1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract

The light of security vs. the shadows of doubt


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3.8.7. The light of security vs. the shadows of doubt. In this precarious situation, “Lady Continence”, the figure who represents a metaphor for divine grace that enables human chastity, appears to Augustine in a vision and banishes his secular and sexual fantasies (8.11.27). Again a question is posed repeatedly for maximal effect (8.12.28): “Usquequo? Quamdiu?” At long last, Augustine hears (8.12.29): “Tolle, lege; tolle, lege.” So he picks up Sacred Scripture and reads Paul, To the Romans, 13:13–14 (ibid.): “For at once, with the end of this sentence, a light of security was infused into my heart, as it were, and all the shadows of doubtfulness fled away.” Finally Augustine stands firm on the rule of faith that was revealed many years ago (8.12.30; cf. 3.11.19–3.11.20). It is especially noteworthy that Augustine characterizes the final phase of his conversion experience as a transition from instability to stability. For here “the shadows of doubtfulness” refer not to intellectual dubitation but to moral hesitation.

3.8.8. Book Eight: On balance. Academic skepticism aside, Augustine overcomes both intellectual skepticism and moral skepticism to convert to orthodox Christianity. For his conversion narrative recounts his struggles against two kinds of hesitation, namely, the dubitation of the intellect in Book Seven and the vacillation of the will in Book Eight. Yet there are not two conversions here, but rather two dimensions of one conversion, neither of which would be what it is without the other. A distinctive feature of Augustinian skepticism is the great detail with which intellectual skepticism and moral skepticism are described as linked but distinct. In order to do the good, it is not enough to know it, one must also will it, and thereby hangs a tale.

3.9. Book Nine: Consolatio veritatis. Covering his life in Cassiciacum and Ostia from 386/387 to 387/388, Augustine confirms the result of Book Eight in that, for the first time since Book Three, he is silent on the subject of skepticism. He does indirectly refer to Against the Academicians, however, among the dialogues composed between his retirement from a false profession and his baptism to the true religion (9.4.7): “What I did there [in Cassiciacum] by way of literary works is attested by the books that record disputations with those present and with myself alone before you [Lord]; they were … works that now served you, but they still inhaled, as if in last gasps, the airs of the school of pride.” In their shared ecstasy in Ostia (9.10.23–9.10.26), Augustine and Monnica eagerly await the afterlife (9.10.23): “Alone together … we were talking very delightfully, and, ‘forgetting past things and anticipating future things’, we were, between us, inquiring, in the presence of the truth, which you [Lord] are, into what kind of life the eternal life of the saints will be, a life which ‘neither eye has seen nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of the human being’.” Yet their vision is not empirical or rational but mystical (9.10.24): “The conversation led to the conclusion that the delight of the carnal senses, however great and in however great a physical light, seemed unworthy not only of comparison but also of remembrance beside the enjoyment of eternal life ….” Mother and son together transcend not only their bodies but also their minds to arrive in a region of inexhaustible abundance where the faithful are eternally nourished on the truth (ibid.): “… and there life is the wisdom through which all … things are made, both the things that have been and the things that will be, and this wisdom is not made, but rather it is thus as it has always been and thus as it will forever be … since it is eternal ….” But death still stings, and, to soothe his sorrow at the death of Monnica, Augustine discusses with others topics fitting for the occasion (9.12.31): “… I used truth as a salve to soothe the agony of which you [Lord] were aware but of which they were not ….” Augustine is not plagued by intellectual dubitation or moral hesitation in the way in which he was.

