Thinking about things

How do the objects of thought enter the mind? In Book X of The Confessions Augustine gives a detailed account of his own experience and tries to explain it. He begins from the senses. The soul perceives by means of the senses those things which it is the special province of each sense to feel. It admits through many separate 'entrances' memories of what is perceived, so that everything is classified as it enters the memory. He notes it as important that the things themselves do not enter the memory by this process; it is rather that images of them are formed. Once something has been perceived and stored it becomes possible to recall its image to mind at will and to reflect upon it in an orderly way, without its becoming confused with other images. But images can be combined again, at will, so that one may reconstruct complex past events or project future ones as though they were present (Confessions X.7-10).

The memory does not hold only what has been introduced into it through sense-perception. Augustine can remember much (if not all) of facts which he has learned through being told them in words. These he believed not because he had direct evidence of them (that is, the prompting of sense), but because something in his own mind recognised them to be true. He infers from this that they were in some way already stored in the recesses of his memory, but so deep down that had no one awakened them for him, he might never have known that they were there (Confessions X.12). He realises that his mind can handle all this on more than one level. He can recall arguments for and against certain opinions and know that he knows what he knows, which shows that there is a yet higher faculty in his soul which watches his thought-processes at work; it also allows him to distance himself from recollected sensation to the point where he can, for example, speak of physical pain without actually experiencing the pain again, and yet understand what he speaks of (Confessions X.14-15).

The Platonism in which Augustine was steeped, and which he continued to respect as a Christian, consistently saw the body as an obstacle to the soul in its striving to perceive directly those things beyond sense in which reality supremely consists. Augustine, however, argues that the perceptions

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES of the senses, though bodily, are a God-given aid to the soul's understanding, and a means by which it may ascend towards the knowledge of God himself. There was some Platonic support for this interpretation in Plato's later works, and in the teaching of some later Platonists we find the notion that since the world the senses perceive is itself in some way a likeness of the higher reality, it can be used as a pointer to it. A hierarchy of images is envisaged contemporaneously with, or a little after, Augustine by Proclus and Ps.-Dionysius, but it is already to be found in Philo. Philo teaches that the sensible world is the image of the Logos, and the Logos himself the image of the Father.

Mediaeval versions of Augustine's account of a progression from sense-perception by way of image-making and abstraction to a truly spiritual and rational encounter with the mind of God are to be found in, for instance, Anselm's Monologion and Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum; but the notion is widely diffused in many authors.

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