‘Aversi sumus, perversi sumus’ : Augustine and the Eclipse of God

The following is an essay that I composed for a class last semester on the cultivation of the self. It is a work in progress, and I have added idiosyncratic notes to the work in brackets–don’t mind them if they don’t make sense…In any case, the main inspiration behind this work is my ongoing engagement with F. Laruelle and the term vision-in-One–which I believe in some way can be traced back to Plotinus in some fashion, but perhaps further back. My lack of expertise as a classicist will betray itself very quickly as soon as the reader sees the way in which I attempt to engage the Latin; please don’t be put off to much if I seem to fetishize the Latin vers/vert/volt/volu, etc. and notions of light, darkness, and seeing.  Now that I’ve discouraged every reader possible…..enjoy!

In the fifth of his Enneads, Plotinus elaborates a paradigm of seeing that will return consistently in the metaphorical language of conceptualizing understanding and the will in terms of a specific kind of vision, namely that of an inner, intellectual vision that provides access to a domain beyond that of corporeal phenomena.  Perhaps it would be better to call Plotinus’ model an incorporeal theory of vision:

But since the Intellectual-Principle is not to see this light as something external we return to our analogy; the eye is not wholly dependent upon an outside and alien light; there is an earlier light within itself, a more brilliant, which it sometimes sees in a momentary flash…This is sight without the act, but it is the truest seeing, for it sees light whereas its other objects were the lit not the light (Enneads V: 7).

The mind is here conceived as being photoreceptive without the need for a physical, ocular organ. The question of a “sight without the act” and an “earlier light” will come to dominate the language of St. Augustine and, for different yet strikingly similar reasons, also that of Renatus Descartes. In what follows we intend to show how the notion of an inner vision will come to dominate the thinking of Augustine and Descartes to such an extent that their projects would seem less tenable without its utilization. In other words, how does the notion of inner vision come to structure Augustine’s narrative of finding the path to conversion, and what sort of insights can this provide us concerning Descartes’ separation of the senses from the mind (i.e. does the res cogitans have eyes?).

Augustine in his Confessions first grabbed my attention as a reader due to the fact that, as a skilled teacher of rhetoric, he has admirable skill with his prose, forcing me to track down his original Latin text out of sheer curiosity; but the more striking quality of that language is the incessant logic of a road with many twists, turns, backtracks, beaten-paths, and perversions (read: losing one’s way). Augustine literally begins his narrated journey already lost on the path, with its wandering astray and its “amans fugitivem libertatem” (III: 3.5); he was in love with his runaway freedom[(note for later: here would be a good time to go on a tangent and extend this material to look at the different lines of flight running throughout the text....the conversion scene includes a line of flight, faciality, and an evental refrain.....it is, as such, a micropolitical cartography/rhizome/je ne sais que...].  Running away from God, if such a thing were possible, would lead him away from his homeland: “defluxi abs te ego et erravi, deus meus, nimis devius ab stabilitate tue in adulescentia et factus sum mihi regio egestatis” (I sank down from you and wandered away, my God, too much astray from your care in my youth and became to myself a wasteland (II: X.4-5). The deviousness of Augustine’s wandering dislodged himself from God’s stability, forcing him to lose the light that would serve to guide his path. By deviating, Augustine will wind his road as it becomes enveloped in darkness (“volui et involui illa caligine”) (III: XI.25). This is how Augustine’s training in the arts of inner vision will begin in the midst of a shadowy world that does not seem to offer any signposts along the way.

It is important to note that Augustine’s turning away from God [why didn't I bring in Deleuze and Guattari here with the plateau on faciality? was it too easy, and so forward in my thinking that I was simply oblivious---which is not true--but I specifically ignored citing it....possibly to keep from being overcoded by my own efforts to 'read into' things]. reiterates the way in which Being flows forth or sinks from the One in the model of Plotinus, which turns away and splits: “What we know as Being, the first sequent upon the One, advanced a little outward, so to speak, then chose to go no further, turned inward again and comes to rest” (Enneads V.5.5). It is this sinking that thrusts the material world in the face of the light that would lead one to the paths toward home, leading to a perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth: “one that is held by material beauty and will not break free shall be precipitated, not in body but in Soul, down to the dark depths loathed of the Intellective-Being, where, blind even in the Lower-World, he shall have commerce only with shadows” (I: 6.9). For Plotinus, the only solution to this quagmire of the soul is to turn back toward the Fatherland whence the source of the inner light sparks the wanderer’s candle and illuminates his darkness (“inluminabis tenebras meas” Confessions IV: XV.23-24). Before turning to the logic of an inner vision that will provide Augustine with the means to combat this dark night of the soul (for, at this stage in the Confessions, Augustine is still not granted access to God’s presence due to his use of certain corporeal fictions—the material world is still too strongly asserting itself on the level of the intellect[1]), it is important to follow Augustine’s own twisted paths (“vias tortuosas”) leading him out of Thagaste to Carthage into Rome so as to better understand the deeper logic of the ‘travel narrative’ that forms a part of the broader themes of the text.

