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Saint Augustine and His Understanding of Memory


In the Confessions of St. Augustine, memory is a multidimensional, multilevel human faculty that is capable of performing several functions due to its features, which, in turn, are enabled by its nature and the character of its inner workings.

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Following the doctrine of recollection, Augustine believes that his mind has always known God, and the Saint describes the structure and mechanisms of memory in an attempt to search for Him. In the process, another function of memory becomes apparent: upon attempting to transcend himself, Augustine learns his own nature.

In this paper, the memory, as presented by Augustine, is going to be defined and described; its features will be linked to its functions or destinations, and a conclusion will be made about the way Augustine treats and uses this faculty.

Saint Augustine on Memory

Confessions. The tenth book of Confessions stands out as opposed to the previous ones. It contains the fundamentals of Augustine’s understanding of memory while the previous books told the story of Augustine’s past.

In other words, the book X marks a change in Augustine’s narration: from then on, he begins to disclose what he is, not what he used to be. It can also be noted that during the previous books, the author was exercising his memory, and the tenth book is used to explain this process that has been left uncommented in the previous parts of Confessions (Hochschild 139).

As a result, the confession is transferred from the outer world, from the life of Augustine’s body to the life of Augustine’s soul. Hochschild defines this process as a “new attempt at the confession” and attempts to start a qualitatively new level in search of God by Augustine (137).

It should be noted that Augustine had identified God as Truth in the previous books. This fact, however, does not automatically mean finding God since, as pointed out by Vaught, Augustine had not managed to determine the place of the Truth in the system of the world, and the tenth book appears to be aimed at rectifying this (37).

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Therefore, the book X is not devoted to memory as such; instead, in his search of God, Augustine performs what can be called an exercise for the mind and analyzes the faculty of memory, being certain that God resides somewhere within it (Teske 149; Hochschild 140). The possibility of such a conclusion can be explained through the demonstration of the nature of memory as Augustine sees it.

The Definition of Memory. The interpretations of Augustine’s idea of memory may provide slightly different views concerning its nature, as portrayed by the Saint. For example, Hochschild describes Augustinian memory as the power of the mind (145). Teske argues that this memory is the mind itself, or rather, one of its modes of operation along with understanding and will (148).

In fact, the two definitions could be regarded as correlating, but, in either case, the memory in Confessions is the “central human capacity” that serves to provide knowledge, and its nature and destinations are a testimony to this fact (White 333).

“Great is the power of memory,” writes Augustine, and yet, the human mind is incapable of comprehending it all (278). Augustine, however, attempts to find out the inner workings of this faculty.

Meno. The Mechanics of Memory. Augustine obviously regards the memory as a provider of knowledge. Moreover, according to Augustine, memory is the only knowledge provider, which, given the possibility of forgetfulness, efficiently undermines the reliability of the things that human beings are capable of knowing (White 333; Chandler 393).

This fact could prove the idea of identifying memory with the mind; apart from that, it betrays the influence that Plato’s views seem to have had on Augustine. One such view is the doctrine of recollection, the support for which is very visible in the book X (Van Oort 6). The doctrine is connected to Meno’s dilemma as presented by Plato in Meno and poses the problem of inquiring into things that are not known. This dialogue allows Socrates to prove the idea of prenatal knowledge.

He argues (through the example of a slave boy) that the things people inquire into are not completely unknown; therefore, they are not actually learned, they are recollected. It follows that “the soul is immortal and has been incarnated many times, and has therefore seen things here on earth and things in the underworld too – everything, in fact – there’s nothing that it hasn’t learned” (Plato 114). Such is the Platonic foundation for the idea of recollection.

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Modern researchers appear to emphasize the fact that Augustine seems to have rejected the doctrine of reminiscence in the following works (Teske 149). Still, in the book X of Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the fact that an idea of a thing that is not possessed can come to the memory and writes that when learning things, “I gave not credit to another man’s mind, but recognized them in mine” (270).

It is an “obviously Platonic dimension” of the Confessions, and it is fortified by the direct meaning of the words used by Augustine in Latin, that is, “recognoscere,” which means “to know again,” and “agnoscere”, which could be translated as “to know on the basis of previous acquaintance.” (Vaught 50-51). Therefore, at the time of the Confessions, Augustine believed that memory provided him with the knowledge that his immortal soul used to know before becoming embodied.

Another important phenomenon that is connected to the process of memorizing, as portrayed by Augustine, is the narrative. During the process of learning, objects enter the memory as images; after that, they can be extracted to form a narrative (Vaught 47; Chandler 393). Consequently, it is the narrative that allows the mind to structure memories, and this is why Augustine uses it in the form of Confessions.

However, once structured and organized, the memory becomes a system of images, which allows one to recall and recollect these images and also makes memory finite (Vaught 46; Hellemans, Otten, and Pranger 49-48). At the same time, in Confessions, memory is shown as infinite since a human mind is incapable of comprehending it (Augustine 278). It appears to be logical to conclude that, in terms of Augustine, memory can be described as a faculty of dual nature, both finite and infinite.

The Nature and Structure of Memory. Indeed, Augustine wonders at the unimaginable capacity of memory and describes it as a multi-dimensional phenomenon (Hochschild 145). One of the dimensions is directed at the perceivable, sensible images, another reflects the intelligible notions, and a third collects the “affections” of the mind (Augustine 270-273).

