The Light of the Mind

How does man know what he knows? How does man think? How does the mind process information? Augustine’s influence on man’s understanding of his own understanding can’t be overstated[1], especially when it comes to philosophy, theology and culture. Augustine thought deeply about how man thinks. Given Augustine’s classical education, thirst for philosophical inquiry and deep religious faith, he was particularly equipped by God to teach the Church what Athens has to do with Jerusalem; becoming the second founding father of Christianity[2].  Ronald H. Nash’s contribution to the ongoing debate about exactly what Augustine thought about how man thinks is an important scholarly work. What makes Nash’s work The Light of the Mind[3], so valuable to Augustinian and epistemological studies, is Nash’s approach. Nash accepts the fact that it was never “Augustine’s plan to construct a systematic theory of knowledge.”[4]So Nash’s approach to Augustine’s work is to formulate a system for evaluation. Augustine sometimes said very complicated things about faith’s relationship to knowledge [5]leading some to wonder if, as he aged, Augustine perhaps changed his position on truth, knowledge and faith. But Nash collects Augustine’s ideas into buckets to show exactly what Augustine taught about each idea and then proceeds to show how the buckets; skepticism, truth, faith, sensation, cognition and intellection flow forth into a consistent whole. Nash both attempts and accomplishes his goal. To show that “one can find throughout his [Augustine’s] writings the same general framework of knowledge. From some of his earliest letters to the definitive writings of his mature years he accepted approximately the same position.”[6]Augustine did not write a systematic work of philosophy, aesthetics or theology, but produced works in each with a systematic and poetic mind. Nash suggests that if we break down Augustine’s statements about various aspects of knowledge, we can develop a systematic and defensible Augustinian view on knowledge.

Nash asserts that “Augustine makes it clear that man can know this present temporal, corporeal world only because he first knows the eternal, incorporeal, intelligible world of ideas that exists in the mind of God.”[7]Nash proves this thesis before the book is concluded. Man is born with a seed of the knowledge of God within Him. That seed sprouts upward searching for God as a plant searches for light, pressing roots down searching for living water for nourishment; seeking outward with an innate knowledge that God exists, searching Him out in the world around it. “Augustine conceived of God as both the source of human existence and the goal of human knowledge.”[8]This lends a great deal of illumination to man’s insatiable appetite to explore, study, know and comprehend. Man’s soul thirsts after God as a deer pants after water and we search and search for a satisfying answer for the eternity written in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV), so man grasps creation and studies it relentlessly, searching for the answer only God can provide.

Augustine is a Christian Platonist. Augustine taught that man begins with sensation and climbs by way of reason to attain the ideas that exist in the mind of God.[9]In Augustine’s theory of knowledge, like Plato, Augustine argues that “before an architect builds an edifice, he must first have a model of what he intends to build. Similarly, God had a plan before he created the universe. His creation is patterned or copied after the divine ideas.”[10]This is correct in several ways and Nash highlights an important aspect of Augustine’s biblical view of the world. Marriage is one example of a created relationship that teaches eternal truths about the unity and diversity of the Triune God (Ephesians 5:32, ESV). But the idea that God creates things on earth based on a “copy,” in heaven is also seen in the building of the Temple and the realities to which it points. The Tabernacle and the Temple were copies, designed by man to look like the true temple in Heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 9:24; Exodus 25:9, 40, ESV). Jesus is the greatest example of this poetic revelation. Jesus is the greater Adam, Moses, David, etc. These men all serve as types and shadows to the true Prophet, Priest and King in Heaven. God created these men as a foretaste of what the God-man would be. The problem with Augustine’s view, as described by Nash, is that if not carefully nuanced it could erode the creator-creature distinction that is so fundamental to God’s holiness and divinity. These ideas in the mind of God – these rationes[11]– “subsist in God’s intellect” and thus “share God’s essential attributes and thus are eternal, necessary and unchangeable.” [12]Nash comes close to describing these rationesas divine beings. Nash does not give the proper boundaries to these ideas and thus fails to provide proper protections against error. God’s attributes and ideas are not beingsor thingsin themselves. God is triune and not pantheistic. Nash does not engage this aspect of Augustine’s theory of knowledge. The reader Of Nash’s book is left wondering what the distinction is between God and God’s ideas.