While the journey of the soul cannot be narrated in sheer terms of spatial localization, this does not foreclose the possibility of reading it in figurative terms. For example, Augustine himself reads his migration to Rome, both in literal and allegorical terms: on the one hand, the trip to Rome is expedient because the students there are less rambunctious, more orderly, less intrusive, and more respectful of the privacy of others [Guattari, Machinic Unconscious, semiotics of the 'pre-school' child, the crushing of inchoate assemblages of enunciation...what is the micropolitical choice here that Augustine is making for his contrast between students?]. On the other hand, it is read allegorically in terms of an exodus out of the city of Babylon (i.e. the worldly realm of lust) into the city of God. Both of these readings are valid, and they provide a consistent framework for the narrative that Augustine is developing. Nevertheless, the figurative aspects of this trip have not been explicitly revealed to us, and it could be a theoretical question to what extent Augustine may have been implying it simply with his reference to Babylon. For the journey leading to Rome is prefigured in the mythic story concerning the foundation of Rome itself; thus Augustine’s journey towards the kingdom of God mirrors the journey of the Roman people to found their own kingdom and homeland.

Born in Thagaste, Augustine eventually at a young age travels to Carthage, often referred to as the ‘shining city’. Yet it is not here that Augustine will find his inner light; instead, it constitutes a step further away on this devious path. In the same way, at the beginning of the Aeneid, Aeneas and his men leave the besieged city of Troy and eventually make their way to Carthage. Yet this destination is only meant to be temporary, for Aeneas is charged by Jupiter with the task of founding the city of Rome, the fatherland of his future people. The tension of this departure becomes overwhelming due to the fact that Aeneas has fallen in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage (to whom he relays a large portion of his tale). Although Aeneas is driven to stay because of his love, he must leave on his journey from which he cannot turn away. Dido, stricken with grief, throws herself onto his sword, proving that we truly do kill the things we love. This narrative framework can help shed some light on Augustine’s own travels to Carthage and then to Rome, for it exemplifies not only that Augustine must confront the realm of lust and fornication—“Ita fornicatur anima, cum avertitur abs te,” for the soul fornicates when it turns away from thee (II:VI.19)—but also that he himself struggles against the very thing he must do, which is to kill and confront his lust for the material realm (hence Augustine’s famous line, that God should grant him chastity, just not yet, please). Carthage, like the vessel of the body, must be cast off for there to be a journey inwards, a journey homewards, both to the literal fatherland of Rome (which is arguably also the displaced birthplace of Christianity, through expedient imperial appropriation) and his figurative homeland in God. Plotinus, similarly, recaptures this figuration by turning to the epic of Odysseus with which he would have been familiar: “Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso—not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of the senses filling his days. The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is the Father” (Enneads I:VI.8). Thus both Aeneas and Odysseus forego temporary pleasures (what Augustine will call ‘felicitatis temporalis’ or temporary happiness) for the deeper journey towards home, which for Augustine, following Plotinus, will lead inwards, guided by the light of the soul [difference between 'all the pleasure offered to his eyes' (external) and the pleasures of internal vision?...].

