Tuesday, May 13, 2008

St Augustine on Divine Illumination

The following is an excerpt from David Bradshaw’s address on Christianity East and West: Some Philosophical Differences presented at Asbury College, November 1999. Dr. Bradshaw is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He summarizes the basic differences between the Augustinian, Thomistic, and Greek patristic traditions, viewing them in relation to their common sources in Plato. The full text may be read here.

“St. Augustine agreed with Plato that concepts like "one" and “large” need special explanation. Being a Christian, however, he could not accept that prior to our lives on earth our souls exist in the heavens and have there a direct perception of the Forms. So he found a different answer. As a Christian, he knew that Jesus Christ had claimed to be Truth incarnate. He also knew that, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus--that is, the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity--is "the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (1:9). Could there be an answer to Plato's question in the Scriptural teaching that the Word of God is Light and Truth? Augustine thought so. He reasoned that we would not have access even to simple concepts like "one" were it not for a continual illumination of our minds by the second person of the Trinity, whom in this context he usually referred to as the divine Wisdom. This illumination is not a special gift given to some; it is a precondition for the normal operation of the mind. Without it, any thought involving even elementary concepts like "one"--any thought that goes beyond the fleeting contents of sense experience--would be impossible.

Augustine did not stop there. Jesus claims not simply to be the Truth, but to be "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." That means that the presence of divine Wisdom to the mind is not just a precondition for normal understanding; it is a precondition for moral understanding, for recognition of the true Way in whom we find life eternal. This moral illumination operates at several levels. One is that it enables us to recognize qualities such as beauty, justice, wisdom, and goodness. Plato had noted that these have the same "is and is not" character as "one" and "large"; they therefore require the same kind of special explanation. A second level at which moral illumination operates is that it gives us knowledge of eternal moral truths. Nowadays, of course, we tend to be skeptical that there are eternal moral truths. I confess that Augustine’s example seems to me like a pretty good one: "a life that cannot be swayed by any adversity from its fixed and upright resolve is better than one that is easily weakened and overthrown by transitory misfortunes."[i] Since a truth of this sort cannot simply be inferred from sense experience, we must know it by the operation of divine Wisdom. Finally, at a third level, divine Wisdom "stamps" us with a notion of happiness or beatitude. All of our acts are aimed at achieving a condition that we have never fully experienced and probably never will experience within our present lives. Augustine thought that this was another indication of how God is present at the very heart of our moral reasoning.

Now the odd thing about the illumination of the mind by divine Wisdom is that, though we all have it, we do not recognize it for what it is. God is present to us in every thought we think and every action we make; but we are not present to Him. You might say that we have "forgotten" Him, if by this you mean, not that we have lost a knowledge we once had, but that we fail to be aware of something immediately present. It is the same kind of forgetting as when we say, "I forgot myself." Augustine in his great work, On the Trinity, explores at length the connection between "memory" (in this special sense), knowledge of self, and knowledge of God. He finds within the soul two images of the Trinity. One consists of the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself.[ii] These three are a single substance, for if the mind knows itself perfectly and loves itself perfectly, then the content of those two acts is nothing other than the mind itself. The knowledge and love are not present in the mind as accidents in a subject; they are constitutive activities, which by their presence make manifest what the mind already is. The second image consists of the mind's memory of God (using "memory" in the special sense I have explained), its knowledge of God, and its love of God.[iii] Here again are three conditions or activities, each different, yet the same in substance. Indeed, the first trinity in the soul is rooted and grounded in the second. Any mind that truly knows itself also knows God, who is the condition of its understanding; any mind that truly loves itself also loves God, who is its ultimate end. Properly speaking, we should not speak of self-knowledge or self-love at all, for within and behind the self there is always God.

I hope this will be enough to give you a sense of what the Augustinian way of doing philosophy is like. It is introspective, meditative, and psychologically acute. Augustine never doubts the reality of God; what he doubts is whether he knows God, and, consequently, whether he knows himself. He seeks to find God by finding himself and to find himself by finding God. Many, many thinkers in the western tradition—St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, Calvin, Descartes, John Henry Newman, and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few—have drunk deeply at this Augustinian well.”

[i]. Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 51.
[ii]. De Trinitate IX.4.
[iii]. D.T. XIV.12

Related reading: St. Augustine on Genesis; St. Augustine on Chronology in Genesis

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