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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.1 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 what I just said and the anticipation of what I am just about to say, though I am immediately engaged in the present transit from what was coming to what is past. As this activity works itself out, anticipation dwindles as memory expands, until anticipation is canceled and the whole transaction is lodged in memory. And what happens with the whole psalm is equally what happens with each verse of it, each syllable—and with the whole long liturgy of which the psalm may be a part, or with the whole of any man’s life, whose parts are his own acts, or with the whole world, whose parts are the acts of men.

Vladimir Nabokov had obviously been reading Augustine when he made Humbert Humbert describe his own self-awareness as “a continuous spanning [distentio] of two points (the storable future and the stored past).”2 Time is a shuttling of the future into the past, moving through an immeasurable point. “If we could suppose some particle of time which could not be divided into a smaller particle,” wrote Augustine, “that alone deserves to be called the present, yet it is snatched from the future and flits into the past without any slightest time of its own—if it lasted, it could be divided into part-future and part-past. So there is no present as such.” And yet, paradoxically, we know the past only as a present memory and the future only as a present anticipation. There is, then, no real present and nothing but a real present. The mind brokers this odd interplay of times in a no-time.

Philosophers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, say Augustine fails to solve the very problem he poses.3 Bertrand Russell finds that old standby of Augustinian criticism, sex, at the root of the difficulty:

St. Augustine, whose absorption in the sense of sin led him to excessive subjectivity, was content to substitute subjective time for the time of history and physics.4

But Augustine was not trying to solve an abstract philosophical problem. He was exploring his own mystery as a reflection of God’s mystery. In his own activities he finds himself both trapped in time, tugged in its dialectic of future and past, and somehow outside time, holding the future and the past in present acts of anticipation or memory—that is why he scrambles his times so artfully in the paragraph above (“the present transit from what was coming to what is past“). Augustine did not delve into his soul to find sin. He went there to find God—and that is where he did find him. This turned these great middle years of his life into a torrent of discoveries, the excitement of which pulses through The Testimony.

Three things gave focus to his thought during this period: the human mind’s mystery, God’s creation of time out of eternity, and God’s triune nature. The themes were continually interwoven, yet he devoted separate books to each of the three, books composed in overlapping periods. He began The Testimony in 397 and was perhaps still polishing it in 401. He began The Trinity in 400 and First Meanings in Genesis in 401—they were finished, respectively, in 416 and 415. All these books, despite their primary focus, treat all three of Augustine’s great concerns of these years—in fact, The Testimony can only be understood in terms of these three aspects.

The problem of The Testimony‘s unity is often approached from the wrong end. It is customary to say that Augustine wrote ten chapters of autobiography and appended to them three chapters of very different sorts: one of philosophy (Chapter 11, on time and memory), one of Scripture study (Chapter 12, on Genesis), and one of theology (Chapter 13, on the Trinity). The Augustine scholar James O’Donnell rightly points out that these final books are themselves a trinity, each devoted primarily to a different person of the divine Trinity (11 on the Father’s creation of time, 12 on the Word’s articulation of the world, 13 on the Spirit as the love that binds all three Persons).5

These were Augustine’s major themes as the fourth century turned to the fifth. So the real question is: Why did he prefix the ten narrative chapters to the three devoted to his central concerns? Actually, almost every event recounted in Augustine’s life had some parallel in the Book of Genesis—which he construed as an allegory of the soul’s enlightenment or ordeals. He spends over half of his second chapter, for instance, describing a theft from pear trees which reenacts Adam’s sin in eating from the tree in Paradise. He has also been treating the Trinity throughout the first ten chapters, as O’Donnell’s commentary extensively demonstrates. Patterns of three (the three temptations, the three measures of reality, the three cardinal virtues) run all through the theologically structured account of Augustine’s life—as does the cognate number six. Book 12 treats the six stages of history as reflecting the six days of creation, and Augustine refers to his own life in the six-ages-of-man scheme. Six is a “created” extension of three, since it is a sum of the first three integers (one + two + three). Theology, not psychology, determines what Augustine includes or excludes throughout the book.