The ability to access this light, however, is not necessarily innate, at least not fully formed. It requires a certain type of training, a training in interiority that will be similar, but not reducible, to the way in which Foucault, commenting on Seneca, describes the notion of conversion ad se in his chapter on the cultivation of the self: “If to convert to oneself is to turn away[2] from the preoccupations of the external world…then one can turn back to one’s own past, recall it to mind, have it unfold as one pleases before one’s own eyes” (Care of the Self, 66). Here Foucault is talking about a certain kind of turning away, inward and back again, which resembles the training that Augustine is seeking to undertake, except for the fact that it remains within the realm of the search for tranquility and does not fully capture the dynamic of inner vision sought here, which is perhaps at once more religious and mystical. In the context Foucault lays out, inner vision might simply be reduced to the ability to recall relaxing imagery of the past in times of great stress, thus bringing it into the purview of the questions of imagination. But the imagination cannot be reduced to inner vision, at least not without threatening to scramble the terms of the projects that Augustine and Descartes are performing (in truth, the imagination is the threat to their projects insofar as it projects an analogy between inner and outer vision that will threaten to collapse the duality into a simple ‘seeing’ of bodies [can this be unpacked more and made more central?]). It fails to include the struggle between the oculis carnis, the eye of the flesh, which cannot “see” the inner man or ex intimo, and that of the acies mentis or the mind’s ‘envisioning’ or in-vision, to offer up a neologism [...obviously thinking of Laruelle--vision-in-One--but, just as obviously, in ways that try to stay close to the language of the authors....therefore, metaphorically or simply abstractly]. The crucial difference is the fact that Augustine does not oppose an oculis mentis to the body’s eye through a simple analogy, but instead that of an acies, which has to be understood literally both on the level of vision in terms of gazing or looking upon and in terms of the intellect as insight. Thus Augustine’s turning inward is not the search for a secure domain or a simple Stoic means of defining the limits of what is within our power; it is not a turning towards the imagination, but a means of becoming prepared to be in a position to reach the source of light itself springing from the divine mind that requires for us to become equal to the event à la Deleuze: like Rilke’s torso of Apollo, it requires that we must change our lives.

The tension of this perpetual turning, this spinning in a void of darkness, already comes to a sort of climax at the end of book IV of the Confessions: “vivit apud te semper bonum nostrum, et quia inde aversi sumus, perversi sumus. Revertamur iam. Domine, ut non evertamur[3]” (Our Good ever lives with thee, from which when we turn away, we turn aside [I like to read 'perversi sumus' as we stumble, our fall off/out of the path....this is to read the prefix of per- with that of the versi or turning....I admit that my translation here can seem over-literal, but in the Cassell's Latin dictionary, the adjective form perversus literally means crooked or askew....this again evokes the idea of torsion, twisting, etc........on a related note, why is this bringing to mind the story of Moses and his wandering...]. O Lord, let us now return that we may not be overturned). It is this “versa et reversa,” this turning to and fro, that will lead Augustine to confront the dizziness of his twisted ways and prepare himself for the training of his inner vision (VI:XVI.4). On the one hand, aversi sumus, perversi sumus, recapitulates Augustine’s definition of fornication given above, insofar as the latter only occurs with the turning away from God’s light, the aversi of the sumus [he suggests also in On Christian Teaching that to turn away (the aversi) is to fornicate (the perversi...which is wrongly or overly literally translated in my 40's edition of the Confessions as 'we become perverted'. It keeps the literal Latin and the root stem, but perhaps betrays a more literal meaning--the translation the class was using rendered it something like 'we break our troth'...I can't remember exactly]. On the other hand, the perversi sumus is not necessarily a becoming perverted (although this connotation immediately implies fornication), but a losing one’s way, a becoming-crooked or disjointed, a sort of perambulation of the soul which will not remain still or resolute. It is the rounding of the turn, the per signifying that one turns back to one’s starting point without, for all that, finding one’s way [Moses, anyone?]. Finally, perversi also implies a subverting, a becoming-subverted or becoming-under-turned, analogous to the evertamur or the overturning that would render one prostrate, i.e. incapable of turning in any direction. It is precisely the directionality of the turning that extends the broader logic of Augustine’s geographical journeys home in this devious sojourn to his spiritual homeland. If the involution of the soul is precisely revolutionary or is the Archimedean point that will allow for the complete overhaul and turning of all things with it, even including the turning of the turn, then we can understand it as the logic of the conversion that will leave no nook or cranny of the inner life unturned and will lead to the going under and overcoming of old habits and techniques of the self.

[Ok, this maybe can be spread out, becomes it seems to be laid on thick....but, hopefully without coming to seem ridiculous, what I am really trying to do is tease out the logic of Augustine's meditation--is that appropriate?--on this notion of the turning, the vert and the volve............................I don't think I would have come to be preoccupied with this issue if Laruelle's work--for example, his essay on Deleuze and his chapter in Speculative Turn on non-philosophy and materialism--hadn't really pointed it out to me....I am extending the riffing on the turning that Laruelle has illuminated (another pun?....it seems my basic 'puns' or word plays are the play of light and shadow and the play of vectors of directionality (Laruelle again, Phi et non-phi, the idea of 'rectionality' torn from its di-, its splitting into two...its Plotinian turning).]

