"Thanks and thanks again to Him who offers to the man whom the sorrows of life have assaulted and left naked–offers to him the fig leaf of the Word with which he can cover his wretchedness." -Søren Kierkegaard

Memory and Augustine

Posted in Stuff I'm Reading by mattsw86 on Friday, February 8, 2008

This semester is the first semester I’ve actually enjoyed the reading assigned to me. I’ve been taking so many ‘textbook classes’ that I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy reading. So I spent most of my time at work today reading Augustine’s Confessions and it’s phenomenal. I read it a few years ago in Penland, but it’s amazing how three years or school and an obscene amount money can improve your comprehension-level.

Right now I’m in book ten where Augustine is meditating on the idea of memory. When considering the relationship between memory and forgetfulness he asks, “Are we to understand from this that when we remember forgetfulness, it is not present to the memory in itself but by its image: because if it were present in itself it would cause us not to remember but to forget? Who can analyze this, or understand how it can be?”

He finally decides, “I am certain that I do remember forgetfulness, although by forgetfulness what we remember is effaced.”

The main idea here is paradoxical and Augustine tends to have trouble with anything that doesn’t make sense. I love the fact that he just can’t seem to shake a problem, but sometimes I wanna smack him and tell him to chill. I realize that would be total hypocrisy on my part since I tend to have a similar problem, but it’s way more fun to critique brilliant dead people than myself, right?

Anyway, the problem I have with Augustine’s question is this: I believe there is a distinct difference in memory-types. One can remember:

(a) a thing (a pencil, for example)

(b) an event (graduating high school)

(c) an action (which is a variation of (a) and (b) put together).

I think Augustine is frustrated because he’s mixing memories. All memories are obviously abstractions, but the memory of a tangible object (like the pencil) is much less abstract than the memory of graduating.

So back to the issue of forgetfulness. It’s not strange to remember your own ability to forget, but it is strange to think a person can forget their ability to forget – which is what Augustine is assuming here. I think the more challenging question is what enables us to forget? If we discipline our minds continuously is it possible for us to never forget? I doubt it. This is another way we can approach God in humility and fully embrace our own finiteness. God is incapable of forgetting and therefore greater than all of us and worthy of our worship.

Augustine concludes by emphasizing this. “So I must pass beyond memory to come to Him who separated me from the four footed beasts and made me wiser than the birds of the air. I shall pass beyond memory to find You, O truly good and certain Loveliness, and where shall I find You? If I find You beyond my memory, then shall I be without memory of You? And how shall I find You if I am without memory of You?

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