Reading again through Saint Augustine’s “Confessions”: Day 28 (God and the Power of Human Memory)

Reading again through Saint Augustine’s “Confessions”: Day 28 (God and the Power of Human Memory)

“When I am told that it is possible to ask three kinds of question—whether a thing is, what it is, and of what sort it is—I retain images of the sounds of which these words are composed. I know that the sounds have passed through the air and now are no more. But the facts which they represent have not reached me through any of my bodily senses. I could not see them at all except in my mind, and it is not their images that I store in my memory but the facts themselves. But they must themselves tell me, if they can, by what means they entered my mind. For I can run through all the organs of sense, which are the body’s gateways to the mind, but I cannot find any by which these facts could have tended. My eyes tell me ‘If they have colour, we reported them.’ My ears say, ‘If they have sound, it was we who gave notice of them.’ My nose says ‘If they have any smell, it was through me that they have passed into the mind.’ The sense of taste says, ‘If they have no taste, do not put your question to me.’ The sense of touch says ‘If it is not a body, I did not touch it, and If I did not touch it, I had no message to transmit.’

How, then, did these facts get into my memory? Where did they come from? I do not know. When I learned them, I did not believe them with another man’s mind. It was my own mind which recognized them and admitted that they were true. I entrusted them to my own mind as though it were a place of storage from which I could produce them at will. Therefore, they must have been in my mind even before I learned them, though not present to my memory. Then whereabouts in my mind were they? How was it that I recognized them when they were mentioned and agreed that they were true? It must have been that they were already in my memory, hidden away in its deep recesses, in so remote a part of it that I might not have been able to think of them at all, if some other person had not brought them to the fore by teaching me about them.

The memory also contains the innumerable principles and laws of numbers and dimensions. None of these can have been conveyed to it by means of the bodily senses, because they cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. I have heard the sounds of the words by which their meaning is expressed when they are discussed, but the words are one thing and the principles another. The words may sometimes be spoken in Latin and at other times in Greek, but the principles are neither Greek nor Latin. They are not language at all. I have seen lines drawn by architects, and they are sometimes as fine as the thread spun by spiders. But these principles are different. They are not images of things which the eye of my body has reported to me. We know them simply bye recognizing them inside ourselves without reference to any material object. With all the senses of my body I have become aware of numbers as they are used in counting things. But the principle of number, by which we count, is not the same. But the principle of number, by which we count, is not the same. It is not an image of things we count, but something which is there in its own right. If anyone is blind to it, he may laugh may words: I shall pity him for his ridicule.

The power of the memory is great, O Lord. It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable complexity. Yet is it my mind: it is my self. What, then, am I, my God? What is my nature? A life that is every varying, full of change, and of immense power. The wide plains of my memory and its innumerable caverns and hollows are full beyond compute of countless things of all kinds. Material things are there by means of their images; knowledge is there of itself; emotions are there in the form of ideas or impressions of some kind, for the memory retains them even while the mind does not experience them, although whatever is in the memory must also be in the mind. My mind has the freedom of them all. I can glide from one to the other. I can probe deep into them and never find the end of them. This is the power of memory! This is the great force of life in living man, mortal though he is!

My God, my true Life, what, then, am I to do? I shall go beyond this force that is in me, this force which we call memory, so that I may come to you, my Sweetness and my Light. What have you to say to me? You are always there above me, and as I rise up towards you in my mind, I shall go beyond even this force which is in me, this force which we call memory, longing to reach out to you by the only possible means and to cling to you in the only way in which it is possible to cling to you. For beasts and birds also have memory: otherwise they could never find their lairs or nets or the many other things which are part of their habitual life. In fact, they could have no habits at all if it were not for their memory. So, I must go beyond memory too, if I am to reach the God who made me different from the beasts that walk on the earth and wiser than the birds that fly in the air. I must pass beyond memory to find you, my true Good, my sure Sweetness. But where will the search lead me? Where am I to find you? If I find you beyond my memory, it means that I have no memory of you. How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memory of you?”

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