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Medieval Philosophy

Self-knowledge and the Sciences in Augustine's Early Thinking

Johannes Brachtendorf

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ABSTRACT: The idea of a firm connection of the seven artes liberales came first into being in Augustine's early concept of education (I. Hadot). Whereas this idea has been analyzed primarily in view of its philosophical sources, this paper is supposed to clarify its internal logic. The main feature of Augustine's concept is the distinction between the two projects of a critique of reason and of a metaphysics, and the coordination of these projects within a treatise on theodicy. Augustine systematizes the disciplinae in the perspective of reason's self-recognition. Reason manifests itself in culture and nature. Through the sciences, reason is led to a reflection upon its own products and, finally, to an understanding of them as reason's self-manifestations. Thus, reason becomes able to comprehend itself. Augustine distinguishes language-based disciplinae (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) from number-oriented ones (music, geometry, astronomy, philosophy). The first group (with dialectic as its top-disciplina) leads to a critical reflection upon the conditions of knowledge and into the insight to reason's power of creating sciences. The second group helps carry out a metaphysical ascent from the material to the intelligible world. In philosophy, reason comprehends its ability to constitute knowledge as a synthetic capacity that points to a transnumerical unity as the main ontological feature of the intelligible world. The insight into this kind of unity reveals the meaningful interwovenness of all beings and events and, thus, leads to a refutation of all objections against divine providence.

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Augustine's early dialogues are works of a special sort. Written soon after his conversion to Catholicism but before his baptism, after his encounter with Neoplatonism but prior to his studies in Holy Scripture, these writings leave a mixed impression on the modern reader. While large portions may righteously be called futile or even fallacious, there are also passages of extreme density and great vigor, giving a first account of trains of thought that will become characteristic for Augustine's classical works such as the Confessiones or De Trinitate. De Ordine, written in 386 along with the other dialogues Contra Academicos and De beata vita, is a typical case of an early work of such a kind. Besides anecdotes about the life in Cassiciacum and some fruitless discussion among Augustine's merely half-educated companions, it also contains a highly condensed treatise on the sciences that has attracted the attention of modern scholarship. Ilsetraud Hadot has recently claimed that the second book of Augustine's De Ordine is the first document in the history of philosophy that gives an account of the seven artes liberales as a systematic unity. Augustine does not only enumerate the disciplinae along with a description of each of them, but explains why they have to be acquired in the course of education, how they contribute to the goal of education, and how they build on each other so that this goal can be attained.

What is the goal of education? The framing theme of De Ordine is "theodicy", to use a modern expression. If God's providence governs the world, and if there is no second God interfering with this world-order (a claim vigorously made by the Ex-Manichee Augustine), then the problem of whether there is justice in the course of the world becomes pressing. At the beginning as well as at the end of his dialogue, Augustine poses questions like: "why is he who is ready to bestow gifts lavishly in need of money, while the mean and mangey money-lender sleeps over his buried treasure; or why extravagance spends and wastes an ample inheritance, while the tearful beggar hardly gets a coin all day; or why undeserved honor exalts a man, and a blameless life passes unobserved in the crowd". The omnipotent rulership of divine providence needs to be defended against all objections based on the apparent indifference of the course of the world to human demands for justice.

Augustine answers this question in a platonist's manner. In Augustine's view, evil is a mere appearance, caused by our inability to perceive the entire cosmos and the interdependence between a single event and the state of the whole world. If a state of affairs, e.g. an honest man's misery, is considered in isolation, it may give rise to the idea that the world-order is imperfect and that God does not care about humans. But the one who is able to apprehend the world in its entirety, understands how every single event is meaningful by contributing to the perfection of the whole. The man, Augustine claims, who is capable of true insight into the harmonious constitution of the world, knows that there is no evil. Attaining this insight is the goal of education.

What does perception of the cosmos in its entirety mean? After his conversion from Manicheism to Neoplatonism, Augustine learned to draw a distinction between the material world and the intelligible world. The former is sense-perceptible, unsteady and perishable, whereas the latter is intellectually apprehendable, immutable and eternal. There are more ontological differences. The one that concerns our topic most is the relationship between unity and multiplicity. Augustine distinguishes two kinds of "unum" (one). The inferior kind of "one" characterizes the ontological structure of the material world. Here the "one" is utilized to count things: there is one, and another one, and another one, and so forth. By space and time all entities are separated from each other. The whole is made up by the sum of its countable parts. The intelligible world, however, is different. There is neither space nor time that could disunite intelligible beings. These beings cannot be counted, nor is the whole an aggregation of individual parts. In this realm, Augustine says, is "every part as beautiful and perfect as the whole". Any part is a "one", because it contains and represents the whole. This kind of "unum" is, as Augustine says, "far more profound and sublime" than the other kind of "unum" characterising the material world. In the intelligible world, one need not first gather and assemble all the single parts in order to apprehend the whole. Instead, there is an essential interwovenness between all the elements so that any single part immediately reveals the whole. While each material being is just a small part of its cosmos, any intelligible being is the whole intelligible world.

