Confessions now turns from autobiography to philosophy. The next few chapters can come as a bit of a shock for people; they make for more difficult reading, and it can be hard for moderns to even understand why Augustine spends as much time as he does on topics like memory. However, Augustine still has the same focus here as in the rest of the book: he is concerned with the search for God. Just as he started the story of his life with his birth, so he starts his search for God from the very beginning. After all, how can he really know God without first knowing how he knows things?
What do we love when we love God?
But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, not the brightness of light, so gladsome to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of various songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey; not the limbs that physical love likes to embrace. It is none of those that I love when I love my God.
I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.”
Augustine interrogates each of his physical senses as he tries to determine just how it is he knows about God, and finds them all inadequate to the task. Finally, he turns inward, bringing him to the faculty of memory.
What is memory?
At its core, Augustine’s investigation of memory is really about epistemology. He wants to know how it is that we are capable of knowing things, so he can know how it is he is capable of knowing God. It should be noted that he is using “memory” in a broader sense here than we usually do.
He starts with the most basic type of memory: sensory perception. Augustine envisions his memory as a vast palace storing all kinds of images which he can retrieve with varying levels of ease. Somehow, these things can be experienced even without the original items being physically present.
This is not the only kind of memory, though. Augustine also remembers skills. These are different from sensory images in an important way: with skills, it is the thing itself that is stored in his memory, not an image of it. He moves quickly to our storage of ideas, where the thing itself is once again stored. He points out that he received many ideas by way of hearing Greek or Latin words, but the things themselves are distinct from the language they were communicated in, and it is the thing itself that he stored.
He is reaching at a deeper point here: as ideas get more abstract, many of the things he remembers are things he has never actually physically seen. Mathematical concepts illustrate this particularly well. Augustine understands quite well what the number “3” is, or what a triangle is, even though he has never actually seen them. (At this point, he is essentially talking about Platonic forms).
He has another, very Platonic concern here. Sometimes, we encounter ideas that seem self-evidently true. Plato held that learning was actually the process of re-remembering things which we forgot when we took bodily form. Augustine modifies this view a little; he implies that these things had been placed in his memory beforehand, and were just waiting for somebody to pull them out.
Emotional memory is next up, and here things start to get weird for Augustine. How can he remember emotions without feeling them? Sometimes some memories even give him the opposite emotion that they originally evoked (for example, his current sadness at his former fornication). He starts running into further contradictions. How can he remember forgetfulness? When he remembers memory, is it some image of memory that is present, or is memory itself present in his memory, that is, present inside itself? Augustine finds no answer to his questions.
Augustine returns to the idea that some things were placed in his memory even without his having experienced them. This time, he considers the concept of a happy life. Recall how torn up he was prior to his conversion about his failure to achieve happiness. Yet, how could he know and long for a thing he had never actually experienced? Augustine is driving at much the same thing C.S. Lewis was when he said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We find the idea of a happy life in our memory because God placed it there, to draw us to Him.
You were not in my memory before I learned of you. Where did I find you, that I might learn of you, but in yourself, above myself.
Too late have I loved you, Oh Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, but I was outside, searching for you there-plunging, deformed amid these far forms which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you.
God, he says, was not in his memory before he found Him, but has pledged to dwell there ever after. Yet God is not a sensory object, a skill, an idea, or an emotion. He doesn’t fit in any of the kinds of memory Augustine has investigated so far. Thus, while the search for God is an inward search, it ultimately takes the searcher outside of and above himself.
Temptations sore beset him
Augustine moves on to a different subject now, pondering over how best to avoid sin without becoming too strict (Page 189). He begins with the example of the proper place of music in church, a debate that continues to this day. He later returns to the same issue as he thinks about his own struggle with pride and a desire for praise from others (Page 197):
To receive no praise we must live an incompetent life, abandoning all praiseworthy deeds and living atrociously. Then no one should think about us without despising. What greater madness than that can be said, or thought of? But if praise uses and ought to accompany a good life and good works, we ought to no more avoid its company that we do the company of a good life itself. Yet how do I know whether I am handling something sinfully or in proper balance unless I am without it?
Bonus Material: Memory and the Trinity
Augustine returned to subject of memory in his later work On the Trinity. There he uses the human mind as an illustration of the Trinity (man is, after all, made in God’s image):
Since, then, these three, memory, understanding, will, are not three lives, but one life; nor three minds, but one mind; it follows certainly that neither are they three substances, but one substance. Since memory, which is called life, and mind, and substance, is so called in respect to itself; but it is called memory, relatively to something. And I should say the same also of understanding and of will, since they are called understanding and will relatively to something; but each in respect to itself is life, and mind, and essence.
And hence these three are one, in that they are one life, one mind, one essence; and whatever else they are severally called in respect to themselves, they are called also together, not plurally, but in the singular number. But they are three, in that wherein they are mutually referred to each other; and if they were not equal, and this not only each to each, but also each to all, they certainly could not mutually contain each other; for not only is each contained by each, but also all by each.
For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will. For that of my memory which I do not remember, is not in my memory; and nothing is so much in the memory as memory itself. Therefore I remember the whole memory. Also, whatever I understand I know that I understand, and I know that I will whatever I will; but whatever I know I remember. Therefore I remember the whole of my understanding, and the whole of my will. Likewise, when I understand these three things, I understand them together as whole.
Skim through the free will debate over the centuries. We’ll be talking about Augustine’s showdown with Pelagius.