St. Augustine's Conception of the Self

J. Maxwell Clark
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

St. Augustine is, arguably, one of psychology's most preeminent thinkers. To place him in psychology, in this case, and not, perhaps, theology is no error. In St. Augustine's writings one is entreated to penetrating and erudite discussions of such integral aspects of human nature as cognition, affect, and conation. One also finds detailed discourses on the common human condition and how it may be improved. In this paper, we will consider these very topics as we attempt to delineate his view of the self. To this end, the paper may be considered as comprising three parts. First, it will consider the most central features of his concept of self; second, it will consider his views of the common human condition and his thoughts on how it might be improved; and third, it will offer a critique of his rationale.

Before proceeding with our discussion of St. Augustine, it might prove useful to first locate the bulk of his writings under that branch of philosophy properly called metaphysics and, by extension, ontology. The relevance for the reader will soon become apparent for in our treatment of his conception of the self, we must necessarily consider, albeit briefly, his expositions on the mind-body problem, the threefold nature of the mind, the realization of self-knowledge, and free will and the problem of evil.

St. Augustine's treatment of the mind-body problem owes much to the Neo-Platonic tradition and, according to O'Connell (1968), especially to the writings of Plotinus. Reality, for instance, is held by him to be a bifurcation of things purely intelligible and things sensible. In the former category, the ultimate example is given as God, who is assumed, a priori, to be perfect and immaterial--having created the world from nothing. In the latter category, the sensible realm, things are just that, substantial, yet also temporal--imperfect and corruptible. As regards humans, St. Augustine does not deny us our material constitution, but asserts that since we are created in God's image, we must also have contained within us something approaching this higher, that is to say, insubstantial, realm: this immaterial constitution he designates the Soul. Having made this distinction, he renders it somewhat superfluous in his insistence that the soul is the only true seat of "being"; in other words, reality for humanity, is not found in the lower, material realm, but in the soul's conjoining with the perfection of the immaterial realm. This position can, perhaps, be more readily understood when contrasted with a considerably diametrical position such as material monism, which holds roughly that the only reality is a singular material one. In these last statements, we have introduced a number of important ideas that beg further clarification; the provision of such information should put us a step closer to understanding St. Augustine's notion of the self.

So far, we have discovered, among other things, that humans possess both a physical body and an immaterial soul. We also know that reality is made up of transient, corporeal stuff and eternal, incorporeal stuff and it is with the latter that humans should be concerned. The last part of the preceding sentence gives us an intimation of our next point of discussion. The words "should be concerned" imply at least two things: agency and deliberation. These, in turn, presuppose--despite what radical behaviourists would have had us believe--something which makes them possible in the first place. This something, St. Augustine calls the Mind.

Mind is spoken of as "the eye of the Soul" (Przywara, 1958). It may be conceptualized in terms of a trinity or threefold structure consisting of Mind, Knowledge, and Love (Oates, 1948; Burnaby, 1955; Przywara, 1958; Deanne, 1963; Hazelton, 1968; O'Connell, 1968). The significance of the trinity permeates much of St. Augustine's writings on this subject and this is perhaps not surprising; the mind is conceived as an isomorphism, in miniature, of the grander symbolic, cosmic structure: in this case, as it pertains to the trilogy of the Godhead--the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Murphy, 1968). It is important to note that these three entities--Mind, Knowledge, and Love--are not independent of one another: each begets the other so that they become one substance in a sense, "reciprocally inherent" (Burnaby, 1955). If we look closely enough, we might espy here, given the cautions of Ernest Hilgard (1980, in Paranjpe, 1993), the seeds of what has presently become the trilogy of mind (cognition, affect, and conation): a concept which (re)emerged especially during the Enlightenment in the works of Locke, Leibniz, Reid, and Kant, among others, and which is, in contemporary psychology, at least, only recently regaining notice (Paranjpe, 1993).

