites Lucretius' stanzas on tempus in Etymologiae 5,31,9–10. That this late-patristic citation has gone unnoticed reflects a much larger neglect. Intellectual historians still have nothing like an adequate picture of the late-antique reception of Lucretian philosophy by Christian authors.

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