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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 7

Letter 7 (A.D. 389)

To Nebridius Augustine Sends Greeting.

Chapter 1. Memory may be exercised independently of such images as are presented by the imagination.

1. I shall dispense with a formal preface, and to the subject on which you have for some time wished to hear my opinion I shall address myself at once; and this I do the more willingly, because the statement must take some time.

It seems to you that there can be no exercise of memory without images, or the apprehension of some objects presented by the imagination, which you have been pleased to call phantasiæ. For my part, I entertain a different opinion. In the first place, we must observe that the things which we remember are not always things which are passing away, but are for the most part things which are permanent. Wherefore, seeing that the function of memory is to retain hold of what belongs to time past, it is certain that it embraces on the one hand things which leave us, and on the other hand things from which we go away. When, for example, I remember my father, the object which memory recalls is one which has left me, and is now no more; but when I remember Carthage, the object is in this case one which still exists, and which I have left. In both cases, however, memory retains what belongs to past time. For I remember that man and this city, not by seeing them now, but by having seen them in the past.

2. You perhaps ask me at this point, Why bring forward these facts? And you may do this the more readily, because you observe that in both the examples quoted the object remembered can come to my memory in no other way than by the apprehension of such an image as you affirm to be always necessary. For my purpose it suffices meanwhile to have proved in this way that memory can be spoken of as embracing also those things which have not yet passed away: and now mark attentively how this supports my opinion. Some men raise a groundless objection to that most famous theory invented by Socrates, according to which the things that we learn are not introduced to our minds as new, but brought back to memory by a process of recollection; supporting their objection by affirming that memory has to do only with things which have passed away, whereas, as Plato himself has taught, those things which we learn by the exercise of the understanding are permanent, and being imperishable, cannot be numbered among things which have passed away: the mistake into which they have fallen arising obviously from this, that they do not consider that it is only the mental act of apprehension by which we have discerned these things which belongs to the past; and that it is because we have, in the stream of mental activity, left these behind, and begun in a variety of ways to attend to other things, that we require to return to them by an effort of recollection, that is, by memory. If, therefore, passing over other examples, we fix our thoughts upon eternity itself as something which is for ever permanent, and consider, on the one hand, that it does not require any image fashioned by the imagination as the vehicle by which it may be introduced into the mind; and, on the other hand, that it could never enter the mind otherwise than by our remembering it—we shall see that, in regard to some things at least, there can be an exercise of memory without any image of the thing remembered being presented by the imagination.

Chapter 2. The mind is destitute of images presented by the imagination, so long as it has not been informed by the senses of external things.

3. In the second place, as to your opinion that it is possible for the mind to form to itself images of material things independently of the services of the bodily senses, this is refuted by the following argument:— If the mind is able, before it uses the body as its instrument in perceiving material objects, to form to itself the images of these; and if, as no sane man can doubt, the mind received more reliable and correct impressions before it was involved in the illusions which the senses produce, it follows that we must attribute greater value to the impressions of men asleep than of men awake, and of men insane than of those who are free from such mental disorder: for they are, in these states of mind, impressed by the same kind of images as impressed them before they were indebted for information to these most deceptive messengers, the senses; and thus, either the sun which they see must be more real than the sun which is seen by men in their sound judgment and in their waking hours, or that which is an illusion must be better than what is real. But if these conclusions, my dear Nebridius, are, as they obviously are, wholly absurd, it is demonstrated that the image of which you speak is nothing else than a blow inflicted by the senses, the function of which in connection with these images is not, as you write, the mere suggestion or admonition occasioning their formation by the mind within itself, but the actual bringing in to the mind, or, to speak more definitely, impressing upon it of the illusions to which through the senses we are subject. The difficulty which you feel as to the question how it comes to pass that we can conceive in thought, faces and forms which we have never seen, is one which proves the acuteness of your mind. I shall therefore do what may extend this letter beyond the usual length; not, however, beyond the length which you will approve, for I believe that the greater the fullness with which I write to you, the more welcome shall my letter be.

