by: St. Augustine

Book X

To secure the distinction between the idea itself and the form in which we learn it, Augustine here points to the examples of mathematical lines and numbers: although we may see a line or number written, this material form simply signifies a more perfect form already in our minds (a perfect form we have never actually seen outside of us).

The next type of memory named is emotional memory, which poses the following problem: how is it that we can remember emotions without re-experiencing them? Augustine recalls times when he has even found himself sad at the memory of joy (the joy of his carnal lusts, for example), or joyful upon remembering a past sorrow. Are emotional memories images, then, stored at some sort of remove from the original? Emotion seems too much a part of the mind itself for this to be likely.

Leaving these dilemmas as well, Augustine's inward analysis reaches a fever pitch when he tries to understand how he can remember forgetfulness. Reaching no real conclusion in the rapidly expanding knot of paradoxes this question generates, Augustine stops to marvel at memory, "a power of profound and infinite multiplicity."

In passages like this last one, Augustine seems determined to employ every rhetorical device at his disposal to illustrate the profundity and infinite complexity of memory. This is due to some extent to his overall effort to demonstrate the finding of an infinite God within one's own mind, but he also wants to designate memory as a particularly fecund ground for self- investigation.

Summarizing the kinds of memory covered thus far (senses, skills, ideas, and emotions), Augustine briefly suggests looking for God elsewhere in himself, since even "beasts" have memory. But one question intrudes: how can we be mindful of God if he is not already in our memories? This same question, the reader will remember, opens the Confessions in Book I: how can we seek God if we don't already know what he looks like?

[X.27-37] Augustine's initial response to this paradox here offers a slightly different account of the same answer given in Book I (which amounted to "seek and ye shall find"). He suggests that, even when something is lost to memory, we should still look for it there. It's likely, he argues, that some part or trace is retained such that we can "reassemble" the knowledge of God as we "reassemble" other true ideas from their scattered parts deep in the memory.

The same question, he then notes, applies to the pursuit of the happy life (which for Augustine is life with the knowledge of God). People everywhere seek the happy life, but how can they seek it without already knowing what it is? "Where did they see it to love it?" Perhaps, he considers, we did know happiness once (this is a reference to Adam, our common ancestor, according to the Bible, who led the supremely good life before his fall into mortality). Something like a memory of this original goodness seems likely, since the characteristics of the happy life that people seek seem largely universal.

Specifically, the universal feature of what people seek in life seems to be joy. The true and greatest joy, argues Augustine, is joy in God. Even those who do not seek God nonetheless "remain drawn toward some image of [this] true joy." Their will is for this joy; the obstacle to their pursuit of it in God is nothing but a lack of will. This idea is, again, Neoplatonic. Wickedness or distance from God is due not to any flaw in God's creation, but rather to the misdirection or impotence of the human will to recognize God's perfection.

Augustine bolsters this argument with the further proposition that the joy universally sought in the happy life must be joy in the truth. Thus, we know how to seek the happy life not because we remember any particular joys but because we remember the nature of truth itself (in the Platonic sense of memory beyond a single human life). Augustine makes the point that the desire for truth is at least as universal as the desire for joy; no one wants to be deceived.

This "memory" of eternal truth, however, is tenuous. People often love mundane objects or bodies themselves in place of the higher truth in them, and are reluctant to change because to do so would be to admit deception.

At this point, Augustine stops again to take stock of his pursuit of knowledge about God. He cannot find God in the senses, nor in emotion. Neither, he says, can he find God himself in the mind, which is much too changeable. Asking yet again how he could have ever found God if God wasn't already in Augustine's memory, Augustine finally identifies one characteristic by which he sought God without knowing him per se: he found God simply by the fact that God transcends the mind where he had been looking. God is that which is above all aspects of the mind. The beauty of this account, it seems, lies largely in the fact that the nature of God, if he is provisionally defined as that which transcends the mind, can only be known in as much as the mind is known first. Thus, the search for God remains an inward search.

[X.38-69] Perhaps in humble response to the knowledge of the search for God that he has just claimed, Augustine spends the remainder of Book X confessing the ways in which he is still separated from a truly (almost impossibly) Godly life.

The first obstacle is that, although celibate, he is still plagued by erotic images. Wet dreams are particularly disturbing to him, since it appears that his reason (with which he would normally fend off lurid images) falls asleep along with his body. Food, although it is necessary, also holds "a dangerous pleasantness," and Augustine struggles to eat as though he were simply taking medicine. Smell is also mentioned briefly, though Augustine doesn't see it as much of a problem.

Sound is equally dangerous in its potentially pleasing qualities. (It should be noted that the appreciation of the beauty of God's creation is not the issue in these "dangerous" sensory phenomena, but rather the potential attachment to worldly things at the expense of God himself). A particularly tricky issue with regard to sound concerns music in church--what is the proper balance between inspiring the congregation to seek God and miring them in the sensory pleasures of his creation?

Vision comes next, and gets the same wary treatment. Considering light itself, Augustine prays, "may [this] get no hold upon my soul." Taking sight as the best sensory metaphor for knowledge, he also takes this opportunity to return briefly to the issue of beauty in mundane objects (the subject of his early work On the Beautiful and the Fitting). As before, Augustine attributes most false attachments to worldly beauty to a confusion of means with ends (things should be loved for their ends, their use value). Thus, artistic beauty should never be "excessive" and art should never be made without a careful consideration of its morality.

Augustine continues his most up-to-date confession, admitting that he still enjoys a certain feeling of power or glory when he is praised. He feels he has "almost no" insight into this problem, though he knows that praise should only please him in as much as it expresses the true benefit someone else has gained from him. The ego, he notes, should not be the focus of praise, since (as stated in the discussion of memory above) it is not God.

In the end, Augustine feels he "can find no safe place for my soul except in [God]." He must do his best against the bombardments of sin from all sides, and have faith that God will have mercy on him.

Book X concludes with a note against the visions of God claimed by the Neoplatonists. These were not true insights, since they were based on a kind of pagan "theurgy" that did not include Christ. "They sought a mediator to purify them," writes Augustine, "and it was not the true one."