Augustine on Memory: A Note on Confessions 10.8-37

On March 21, 2012 by admin

Amlan Dasgupta 


The Greek word for truth – or more correctly, one of the several words that appear to have been used – is aletheia. The word figures largely in NT Greek and is usually rendered in Latin by the word veritas.  Literally, however, aletheia, from the verb lanthanō with the alpha-privative, would mean that which is unconcealed or even unforgotten, that which does not escape memory.  The river Lethe in the Greek underworld is the river of forgetting, by crossing which mortals forget their past lives.  This view was famously held by Heidegger, who pointed to the pre-Socratic, specifically Homeric, sense of the word. In the oral world of the Homeric epic it is the poet’s commemorative power that enables him to cross the boundary between the living and the dead, between presence and oblivion. Charles Segal writes: “what is truthful for the archaic poet is not the so much what is factually exact as what successfully resists the corrosive darkness of forgetting”.

There are many powerful characterizations of memory and remembering in Greek philosophy which may usefully serve to contextualize Augustine’s own reflections on the subject. Starting from the Platonic discussion of memory in the late dialogues, through Aristotle’s subtle distinction of recollection and memory, to the Stoics, there were a number of important theoretical statements to choose from.  Even as Augustine inaugurates a new ethic of memory, there is much he carries over from the past, which is only natural considering his deep immersion in classical culture in his early life. Augustine was certainly familiar with the main arguments of his predecessors, and his own treatment has certainly both Platonic and Stoic resonances. We might briefly point to the fact that Augustine tacitly adopts a position popularized in Stoic physical doctrine, that the human soul, or a part of it, is the controlling principle of the human organism. It is to this regulating, rational faculty that the Stoics gave the name hegemonikon; technically part of the soul, pneuma, it regulated ideally the other parts, namely the five senses, the reproductive faculty and the speech faculty. It was the hegemonikon which received sense-data and retained it either as “imprinting” (tuposis) or an” alteration” (alloiosis). The fundamental power of the hegemonikon was to form presentations or phantasiai, which were conveyed by the senses. Memory was stored phantasiai, but they could produce complex structures: conceptions (ennoemata) or even fictional and non-existent things. Marcia Colish points out that Augustine’s own notion of the soul, while retaining traces of the Stoic position, is immeasurably more complex: he integrates into the Stoic concept of the faculties the distinction between the vegetative, animate and rational soul as put forward by the Peripatetics and the Neoplatonic  valuation of the spiritual over the physical aspects of human nature:  to this Neoplatonized and Aristotelianized conception of the Stoic hegemonikon he adds “the Christian goal of spiritual renewal and communion” (1990:206).

There are three major locations for studying Augustine’s thought on memory and remembering, though the subject is an important one to him, and one to which he frequently turns.  Significantly they span a great part of his career, and it is quite obvious that there are some differences in approach. The three primary texts are De Magistro, dating from about 389, Confessions 10, probably composed somewhere between 397 and 401, and De Trinitate, completed not before 422. I shall look today solely at one of these texts for reasons simply of easy accessibility: but also the Confessions are not only the most widely read of Augustine’s works, but from the point of view of the present discussion, clearly one that allows us to form a cogent idea of some of the leading notions that inform Augustine’s thought on the memory.

The first 9 books of the Augustine chart the story of his early life bringing us to the critical point of his baptism, his abandonment of the study of classical rhetoric and his consequent entry into the Christian life. The 9th book describes also a number of personal tragedies: the death of his mother Monica and the death of his friends.  The 10th book is in some senses the beginning of a new section, which includes the discussion of memory, time (11) and language (12). The reflections in this concluding section turn back on the nature of personal recollection: what kind of truth value can be attributed to this narrative of personal experience? Do past memories influence behavior, and if so is the result for the better or the worse? The discussion of memory in Book 10 thus introduces a new form of self reflexivity into the narrative: the product of memory now leads to a discussion of the faculty of memory and the process of remembering. Augustine encounters memory in the course of a journey of self realization and self expression: to realize himself through his record of personal experience, and to present to his readers a life that can be read, that is turned into writing. Thus Augustine’s “confessions” in front of God has another kind of audience, that of the readers and hearers of the Christian community for whom it must be an exemplary exercise.

