Augustine’s Magical Decade

In 397, when Augustine had been two years a bishop and six years a priest, he was summoned deeper into the consequences of his own thinking, deeper into himself. That is when he began The Testimony, an intimate form of writing set apart from the sermons, pamphlets, and letters his episcopal duties drew from him in a constant stream. The explosion of writing that had occurred after his conversion in 387 was accompanied by a desire to catapult himself up out of his past, in a Neoplatonic ascent to God. Beginning in 397, there was an implosion of his mind, down into himself, back into his past, as the place where God could be found. His own mystery was an echo of God’s; and God was hiding in the vaster areas he felt opening “within”—intus, the key word of his current quest: “You were inside me, I outside me” (intus eras et ego foris). God was “deeper in me than I am in me” (interior intimo meo). So, with a spelunker’s hardy nerve, Augustine lowered himself into himself:

I venture over the lawns and spacious structures of memory, where treasures are stored—all the images conveyed there by any of our senses, and, moreover, all the ideas derived by expanding, contracting, or otherwise manipulating the images; everything ticketed, here, and stored for preservation (everything that has not been blotted out, in the interval, and buried in oblivion). Some things, summoned, are instantly delivered up, though others require a longer search, to be drawn from recesses less penetrable. And, all the while, jumbled memories flirt out on their own, interrupting the search for what we want, pestering: “Wasn’t it us you were seeking?” My heart strenuously waves these things off from my memory’s gaze until the dim thing sought arrives at last, fresh from depths. Yet other things are brought up easily, in proper sequence, from beginning to end, and laid back in the same order, recallable at will—which happens whenever I recite a passage by heart.

This recitation from memory is a key experience for Augustine, since it gives him an analogy for God’s creation of time out of eternity. The poem stored up in Augustine’s memory has no temporal extension. It acquires that only as he sounds out its syllables, in a long chain for a long poem, a shorter span for a short one. So the world and all its works resided in God’s eternity, and only occurred in time when His Word articulated the eternal design in a sequence of created ages.

Even the recitation of a poem reveals a trace of the Trinity in man (God’s image):

Say I am about to recite a psalm. Before I start, my anticipation includes the psalm in its entirety, but as I recite it, whatever I have gone over, detaching it from anticipation, is retained by memory. So my ongoing act is tugged [distenditur] between the memory of …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.