Philosophy Theology

Augustine’s Dialectic of Consciousness

Saint Augustine is best remembered as the author of Confessions and for his writings in the Pelagian Controversy which cemented the eventual orthodox doctrines of grace and predestination in Christianity. But among his other consequential works include The City of God and De Trinitate (The Trinity). De Trinitate, in fact, became the de facto manual for Latin trinitarian theology by the medieval era. Late in the book, Augustine offers his elaborate and dynamic account of the image of God in men: the triune mind of memory, intellect, and will and how this applies to the temporal world and the eternal world.

The first half of De Trinitate defends the co-eternality and equality of the Trinity against the Arians and other subordinationist theologians. Augustine doesn’t offer much new regarding the equality and eternality of the Son. He does, however, maintain the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son on Scriptural grounds (cf. Jn. 14:26; 15:26; 20:22). Thus, Augustine paved the way for the eventual Western inclusion of the Filioque as a cornerstone of Latin theology.

It is the second half of De Trinitate that Augustine is fondly remembered for. For the second half offers his psychological trinity in man, that the image of God is found in the soul, or mind, of mankind. Augustine articulates two sides of human nature; an outer man concerned with worldly things and objects, and an inner man concerned with intelligible things, the invisible world of wisdom, eternity, and God. Properly speaking, Augustine argues, the two are linked. They are like two sides of the same coin.

We begin with the outer man, but the reality of the outer man ought to point to the interior world of the inner man. Thus Augustine articulates a form of empirical idealism. The mind, Augustine argues, is the engine of knowledge and wisdom and of the amata notitia—loved knowledge.

Mind, love, and knowledge exist for the inner man as a primitive reflection of the Trinity. “The mind therefore and its love and knowledge are three somethings, and these three are one thing, and when they are complete they are equal,” he asserts. In assessing the physical world, Augustine’s philosophy of knowledge (distinct from wisdom) can be summarized as such: Objects exist; We interact with objects; Mind organizes and categorizes objects to memory. The fact that objects exist, we interact with objects, and our mind categorizes objects to memory constitute knowing, or knowledge.

We learn, or grow in knowledge, through engagement in and with the world. Knowledge is not accrued in self-isolation or no interaction with the world that exists. All knowledge, contra Plato, comes through actual encounters with the world of objects and not through resuscitated memory of life previously lived, the encounter with objects in the world arouse the mind to truth—the innate reality implanted into nature by God. (Here Augustine follows Plato regarding the Innate Forms but rejects the theory of memorial remembering.) Object, perception, and rationality, then, form another trinity in the growth of human knowledge: “Thus it is that in that eternal truth according to which all temporal things were made we observe with the eye of the mind the form according to which we are and according to which we do anything with true and right reason, either in ourselves or in bodies. And by this form we conceive true knowledge of things which we have with us as a kind of word that we beget by uttering inwardly, and that does not depart from us when it is born.”

Augustine goes on to explain how love is central to compelling human thought and engagement in the world. The appetitus inveniendi is what compels all human action according to Augustine. It is the first principle of existence. Love always attracts itself to something. Whether it be beauty or the unknown, love compels human action and rationality to complete that attraction in full and total knowledge of the object of its senses (foremost being sight and sound according to Augustine), “love commonly results from hearing; thus the spirit is roused by talk of someone’s beauty to go and see and enjoy it, since it has a general knowledge of physical beauty, having seen many examples of it, and has something inside by which to judge and approve of what it hungers for outside.”

This “adventitious consciousness” is what grows human knowledge of the world. The want for knowledge, the love for knowledge, is what fuels human engagement and activity, which, in turns, fills the repository of the soul’s memory in order to better understand itself and its place in the world. “Here the things that are known are adventitious to the consciousness,” Augustine writes, “whether they have been brough in by the acquisition of historical knowledge…or things in nature which occur in their own localities and regions; or whether they are things that have arisen in a man that were no there before.”

From objects to interaction to memory which constitute the first triune manifestation of knowledge to object, perception, and rationality which grows our understanding of knowledge, the trinity in the human mind is brought to fuller manifestation with the inward turn to memory, intellect, and will spurred by these encounters in and with the world.  The dialect of consciousness subsequently moves from knowledge of the material world to wisdom, from matter to immaterial laws of governance and nature. This is the purpose of rationality, the soul, and our engagement with the things of the world according to Augustine.

In a great display if ironic criticism, Augustine implies that those who think total knowledge comes only with the material world shut off their rationality and inquisitive desire for more by asserting knowledge is all that there is. Wisdom, Augustine argues, is that which lays beyond the material objects where observe, categorize, and call to memory. Knowledge is that which we gain from perceptive engagement and rational contemplation of objects. Wisdom emerges out of this dialectic of engagement when we begin to know things about the objects that we contemplate. In short, contemplation of objects, the asking of the questions: how and why, is what deepens our knowledge and begins the pivot from things material to things immaterial. In this pivot we enter rationality itself, the abode of Christ, the Logos.

