Monday, May 5

Ruminations on St. Augustine's Soliloquies

One reading that came to my attention recently was St. Augustine's Soliloquies. This 4th century document (two books) is intended to lead to self-knowledge and knowledge of God. This particular reading from St. Augustine of Hippo was is rather interesting. Set in the form of a dialogue, it reminds one of some of that Socratic Dialogues recorded by Plato, or the Joban dialogues found in Scripture – particularly those between Yahweh and Job, among others. This dialogue between Reason and Augustine appears to be a philosophical examination through dialogue (as most ancient philosophical works do).

Augustine begins by talking briefly with Reason (whom we may – incorrectly? – assume is the Holy Spirit, the ruach living within man) and determines that it is best to begin with a prayer. To note, this prayer contains the repeated phrase “O God” nearly sixty times, and appeals to God in His various aspects, His creation, His divine nature, His power, His majesty, His glory, His light, His intelligence, His love, among other things. Augustine also seems to be fond of referring to God as “Father” (perhaps due to his broken relationship with his earthly father). The essential idea conveyed in the prayer is that he is invoking God, and that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28; quote from the Cretan philosopher Epimenides). It is also interesting that Augustine uses a double Amen to end his prayer.

Interest aside, the discussion begins – Augustine declares that he desires only “to know God and the soul.” Much like the later philosopher Rene Descartes, he does not appeal to sensual experience but only that which is achieved and learned through Reason. In adherence to the infamous “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton), he notes that he cannot truly know others as he does not even know himself. We are also faced with the challenge: can we truly know anything about God in this life apart from analogy? An example of this is seen in the life of St. Patrick. When trying to explain the concept of the Trinity, St. Patrick relied on using an analogy of the three-leaf clover with one stem. 

Following this, we are presented with the triadic formula of Faith, Hope and Charity. This reminds the reader of the triadic Pauline formula found in 1st Thessalonians 1:3, 5:8,  and in 1st Corinthians 13:13 (cf. 2nd Timothy2:22) - the idea of faith, hope and love. This is then connected to the telos of the journey being the “very vision of God” (360), seemingly the idea of the beatific vision. It is important, then, that the soul is able to be healthy, able to gaze and able to see. We finally learn about a distinction between truth and what is true. For something to be true, truth itself must exist. If therefore truth exists, it is not tied to finite or limited reality, because it would not end. Something that is true may end, but truth itself does not end. 

Essentially, this dialogue between the saint and Reason takes the reader through a variety of different considerations on how one can know a thing, how we may know others, how we may know ourselves and how we may know God. Knowing, of course, implies that the thing can actually be known. But as C.S. Lewis once wrote in his fictional work, Till We Have Faces, "how can we see face to face until we have faces?" or as St. Paul wrote, "For now we see through a glassdarkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1st Corinthians 13:12). In other words, there is much that we can know in this world, but in Augustinian thought we ask - how can we truly know until we are on the other side of eternity and have the ability to truly know?

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