Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Limits of Introspection

"Let us concentrate ourselves exclusively on the investigation of the truth. Life is a misery, death is uncertain. It may suddenly carry us off. In what state shall we depart this life? Where are we to learn the things we have neglected here? . . . This too, then, is a question needing scrutiny."

~ Augustine of Hippo

Yesterday I attended another in a series of lectures sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Education of the University of Chicago. The topic was "Saint Augustine's Confessions: Struggle, Adversity, Calm, and Relentless Enquiry" presented by Raymond Ciacci, Instructor in the Basic Program. While the title is a mouthful the focus of much of the talk was on Augustine's life of "relentless enquiry" as presented in his Confessions. Prof. Ciacci in his introduction to the talk noted how Augustine was "driven by an almost insatiable desire to know, and (was) highly introspective". In this work Augustine references dozens of the greatest philosophers of his day and explores innumerable topics in the life of the mind. As examples, Prof. Ciacci highlighted two topics, "curiosity" (Book X) and "conversion" (Book VI, 8.13); but it was his comments on the timing of the writing of the Confessions that, for me, were the key moment in the lecture. For Augustine waited for fourteen years after his conversion to Christianity to write his confessions. This period of time before revisiting the events of his past, events which begin with his early life with his mother Monica in Hippo, provided him with years of experience. This allowed the development of understanding which he was able to use in shaping his memoirs and developing his skills of introspection. However, as Prof. Ciacci pointed out, there are "limits of introspection", limits which mean, inter alia, that the questions and ideas pursued by Augustine while subject to the thinking of his prodigious intellect were not necessarily susceptible to ultimate answers. The ultimate for Augustine resided in the realm of god. For others of us, who have also studied our Plato and Aristotle, the ultimate answers may remain mysteries to be discovered without the help of the supernatural.

Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford University Press. 1998 (398)

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