Augustine follows the Stoics in agreeing that wisdom is knowledge of things material and things divine. The distinction he draws to wisdom is how wisdom emanates out of knowledge. We are never wise before knowledgeable. We are first knowledgeable, then become wise through further intellectual engagement with the things that bring knowledge. However, the key difference is that knowledge does not necessitate wisdom. Learned, knowledgeable persons may be unwise precisely because they only concern themselves with knowledge of objects and cease to go beyond this cursory engagement with things material. “Knowledge of things divine,” Augustine says, “is properly called wisdom.”

The aim of wisdom is to understand the why of knowledge. Eternal laws, not temporal observation, is the loved attraction that moves the mind from knowledge to wisdom. In this pivot to wisdom we continue to engage with the objects of our perception and thought which begat the origins of knowledge in the first place. However, we eventually transcend sensory observation of material things to dwell in the realm of contemplation itself. This is spurred by love (will) of memory and intellect.

Augustine, therefore, establishes two forms of rationality. A higher rationality governed by love of truth and contemplation leading to wisdom, and a lower rationality governed by love of observation and practicality leading to knowledge. The higher reason leads us to eternal realities. The lower reason leads us to temporal understanding. But it is important to remember that, according to Augustine, love binds the higher and lower together; moreover, it is the lower rationality that is the cornerstone from which we build to the higher and transcend knowledge to wisdom.

Fallen, or unregenerate, man is solely concerned with temporal, or earthly, things. Augustine repeats in De Trinitate what he had established in his confrontation with the Manicheans. All temporal things are good and should be loved. It is only when they are loved in-of-themselves for-themselves that this love of the goodness of temporal things becomes a problem. To love temporal goods in God, recognizing God in temporal things, is the aim of the Christian. The regenerate man, therefore, is the person whose soul, mind, makes the turn from earthly knowledge to eternal wisdom (Christ Himself) and lifts up the material world and beautifies it in the process of this conversion (turning): “It is only covetousness when the creature is loved on its own account…Now a creature can either be on a par with us or lower than us; the lower creature should be used to bring us to God, the creature on par should be enjoyed, but in God.”

Through this continual engagement inside the soul of man itself, wisdom is born and enjoyed. In the birth of wisdom we enter more deeply into the imago Dei and its restoration. For we were made in wisdom and love for wisdom and love. Love which compels action and unites things together: human to human, human to animal, human to object, also brings us to wisdom because love is the bridge that moves us from knowledge to wisdom: a deepened understanding of the humans we are united to, the animals we are fond of, and the objects that attract our gaze. By engaging with knowledge itself through rational inquiry, held in the repository of our memory, this love brings us to a fuller intellectual acuity that we call wisdom.

Augustine’s dialectic of consciousness far predates the likes of the German Idealists who share similar ideas and theories about the growth of human knowledge and consciousness. Augustine’s dialectic, however, does not sublate—or destroy—but builds and grows. What began in perceptive observation of objects never results in the destruction of that object. Rather, the objects of our perception which spur the first instantiation of rational inquiry grows our knowledge and eventually causes the pivot to wisdom as we engage with thought itself which was first compelled by the object of perception. Thus the objects that lead us to knowledge are always looming in the background of our movement toward wisdom. This is why, Augustine can go on to say, that all things that exist are sacramental—signs and symbols that, properly understood, lead us to God.

At its core, Augustine’s dialectic of consciousness is one of active engagement. This active engagement is compelled by love itself. Love also ties knowledge and wisdom together. Love of knowledge, the memorial images we form from knowledge, eventually push us to love of rationality itself—the mind, or soul, that brings forth the fruit of understanding. Once love compels us to rationality, the Logos, the inward turn to the inner man is complete. The inner man now dwells in the happiness of loved inquisitiveness and ascends to God who authored all things and implanted into all things the natural laws of their governance. We see, then, how Augustine’s epistemology and psychology keeps love as the great subsistence of our existence.

Since love draws and unites us to all things, love is that which ultimately lifts us up to God. In the end, Augustine argues, the trinity of the human mind is never the full image of God because we can only have the full image of God with full knowledge of God. Since this is what truly spurs us to want of happiness, only eternity in and with the Great God satiates our drive for knowledge and wisdom. All human advancement in knowledge, and human accruement of wisdom, points us to the God of Wisdom and Love itself. Only united with God is the image of God in man complete. But the psychological trinity that Augustine developed in the second of half of De Trinitate still points us to the ultimate image.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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