Again and not surprisingly, the logic of this journey is presaged by Plotinus himself and serves as a blueprint for shedding light on Augustine’s excursions: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land…all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use” (Enneads I:VI:8)[4]. As Plotinus makes clear, this inner vision must be modulated and adapted in its earliest stages in order to develop the capacity to access the divine Light: “Newly awakened it is all too feeble to bear the ultimate splendor. Therefore the Soul must be trained” (Enneads I:VI.9). In fact, Plotinus will liken this training to that of an aesthetic paradigm: when looking into oneself, if one does not find beauty, then one should act like the sculptor upon one’s own inner life in order to chisel away the asperities and asymmetries: “cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked[5], bring light to all that is overcast…until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.” The he purification of the soul is projected analogously onto that of the sculptural work of art; alternatively, today perhaps Plotinus would use the architectural metaphor of a stained-glass window or the technological metaphor of a laser, insofar as the former implies allowing the universal Light to be infinitely and beautifully reflected in an unbounded spectrum of light, or, on the other hand, to denote how the laser is a hyper-concentration of light, its amplification and unity that resembles the maximum intensive density of God’s luminosity. In any case, he indicates that we shall reveal our true nature when we show ourselves to be this very Light which is not circumscribed by space: “when you perceive that you have grown to this, you are now become vision itself: now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step—you need a guide no longer—strain, and see.” It is noteworthy that Plotinus proves himself to be conceptualizing a training that is foreign to that of Foucault and Seneca, insofar as it presupposes a metaphorical aestheticizing of the soul that prepares itself for the tension and activity of straining towards insight, rather than reaching insight in order to overcome the tension and strain of the outside world. In other words, the training of Seneca will lead us out of tension into tranquility, whereas for Plotinus the journey inward itself is the training that does not dispense with the tensions of life, but culminates in them and intensifies them, such that tranquility is not necessarily achieved but perhaps left behind for the prospect of transformation.

Augustine himself recapitulates the notion of this infirmity at first insight. He writes: “et reverberasti infirmitatem aspectus mei radians in me vehementer, et contremui amore et horrore” (and you beat back the weakness of my sight, streaming forth with your beams of light most vehemently, and I trembled with love and horror). First, it should be noted that Augustine is thinking vision according to an early, obsolete model in which the eye sends forth beams of light that are reflected back to it; similarly, here the infirmity of the rays of Augustine’s newly opened inner eyes are “beat back” or “forced to turn back” due to their awe-inspiring power. Nevertheless, it shows that Augustine has taken the first step towards opening these eyes of the soul and keeping them open, even if he must squint at first in order to bear it. In the same vein, Augustine has a mystical moment of epiphany in which the phenomenon of the flash of light or the flash of a single trembling glance (“in ictu trepidantis aspectus”)—alluded to by Plotinus above in the first quote of this essay—allows him to see that which is (often lovingly referred to simply as ‘deus meus’). Yet this mystical moment itself passes by, for he cannot sustain his gaze (“sed aciem figere non evalui”) (VII:XVII.9). This inability to sustain the gaze of God—an inability to sustain the face-to-face that in a Biblical context God only reserved for the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, aging him terribly, perhaps proving that Moses himself may not have been strong enough for this inner vision—will require that Augustine again turn away and revert back to his old habits, if only to regain his strength enough for the imminent tolle lege conversion scene.[6]

The tension produced by Augustine’s turning to and from God culminates in one of the most striking passages in the Confessions that shows in what sense the shadows plaguing his internal vision are not due to an imperfection on God’s part, but because Augustine himself is standing in the way, blocking out the divine light: “dorsum enim habebam ad lumen, et ad ea, quae inluminantur, faciem: unde ipsa facies mea, qua inluminata cernebam, non inluminabatur” (for I had my back against the light, and my face towards things that were illuminated; so that my face, with which I perceived illuminated things, was not itself illuminated) (IV:XVI.1-5). Thus it is by turning away, turning our back to God, that we fall, stumble and go astray, fornicating in the shadows, perhaps waiting for a sort of divine high noon that will reduce these shadows to their shortest extension (although, paradoxically, this would be the most intense light and would require the strongest inner-visual constitution–dorsal sunburn). Augustine is straining to think conceptually the eclipse of God with the stubborn corporeal fictions that blind the mind’s eye to its proper origin and destination, its homeland.

