Book X marks the transition in the Confessions from autobiography to the direct analysis of philosophical and theological issues. It is also noteworthy that the length of the Books begins to increase dramatically here (Book X is more than twice the length of most of the previous Books). Although this is a sudden transition in form and content, Augustine is following an underlying structure. This structure depends mainly on his view (which is not explicitly mentioned in the work) that the story of a soul's return to God is essentially the same as the story of the return to God of creation as a whole. Thus, the last four Books of the Confessions, in their deep vindication of Christianity, focus primarily on details of the world's existence in God rather than Augustine's own ascent to God.
Book X pursues this aim through an analysis of memory, which poses truly mystical problems for Augustine. This topic may seem like a somewhat odd choice to us, and it may help to note that Augustine's sense of the Latin memoria carries overtones of Platonic ideas concerning the life of the soul before birth; Plato argued that learning is really a process of the soul remembering what it already knew and forgot upon taking human form. In any case, Augustine will focus less on this idea than on the idea of memory as unconscious knowledge--a new, inward twist on the Platonic idea.
[X.1-11] Augustine introduces his investigation with an appraisal of his love for God. "When I love [God]," he asks, "what do I love?" It is nothing to do with the five physical senses, but rather with their five spiritual counterparts: metaphorical and intangible versions of God's light, voice, food, odor, and embrace. In other words, Augustine must look inward at his own mind (or soul) to "sense" God.
This is an ability that is not directly possible for inanimate things or beasts. Nonetheless, Augustine argues, they all participate in God because they have their existence only in him. Further, they highlight the wonder of the consciousness of God attainable by humans: "the created order speaks to all, but is understood" only by contrasting it with inner truth.
Yet "sensing" God with his spiritual faculties is not quite direct knowledge of God, and Augustine delves deeper into himself in this attempt to "find" God and know him. Briefly considering the life of the body, which God gives, Augustine rejects it--God is not this, but the "life of life." Moving on, he considers "another power," not that which animates his body but "that by which I enable its senses to perceive." This is the mind, but Augustine is again unsatisfied: even horses, he points out, have this basic form of mind.
[X.12-26] And so "I come to the fields and vast palaces of memory," writes Augustine. He begins his analysis of this most puzzling human faculty with a discussion of what kinds of things the memory holds. Each kind, considered in turn, raises its own (often extremely involuted) philosophical dilemmas.
The first kind of memory to be treated is the rough category of sensory perceptions--the most familiar and obvious kind of memories. Augustine draws the initial metaphor of a storehouse of memory, in which images of things experienced are stored (sometimes inconveniently), retrieved, and re-stored (sometimes in new places).
This leads Augustine to consider what sort of things the images stored in the memory are. Profoundly strange entities, these "images" can be tasted, heard, seen, etc., all without the things of which they are images actually being present. Augustine professes to be flabbergasted at the sheer immensity of such a storehouse of images, which can seem almost real: memory is "a vast and infinite profundity."
The vastness of memory is thus more than Augustine can grasp, which means that "I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am." This state of affairs, however, seems to be a paradox. How, asks Augustine, could the mind be external to itself such than it cannot know itself? Memory is seeming increasingly enigmatic.
Leaving this train of thought for a moment, Augustine notes that his memory also holds skills. This kind of memory seems to be another case altogether, since it is not images of the skills but the skills themselves that are retained.
From skills, Augustine moves quickly to consider ideas, which constitute yet another distinct kind of memory. By ideas, Augustine means the ideas themselves, not any sensory information by which they might be communicated. How is it, he wonders, that a new idea can be self-evidently true? There are many cases in which we believe something not on the authority of the source, but because the idea itself strikes us as true.
Augustine's answer is a deeply Platonic one: the memory of such ideas must have been "there before I learnt them," waiting to be recognized. Augustine suggests that, although we don't recognize them as memories when we recognize the truth of ideas, the pieces of these ideas are present somewhere far back in our memories. In coming across an idea (whether through our own thoughts or through an external source) whose truth we recognize, we are actually "assembling" the disordered pieces of an eternal "memory."
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."
Take a Study Break
Every Shakespeare Play Summed Up in a Quote from The Office
Honest Names for All the Books on Your English Syllabus
Pick 5 Books and We'll Tell You What Netflix Show You Should Binge-Watch This Summer
QUIZ: Can You Identify the Shakespeare Play By Its Most Popular Quote?
Every Marvel Movie Summed Up in a Single Sentence
QUIZ: Are You a Hero, a Villain, or an Anti-Hero?
Pick 10 Books and We'll Guess Whether You're an Introvert or an Extrovert