At this juncture, recall that St. Augustine makes a fundamental distinction between the body (indicative of the lower realm) and the soul (indicative of the higher realm); given our introductory discussion of the mind, I should just like to skip ahead of our present context somewhat, and proffer the following reformulation of the this fundamental distinction. Rather than speaking of a division entirely devoid of mind, we may now begin to reframe the division in terms of the "outer person" and the "interior person" (Burnaby, 1955; Przywara, 1958). This reframing is important because it now calls into play the question of identity or self-realization as Augustine might have it. Before addressing this issue any further however, something remains to be said of how the mind may be like the eye of the Soul and, by association, how self-realization may be possible.

The distinguishing feature which sets the outer person apart from the interior person is the latter's possession of a unified or harmonious mind, which he considers a necessary condition for experience of the Soul. Unity within the trilogy of mind, knowledge, and love arises out of still another trinity of memory, understanding, and will (Burnaby, 1955; Przywara, 1958). St. Augustine's rationale for the establishment of such unity comprises the bulk of his treatise on The Trinity; consequently, a more detailed explication of such a rationale goes far beyond the confines of this paper and so the reader is encouraged to consult directly with this work for a more complete explanation. Nonetheless, toward the close of "Book X" in The Trinity, St. Augustine provides the reader with an encapsulation of his reasoning:

We [find] the nature of the mind, in its memory, understanding and willing of itself, to be such that it must be apprehended as always knowing and always willing itself; and therefore also as always at the same time remembering itself, understanding and loving itself, although it does not always keep the thought of itself clearly separated from things which are not identical with it. This makes it difficult to distinguish in it the memory of self and the understanding of self (cited in Burnaby, 1955, p. 89).

In the preceding statement, the reader should become cognizant of two important and integral ideas. First, it is implied that the mind is not entirely unknown to itself since it may have knowledge of itself as being unknown; thus, he argues, in not knowing, it is, indeed, known. A natural corollary follows from this reasoning. Recall that in the unified mind one may experience or know the Soul which is of that higher order eclipsed, ultimately, by God. If, as St. Augustine argues, the mind is never truly unknowable, then it follows, also, that neither is the Soul, nor, for that matter, God. This kind of reasoning is exemplary of the Platonic and Neo-

Platonic traditions and it is possible to discern similar remnants even in the writings of certain Enlightenment thinkers, notably Kant in, for example, his formulation of the categories of the understanding. The implication here is that one is never completely ignorant of one's integral nature--the Soul, or the ultimate reality as manifest in God. Such knowledge, he maintains, goes largely unrecognized because humans may become easily transfixed--as did Adam in the story of the original sin-- to the more immediate, material allure of lower things. Human fixation with the material realm is compounded by our de facto possession of "a will that is free to do evil or to find salvation" (Alexander, 1993, p. 17). That we are aware of our possession of such a will does not help matters, since, he believes, it only fosters arrogance and the mistaken assumption of human omnipotence. Thus, according to St. Augustine, for these reasons and Adam and Eve's original transgression in the garden, humans are predestined to choose evil over salvation.

Despite the considerable breadth of our discussion so far, we are now in a much better position to understand St. Augustine's view of the self. The assiduous reader may already have something of an idea as our discussion has already touched upon its most central features. The Augustinian conception of the self is contained in the maxim "the Soul is the man" (sic) (cited in O'Connell, 1968, p. 185). This "top-down" approach is implicit in the bifurcation of the person into interior and outer foci. Knowledge of the soul is endemic to the interior person who has thrown off the trappings of the material world and given him or her self over in devotion to God. In becoming attuned to one's Soul, one is essentially reacquainting oneself with the "authentic 'I'" (O'Connell, 1968). The outer person, on the other hand, is basically one who is unaware of his/her integral nature- -the Soul--and so, as a consequence, tends to ensconce his/her self-conception in the lower realm--in accumulating material possessions and entertaining base impulses and desires that arise from such pursuits. To summarize, humans are posited as having two possible selves: one is a subjective definition contingent upon a knowledge of the Soul, which is that part of the person that is experientially universal and which transcends corporeality for the higher, divine reality; the other, is a more objective definition contingent upon identification with things usually common to a material existence: possessions, other persons, and so on.