3.10. Book Ten: Searching for knowledge of God via remembrance of happiness. The conversion narrative now leaps forward from c. 388 to c. 398, so that the dramatic place and time of the book is Hippo, 397–401 (10.4.6). The convert, priest, and bishop is exploring what it would mean to know God as He knows him (10.1.1). According to Augustine, the human being is absolutely transparent to the divine being, whereas the latter is relatively opaque to the former (10.2.2). Given the intermingling of concealing and revealing that is inevitable in human relationships, neither can Augustine prove to others that the Confessions are true (10.3.3) nor can others be certain that the Confessions are accurate (10.3.4). He is willing to render himself vulnerable only to those who are willing to approach his intimations with charity (10.4.5). Augustine professes to confess what he knows of himself as well as what he does not know, but he contends that nobody ever really knows anybody—including oneself but excluding God (10.5.7). In an expression not of tenuous but of tenacious attachment, Augustine says to God (10.6.8): “I love you, Lord, not with a doubtful but with a certain consciousness.” Hence the question of Book Ten (10.6.9): ‘What do I then love when I love God?’ This question is inextricably intertwined with another (10.17.26): ‘What am I? What is my nature?’ In an epistemological circle, human beings are said to know themselves through God, and the Creator, through his creatures (10.6.9–10.6.10). The analysis of human cognitive capacities and of their functions in the achievement of a knowledge of God leads to a discussion of the role of memory in the attainment of such knowledge (10.7.11–10.8.12). Augustine observes that human beings do not generally appreciate the power of memory because they are not even good at knowing themselves, let alone significant others or the significant other (10.8.15). Doubts about memory show that without it there would be no knowledge because there would be neither thought nor imagination nor recognition (10.11.18, 10.15.23, 10.18.27). Augustine asserts that he knows that human beings desire happiness, but he admits that he does not know how it happens that they do so. Thus it is through memory, he argues, that the way to God and to happiness appear to lead (10.20.29): “When I seek God, then my quest is for the happy life.” Accordingly, the happy life is said to be “in” the memory; there is supposed to be a remembrance of the happy life here (10.21.30). Of a knowledge of the happy life, Augustine says (10.21.31): “If we did not know it with certain knowledge, then we would not want it with resolute will.” But what is happiness? All desire it similarly but all define it differently. Distinguishing between genuine happiness and illusory “happiness” (10.22.32), Augustine defines the happy life as “the joy that is derived from the truth”, that is, as the delight in the right relationship with God (10.23.33): “Beata … vita est gaudium de veritate.” Yet many human beings confuse happiness and pleasure, so that, when the truth is unpleasant, they then do not love but hate it (10.23.34). Eventually, the happy life is found to lie in memory, but God, both within and beyond it (10.17.26, 10.24.35–10.25.36). Augustine confesses that, since the divine being speaks distinctly but not all human beings hear clearly (10.26.37), it has taken him a long time to find the path of life and the way to God (10.27.38): “Sero te amavi … sero te amavi!” At the same time, Augustine is still struggling with recurring secular and sexual fantasies, from which he begs God to release him (10.29.40–10.30.42). That is why, even after a real conversion to the “true” religion, he sighs about the human condition (10.28.39): “Is not human life on earth a trial without respite?” Due to the challenge of continence, Augustine’s conversion still lacks closure, in the sense that he cannot continue on the right road alone, and, if he tries to do so, then he will fail (10.29.40): “Da quod iubes et iube quod vis.” Yet there are not only the desires of cupidity or corporeality (10.29.40–10.34.53), but also those of curiosity (10.35.54–10.36.58) and of vanity (10.36.59–10.39.64). Again, the crucial factor in a successful resistance to the temptation of disordered desire (10.31.46) is God’s gratuitously granted grace (10.31.45, 10.35.56, 10.37.60): “Grant what you command and command what you will.” In the end (10.40.65 ff.), Augustine claims to know God better than he does himself (cf. 10.32.48, 10.37.62). Diametrically, the divine being emerges as the Truth, human beings, as liars (10.41.66). Jesus Christ appears in the role of the sole mediator between divinity and humanity (10.42.67–10.43.69). From this, Augustine draws conclusions for his own life (10.43.70). Accordingly, the right relationship to the Truth is more important than good relations with other liars (10.37.61): “For, if I were given the choice of being admired by all human beings, though mad or wrong about all things, or of being abused by all, though steadfast and most certain in possessing the truth, then I see which alternative I would choose.” In no other book of the Confessions does Augustine so closely link the pursuit of happiness and the quest for truth.