The relevance of this distinction for Augustine's theodicy problem is obvious. In the material world, the meaning of a single state or event for the whole can never be completely apprehended, because this world is a sum of innumerable single entities whose interconnections human understanding is unable to grasp. In the intelligible world, however, a single glance suffices to recognize the unity of the cosmos. If we want to get rid of the problem of evil in a world created by a good and omnipotent god, we have to ascend from the sense-perceptible world to the intelligible world. Once this ascent is accomplished, the appearance of evil will evaporate and the harmony and beauty of creation will shine forth.

How can such an ascent be accomplished? How can we gain such a vision of the intelligible sphere? Of course, through learning and education, i.e. through an acquisition of the sciences. It is well known that in Augustine the idea of an ascent to the higher world is inseparably linked to his notion of self-reflection. It is only on the way of self-recognition that humans can advance to the intelligible realm. This duality of movements - backwards into oneself and upwards - characterizes Augustine's concept of the sciences.

According to Augustine, reason manifests itself in the world. It does so in two ways, namely in human language and in beauty. Humans are sociable beings. Since intellectual intercourse is a precondition of social life, humans invented sounds and bestowed meanings on them by assigning them to things. In Augustine's view, the rationality of language lies in its power of signification. Augustine is aware of the fact that even animals use signs, but he holds that only the capability of inventing and using meaningful words counts as an indication of reason. Another instance of reason's self-manifestation is beauty, which Augustin understands as an effect of a well-proportioned ratio of numbers. There is some difference between beauty and language in the mode of reception: Beauty, Augustine says, is perceived through the senses, while language requires reason to be recognized as such, i.e. as meaningful sound. However, they both are manifestations of reason and, thus, rational in themselves.

In addition to the power of self-manifestation, Augustine ascribes to reason a natural drive for self-recognition. The sciences are nothing other than the ways in which reason strives for self-apprehension. Augustine's list contains seven disciplinae: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Music, Geometry, Astronomy and Philosophy. He subdivides them into two groups depending on which of the two manifestations of reason they have as their proper object. Thus, there is a threefold group of disciplinae dealing with language, namely grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, and there is a fourfold group of number-based disciplinae, comprising music, geometry, astronomy and philosophy. It is worth emphasizing that according to Augustine reason never simply deals with physical or historical objects as such. What reason engages in is always its own manifestation, be that language with its power of signification or be that harmonious numbers. In and through the sciences, reason searches for itself. Reason's true object is reason itself.

Language is rational, but in simply speaking it is not recognized as such. Likewise, beauty is a product of reason, but aesthetic experience does not perceive it as reasonable. Only in the disciplinae does reason attain insight in language and beauty as manifestations of reason. Since they themselves are activities of reason, one can say that reason recognizes itself in the disciplinae. However, a modification is in place here. According to Augustine grammar classifies letters, syllables and classes of words. In pursuing the science of grammar, reason does engage in its own product, namely language, but without being aware that language is reason. Reason does deal with itself, but it does not know yet that this is so. Each of Augustine's two groups of sciences contains a top-disciplina that provides this knowledge; for the first group this is dialectic, and for the second philosophy. It is true, reason recognizes itself even in the lower disciplinae, since their objects are reason's self-manifestations. But only in dialectic and philosophy does reason know that it is occupying itself with itself. Here reason recognizes itself as itself. Education, therefore, is a gradual process of an increasing acquisition of self-knowledge, terminating in full self-recognition as provided by dialectic and philosophy.

How is this process of self-reflection in the sciences related to the project of ascent? What has self-recognition to do with the desired insight into the intelligible world and its ontological structure? Augustine makes an ambiguous but nevertheless informative statement. He says: "Either there is nothing more valuable in reason than number, or reason itself is number." What he has in mind is his "unum" (one), however, not the "one" used in counting material beings, but the superior "one" that expresses the one-in-manyness of the intelligible world. Augustine's claim that reason either is number or strives for number is then to be understood as the thesis that reason either has the same structure as the intelligible world, or is very close to this structure. Therefore, the one who is educated and trained in the sciences with their increasing measure of self-apprehension, and who, through dialectic and philosophy, finally participates in reason's self-recognition, has attained the desired insight into the intelligible world. The goal of education, namely apprehension of the harmonious character of the world, in comparison to which all evil is disclosed to be a mere appearance, can be reached by way of self-reflection, because the human mind is either itself the intelligible one-in-manyness, or it is so similar to it that it allows for a conclusion from its own structure to the structure of the intelligible world.

