Transcript: 116 - Charles Brittain on Augustine's "On the Trinity"

In a final episode on Augustine, Charles Brittain joins Peter to discuss the theory of mind presented in "On the Trinity".
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Let's begin just by saying a little bit about what this text is about. So it's called De Trinitate, which means On the Trinity. What is Augustine's project in this work?

Charles Brittain: So Augustine's project in the De Trinitate is to try to explain what the Trinity is, and then having given the evidence for the being such a thing as a Trinity, i.e. a God composed of three different persons, to then try to allow the reader to conceptualize what a mysterious item like that would be.

Peter Adamson: And that means, I guess, that there are actually at least two projects, because he wants to say something about God, and that he wants to say something about this human image of the Trinity that we find in ourselves.

Charles Brittain: So, sorry, I didn't explain the human image part. So the structure of the book, it comes into three parts. The first part, he goes through the evidence for the being a Trinity in the Bible. And that gives him the data. The second part, he gives a theory of relations that's going to explain how you could have a Trinitarian substance that is a substance that was unitary, but had three co-extensive parts, or roughly something like that. And then the third part is where he tries to explain - tries to give the explanatory material by thinking about the closest analog, or the image of God, which is the human mind. So those are the three parts of the book.

Peter Adamson: And it sounds like, from what you just said, that his approach in these different parts of the book are actually very different. So even though the book itself is a three in one, the first part where he goes through the Bible sounds like it's more like a scriptural, exegetical work, or a theological work. And then maybe the section on relations, and then the last part about the human mind, sounds something more like a philosophical work. Or do you think that's too simplistic a characterization?

Charles Brittain: No, I think that's brilliant. And it shows what a complicated book it is. It never struck me until now that I'm sure that that's how Augustine was structuring it - that he had the image in mind when he was structuring the book, in that the first part is the content that makes it possible to do something. The second part is the intellectualization of it. So that's the theory of relations. The first part being the biblical information. And then the third part is the bit that deals with the affective part, which is what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Trinity. So that we have the info, we have the understanding of the information, and then we have the union of the information and the understanding, which is the love of the information expressed through understanding it. That seemed to me, maybe that's going too far, but that seemed to me to actually capture something about the relation between the three parts, as Augustine might have seen it. So I think that was very plausible.

Peter Adamson: I guess also in the kind of historiography of how this work has been read - it was a very influential work in the medieval period. But nowadays, do you think it's fair to say that theologians read the first part, and philosophers should read the second and third parts, but they don't? Is that pretty much how it works out?

Charles Brittain: Well, I think that it's definitely true that philosophers should read the second and third parts. And they don't. I think that theologians do tend to read the whole book. They read the first part and the third part. They don't read the theory of relations that was the important part in philosophical theology in the Middle Ages. They do read the third part, but they read it in an anti-philosophical way, because that's how contemporary theology is done. So they read it in what they call an ecclesiological reading, where the focus is not on what Augustine's explicit aim - which is illuminating the Trinity by looking at the image of God in our human mind, but rather by looking at the church as an analog of the Holy Spirit, which is a perfectly reasonable Christian enterprise, just not the one that Augustine's pursuing in this book.

Peter Adamson: Now, if we think about, for example, the middle part, which is about the theory of relation, obviously, this is something that philosophers, going back at least as far as Aristotle, have had a lot to say about. Is Augustine actually drawing on that material in this work? So is he reading philosophical works and using that as part of the weaponry he's bringing to bear on this problem of explaining the Trinity?

Charles Brittain: Yes, I think that that's one of the very exciting parts of the book, although it's still under-studied. It's very clear that Augustine is appealing to the Aristotelian tradition of work on the Categories. So as you know, from the study of the commentators in late antiquity, we have this whole tradition of post-Aristotelian categorical theory, and we can see how it's developing. And Augustine's summoning or using some parts of that tradition that are post-Aristotelian and post-Plotinus. So it's not quite clear how to yet how to date what he's doing, but he is definitely trying to explain this Christian mystery in terms of the contemporary - contemporary to him - categorical theory. He's trying to get these categories and then say, how can we explain how God could have some properties that don't appear to be essential? That's the issue.

Peter Adamson: And when he gets on to talking about the philosophy of mind in the third part, he's drawing on Neoplatonist discussions of the mind as well.

Charles Brittain: Yes, that seems clear to you and me. But yes, I think that's more clear that if you know something about Plotinus, then it's very clear that there is a relation. It's highly controversial exactly how much Augustine rejects or accepts of the Plotinian picture, but it's pretty undeniable that he's really reading things like Ennead 5.3 and that that's a fundamental way of understanding the human mind. Plotinus already had a vaguely Trinitarian understanding of the human mind or the intellect, and that's what he can appeal to when he's talking about the mind - although he doesn't appeal to it when he's talking about God because Plotinus is not a Christian.