3.11. Book Eleven: A search for the truth about temporality and eternity. Beyond the conversion narrative, the focus of reflection turns to the topic of time as a condition of the possibility of conversion and narration. Augustine emphasizes the real distinction between the eternal, infinite, and perfect being and a temporal, finite, and imperfect being. He argues, for example, that divine knowledge has no temporal constraints, whereas human knowledge does (11.1.1). For this reason alone, human knowledge represents a mixture of light and darkness (11.2.2). The same holds for human beings’ understanding of Sacred Scripture, much of which God wills, with good reason, to be opaque and obscure (11.2.3). At this point, Augustine begins his commentary on Genesis, the leitmotif of the last three books of the work (11.3.5): “May I … understand how in the beginning you [Lord] made heaven and earth.” Of temporality and eternity Augustine knows something but not much (11.7.9): “This I know, my God, and I give thanks. I know it, and I confess it to you, Lord, and everyone who is not ungrateful for certain truth knows it with me and blesses you. We know this, Lord, we know it ….” For Augustine there is no access to truth except via the Truth (11.8.10): “Yet who is our teacher but the reliable truth?” From a Christian perspective, God and time are related as creator and creature (11.13.15 [cf. 11.9.11–11.13.16, 11.30.40]): “You [Lord] have made … time ….” The question of the book is a dogmatist’s dream (11.14.17): “Quid est … ‘tempus’?” The answer on the spot is a skeptic’s feast (ibid.): “If no one asks me, then I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks, then I do not know ….” The nature of time is a paradox. For there appear to be three times, namely, past, present, and future, but there also seems to be no time, since the past is no longer, the future is not yet, and the present is slipping away (11.15.18–11.19.25). Augustine distinguishes finely (11.20.26): “… perhaps it would be proper to say that there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future … the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is attention, the present of things future is expectation.” But this answer also raises further questions, for example: How to measure time (11.21.27–11.24.31)? Yet how can one measure what one cannot define (11.25.32)? “Or perhaps I do not know how to express what I do know? Woe is me, for I do not even know what I do not know.” Hence Augustine defines time in such a way as to be able to measure it (11.26.33): “… it seems to me that time is nothing other than a distention, but of what, I do not know, and it would be surprising if it were not of the mind itself.” Prospects are promising (11.27.34–11.27.36). The mind would relate, then, to past time by means of memory, to present time by means of attention, and to future time by means of expectation (11.28.37–11.28.38). But what is the “mind”? And what is a “distention”? Augustine persists (11.29.39): “… behold, my life is a distention …”. Yet what is “life”? In the end, one can only follow Augustine’s advice (11.27.34): “Watch where truth dawns.” And hope that time does not run out. Another skeptical conclusion follows: To know is divine; not to know is human (11.31.41; cf. 11.4.6).

3.12. Book Twelve: Skeptical hermeneutics and Sacred Scripture. According to Academic skepticism, to seek is not to find; according to Augustinian skepticism, not to seek is not to find (12.1.1; cf. Mt. 7:7–8). At this point, Augustine seeks the meaning of the account of creation in Genesis (12.2.2). His starting point is a recognition of the limits of human knowledge of the origin of things (12.5.5). He distinguishes between two different senses of “heaven” and of “earth” in the opening lines of Genesis (Gen. 1:1–2): “In the beginning God made heaven and earth. …” There are “heaven and earth” in the literal, physical sense, and there are “heaven and earth” in the allegorical, metaphysical sense. Augustine’s approach to Sacred Scripture is to interpret both as literally as possible and as allegorically as necessary in order to make full sense of its profundity for careful readers and of its banality for casual hearers (12.2.2–12.14.17). Author’s intent is irretrievable (11.3.5). Thus reader’s response becomes indispensable, since understanding Sacred Scripture cannot be made dependent on surmising what the human authors were then thinking when they were writing (12.14.17–12.17.24). For example, critics are given to understand that the full sense of Genesis cannot be exhausted by its author’s intent, as well as that Moses’s intention and Augustine’s interpretation are compossible—the fact that Moses may not have intended Augustine’s interpretation is no argument against its correctness (12.17.25–12.18.27). In any case, the primary and ultimate arbitration of interpretation lies with God (12.14.17, 12.16.23). Diversity of interpretation and veracity of interpretation do not contradict but complement each other (12.18.27). For instance, Augustine states what he holds to be the core truths of the account of creation in Genesis (12.19.28): “It is true that …, it is true that …, it is true that ….” So long as one does not doubt these truths, one is free to interpret them in various ways within sensible bounds (12.20.29–12.22.31). But how does Augustine know that Moses, whom he takes to be the human author of Genesis, is telling the truth? According to Augustine, what Moses writes is true because he speaks “in a spirit of the truth” (12.20.29). There are two hermeneutical levels here, namely, that of the veracity of things and that of the intentionality of authors, and Augustine wants nothing to do with those who are wrong about things or with those who think that Moses was (12.23.32). Dogmatically, Augustine claims knowledge of the veracity of Genesis; skeptically, he disclaims knowledge of the intentionality of Moses (12.24.33). In turn, he uses a skepticism of his own against the dogmatism of those who claim to know what Moses was thinking in writing Genesis, since no human being can know that Augustine’s interpretation and Moses’s intention do not coincide (12.25.34). Appealing to the principle of charitable interpretation (Mt. 22:37–39), Augustine points out the rashness of insisting that of all the correct interpretations any particular one was the intention of Moses (12.25.35, 12.30.41). After all, if Augustine had been Moses, then he would not have wanted it any other way (12.26.36)! In short, there are many different paths to one and the same truth (12.27.37); there are many different limits to an understanding of the truth (12.28.38); and there are many different true interpretations, though not all interpretations are true (12.28.39–12.29.40). Hence Augustine finds in Sacred Scripture both a plurality of truths and a diversity of interpretations of each truth (12.30.41–12.31.42). Accordingly, he ends with a prayer that the divine intent concealed in Sacred Scripture be revealed to the human intellect (12.32.43). As a result, his skeptical hermeneutics entails a resolute rejection of any human claim to a certain, comprehensive, and complete interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