Another aspect of Augustine’s new insight is even more important, not only to the structure of The Testimony, but to the reason for the first ten chapters’ existence. Albrecht Dihle has argued persuasively that Augustine in this period created a whole new concept of the will. In his Neoplatonist days he held that the intellect is man’s highest faculty, that which lifts humans above animals partway toward the angels. But, of course, Satan had a high angelic intellect above any man’s. What he lacked was love, a faculty destroyed by prideful regard for oneself. The self-imprisoning will was something Augustine had been studying in 394-395 when he wrote on the Pauline Epistles—Romans and Galatians. His trinitarian theology would be built on an understanding of God’s free will as “loving love” (amans amorem): “Love is the act of a lover and the love given the loved person. It is a trinity: the lover, the loved person, and love itself.” The faculty of will had been comparatively neglected in classical thought, which tended to treat wrongdoing as error (the sinner just misconceives his real interests). Augustine would change that. Dihle goes so far as to say that “the notion of will, as it is used as a tool of analysis and description in many philosophical doctrines from the early Scholastics to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, was invented by St. Augustine.”6

This change in Augustine’s values led him to reassess the understanding of his own past. Dialogues written at the time of his conversion present his development as almost entirely intellectual—a journey from one school of thought to another, using his mind to purify his life by a progressively higher consideration of the divine. When ten years later he writes The Testimony, he looks back on that sequence to find a deeper struggle going on, between pride and divine grace. Now the great tug of war in the garden is seen in Pauline terms, as the incursion of a power (grace) that man cannot summon on his own.

People are quite right to see a contrast between Augustine’s self-presentation at the time of his conversion and his description of the same events over a decade later. Augustine shows in his Reconsiderations, written at the end of his life (426-427), that he came to see the dialogues as inadequate and immature. The Testimony reassesses the story in a considered and scriptural way. The real story was an inner drama of which Augustine himself was not fully conscious. The Testimony plays down the importance of philosophical discussion with Neoplatonists in preparing him for conversion. He now reflects on the possible importance of things he minimized or neglected at the time—his mother’s prayers, for instance, or the effect of Milan’s bishop, Saint Ambrose (a man Augustine considered rather demagogic at the time when he was baptized by him). What was portrayed as mainly an intellectual exercise in Augustine’s first Christian writings is seen, in retrospect, to have been a struggle of di-vine grace with a recalcitrant will. The wisdom for judging such human transactions flows backward, in The Testimony, from its “high ground” of the last three chapters.

The change in his own evaluation of his life is not a misrepresentation. Augustine was almost fanatically severe on the use of any deception for a religious purpose. He departs from the first descriptions of his conversion because he had come to see his early understanding of his conversion as inadequate, one that stood in need of correction. That is why we have the first ten books, whose energy in pursuit of a truth still being absorbed gives them their immediacy. He is now seeing, late though it may be (sero), what he only partially saw at the time. The books are a perfect example of his new concept, the present memory of the past. For Augustine, the recovered self is a transcended self, which explains how he can remember his sinning self without sinning again by the memory. The mere tug of war that time imposes (distentio animi) is turned into a continuity over time (extentio animi) and a medium of self-regulation through time (intentio animi)—another of those triads Augustine finds everywhere in himself:

Your right hand upholds me, my Lord, in Your Son, who rejoins dividedness in Your oneness, that through Him I may comprehend my Comprehender, that from days of prior dispersion I may collect myself into identity, putting the old behind me, yet not tugged toward future temporal things; rather, reaching toward [extentus] higher things. I go, not in a tugged-about way but in a steering way [non secundum distentionem sed secundum intentionem], to the reward of Your call from heaven.

This collection of a self from past self-dispersion is what The Testimony enacts.

Augustine’s new emphasis on the will does not mean that he underestimates the mind—as we can see by the treatment of light in another of this period’s great works, First Meanings in Genesis. The title is usually translated as The Literal Meaning of Genesis. But that is far from Augustine’s view of what he is explaining. He was no literalist in the fundamentalist sense. The gibe Clarence Darrow used against William Jennings Bryan—how could God create light on the first day when He did not create the sun until the fourth day?—was already used by Augustine to show that “light” and “days” in Genesis, in a “literal” sense, make no sense. Although Scripture has many layers of meanings, it also has first meanings, the ones principally intended by God, if only we can find them (Augustine often admits that he cannot find the first meaning for this or that verse). Since God’s creative act is single and simultaneous, the six “days” articulate categories for our mind, and the light of the first day is the light of intelligibility for us to understand the categories. That light creates the answering intelligences of the angels. The blaze of their minds’ response to God makes up the “days” as they see the beauty of His creation.