Peter Adamson: Right. Well, let's move on then to talking about the project of that last part. What happens in that part is that he gives a whole series of potential images of the Trinity that would be found in the case of human beings, and he decides in each case that it's not quite right. And then he finally finds one that he's happy with. Maybe you could though start by telling us about one of the images that he's not happy with and explain why it falls short of being an image of the divine Trinity.

Charles Brittain: Human beings are the image of God. We know that from Genesis. Given that the human being is an image of God, Augustine then identifies the human mind as being the locus of the image of God in a human being. So that's his basic image. When he tries to understand how the human mind has Trinitarian structure, he starts off with the idea of the mind's self-knowledge. And he argues that the mind has a permanent and constitutive self-knowledge - that's what it is to be a human mind, or perhaps a human intellect. So what it is to be a human mind is to be a self-reflexive act of self-knowing. Something like that is what constitutes the being a human mind. So that's one basic image that goes through the book. And he likes that because it's permanent. Human souls are immortal. So human minds are immortal. Intellects are immortal. So this self-knowledge, if it's a constitutive act, is something that's permanent, which is what we want for the God.

Peter Adamson: Because God is eternal, you mean? Although he also does think that the soul is created, so it's only permanent.

Charles Brittain: Yes, it's permanent in one direction.

Peter Adamson: So that's one way in which it will fall short, presumably, of being a perfect image of the Trinity.

Charles Brittain: Yes, it's not eternal. It's immortal from the time of its creation, whenever that was.

Peter Adamson: If we think back to Plotinus, Plotinus thought that the intellect is twofold, because it's thinking about itself, but that means that it's both the subject of thought and it's the object of thought. In other words, it's the thing that's thinking and the thing that's being thought about. So why does Augustine think that if the soul or the mind is thinking about itself, that that would give us three aspects rather than only two?

Charles Brittain: Well, there are two answers to that. One is that the mind is the image of God and God is a Trinity. So this is perhaps not the most successful argument! But if you're a committed Christian, as Augustine is and thinks that you should be if you want to understand the mystery of Trinity, then you do know that the human being is an image of God and that therefore there's some Trinitarian structure. That's a sort of theological reason for thinking that there's a tripartite structure, or three elements in the human mind. But Augustine's real innovation in the book in terms of philosophy of mind, I think, is exactly this idea that there's a third element that's been misunderstood or underrated by the Platonist tradition. And in fact, not just by the Platonist tradition, but by the whole ancient philosophical tradition. And that's this element which he calls the will or the element of desire. And instead of thinking of that as a subordinate element, which I think we tend to especially in the historic version of Platonism, that he thinks that it's really constitutive. So there's one thing to have the content - that's the father analog or what he calls memory and memoria - and it's another thing to be conscious of the content, to think the thought. But what makes it a case of thinking this particular thought is will or desire or love. And that, he thinks, is fundamental to life. So the intellect wouldn't be an animal, it wouldn't be alive, it wouldn't be a real entity if it didn't involve - or if it weren't an expression of will or desire, since that's what it is to be alive.

Peter Adamson: So the idea then is you've got the content, as you just put it, and that's the father, you've got the act of understanding, which is the son, and you've got the will, which is the Holy Spirit. And he thinks that you cannot think about the contents of your own mind without having will involved? So this third element always has to be there? What if you were thinking about something that you disliked, for example?

Charles Brittain: Well, if you're thinking about something that you dislike, there's still that element. So there are two ways. One is just entertaining your content - means not doing all the other things that you could have been. So entertaining this content can be represented as choosing - this is not exactly how we should think about it, of course - but you might think of it as 'I have all these contents, now I'm going to think this one, that choice.' So if you just imagine there are a hundred things you might think, which one do you choose to think? Say "number ten." If you choose to think number ten, you've expressed a desire towards that content, rather than other content. And he thinks the same is true in the case of perception, and even dreaming, all these cases where we think that it doesn't look as though they're expressions of will, they are expressions of desire. For instance, in the case of perception, you think that's a passive thing, you're not choosing to see these things. But of course, you can close your eyes if you're not interested in seeing something. So there's a sort of negative expression of will in that way. And he thinks that the will is involved pervasively through all of our cognitive faculties at any level at all. So it's nothing special about the case of self-knowledge that involves will, it's rather that the paradigm of cognition involves these three aspects. And that's how he gets the other images that he goes through in the book, because he thinks that they're all secondary images.

