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The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 10, Sections 13–36 (Memory) | Summary



Augustine points out that memory is not made of sense impressions but rather the images of what is perceived by the senses. Discrete memories can be called up by the mind, without one impinging on another, and can be reviewed in the "immense court of memory," where Augustine comes to "meet" himself. In that same "enormous recess" of mind is also the will in the form of the decision-making faculty. Despite how wonderful his mind is, he cannot grasp the whole of himself. Is the mind too narrow to do so? he asks. Is the part he cannot grasp outside his mind, and if so, how can it be grasped?

Augustine continues cataloging those things that are part of memory and muses about whether memory is a subset of the mind, at one point comparing the mind to a stomach that processes joy and sorrow but then admitting that such an analogy is limited. He notes that forgetting is part of remembering, but people are able to call up from memory particular things at a given time. He then spends some time speculating on how this process works. He alludes to the fact that some things are immediately known to be true, even if they have not been taken in by the senses, and this indicates that some part of the memory already knew them. This leads him to return to praising God for creating the complexity of a human being, whose life is "tending toward death." In this life he intends to pass beyond memory to the "lovely Light" of God and touch him "from the side whence he can be touched." He goes on to say that everyone seeks happiness and seems to know what they are seeking, so that indicates that "the life of happiness" already exists in the memory. This life of happiness can be nothing but rejoicing in God. But where in memory does God dwell? He answers that God is there but cannot be physically located, and he remembers God since he first "learned to know" him and finds him when he remembers him.


Some remarkable insights about the way the mind works can be found in these passages, ideas that philosophers and psychologists who came after Augustine have also analyzed as well as ideas still under discussion, even in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Augustine rightly calls sense impressions images and discerns that the ego-self is an image as well, which he meets in the court of memory. He connects will and decision-making, identifying a relationship between the discriminative function of mind (the part of the mind that judges and weighs) and the choices people make. He intuitively senses the unconscious mind when he says he doesn't know the whole of himself and wonders whether part of his mind is outside himself. This discourse shows the depth of Augustine's self-examination, which involves extensive psychological analysis of himself by himself.

The saint returns to Platonic ideas when he proposes that there are things the mind immediately knows are true or that the mind recognizes, because these things—what Plato called ideal forms—exist in the mind already. Everyone seeks happiness as if they already know what it is, for example. Augustine speculates that happiness may exist in memory: perhaps people remember the happiness of unity with God before the Fall. This is what Augustine is implying. "What I am attempting to find out is whether this [happiness] resides in the memory, because if it does, that must mean we were happy once upon a time ... [perhaps in] the man who committed the first sin, in whom we all died and for whom we were born to misery."

In the same vein, in connecting true happiness to a relationship with God, he implies that God is already planted as knowledge in the soul, even if the soul is in a fallen state. On the one hand, he says he remembers God from when he first came to know him, but on the other hand, perhaps he has always known God in some sense: that is why he went looking for him. This paradoxical thinking brings the reader back to Book 1, in which Augustine asked whether one needed to know God first to seek him or obtained knowledge about God in seeking him. There is no good answer to this question, which alludes to the fact that God does not exist in time, an idea further explored in the next book.

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