De Trinitate, book 10


May 11, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugIf you want to have any chance at understanding book 10, you’ll have to see it as the continuation of book 8 and book 9. So have a look at my posts on those books.

The first question raised in book 10 is concerned with love. It seems Augustine is motivated by a possible objection to the idea that one must know something in order to love it. If someone could establish that love exists in detachment from knowledge, then Augustine’s image of the Trinity in the mind is shot!

Some would ask Augustine about the love that motivates learning: how is it that some who do not know something are zealous to find out what they do not know? Isn’t this a case of love without knowledge? Augustine gives an interesting response. Sometimes, he says, we seek what we do not properly know because we have heard of it and form an image of it. So the thing is not actually unknown, but known partially. And the more we know of a thing without fully knowing it, the greater is our desire to know what is left to be known–because we have a grasp of the thing’s significance but we still cannot make full sense of it. And we love to understand–we love for things to make sense. So the person who is eagerly studious does not actually love what she does not know; she loves to understand and make sense of things. In this, she is knowing and loving “everlasting reason” (truth) which she already participates in.

Didn’t Augustine say, though, that the mind loves itself? And doesn’t the injunction “know thyself” imply that the mind is not known to itself? So does the mind love itself without actually knowing itself? If so, then there would be love without knowledge. Augustine’s response is to say that if the mind is seeking to know itself because it does not know itself, then it knows that it does not know itself, and to have positive knowledge of what one does not know is to know the thing which one does not know. “[B]y the very fact of knowing itself not knowing, it knows itself.” (That might sound like sophistry, but it seems formally valid to me.) This same logic even rules out that the mind knows part of itself and is looking for the other part. To go on looking for the other part, it must know the whole that it is looking for.

The conclusion is that the mind just knows itself and is available to itself. Why then is the mind commanded to know itself? Augustine says that this is an injunction for the mind to “think about itself and live according to its nature”. The mind always knows itself, but it does not always think about itself; it is not always self-aware of itself and its nature. Here Augustine quite obviously refers to the function of a fallen mind: it does not live according to its nature, which is, presumably, to love God above all else and to love all things as they refer to God. Instead, the mind as lover attaches or “bonds” itself to all types of created things, forgetting itself and becoming absorbed in its pursuits. This mind that is bonded to creaturely realities in this manner carries creaturely images back into the mind when it tries to think about itself, barring the mind from having a clear knowledge of its own nature. 

So, while the mind always knows itself in the sense that it is available to itself, it does not always think about itself. And when it does think about itself, it can do so quite wrongly. Augustine gives us some examples. The mind gets glued to objects, to bodies. This has caused some to think that the mind is a body, and then to go off looking for a place in the body to locate the mind, or the soul. Others, apparently, came to think of the mind as a sort of supernatural body that is spatially extended, an idea Augustine also rejects.

So where is the mind to go looking for itself–to think about its nature and how to live in accordance with it? The very problem, Augustine says, is that it tries to look for itself amongst bodies, or it goes to a higher level and tries to look for itself amongst images taken from bodies. It is glued to these things and does not seem to be able to break away. What it needs to do, then, is “to discern itself from what it knows to be other”. This is a type of mental apophaticism, wherein the first step of the mind’s knowledge of itself is to distinguish itself from what it is not. What is left over after this is the positive knowledge we have of the mind and its nature. What is known about the mind after distancing itself from all that it is not, is that the mind exists in the sense that it “lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges”. (To the possible objection that someone might doubt even this about the mind, Augustine has an argument for the mind’s existence that is quite reminiscent of Descartes’ Cogito.) This description of the mind is a description of the mind’s “substance”, it’s essential being, and not a collection of predicates of the mind.

Augustine rather arbitrarily condenses “lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges” down into three things: memory, understanding, and will. He can do this because he is not after a new image of the Trinity here, but rather he wants to end book 10 by making an important point about how the image of the Trinity he has located in the mind differs from God the Trinity. He talks about the learning process in children in terms of memory, understanding, and will. He shows that each one is only what it is by reference to the other, while considered in themselves they are each the whole mind. His trinitarian point is to say that they are only three in reference to each other, but considered in reference to themselves they are the one (i.e., the same) life, mind, or being. This is obviously in analogy to what Trinitarian doctrine says about God. Augustine says of memory, understanding, and will: “since they are each and all and wholly contained by each, they are each and all equal to each and all, and each and all equal to all of them together, and these three are one, one life, one mind, one being”.

At the end of book 10 Augustine asks whether we are now ready to ascend from this “unequal image, but the image nonetheless” to “that supreme and most high being”. His answer, apparently, is no. Without fully explaining why, he says, that we can clarify the distinctions between the three in the mind by looking at the way in which the mind operates in knowing and loving outwardly. This is a rather abrupt conclusion; so far Augustine has moved further inward and all of the sudden he tells us it’s time to add something to this inner image by looking outward again. He will pick up this line of thought in book 11.


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