From Confessions, what is the "self" according to Augustine?

Augustine's sense of self is his relation to God, both in his recognition of God's love and his response to it—achieved through self-presentation, then self-realization. Augustine believed one could not achieve inner peace without finding God's love.


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A striking thing about Augustine's Confessions is how relevant it is to many aspects of modern or contemporary thought, and the view of the self is one of these.

One current theoretical and research perspective on personal identity is known as "narrative identity," which Adams & McLean define as

a person’s internalized and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose.

The narrative identity begins to be formed in childhood, where it is deeply impacted by the parents, and grows from there:

Researchers have tracked the development of narrative identity from its origins in conversations between parents and their young children to the articulation of sophisticated meaning-making strategies in the personal stories told in adolescence and the emerging adulthood years. (Adams & McLean)

Crucial to this development is the memory:

Narrative identity consists of a dual memory system that generates autobiographical memories, some of which, because of their relevance to long-term goals and enduring conflicts, evolve into self-defining memories. (Singer, et al.)

These descriptions could have been written specifically about Augustine's Confessions. Beginning from his relationship to God In Book I, chapter 1, he quickly wanders into reflections about himself and God that lead to paradox, confusion (chapters 2–4), and even a sort of crisis of self-identity (chapter 5). He seeks an answer to these difficulties about who God is and who he is not in abstract philosophy but in his own life story, beginning from his own birth and concluding with the death of his mother, with whom he shares a profound moment of contemplation that seems to take them into eternity (Book IX, chapter 10).

When he does turn from autobiographical narrative to more discursive philosophical reflection, he begins with the faculty of memory, which, he concludes, is the faculty of the mind that creates his very self:

Great indeed is the power of the memory...and this thing is the mind, and this thing is I myself. (Book X, chapter 17)

Already the fourth-century A.D., Augustine understood and saw the self in terms of what twentieth-century psychology calls "narrative identity."

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The concept of the self as we understand it today—the isolated, rights-bearing individual of secular liberalism—didn't exist in Augustine's day. He lived at a time, and in a society, in which a person's identity was bound up with the social role that he or she played. As Augustine makes clear in his Confessions, this is all very well in our ordinary, everyday lives, but it isn't who and what we really are. We are all God's creatures made in his image, and having fallen into a world of sin, we must work our way back to our Creator.

Even so, we cannot do this on our own; we need God's grace to help us get there. Augustine's doctrine of grace has been hugely influential since his day, especially among the Protestant Reformed churches. The self as we understand it today would have been regarded with horror by Augustine. He'd see our modern-day notion as displaying the kind of arrogance and self-sufficiency which he thought was a direct consequence of man's sinful postlapsarian existence. (That is, his existence after Adam and Eve first sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden.) He would've looked at the modern concept of the self as a prime example of the restlessness that we experience until we find our rest in the Almighty.

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What is interesting about this text is the way in which Augustine's narrative about his own life and journey towards his religious belief becomes a reflection on self and what it means to be human. Augustine has been noted by critics as creating in this text a new conception of the human self that is coupled with his spiritual development. This development of self is achieved through self-presentation and then self-realisation. He uses his own self as a character who gradually comes to demonstrate these two aspects on his journey towards an understanding of self that is centred around his religious beliefs. One of the most imporatnt quotes in this novel reflects on what Augustine believed to be the crux of the self, or of the identity of humans:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.

In Augustine's version of the self, it is only possible to understand who a person is when they have understood how they stand in relation to God, and this is a central aspect of the self that Augustine espouses in this text. Augustine tells a story with himself as the central character, and as a result his struggles between the body and the soul as he seeks happiness assume a bigger importance as a kind of metaphor for the self, which, in Augustine's opinon, can only be truly discovered through a recognition of God's love and man's response to that love.

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