In 10.7.11 Augustine says that will transcend even the natural power by which he lives and has the experience of the senses, as this is enjoyed by baser animals too: and in doing so he encounters memory, which for Cicero distinguished man from beast (Tusc. 1.24.57ff).  The wide fields and roomy palaces of memory that Augustine describes in the inaugural section (10.8.12) are a storehouse (thesaurus) of images (imagines) which are conveyed to it by the senses. It appears thus to be a repository, a place, essentially a passive faculty, in which the information provided by the senses is stored up: all that which has not been taken away (absorbuit et sepelevit, lit. devoured and buried) by oblivion. It may be noted that the use of memoria is however not wholly fixed, sometimes referring to something like a “container”, sometimes encompassing imagination and conception. In De Magistro,12,  Augustine makes the curious observation that when we consider the sense data of past experience, i.e. the primary content of memory, “we do not speak about the things themselves, but of images impressed from them on the mind and committed to memory”. Gareth Matthews points out how Augustine seems to be saying that instead of speaking of the things themselves, we change the subject and talk about the memory images instead. Augustine here seems to be making some kind of distinction between the experience of the present (where there is knowledge of things themselves) and the past (where there is knowledge only of traces left behind by sense perception). The early view seems to be closer to the Stoic (specifically Zeno’s) view about sense data” imprinting” itself on memory  (tuposis); in Confessions even though the passive nature of the memory per se is retained, it is seen as being interpenetrated by other, and more active, faculties.

Augustine marvels at the apparently inexhaustible resources of memory. All the evidence of the senses are stored up it, neatly docketed and labelled, in its “indescribable departments”, waiting to be recalled to the present. Whatever he seeks to summon appears immediately: Augustine is struck by the fact that even in silence and darkness he can relive sight and sound. The ensuing sections (17-18) are particularly dense and change our understanding of the memory simply as a receptacle for sense data. For when we hear a word being spoken we form an image of the thing that the word indicates. However the thing itself is not an object of sensory experience. The sound of the word fades away as soon as it is uttered, but the things remain in our minds. Augustine here seems to move towards a Platonic assertion that knowledge is pre-existent in the mind (Augustine uses cordi, in the heart) but not in memory.

In my heart then they were, even before I learned them, but in my memory they were not. Where then? or wherefore, when they were spoken, did I acknowledge them, and said, “So is it, it is true,” unless that they were already in the memory, but so thrown back and buried as it were in deeper recesses, that had not the suggestion of another drawn them forth I had perchance been unable to conceive of them? 10.10.17


It is here that one might also insert a role for language even though Augustine does not directly allude to it. All that we remember is already present in the mind: the function of the learning process is to take what is “random and unarranged”, and organize them into a systematic body. Language may hold the key here.  Augustine writes:


I do indeed hold the images of the sounds of which those words be composed, and that those sounds, with a noise passed through the air, and now are not. But the things themselves which are signified by those sounds, I never reached with any sense of my body…


The structure of language mirrors the contents of memory, newly retrieved from their disorganized state in the human heart, and stored up for use. The memory itself is a site in which the objects of knowledge continually shift and exchange places. We find out things and place them close at hand and say that we have learned these things. But soon as we cease to call them up, they slide into deeper recesses of memory, and if again required for use must be drawn together again. The object of thinking (cogitare) is really that of re-collection, not that which is collected anyhow (cogere).


Augustine probes into several of the psychological singularities of memory. He explores for instance the problem of knowing falsehoods (in that we truly know that we remember false things) and also that we remember things differently at different times. I may in fact remember knowing something in a certain way at one point of time, and in a different way at another. We thus remember remembering: at a later time I shall be able to recall that at such I time I remembered these things. We also recall past emotions: moments of pain and fear can be recollected without the sensations of pain and fear. In fact we might remember sorrow with joy and joy with sorrow. Augustine applies a striking analogy at the end of 14.21, saying that the memory is the belly of the mind: it contains joy and sadness as the stomach contains sweet and bitter food. The memory, like the belly, is unable to determine the nature of the emotion by itself. That we contain the experience of intense suffering within oneself does not affect one all the time: even when they are recalled from the memory by the mind, one might not have to undergo the same suffering. Yet there does seem to be a difficulty here. Undoubtedly we find in the memory the affect of experience, which is not something which inheres in the nature of experience but the affectations of the mind which receives them.


And yet how could we speak of them, if we did not find in our memory, not only the sounds of the names according to the images impressed by the senses of the body, but very notions of the things themselves? Things we never received by any avenue of the body, but which the mind itself perceived by the experience of its own passions, and committed to the memory? How could the memory  retain the passion of the mind without experiencing that passion?  14.22


