Awakening to Life: Augustine’s Admonition to (would-be) Philosophers

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Ian Clausen


The spectre of the question ‘What is Life?’ haunts the pages of St. Augustine. It is a haunting he invites rather than attempts to exorcise, since for him, the very questioning of life unfolds a path through which the human intellect re-encounters God. In this essay, I propose to examine not the meaning of life, but the meaning of the questioning of life as it is explored by Augustine in his earliest extant works (AD 386-7). His distinct approach to the notion of life begins with evigilare and excitare. Inviting Romanianus to embrace the philosophical life in Against the Academics, Augustine exhorts his friend and faithful patron to ‘wake up, wake up, I beg you!’ [evigila, evigila, oro te!]. This ‘awakening’ corresponds to a process whereby the human intellect re-enters life through its desire of life, the movement of which is illustrated and enacted by the incarnation and Holy Spirit. The following essay charts this progression through four ‘stages’ of development: (1) self-deception, (2) assent, (3) desire and (4) self-transcendence. It registers these stages with seeking the proper form of the philosophus, the definition of which Augustine adopts and adapts from his reading of Cicero. Finally, it offers a very brief reflection on the most profound and controversial development of Augustine’s intellectual career, the so-called ‘cogito’ argument for the mind’s self-existence.

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