Peter Adamson: That's really interesting. I guess one possible objection to that might be that there are cases where, for example, you don't want to think about something like 'my best friend has just betrayed me, and I'm very upset about it. And it's making me more and more upset the more I think about it. And there's nothing I can do about it. Now it's already happened. I should really just stop thinking about it. And yet I find myself obsessively coming back to it.' Does he think that somehow I'm still willing to think about it - as it were willing against my own will?

Charles Brittain: Yes. He thinks that kind of experience is what is to be a fallen soul, or to be in a fallen body, that we have all kinds of apparently autonomous psychological systems, so that we can't resist having certain kinds of thoughts. But nevertheless, there wouldn't be a system that would be the autonomy - the energy that makes any psychological process go is a kind of desire or expression of will. So we don't have unified psychologies or bodies. All the different subsystems are not unified in our case. And they won't be unless we go to heaven and have a different body and a purified mind. But each subsystem involves the expression of will or desire, or what can be characterized as will or desire, even though it's not a conscious or explicit will. And he thinks the same is true for animals. And it also explains every different level of life. So that in the vegetative soul - and what makes your body work at all and your heart pump is somehow an expression of desire for life that we have. And if we had no interest at all in the body, literally no interest at all in the physical world, then we would be dead. Our body wouldn't function.

Peter Adamson: He goes through all of these versions of the image of the Trinity that would be found in us. What are the kind of criteria that he's looking for? So what features does this human Trinity need to have that will qualify it as the best possible image of the divine Trinity?

Charles Brittain: He has a list, he ends up with a list of six or maybe a few more criteria. So the first thing is that it needs to be a Trinitarian substance. So we want something that would constitute a substance. That's why the mind is a good example, that it's Trinitarian. So it has three different aspects. Those are the basic ideas for this to be an image of a God. Then there are more specific criteria that rule out various other possibilities. The first one is permanence - or preferably eternity. So in a human case, we can't get eternity, but permanence is one desideratum, which is the self knowledge case. Another criterion which goes with permanence is non-adventitiousness. So not to be adventitious means that it didn't start and then finish. So there's no change involved in God. We don't want any change in the image if we can not have a change. The third one, and this is the most important one, is that the three aspects or the three properties of whatever they are need to be equal to each other in the way that the persons of the Trinity are supposed to be equal to each other. And they need to be equal to each other and to the whole. That's what makes it a Trinitarian substance.

Peter Adamson: So two things that he contrasts then are the case where you're actually thinking about some specific thing. For example, let's say the Pythagorean theorem and the case where you're just thinking about yourself. And so by these criteria that you just listed, the thinking about yourself is better as an image of the divine Trinity than thinking about the Pythagorean theorem. Why is that exactly?

Charles Brittain: So in the case of thinking about yourself, you have one substance, not two. There's some controversy as to exactly how Augustine understands the eternal objects of thought. So if you think of mathematics as being eternal objects of thought... that's not so clear. But in general, if you think of some other object that isn't yourself, then you don't have one substance. So take a simpler case than the Pythagorean theory: Think about looking at a clock. There's a clock and then there's your looking at it. These are two completely different things. So the Pythagorean case goes - partly there are two different objects there. There's you and there's the theorem that isn't constitutive of you. Secondly, it's a case that's not permanent. You only think about it for a certain amount of time. Thirdly, it's advantageous. You didn't probably always have the Pythagorean theorem as part of your mind.

Peter Adamson: Speak for yourself!

Charles Brittain: So that's actually one of the things that Augustine has a brilliant argument in Book 12 to show: that Plato is wrong to think that we always knew the Pythagorean theorem and that we don't have innate knowledge.

Peter Adamson: Oh, because the theory of recollection would say that actually all the contents we can get are already there.

Charles Brittain: And so this is one of the ways in which Augustine differs from Plotinus, that he doesn't think that it's constitutive of the human mind to have the contents of the divine intellect already part of it in some complicated, latent way.

Peter Adamson: Let's look then a little more at this case where you're thinking about or knowing yourself. Is this idea that: anytime you're alive, you have this Trinitarian structure in your mind where you've got memory, in other words, the content, understanding, which is the grasp of the content and will, which is the thing that binds them together. And that's just by thinking about yourself, even though you're not thinking about anything in particular. That's a permanent feature of your psychology?