But what does it mean to say that reason has the structure of one-in-manyness that characterizes the intelligible world? Finding an answer to this question turned out to become one of Augustine's lifetime projects. A study of Augustine's answers would reveal the development of his philosophy of mind as well as the shifts in its relationship to Plotinus's thinking. But this cannot be expounded here. By way of intimation, all I can say is that Augustine presented his final solution in his De Trinitate and that this solution differs substantially from what Augustine found in Plotinus.

The solution of De Ordine is characterized by Augustine's coordination of dialectic and philosophy. For Augustine, dialectic is the science of sciences, the "disciplina disciplinarum" that deals with the principles of science as such. About the development of dialectic Augustine says: "And when the science of grammar had been perfected and systematized, reason was then reminded to search out and consider the very power by which it produced art; for by definition, division, and collection, it not only had made it orderly and syntactical, but had also guarded it against every subtle encroachment of error". In dialectic "reason itself exhibits itself, and reveals its own nature, its desires, its powers". The dialectician knows what science is, namely an orderly connection of a multitude of definitions, gained through analyses and syntheses, through distinctions and coordinations. Philosophy, the supreme number based disciplina, provides a number-theoretical interpretation of the results of dialectical research. In the system of syntheses and analyses, that characterises sciences, philosophy recognizes reason's attempt at establishing the structure of one-in-manyness. This attempt cannot succeed, because the sciences are essentially bound to discursive thinking apprehending things one by one, while the intelligible world is characterized by co-presence of the whole, that requires intellectual intuition as its proper mode of apprehension. However, the philosopher is aware that the power that drives us to creating sciences and, thus, to imitating the intelligible world in the realm of discursive thinking, must either itself be a one-in-manyness or, at least, know about this structure, i.e. know about what the world looks like from a divine point of view. Such a person, Augustine says, cannot be bothered any more by sorrows, perils of by fate's adversities.

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(1) Hadot, I., Arts libéraux et philosophie dans la Pensée antique, Paris 1984, pp. 101-136. Cf. also Dyroff, A., Über Form und Begriffsgehalt der augustinischen Schrift De ordine, in: Aurelius Augustinus, Festschrift der Görres-Gesellschaft zum 1500. Todestage des Heiligen Augustinus, hg. v. M. Grabmann und J. Mausbach, Köln 1930, pp. 15-62; Rief, J., Der Ordobegriff des jungen Augustinus, Paderborn 1962; Lorenz, K., Die Wissenschaftslehre Augustins I. Teil, in: Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte (67) 1955/56, pp. 29-60; Solignac, A., Reminiscences plotiniennes et porphyriennes dans le début du "De ordine" de s.

Augustin, in: Archives de philosophie 20 (1957), pp. 455-465. Cf. also introduction and notes by J. Doignon in: Edition Bibliothèque Augustinienne: Oeuvres de Saint Augustin 4/2, Paris 1997.

(2) [...] egeat ille pecunia, qui largiri liberaliter multa paratus est, eique defossae incubet macer et scabiosus fenerator, ampla patrimonia luxuries dispergat atque diffundat, vix toto die lacrimans mendicus nummum impetret, alium honor extollat indignum, lucidi mores abscondantur in turba. (De ordine 2.2.14 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. XXIX, ed. by W. M. Green))

(3) [...] in illo vero mundo intellegibili quamlibet partem tamquam totum pulchram esse atque perfectam. (De ordine 2.19.51)

(4) [...] sed longe altius longeque divinius. (De ordine 2.18.47)

(5) [...] in ratione autem aut nihil esse melius et potentius numeris aut nihil aliud quam numerum esse rationem [...]. (De ordine 2.18.48)

(6) De ordine 2.13.38. For a comprehensive account of Augustine's understanding of dialectic, cf. Pépin, J., Saint Augustin et la Dialectique (The Saint Augustine Lecture 1972), Villanova 1976. Cf. also my article: The Decline of Dialectic in Augustine's Early Dialogues, in: Studia Patristica (Proceedings of the XIII. International Conference on Patristic Studies), forthcoming.

(7) Illa igitur ratio perfecta dispositaque grammatica admonita est quaerere atque attendere hanc ipsam vim, qua peperit artem; nam eam definiendo distribuendo colligendo non solum digesserat atque ordinarat verum ab omni etiam falsitatis inreptione defenderat. (De ordine 2.13.38)

(8) [...] in hac se ipsa ratio demonstrat atque aperit, quae sit, quid velit, quid valeat. (De ordine 2.13.38)

(9) Postremo quando istum virum movebunt aut ulla onera aut ulla pericula aut ulla fastidia aut ulla blandimenta fortunae? (De ordine 2.19.51)

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