Nash proceeds to unpack Augustine’s theory of knowledge to break it down into manageable concepts. Nash defines with clarity Augustine’s views of the two kinds of knowledge; higher knowledge (wisdom) and lower knowledge (science). Science stems from man’s desire to understand the temporal world. “Wisdom is the pursuit of happiness and the ultimate goal of human existence.”[13]The remaining chapters break these two concepts into even smaller parts with clarity. In chapter two Nash gathers from Augustine’s canon precise descriptions of skepticism and truth. In chapter three Nash goes on to deftly handle Augustine’s somewhat paradoxical statements about faithand knowledge. Nash then proceeds, in chapters four and five to show Augustine’s view of sensationand cogitation.

Nash spends the bulk of this thin volume on Intellection, the centerpiece of Nash’s banquet of Augustinian epistemology[14].  In summation, Nash states that Augustine was working in a pre-modern and pre-enlightenment worldview and does not assume that truth is something propositional but personal. Augustine teaches that since every created being was first an idea in the mind of God, all created things reflect that idea. The ideas in God’s “mind” are true because God is truth. But how does man come to know of those ideas in the mind of God? To know truth?  Nash gathers all of Augustine’s objections to false notions of where this knowledge comes from. This part is difficult and deep but valuable if one is going to apply Augustine’s ideas to the common idols of modern man: science, experience and education. Man does not attain knowledge by remembering from some past life or because man’s soul was drawn from a well of past souls. Salvation – true knowledge – is not transmitted through humanism or education. One cannot experience true knowledge of the Triune God in nature or by studying the stars. All of these are the errors of false religions throughout history. Right up to the modern day, for there is nothing new under the sun. Truth – God Himself – is known because God reveals it to man. For Augustine, Illumination; divine mediation, is how man possess and matures in the knowledge of truth – which is God Himself. “Augustine’s theory of illumination includes at least three major points: (1) God is light and illuminates all men to different degrees; (2) there are intelligible truths, the rationes aeternae, which God illumines; and (3) The mind of man can know the divine truths only as God illumes him.”[15]So knowledge is a gift from God. What creature, pre-fall or post-cross, deserves such a gift: to know the Lord; the maker of the heavens and the earth – who stands transcendent beyond them and yet knows every molecule of them personally and lovingly? The knowledge of God is grace. Augustine is indeed the Doctor of Grace. Even one of the most basic, universal and undervalued aspects of humanness – thought, truth, ideas, knowing – is the gracious gift of God.

Nash sets out to show that Augustine’s view of knowledge can be placed within a framework that can be clearly taught. He goes on to show implicitly that Augustine’s views on knowledge, like most everything he taught, fits perfectly in the framework of grace – of the necessity of a personal relationship with the holy and gracious God. Nash’s work is extremely helpful in comprehending pre-suppositional epistemology; “ A knowledge of anything depends somewhat upon one’s presupposing certain things.”[16]The beginning and end of any aspect of human life, even thinking, begins and ends with God. Man cannot attain wisdom – true knowledge – unless the gracious Triune God reveals it. This is the foundation of Calvinism, of Augustinianism – of Christianity.  Nash shows concisely and clearly why Augustine is the teacher of the whole church.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cowan, Louise, and Os Guinness, eds. Invitation to the Classics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, ©1998.

Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. image books ed. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Hoffecker, W Andrew, ed. Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©2007.

Nash, Ronald H. The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., ©1995

[1]W Andrew Hoffecker, ed., Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©2007), 119.

[2]Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., ©1995), 124-131. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, image books ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 39-41; 46-47 .

[3]Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, eds., Invitation to the Classics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, [2000?], ©1998), 1.

[4]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 3.

[5]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 24.

[6]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 3.

[7]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), viii.

[8]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 5.

[9]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 5.

[10]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 7.

[11]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 6.

[12]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 7.

[13]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 8.

[14]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 76.

[15]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 92.

[16]Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003), 28.

 

Author: Michael Kloss

There is a Sunday conscience, as well as a Sunday coat; and those who make religion a secondary concern put the coat and conscience carefully by to put on only once a week. - Charles Dickens

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