Given this formulation one can draw loose parallels with James' conception of the self as "knower" (I) and "known" (Me). In St. Augustine we certainly see a similar bifurcation in terms of the interior (I) and outer (Me) persons. From our discussion thus far, the outer person would seem at least partially consonant with James' "Me" insofar as it is taken as the sum total of all that an individual can call his or her own (James, 1910). With both the Augustinian and Jamesian "I" , however, there appears no easy relation. To my knowledge, Augustine seems to say little of conscious experience and the contents of consciousness, favouring instead the idea of a unitary Soul (the "authentic 'I') that does not acknowledge subject-object distinctions. When an individual gains access to this aspect of his or her self, such distinctions are transcended.

Following from this, it may now be possible to discern St. Augustine's view of both the common human condition and its most desirable or ideal condition. Quite simply, the common human condition is one of wickedness and sin so long as people remain transfixed upon the trappings of the outer self. The ideal condition, not surprisingly, is obtained in communion with God and this can only begin to be achieved with the stringent expurgation of any or all pleasures which might detract from this goal (Alexander, 1993). His "Confessions" may be regarded as nothing, if not a "practical guidebook" for reaching this ideal condition. In it, he extols upon the necessity to repudiate such things as thievery, childishness, sexuality and romantic love, theatre, familial love and friendship, ordinary virtue, beauty, science, basic desires and temptations, and even self-respect (Chadwick, 1991; Alexander, 1993).

Given this summary account of St. Augustine's perspective, what can now be said in the way of critique? Perhaps the most obviously contentious aspect of his approach concerns his assertion that the essential human condition is immaterial and of divine origin and, of course, that there exists another realm of experience apart from material existence. Following the prescriptions of modern science, it is difficult to accept any kind of proposition that does not lend itself to empirical inquiry and/or is not amenable to falsification. Further, in addressing, more specifically, St. Augustine's intimations of a mind/soul-body distinction, the philosopher Gilber Ryle is largely accredited as demolishing such tendencies on logical grounds; calling it "Ghost in the Machine" reasoning, it constitutes what he suggests is a "category-mistake", which is something like thinking that a university is like a building in addition to other college buildings.

As for internal consistency, this perspective is also sorely lacking. I will only mention a few internal difficulties here, for there seem to be many. His proof for the immateriality of God and the human Soul seems inconsistent. He maintains that one is never truly ignorant of one's divine nature, one may simply become overly transfixed by material desires. To re-attune one's awareness, one must give oneself over in devotion to God and expurgate all selfish pleasures. In later writings he then goes on to say that even then one's efforts may be for naught since Providence seems to prevent some from ever achieving this goal anyway. Thus, now not everyone is taken to be equally "fallen" (O'Connell, 1968). Other difficulties arise in his attempts to rectify problems concerning self-control--for example, why the mind could control the body, with which it had no contact, better than it could itself--and the presence of evil--given that God is held to be inherently good and omnipotent (Alexander, 1993).

St. Augustine's perspective constitutes, arguably, one of the most comprehensive portraits of human beings ever detailed. In his writings we are entreated to a quite sophisticated structural model of the mind that addresses cognition, affect, and conation; in addition, in Confessions he reveals, with penetrating insight, many of the subtleties, nuances, and complexities, of human emotions, needs, desires, and choice. The unfortunate thing is, he tends to write these integral aspects of "humanness" off as inherently sinful or evil--qualities that are better eradicated. In the end, the ideal human condition, the authentic self as it were, is really something of a non-self. All of the unique qualities that distinguish the individual from others are to be forcibly exorcized in favour of a merging with a universal, selfless, truth--God. Coupled with his later reformulation of the authentic self as attainable for some rather than all, this construct becomes "fuzzy" and ill-defined. Although his approach may seem idiographic on the surface, in that it is directed toward the individual, it is really nomothetic in its prescription of the ideal human condition: individuality is not to factor into the equation.

Finally, as for the question of whether his perspective can lead to a workable and/or effective way of improving the human condition, I think the answer is obvious. Given that one even accepts his assessment of the human condition, his program for improvement demands an extraordinary, if not absurd, lifelong, effort, commitment, and sacrifice, and, even then, one is far from being guaranteed improvement or, for that matter, salvation.


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