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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 467-489

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"By the Things Themselves":
Eudaimonism, Direct Acquaintance, and Illumination in Augustine's De Magistro 1

Michael Mendelson

1. The Eudaimonistic Interlude

It comes as a surprise. Two-thirds of the way through De Magistro, amid a torturous and at times obscure discussion of the nature of language, Augustine pauses to provide Adeodatus, his son and interlocutor, with what seems a rather odd digression:

...with so many detours, it's difficult to say at this point where you and I are trying to get to! Maybe you think we're playing around and diverting the mind from serious matters by some little puzzles that seem childish, or that we're pursuing some result that is only small or modest....Though we do perhaps play around, this should itself not be regarded as childish. Nor are we thinking about small and modest goods. Yet if I were to say that there is a happy and everlasting life, and I want us to be led there under the guidance of God (namely by Truth Himself) by stages that are suitable to our weak steps, I'm afraid I might seem laughable for having set out on such a long journey by considering signs rather than the things themselves that are signified.
     So then, you'll pardon me if I play around with you at first—not for the sake of playing around, but to exercise the mind's strength and sharpness, with which we're [End Page 467] able not only to withstand but also to love the heat and light of that region where the happy life is. 2

One is left wondering—if one pauses long enough to wonder at all—what exactly the preceding tightly woven and technical discussion of signification has to do with the "heat" (calor) and the "light" (lux) of the "region" (regio) where the "happy life" (beata vita) is to be found. Indeed, even the passage itself acknowledges the ostensible obliqueness of the connection without doing very much to highlight its nature.

It is not surprising that readers of De Magistro often overlook this eudaimonistic interlude in favor of the more prominent and arresting difficulties with which the text confronts us. There is, after all, the somewhat awkward view of language which underlies the entire discussion, and there is also what seems to be the abrupt and jarring reversal of positions that occurs near the very end of the text. Perhaps most notorious of all, there is the famous theory of "divine illumination" with which the dialogue concludes. It is worth noting, however, that as odd and as digressive as this eudaimonistic interlude may strike the present-day reader, it does not seem to strike Adeodatus as at all odd, nor does it seem out of keeping with the eudaimonistic emphasis that is such a prominent feature of Augustine's other works from roughly the same period. 3 Indeed, our passage, although easily swept aside and passed over, can do much to provide a unifying strand which ties our difficulties together; it is, indeed, a helpful prism through which we can view those difficulties in a new light. [End Page 468]

2. Some Initial Darkness

And the difficulties are indeed quite real. To begin with, there is the awkward view of language that underlies the entire discussion. "Words" (verba) are "signs" (signa) (DM 2.3), and there is a fundamental distinction between a "sign" and "signifiables" (significabilia) which are signified by signs (DM 4.8). Language, on this account, is fundamentally instrumental (see, e.g., DM 9.25), for each word is a means by which one attempts to draw attention to that which the word, qua sign, somehow signifies. As Wittgenstein says in his famous gloss on Confessions I.8,

In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea, E.g. Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands...


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