Concerning affections, Augustine points out that memory does not provoke the feelings themselves but serves as the “belly” of the mind. Augustine explains this idea through a simile concerning “joy and sadness, like sweet and bitter food, which, when committed to the memory, are as it was passed into the belly, where they may be stowed, but cannot taste” (273).

Apart from that, Augustine points out the different characters of groups of memories and demonstrates that some of them are more difficult to recall than others, and some of them come uninvited (Vaught 46).

While Augustine makes attempts at creating the classifications of the types of images that are stored in the memory, he admits that embracing its scope as a whole is impossible for a human mind (Hochschild 145-146).

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Apart from being multi-dimensional, memory is multi-level. For example, in respect to mathematical principles, Augustine notes that he recalls both the principles and the fact that he knows them as well as the process of learning them (54).

Apart from that, the memory is capable of storing forgetfulness, which prompts Augustine to actively retain the things that he remembers (Teske 152; Vaught 46). This quality demonstrates the idea that memory is self-transcendent, “present to itself through itself” (Vaught 58).

The transcendence is what allows Augustine to remember forgetfulness; this same transcendence, along with the duality, enables memory to perform one of its crucial destinations as described below.

The Destinations of Memory. The first function of memory that of a knowledge storehouse or the belly of the mind is illustrated by its structure as presented above. This function is enabled by the unimaginable capacity of the faculty. However, in his journey through memory, Augustine finds that memory is not limited to this destination.

To describe the second destination of the memory, it should be recalled that the book is devoted to the search for God. Augustine expresses a strong belief in the idea that he remembers God and that God, therefore, is within him: “Thou hast gave this honor to my memory, to reside in it” (287). At the same time, however, Augustine admits: “but in what quarter of it Thou residest, what am I considering.”

Having identified God with the Truth, Augustine knows what to seek; he also knows where to seek and why to seek, for “when I seek Thee, my God, I seek a happy life” (281). The identification of God with emotion (the joy) suggests that God is present in the memory as an affection of the mind.

Having gathered this information, Augustine describes the nature, structure, and inner workings of memory in an attempt to find out how this idea of happiness has come into the memory (Hochschild 148).

It can be, therefore, concluded that memory, as such, becomes the tool, the method of achieving the destination of the place where God resides within Augustine. In such a way, Augustine responds to the question of “how” to seek.

In this respect, Hochschild describes the memory “the embodied soul’s mode of approaching God,” but the metaphor of a road appears to be particularly applicable to the situation (139). Therefore, it can be said that Augustine commits himself to “charting the mind’s landscape,” which allows him to arrive in the spiritual part of the world, the realm of God (Chandler 394).

Such a journey is made possible by the nature of memory. Both present and nonpresent, God can be found through the memory that exhibits similar duality (Vaught 48). Apart from that, memory is transcendent, which means, that Augustine can also become transcendent through it, rise above himself to a spiritual place where God can be found (Vaught 49).

Augustin chooses the narration of Confessions and uses it to structure the memory and mold it into the tool he needs. However, not every memory is suitable for this purpose, but only the memory that has been illuminated by the presence of God (Hochschild 150).

“Clearly dost Thou answer, though all do not clearly hear,” writes Augustine (288). Not every human being is capable of finding this joy, what is more, not every human being tries to. Augustine, however, does try and seek through the narrative exercise that allows him to have a glimpse into his own mind. This is another, the final function that memory performs in the book X.

As a human, Augustine cannot truly know himself, which is defined by the unreliable character of memory (Van Oort 3). In this respect, Hochschild points out that Augustine used to question the very possibility of confession: he emphasizes that what is known of past is imperfect knowledge, and the analysis of itself in the present is difficult for the mind (138).

However, the process of narration or, in this case, confession, rectifies the problem to an extent, by organizing the memory. Apart from that, the transcendent nature of memory allows Augustine to transcend himself and, therefore, offers another opportunity of providing a more reliable knowledge (Vaught 49). As a result, while searching for God, Augustine, in fact, works to find himself as well (Chandler 395).


Given the belief that God resides in Augustine’s memory and has always resided there, the Saint attempts to find a suitable method that would allow him to find God. The mental exercise of the book X that Augustine performed turned out to be a suitable tool both for this aim and for the analysis of self. To succeed, Augustine utilizes the specific features of the memory that include its incredible capacity combined with finiteness as well as its self-transcendence.

Works Cited

Augustine. Confessions of St. Augustine. Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebrary. Web.

Chandler, Erin. “The Present Time of Things Past: Julian of Norwich’s Appropriation of St. Augustine’s Generative Theory of Memory.” Rhetoric Review 31.4 (2012): 389-404. ATLA Religion Database. Web.

Hellemans, Babette, Willemien Otten, and Burcht Pranger, eds. On Religion and Memory. Bronx, New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebrary. Web.

Hochschild, Paige E. Memory in Augustine’s Theological Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford Scholarship Online. Web.

Plato. Meno and Other Dialogues : Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Meno. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebrary. Web.

Teske, Roland. “Augustine’s Philosophy of Memory.” The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 148-158. ATLA Religion Database. Web.

Van Oort, Johannes. “God, Memory And Beauty: A Manichaean Analysis Of Augustine’s Confessions, Book X.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 69.1 (2013): 1-8. ATLA Religion Database. Web.

Vaught, Carl. Access to God in Augustine’s Confessions. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebrary. Web.

White, James Boyd. “Augustine’s Confessions as Read by a Modern Law Teacher.” Journal of Law and Religion 29.02 (2014): 330-335. ATLA Religion Database. Web.

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