Then what are the nights? They cannot be physical occurrences, Augustine says dismissively, except to “flat-earthers,” since the sun is always shining somewhere on the round earth. If the days are the divine likeness of intellection turned back toward God, nights symbolize the angels’ limited knowledge when turned toward limited creation. The same light illumines even our limited knowledge as men, since God is always creating light in us by the never-ceasing act of our creation as rational beings. It is the “light that enlightens every man coming into the world.” As the Psalmist says, “By your light we shall see light.” Augustine’s concept of illumination means that God, as the source of all good, directly illumines us by the natural working of the intelligence he is continually creating. That is why he is “deeper in me than I am in me,” not only by the action of His supernatural grace but by the natural action of our own minds. We know God by the mystery of our intellect that reveals His mystery. That is the “day” God creates at Genesis 1.1. The first meaning of light is the intelligibility that creates its receptacle as intellect. For Augustine personally, it was the flood of illumination he was experiencing in these breakthrough years.

In the third of his central masterpieces, The Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine again searches deep into himself to find the Trinity. The three aspects of memory-time (anticipation of the future, present attention, past memory) have the dynamic found in the soul’s three faculties of will (toward action), intellect (of articulated reality), and memory (establishing identity). In this we see a dim reflection of benevolent will (the Spirit of Love), articulating order (the Word as Son), and self-recognition (the Father as Origin).

If we take ourselves to the inmost memory of the mind, by which it “calls itself to mind,” and to the inmost intellect by which it understands what is called, and to the inmost will by which it loves what is called, we find that the three are invariably conjoined, conjoined from the time they came into existence, whether this was reflected on or not. It appears that this image of threeness is a oneness of memory—yet since no word can be accepted as true without reflection (we speak as we think, if only by an interior word not formed in any known language), it is best to understand this as a trinity of memory, intellect, and will.

This controlling analogue generates, in The Trinity‘s long exercises of self-reflection, a whole series of confessedly inadequate images of God—where even the unknowability of oneself is derived from the ineffability of divine reality. The mind is a perpetual wonder to Augustine: “I do not know how to explain the odd fact that we do not know we know certain things” (nescio quo…scire nescimus). And so are the words that the mind generates to deal with itself:

To handle words with words is to interweave them—like interlaced fingers: rubbing them together makes it hard to tell, except by each finger on its own, which is doing the itching and which the scratching.

In this magical decade-and-a-little-more, Augustine developed all his most characteristic themes—time, memory, the inner dynamic of the self, the inner dynamic of God, and the continual activity of God in the soul (first by ongoing creation and then by regeneration in grace). If we had none of Augustine’s writings but these, from the early years of the fifth century, they would be enough to ensure his status as one of the greatest thinkers in history. And one of the greatest writers. His style underwent a deepening in this period—one seen in the sighing replications of The Testimony, based on psalm patterns. The jazzy style and pyrotechnics of his sermons are now tamed and put in service to the longer arcs of thought spun in his treatises. Words respond to the gentlest turns of his increasingly subtle inquiries. We can watch the drama of ideas as they emerge and struggle in his mind. The text does not deliver us a product, but calls us into a process.

  1. 1

    Confessiones is normally transliterated rather than translated as Confessions. But the English word has anachronistic connotations of criminal or sacramental confession. Augustine uses confiteri to mean “testify,” and confessio as a synonym for testimonium. Thus he can “confess” that time is measurable (Confessiones 11.33). Even inanimate things confess—testify to—their Creator: “Their beauty is their testimony” (Pulchritudo eorum confessio eorum, Sermones 241.2). So I translate Confessiones as The Testimony.

  2. 2

    Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, in Novels, 1955-1962 (Library of America, 1996), p. 245.

  3. 3

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Blackwell, 1963), å¤89-90.

  4. 4

    Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (Simon and Schuster, 1948), p. 212.

  5. 5

    Augustine, Confessions, commentary by James J. O’Donnell (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1992), Volume 3, p. 251.

  6. 6

    Albrecht Dihle, The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity (University of California Press, 1982), p. 123.

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