The Conversion of Memory and Intentionality in St. Augustine’s Confessions

by David Fleischacker

Last night, I met a seminarian who had been reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions and was discussing how much he liked the last section (book 10 and on) on memory, time, and eternity.  It brought to mind some of my own memories about the book and about Saint Augustine’s City of God.  Memory is that by which a person is oriented in the present and toward the future.  Amnesia helps to point this out – without memories we would not know the people around us, or even our own names, or the language that we speak.  A priest friend of mine pointed out another thing that was even more important to Augustine that is linked to memory, namely commemoratio. Notice that it has the word memory in it.  As well it contains “co-“ and “ratio”, which points to living in the truth with each other.  Fr. Matthew Lamb writes on this term. Commemoratio articulates the public nature of truth and how living in that truth as a member of the one human race results in a mutual indwelling.

In the Confessions, it is illuminating to read the first nine books as an account of the conversion of Augustine’s own memories, a conversion that awakens him in a more comprehensive biographical manner to the eternal love and forgiveness and justice of God.  Even the simplest memories that he has, such as stealing fruit (something like Adam and Eve had done) are transformed into forgiven acts by which God’s glory shines upon him and the world, and he is elevated into the light of God’s loving forgiveness as a son of God the Father.  Throughout those nine books, Augustine recalls with God’s help the multitude of memories of relationships with family and friends and teachers.  In each case, these memories are transformed in God’s loving light.  One sees how Augustine discerns the dialectic of sin and grace operative in his life, and how God’s grace was working at every moment, even those that were the result of his own sin as he was tossed or tossed himself into the storms of life.  He came to apprehend God’s pursuit of him even in those dark and descending moments in his life.

For Augustine, after his conversion, recalling every memory as he does in the  Confessions involves a transformation of his presence with the others in his life.  They come to dwell in him as creatures and as part of God’s loving providence, as individuals in a fallen world whom God calls out like He did in the Garden of Eden…. Where are you? Why are you hiding? If you have read the Confessions you know that before Augustine’s conversion, he was in the “out of doors” and enslaved in his disordered desires.  He could not think of God or of other human beings except in material images (God as a kind of infinite matter with an infinity of space).  God allowed him to travel through a multitude of experiences (including his travels into the Manichean religion) that constantly included God’s response — sometimes one of desolation that was a result of his fleeing from God, other times one of consolation in which God was awakening him to the truly good.  These moments, especially those that awoke him to the question of good and evil, eventually brought him to a moment in which his mind was elevated to apprehend reality that was beyond the material (see book 7, chapter 10), and that his sinful state was far from the light above.  Even with that experience, he was not free.  His will had to be liberated from the world of lust and disordered desire, a liberation which he recounted in the details of book 8.  After God frees him,  Augustine is able to join in a new commemoratio with his own Mother before she dies.

These transformed memories allow Augustine to grasp, live, and dwell from the totality of his life, his friends, family, and enemies within a commemoratio of God’s eternity and love. That is the real commemoratio of the human race.  Years after writing the Confessions, Augustine’s City of God expands his commemoratio to include a transformation of how one should live in the totality of history as a dialectic between the city of man and the city of God.

In terms of intentionality analysis, a few notes are in order.

  1. Through the operators of the transcendental notions, intellectual operations (insight), rational operations (reflective insight and judgment), and moral operations (apprehension of value, judgments of value, and decisions) emerge within the subject.  Though these are intrinsically independent of the empirical residue, they are extrinsically dependent in and through motor-sensory conscious intentionality, which in turn operates within a neural matrix all the way down to quarks and primitive forms of energy.  Memory at these higher spiritual levels has a dependence upon these material levels, and so it can be disrupted by damages or disruptions of these lower levels. Destroy the neural matrices and the ability to re-enact intellectual, rational, and moral operations is lost.  In other words, these intellectual and moral habits are lost. To state this another way, images, phantasms, and certain types of symbols are necessary for the emergence in human subjects of insights, reflective  insight, and evaluative insights.  Memories always include this embodied element in the human subject. Once embodied, the transcendental notions are able to generate with greater ease those spiritual operations.
  2. In the human subject, there are not from what I can discern any memories that are purely spiritual and completely independent from the neural and motor-sensory levels.  This simply follows from Lonergan’s point about the relationship of spiritual operations upon the lower sensate operations in all human subjects.  Insight is always into image/phantasm. We need our bodies to have insights, to affirm judgments, and to make decisions.  Likewise, our memories require a re-enactment of our neural matrices involved in phantasms.
  3. Memory is not merely a material act however.  Once one has an insight, “recalling” that insight, and becoming intelligibly present to the object of the insight again is simply to have the same exact insight as the original.  There is no difference.  However, the recollected insight does emerge “easily” or habitually because a change has taken place in the neural matrix (though there is much work to be done, many studies of the biochemistry of memory have been conducted, and reveal some interesting and fascinating processes).
  4. Having the freedom to recall insights, judgments, and decisions, or in more comprehensive ways, systems of thought and scales of value, itself includes a neural matrix of embodied connections. From what I can tell from neurological studies, key parts of the forebrain (or what some call the executive brain) are involved in this liberty.
  5. True direct insights are isomorphorphic with the form that is known by these insights. This allows for an indwelling of the known in the knower, and the beloved in the love.  Thus when mutual intellectual subjects know and love each other, then there arises a mutual indwelling.  This provides the basis and possibility of commemoratio.  When that mutual indwelling is rooted upon the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, along with the entire City of God, then one begins to get a sense of the more comprehensive character of commemoratio.
  6. The transcendental notions are likewise a key in recalling memories as well.  A mere forebrain neural structure is not going to be able to pull forward the proper images needed for insight because it is not capable of seeking a spiritual operation, such as an insight.  The forebrain needs to be sublated within the spiritual operators that we call the transcendental notions (of intelligibility, of being, and of value) which form the comprehensive capacity for self-transcendence.
  7. One final note, from what I have seen in the biochemical studies on neurons, “memory” is not stored in one location while the image/phantasm is located in another. Rather, once one has an insight, the recollection of that insight is simply an enactment of the same neural streams that led to the original insight.  (the same is true when one remembers a sense operation — seeing is not one operation and the memory of seeing another, rather, remembering a seen object is simply activating the neural patterns involved in first seeing the object.

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