3.13. Book Thirteen: The indeterminacy of human interpretations of divine intentions. According to Augustine, the human being is radically dependent on the divine being (13.1.1), for the creator is a self-sufficient entity that creates creatures not out of necessity but out of generosity (13.2.2–13.4.5). Continuing the exegesis of Genesis, Augustine is looking for the entire Trinity (13.5.6): “There is the Trinity here, my God—Father and Son and Holy Spirit—creator of all of creation.” Again, the distinction between literal interpretation and allegorical interpretation is decisive (13.6.7–13.10.11, esp. 13.9.10): “My weight is my love; it carries me wherever I am carried.” But the question of the Trinity is another occasion for skepticism (13.11.12): “Who can understand the … Trinity? Who does not talk about it—if it is that about which they talk? It is a rare soul who then knows what he is talking about when he is talking about it.” Augustine suggests thinking about the Trinity by analogy between the human being and the divine being (ibid.): “… being, knowing, willing …”. At stake are phenomena that are so related as to be distinct but inseparable, and thus one can at least begin to approach the Trinity by means of the triad (ibid.): “… life … mind … essence …”. Yet one still cannot comprehend the uniqueness of the Trinity (ibid.): “Who could find any way to express this? Who would dare to pronounce rashly on it?” Thus, seeking to find not only the Trinity but also the Church in Genesis, Augustine proceeds on the basis not of knowledge but of faith (13.12.13–13.13.14). Distinguishing between those who go in light and those who go in darkness, he describes the human condition as a “pilgrimage” on which human beings are uncertain about the final results of their lives (13.14.15). For orientation, God has supposedly given human beings texts to be understood, for example, the book of the world and the Book of Books (13.15.16–13.15.18, 13.18.22–13.18.23). But it is for God alone to know himself as he is (13.16.19). Nor do the gifts of the Holy Spirit enable human beings to know what God knows (13.18.23). Knowledge of some higher things is clear, but knowledge of most lower things is obscure (13.20.27). There is also such a thing as “knowledge falsely so called” (13.21.30). Denying proof in order to make room for trust, Augustine says to God (13.22.32): “For the person whose renewal is in the mind and who contemplates your intelligible truth needs no human being to ‘prove’ it in order that he might imitate his own kind, but rather, as you show, he ‘proves what your will is, which is a thing good and pleasing and perfect’ ….” One must take the Word of God from Sacred Scripture on faith (13.23.33): “… nor do [we] judge your [God’s] book itself, even if there is something in it that is not clear, because we submit our intellect to it, and we hold it for certain that even that which is closed to our comprehension has been said accurately and veraciously ….” Augustine admits that he may not be able to grasp divine intentions and concedes that others may be able to offer better human interpretations; Sacred Scripture can be read in many ways, yielding both a plethora of interesting but incorrect constructions and a plurality of diverse but accurate interpretations (13.24.35). But he also argues that human beings have received a divine injunction to interpret Sacred Scripture in their own ways (13.24.37): “Increase and multiply!” According to Augustine, divine inspiration is required for human beings not only to write but also to read Sacred Scripture (13.25.38): “For with you [Lord] inspiring me I shall say true things, which you will that I say on the basis of those words. For I also do not believe that I then say what is true if anyone other than you is inspiring me, since you are the ‘truth’ ‘but every human being is a liar’. And that is why ‘he who speaks a lie speaks from what is his own’. Therefore, in order that I may speak what is true, I must speak from what is yours.” From a logical standpoint, Augustine’s argument for the truth of Sacred Scripture is circular (13.29.44): “O Lord, is this Scripture of yours not true, since you who have produced it are truthful and are truth itself?” But there is also a “logic” of the faith here (13.31.46): “Certainly no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” Thus concludes the Augustinian skepticism of the Confessions. Its driving force is that faith seeking understanding which recognizes the insuperable limits of human knowing with respect to divine being (Trin. 15.27.49–15.27.50). Neither does all knowledge yield certainty nor does all certainty derive from knowledge. For Augustine, faith possesses a certitude sui generis.