4. I perceive that all those images which you as well as many others call phantasiæ, may be most conveniently and accurately divided into three classes, according as they originate with the senses, or the imagination, or the faculty of reason. Examples of the first class are when the mind forms within itself and presents to me the image of your face, or of Carthage, or of our departed friend Verecundus, or of any other thing at present or formerly existing, which I have myself seen and perceived. Under the second class come all things which we imagine to have been, or to be so and so: e.g. when, for the sake of illustration in discourse, we ourselves suppose things which have no existence, but which are not prejudicial to truth; or when we call up to our own minds a lively conception of the things described while we read history, or hear, or compose, or refuse to believe fabulous narrations. Thus, according to my own fancy, and as it may occur to my own mind, I picture to myself the appearance of Æneas, or of Medea with her team of winged dragons, or of Chremes, or Parmeno. To this class belong also those things which have been brought forward as true, either by wise men wrapping up some truth in the folds of such inventions, or by foolish men building up various kinds of superstition; e.g. the Phlegethon of Tortures, and the five caves of the nation of darkness, and the North Pole supporting the heavens, and a thousand other prodigies of poets and of heretics. Moreover, we often say, when carrying on a discussion, Suppose that three worlds, such as the one which we inhabit, were placed one above another; or, Suppose the earth to be enclosed within a four-sided figure, and so on: for all such things we picture to ourselves, and imagine according to the mood and direction of our thoughts. As for the third class of images, it has to do chiefly with numbers and measure; which are found partly in the nature of things, as when the figure of the entire world is discovered, and an image consequent upon this discovery is formed in the mind of one thinking upon it; and partly in sciences, as in geometrical figures and musical harmonies, and in the infinite variety of numerals: which, although they are, as I think, true in themselves as objects of the understanding, are nevertheless the causes of illusive exercises of the imagination, the misleading tendency of which reason itself can only with difficulty withstand; although it is not easy to preserve even the science of reasoning free from this evil, since in our logical divisions and conclusions we form to ourselves, so to speak, calculi or counters to facilitate the process of reasoning.

5. In this whole forest of images, I believe that you do not think that those of the first class belong to the mind previous to the time when they find access through the senses. On this we need not argue any further. As to the other two classes a question might reasonably be raised, were it not manifest that the mind is less liable to illusions when it has not yet been subjected to the deceptive influence of the senses, and of things sensible; and yet who can doubt that these images are much more unreal than those with which the senses acquaint us? For the things which we suppose, or believe, or picture to ourselves, are in every point wholly unreal; and the things which we perceive by sight and the other senses, are, as you see, far more near to the truth than these products of imagination. As to the third class, whatever extension of body in space I figure to myself in my mind by means of an image of this class, although it seems as if a process of thought had produced this image by scientific reasonings which did not admit of error, nevertheless I prove it to be deceptive, these same reasonings serving in turn to detect its falsity. Thus it is wholly impossible for me to believe [as, accepting your opinion, I must believe] that the soul, while not yet using the bodily senses, and not yet rudely assaulted through these fallacious instruments by that which is mortal and fleeting, lay under such ignominious subjection to illusions.

Chapter 3. Objection answered.

6. Whence then comes our capacity of conceiving in thought things which we have never seen? What, think you, can be the cause of this, but a certain faculty of diminution and addition which is innate in the mind, and which it cannot but carry with it wherever it turns (a faculty which may be observed especially in relation to numbers)? By the exercise of this faculty, if the image of a crow, for example, which is very familiar to the eye, be set before the eye of the mind, as it were, it may be brought, by the taking away of some features and the addition of others, to almost any image such as never was seen by the eye. By this faculty also it comes to pass, that when men's minds habitually ponder such things, figures of this kind force their way as it were unbidden into their thoughts. Therefore it is possible for the mind, by taking away, as has been said, some things from objects which the senses have brought within its knowledge, and by adding some things, to produce in the exercise of imagination that which, as a whole, was never within the observation of any of the senses; but the parts of it had all been within such observation, though found in a variety of different things: e.g., when we were boys, born and brought up in an inland district, we could already form some idea of the sea, after we had seen water even in a small cup; but the flavour of strawberries and of cherries could in no wise enter our conceptions before we tasted these fruits in Italy. Hence it is also, that those who have been born blind know not what to answer when they are asked about light and colours. For those who have never perceived coloured objects by the senses are not capable of having the images of such objects in the mind.

7. And let it not appear to you strange, that though the mind is present in and intermingled with all those images which in the nature of things are figured or can be pictured by us, these are not evolved by the mind from within itself before it has received them through the senses from without. For we also find that, along with anger, joy, and other such emotions, we produce changes in our bodily aspect and complexion, before our thinking faculty even conceives that we have the power of producing such images [or indications of our feeling]. These follow upon the experience of the emotion in those wonderful ways (especially deserving your attentive consideration), which consist in the repeated action and reaction of hidden numbers in the soul, without the intervention of any image of illusive material things. Whence I would have you understand— perceiving as you do that so many movements of the mind go on wholly independently of the images in question— that of all the movements of the mind by which it may conceivably attain to the knowledge of bodies, every other is more likely than the process of creating forms of sensible things by unaided thought, because I do not think that it is capable of any such conceptions before it uses the body and the senses.

Wherefore, my well beloved and most amiable brother, by the friendship which unites us, and by our faith in the divine law itself, I would warn you never to link yourself in friendship with those shadows of the realm of darkness, and to break off without delay whatever friendship may have been begun between you and them. That resistance to the sway of the bodily senses which it is our most sacred duty to practise, is wholly abandoned if we treat with fondness and flattery the blows and wounds which the senses inflict upon us.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102007.htm>.

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