Charles Brittain: It's hard to know exactly how to answer that or what he thinks about it. The idea of the mind's permanent self-knowledge - when I said it was constitutive, I really mean that. It's not that there's you and then there's you thinking about these things somewhere in the background, it's rather that the thing that makes you into something able to have any other thought is somehow a self-knowing - a case of self-knowing. So to be a mind is to be self-knowing. You think, put in a permanent sense, right? So they think, what kind of sense does that make? And this way, I think it gets really exciting and interesting for our understanding of philosophy of mind that the idea has to be at least partly something like this: that to be a human being, human mind, or to be a cognitive agent involves having access to content and being conscious and then being able to, or thinking, or using your consciousness to entertain a certain given content. So the idea of the Trinitarian self-knowledge thing is to say that there are in fact these three elements that somehow are co-extensive and identical. But you need to identify three different elements. If you thought of the mind as just being a storage place, like a memory - a content place or a specific content - it would be inert. If you think of it as just a consciousness, it doesn't have any content to be conscious of. Will doesn't make sense or desire doesn't make sense unless there's some subject object. The idea is that if you're just trying to think 'what is the structure of a mind, what would it be to be a mind?' Augustine thinks that this is what's good about the image, that he thinks it's just clear that there has to be a Trinitarian... or there have to be three aspects to the mind - the ones that he identifies - but he also thinks that you can make a good case anyhow that these three aspects are just each the same thing viewed in three different ways, or with three different relations.

Peter Adamson: Because the mind is its contents. It is the act of understanding. And it is the will that binds the two things together.

Charles Brittain: And if you think about any one of those by itself, you can see how this works. If you think about, as I said, about the will, try to think of a sort of constitutive desire - just that the whole entity that you're thinking about is a constitutive desire. What would that mean if it weren't the desire for some thing? You can't have a desire that doesn't have a content and doesn't have an agent or somebody doing the desiring. So that it's built into it. If you just imagine: 'here's a human being,' what it is to be a human being is just to be this desire. That is to say that you have a Trinitarian substance. So that's one way of understanding what a human mind is. And he thinks you can do the same with the content side and with the consciousness side.

Peter Adamson: Would it be possible to think that what Augustine is doing in this work On the Trinity is exactly the thing that he is describing? So if you don't think about some thought that you've got about something, whether it's mathematics or something you've learned about - whatever it is, but rather you're just thinking about the nature of your own mind, which is of course what he's doing here in Dei Trinitate. Is that the activity he's talking about as the best image of the divine Trinity we can get in this life?

Charles Brittain: Not exactly. But that's a good question. The two things are related in two different ways. So the first image was the mind's constitutive self knowing and the second image was the mind's thinking itself consciously, whatever exactly that means. So for the mind to think itself consciously and correctly - in a way that the content and the thought are identical - the mind needs to understand what its actual structure is. And one of the things that Augustine does in Books 8 through 10 is give really quite good arguments that the mind has a certain nature, that it's an immaterial substance of a certain kind, the kind of 'Cogito' arguments that Augustine's famous for. So those arguments are doing what he thinks is necessary for you to have the second kind of self knowing, the conscious self knowing. Your intellect won't succeed in knowing itself if it thinks of itself as material. And so he's purifying the mind through these arguments and giving it the ability to know itself or to make explicit what he thinks is its permanent self knowledge of itself. So that's something that he does in the book. But the actual philosophical work of working out the theorem isn't the same as entertaining the theorem when you know it in Augustine - any more than it is in Plotinus or in Plato or in Aristotle. Unfortunately, their model of successful philosophy is not-doing philosophy, in my view. It's enjoying your understanding, rather than coming to understanding - this is one way in which we perhaps differ from the ancients. 
So that was to answer one part of your question - that the exercise he's engaged in in the book is allowing the reader or getting the reader to be able to come to the second state, the self thinking correctly. That's one thing he does. But then rather hurriedly in Book 14 and 15 - and he tries all the way through as well... the books are a little badly constructed - he makes explicit in 14 and 15 that the third thing we're trying to do is not just to think ourselves, or think ourselves consciously in the second image, but to get somewhere, make progress towards the third more perfect image - which is what's going to happen if we go to heaven, the beatific vision. So the process of purifying your mind involves not just getting rid of materialist thoughts and things like that, but also understanding the natural world and your position in the value hierarchy and becoming a proper Christian and understanding fully the Christian doctrine. So that of course is the project of the whole book: to understand as much as we can the Christian doctrine. And this is the justification for the theological reading that I mentioned earlier, that it's true that the purpose of the book is not abstract and purely historical or philosophical because the book - like all of Augustine's work - is aimed at purifying the reader, making them better, allowing them to go to heaven. It's really important that you're purified in this way. So there's a way in which the actual philosophical work in the book contributes directly to the goal. But I don't think that the process of arguing or writing as he's writing itself constitutes that. I think that there are different kinds of thought about oneself.

Peter Adamson: So it begins in theology, goes through philosophy, but ends with theology. I think that's a good way of thinking about Augustine in general.

Charles Brittain: That's the idea. Yes, that seems quite plausible. 


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