Provisional results. What does the proposed reading of the Confessions show, on balance, about Augustinian skepticism and about the relation between it and Academic skepticism? Bearing in mind that this conversion narrative represents not the memoirs of an old man at the door of death but the memories of a mature man in the midst of life, one may summarily identify thirteen leitmotifs from thirteen books:

1. Skepticism and anthropology. Augustine understands the joint venture of the pursuit of certitude and the avoidance of doubtfulness to be first and foremost not an epistemological exercise but an existential enterprise. It starts out not with any clear information on but with some obscure clues about the life of a human being. One reason why human beings have such a hard time remembering where they are going is that they have forgotten where they came from. Individually and collectively, human origins are sedimented origins. Discerning the faint traces, one recognizes that the intellectual and spiritual odyssey of life is not only a search for truth but also the quest for the Truth (God). This decisive distinction is also the key clue to the big difference between Academic skepticism and Augustinian skepticism. The Christian seeks and finds because they put faith before reason, whereas the Academician seeks but does not find because they put reason before faith.

2. Skepticism and psychology. According to Augustine, human moral motivation is more opaque than transparent. Under favorable circumstances, genuine self-knowledge of a non-trivial type is elusive; under ordinary circumstances, it is unattainable. To understand why human beings do the things that they do, is profoundly perplexing. Both knowledge of self and knowledge of others involve grades, degrees, and levels of deeply penetrating analysis. Knowledge of human beings is impossible without knowledge of the divine being. For only the divine being possesses genuine knowledge of human beings. But human knowledge of the divine being is impossible. Therefore human knowledge of human beings is also impossible. Yet it is not through knowledge but by faith that human beings are saved. The unjustified life is not worth living for a human being. All this holds a fortiori with respect to an etiology of the evil of which human beings are capable. This is to bracket out, for the time being, original sin as an explanatory paradigm. For the appeal to original sin speaks not to a motive but to a condition.

3. Skepticism and philosophy. Augustine the career professor appreciates that there is an intrinsic tension between the practice of rhetoric and the pursuit of wisdom. Rhetoric may provide the means to speak with the appearance of truth on all matters from all perspectives and to win the admiration of the less learned. But to speak persuasively and to speak veraciously are not necessarily the same thing, and they may actually be two completely different things. Only philosophy appears to offer a prospect of the prosecution and possession of wisdom. Naturally, if there were no such thing as wisdom, then the pursuit of it would a priori be in vain. For someone who demands the search for wisdom but denies the existence of wisdom is doing not philosophy but pseudosophia. Putting human beings in the position of ever seeking but of never finding the only thing that can truly make them happy guarantees their unhappiness. Hence the tension between genuine philosophy and radical skepticism is acute and chronic.

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