Sunday, May 04, 2008


I just realized: explaining Augustine's philosophy of history in clear, precise, concise prose is difficult.

In fact, it leaves me feeling rather like this:

After all, how do you explain anything in words which unfold, as Augustine's Confessions, Chapter 11 part 28 tell us,

Suppose I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from the province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished my recitations and it has all passed into the province of memory.

What is true of the whole psalm is also true of its parts and of each syllable. It is true of any longer action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man's whole life, of which all his actions are parts. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which each man's life is a part.

What's important here, it would seem, is precisely the status of any temporally unfolding event -- be it the recitation of a psalm, the course of a human action, or life, or the world's history. The whole, in Augustine's view, is in some ways imagined quite materially -- note how he speaks of the future: my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. It's almost as thought the future might be thought of as a kind of matter, which passes through a solution of the faculty of "attention", and in doing so undergoes a chemical reaction with said solution in the process of becoming the past.

Obviously, this is all far too scientific for an Augustinian reading, and it's not the sort of thing one would write in a dissertation on medieval English literature. Also -- and equally important -- is that the human is changed by the movement of expectation into memory, too. But this is where the analogy has to break down: because all of this is just an illusion. In a world of successive instances, there is no sample of a chemical compound labeled "Future" which comes out of solution as "Past" -- precisely what Augustine argues against when he says that there is no long past or long future, only the long expectation of the future and the long memory of the past. Now -- and now, and now, and now -- are all we ever know or experience with any certainty. All else is a function of human recall.

The point of all this rambling, of course, is that the only person who can see the totality of this weird time reaction would be God, who exists outside the changing world. The point of view of the Divine already knows all that was, is or ever will be, which exists in a single perfect IS. Change -- and so too temporal reactions as written above -- does not exist for the Divine.

And so human time is always measured in step with another time, a perfect time, a time into which humans can hope to enter, but cannot really understand from an earthly point of view.

I wonder, then, if part of the problem is that so much of the enterprise of intellectuality in the Middle Ages was bent on trying to not only understand how God worked -- but to see the world as they believed He did.

And this, my dear readers, is why I can't write the silly little section of my dissertation chapter that will focus on Augustine's concept of history.


Derek the Ænglican said...

But if you want to look at how he does sketch the scope of history, don't forget to look at his sample sermon in On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed and the allegorical interpretation of the water jars at the Wedding at Cana in the Tractates on John...