De Trinitate, book 11


May 14, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugAt the end of book 10 Augustine reached a turning point in his quest for an image of the Trinity in the human mind. He indicated there that his next move would be to move outward, and this is the line of thought he picks up in book 11. Leaving behind the realm of the understanding (the inner person) he wants to also find a “model” for the Trinity in the realm of sensation (the outer person). His reason for doing this is as follows: even understanding the image of the inner person which we have uncovered is quite difficult, let alone the Trinity which it is the image of. This is difficult because of our condition–we have a disease of mortality and carnality. Augustine says we have to adapt ourselves to this and try to “take lessons in comparison from these outer bodily things”.

Augustine notes that the realm of sensation is divided into five different senses. Thankfully, he says it will not be necessary to examine all five, but that one can stand in for all of them. He chooses sight, because it is the most closely aligned to what we have already looked at before–mental vision.

Augustine proceeds to find a trinity (not a “Trinity”) in the act of sight. This is not something immanent to the human person per se, but a description of what takes place in the knowledge of a thing. The three components here are (1) the object perceived, (2) the image produced in the perceiver, and (3) the “conscious intention” or the attention that maintains perception. Augustine says that while we know by reasoning that (1) and (2) are two distinct things, they are indistinguishable in the act of seeing–we generally take the image in our perception as identical to the object perceived. In this act of perception it is the will or conscious intention (3) that holds (1) and (2) together. Augustine indicates that the force of the will is so strong that it even conforms itself to the object perceived.

“But the rational soul lives a misshapen kind of life when it lives according to the trinity of the outer man; that is, when instead of bringing a praiseworthy will to bear on the things that form the senses, it fastens on them with sordid greed.” The reason for this is that this outer sight forms the inner person. As evidence of this, Augustine shows how the will can be conformed not only to what is bodily present, but to images of bodies imprinted in the memory. (The act of outer perception is one trinity, the act of inner perception or memory is a second trinity.) The will can be conformed to something else by turning away from the images embedded in memory, but the images remain there and can be turned back to once again.  Thus Augustine makes the point that both things bodily present and things which were only once bodily present can form the soul. Further, he goes on to say, the will can compose new things and attach itself to them by taking elements of different memories (this is imagination). These are all descriptions of “a bad and misshapen life” unless in all three instances–the joining of the will to a bodily thing, the joining of the will to a memory, or the joining of the will to an imagined thing–the will is using these things to refer beyond the images to something higher and truer. So Augustine says that the trinity of the outer person is not the image of God–the only thing that can be the image of God is the trinity of the inner person. Nonetheless, he says that the trinity of the outer person–like all things God creates–has some remote likeness to God when it is well ordered. The likeness is its sharing in God’s goodness.

Augustine further discusses how it might be that this trinity of perception can partake in goodness. He contends that each act of perception is a distinguishable instance of willing, but that these instances can form “a sequence of straight wishes” that act as “a ladder for those who would climb to happiness”. Each wish can be fulfilled in its achieved perception, as the will uses each perception to move on to another–as a left footstep provides the basis for a further right footstep. And there are perceptions that we can rest in “with a certain delight” while tending toward something beyond. These are “refreshment[s]…a night’s lodging for a traveler”. Note: Augustine is not denying us the enjoyment of worldly things, but affirming their enjoyment inasmuch as they refer beyond.

Next Augustine moves to consider the trinity of an act of memory again. Whereas with the trinity of an act of perception the difficulty was seeing the way in which each of the three is really similar in substance, when we move into the trinity of an act of memory, it becomes difficult to know how each of the three elements are truly distinct. To show that the will is not identical to the image produced, Augustine points out that a new trinity of memory is produced in every act of memory. This shows that the will is not tied to one particular image. To show that the image produced is not the exact same as the object stowed away in the memory, Augustine references the possibility of imagination–our ability to produce different images by intensifying, diminishing, or combining what is stowed away in our memory. With this said, Augustine makes the point that all our thinking is really an act of memory. When we listen to someone, we are producing images in our mind as we take their words to refer to things–things in our memory, things derived from our experiences. Augustine ends this section by showing how the two trinities relate. Trinity 1 [external object leading to internal image, joined together by will] leads to Trinity 2 [object in memory leading to a thought]. The middle step, the imprinting of an image in the memory, Augustine says, does not give rise to a distinct trinity of seeing.

In his conclusion, Augustine reflects on Wisdom 11:21, “you have disposed all things in measure and number and weight”. Taking measure of things is something the memory does. Numbering things belongs to sight. And the will which joins measure and number is like weight. Augustine says he quite likes this idea of observing measure, number, and weight in all things. Augustine then tells us that time is growing short “to begin looking for this same trinity in the inner man…There, inside, we hope we shall be able to find the image of God in a trinity, provided our efforts are assisted by him who according to the testimony of scripture and the very evidence of things themselves ‘has arranged all things in measure and number and weight’ (Wisdom 11:21)”.

What is emerging is that, for Augustine, we can use the dogma of the Trinity and find all kinds of faint likenesses in creation–all sorts of trinities. These trinities always have a huge caveat thrown over them because of the basic difference between the Creator and the creature. Further, there is no possibility from moving from created realities to a conception of the Trinity–that possibility is neither stated nor enabled by Augustine’s method. Finally, Augustine is after one special trinity–the created trinity that is higher than all the others and this and only this trinity is called “the image of God”. This can only be located by the grace of God.

As far as the relation between books 9-11, it seems to me to be something like this. In books 9-10 Augustine goes to the highest place in nature–the human mind. By analyzing it, he sees in its structures a created image of the Trinity. Yet somehow he is not satisfied with what he finds; I believe this is because he is not seeking merely the highest formal similarity he can find, but a point within creation that will allow one to participate in the reality of the Trinity that is God. So in book 11 he begins to develop an understanding of how the trinity of the mind can participate in God’s life. The way he does this is by developing an account of how the mind has its whole life in its relation to objects in the world. He will next turn to scripture to explore the way the mind misfires (book 12) and God’s way of redeeming the mind through the work of Christ (book 13).


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