The relationship of mind and memory remains difficult to understand.  At one point Augustine seems to willing to give up this relation: “Does the memory perhaps not belong to the mind? Who will say so?” (14.21) Augustine returns to the problem of mental images once again in the context of naming.  Images take their place with conceptual entities, affections of the mind and bodily states as being the content of memory. But at every step there arise new difficulties: when I name forgetting I remember it and understand it. Not only do I know the word “forgetting” but I also know what it means, which is a privation of memory. So the memory knows both itself, that is memory remembers “memory” and also remembers its absence. Consequently, we cannot say that forgetfulness itself is present in our mind when we remember it but only its image, for  “if forgetfulness were present through itself, it would not lead us to remember, but only to forget. Now who will someday work this out? Who can understand how it is?”  The text at this point falters, and reveals the strain of pursuing this line of thought. For it is not some abstruse, distant question that we are considering, like the distance between the stars or the weight of the earth. It is strictly personal, for “it is I – my mind – who remember”. There is nothing which is closer to me than myself obviously, and he seems to conclude that the question of forgetfulness is at the end a paradox of self-knowledge, that exists but cannot be rendered fully as a rational argument.


In 17.26 Augustine goes on to distinguish finally among the knowledge of sensory things present to us as images (imagines) , the knowledge of sciences through their  methods (praesentia) and the knowledge of emotional states through a kind of mental system of notation (notiones vel notationes).  Augustine is deeply moved and even fearful at this manifold power of the memory, as of the human mind of which it is the characteristic faculty.

Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing (horrendum) my God, a deep and boundless multiplicity. And this is the mind and this is me. What am I then, O my God, of what nature am I? …Behold in the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things, either through images, as all bodies; or by actual presence, as the arts; or by certain notions or impressions, as the affections of the mind, which, even when the mind doth not feel, the memory retaineth, while yet whatsoever is in the memory is also in the mind—over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this side and on that, as far as I can, and there is no end. So great is the force of memory, so great the force of life, even in the mortal life of man. 10.17.26

Brian Stock astutely observes that Augustine’s concern with memory is never at a purely philosophical level, and that he is adept at creating decoys behind which his practical objectives are masked.  In the Confessions his discussion brings him to the paradox that God cannot be contained in the memory.  The curious vacillations that we have seen serve to define the problem of the knowledge of God: is it something that is contained in memory or is it beyond memory? Both remembering and forgetting have a part to play in setting out the problem. In 18.27 he uses the parable of a woman who has lost her money but finds it after she searches for it with a light. When she finds it she is happy, because she has found her money, the one that she was looking for. The women needs to forget to have the pleasure of rediscovering: and this turns out to have a greater significance, for like the woman Augustine has also searched for many things and has been confronted with many objects with the question “Is this it?” His answer has been “No” until he recognizes the object that he actually lost.  This is what appears to be the case when is looking for God. For searching for God is searching for the good life, the life in which the soul lives. It is something that has to be forgotten for us to seek it, and that appears to be the nature of human life: the inevitability of forgetting as well as the need for continuing the search incessantly. But how is happiness to be recognized? Did it pre-exist in his soul? Or to put it differently, did God exist within him so that he is able to recognize happiness when he experiences it? Evidently this is not like remembering Carthage, for it is not an object or assemblage of objects.  Augustine is at pains to demonstrate that happiness in this supreme sense is not the object of any possible kind of physical perception, thus entirely different from the memory of joy. But we have not experienced God, nor have we experienced happiness. Those who are content with the joy that conforms to their expectations and experiences are evidently different from the seeker who seeks God.  Stock describes the situations succinctly:

It is clear why individuals are not happy. They are unable to break with the past. They take greater pleasure in things that will not make them permanently happy, since these are easier to recall..(.)

If Augustine began by praising the infinite capacity of the memory to contain experience, he now feels that creates an over-dependence on the past, a slavery to habit and custom, and consequently an orientation to vice than to virtue. God is known neither by experience nor properly by pre-existent knowledge, but by the grace of God himself in making available to us: I  discover nothing about God that God has not taught me.

If God enters the memory at all it is not by finding a place in the container. God remains in man’s changeable mind through an act of his own willing, not that of human design.

For thou art the Lord God of the mind and of all these things that are mutable; but thou abidest immutable over all. Yet thou hast elected to dwell in my memory from the time I learned of thee. But why do I now inquire about the part of my memory thou dost dwell in, as if indeed there were separate parts in it? Assuredly, thou dwellest in it, since I have remembered thee from the time I learned of thee, and I find thee in my memory when I call thee to mind. 26.37

Augustine finally finds a place for God in the memory by delocalizing him. God exists in memory as much as outside it. We go backward and forward, he says, but there is really no place which may be assigned to God “save in thyself beyond me”. It is as the interior teacher that God exists in us. In the remainder of Book 10 Augustine “remembers” the sins and temptations that have assailed him up to now, but only to seek deliverance from them with divine aid. The act of confession, an act of memory, now inaugurates a process of self-remaking and reform.


Amlan Dasgupta is Professor of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.


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