This leads Augustine to adding a new link to the chain of the Platonic allegory of the cave. Whereas for Plato, the prisoners who are tantalized by the shadows on the wall do not see the real light because they have their faces away from it as it casts shadows of actual things onto the wall, for Augustine the walls, the cave, and the shadow are all a product and a component of the stubbornness of the mind that cannot keep itself turned towards the light. We all inhabit our own caves, and these caves are nothing but ourselves, which is nothing but the domain of the obscure and confused made flesh. Looking ahead to future examinations of this topic, it would be fascinating to inquire in what sense the paradigm that Plotinus sets up (and, perhaps, also adopts and adapts from elsewhere) is preserved by Thomas Aquinas; this inquiry would provide an essential missing link that would more convincingly connect Descartes and Augustine on this issue. If my assumption is true that Aquinas might hold a key position in the continuity of this tradition, then it would shed light on the pervasiveness of this way of thinking about the mind’s eye (which persists even in everyday culture and in specifically modern cultures influenced by Eastern traditions with its conception of a ‘third eye’). On the other hand, if there is no adequate theory of inner vision in Aquinas, then the question would be to see why this is the case and what sort of edifice comes to take its place. This inquiry would help investigation the constitution of another link in the evolution of an aesthetic, religious and epistemological paradigm that both attempts to rid the mind of its residual substantialism and also holds onto one last corporeal metaphor in order to make the entire framework resonate and make some sort of (common) sense. [The transition to the ending of this could be better--also....much more on Descartes to connect the idea of a confession...]


[1] This will also be a theme in Descartes. For Descartes, although the knowledge of God is the most certain, clear and distinct of all knowledge, he still admits in the fifth of his Meditations that the material world gets in the way of accessing the idea of God: “But as regards God, if I were not overwhelmed by preconceived opinions, and if the images of things perceived by the senses did not besiege my thought on every side, I would certainly acknowledge him sooner and more easily than anything else (Meditations on First Philosophy, 47). In the same way, Augustine struggles to come to a knowledge of God because of what he labels “corporeal fictions” (vastness of extension, highest magnitude of luminosity, etc., without reaching the incorporeal level). This also explains Augustine’s initial difficulties in coming to an understanding of the Biblical text insofar as he remains on a literalistic interpretation that neither attains the allegorical or figurative plane.

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] Emphasis added.

[4]Here it is enough to note that this passage could seemingly be attributed to Descartes himself. Descartes, sick most of his life and a home-body, would have approved that the journey is not taken by foot; more importantly, the idea of shutting one’s eyes and closing oneself off from the external world in order to access the domain of inner vision is indispensable to the framework and operation of the Meditations. Descartes himself uses the Augustinian term “acies mentis” and another term, that of the ‘obtutum mentis’ in order to refer to the mind’s vision/insight and the mind’s gaze, respectively. Moreover, in the first few sentences of the fourth meditation, he will boast that he has trained himself in the past few days to look beyond material things, with the result that he can turn his mind away from the things of the imagination to those of the intellect separate from matter. In another context, it would be fruitful to inquire into the training that Descartes undergoes, specifically his preparatory training in skepticism so to speak, in order to explain how he is precisely recapitulating the training that Plotinus will require of the inner vision in its development.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] It is important to keep in mind the fact that Descartes himself will elaborate something like a conversion scene—his accession to the confidence that things exist on the very basis of his doubting: “I could not but judge that something which I understood so clearly was true; but this was not because I was compelled so to judge by an external force, but because a great light in the intellect was followed by a great inclination in the will, and thus the spontaneity and freedom of my belief was all the greater in proportion to my lack of indifference” (emphasis added, 41). Augustine affirms all of these and could have said these words too in relation to the tolle lege incident: an inclination, slanting or turning of the will, an internal, intellectual light, and the spontaneity with which the belief seizes him (which should be understood analogously to the spontaneity that Augustine criticizes when we randomly open a book of poetry and find that the lines are somehow speaking to us individually).

This entry was written by Taylor Adkins and published on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 2:44 am. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “‘Aversi sumus, perversi sumus’ : Augustine and the Eclipse of God

  1. Ha! Not to compliment myself by even attempting to compare myself to the man, but I’m almost as bad a philologist as Nietzsche! (bah doh, chih!) Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week…

  2. Excellent meditation

  3. I would be more interested to give less importance to the referred ‘Intellectual-Principle’ and to consider this ‘light’ as something ‘external’: so to broaden its implications to the body (and not only to the ‘eye’), so to talk less about an in-sight and more about an out-sight as a fact, ie, and even also to dissolve Plotinus’ mysticism and tackle the question in a more materialistic fashion.

    • Naxos: I agree with you about moving out of the ‘in’ and into the ‘out’, so to speak. (I like the neologism of out-sight). I think that your comment drives to the heart of where the work is going, insofar as it is moving in the direction of asking the question about the materiality that remains left over in Descartes’ meditations…Thanks for the comment….and if I had to dissolve Plotinus, it would be through Laruelle’s engagement of materialism, which is where I want to take these in-sights and out-sights in the future through that work.

      • Hey, thanks, Taylor. We must be following then the same track, though I’m trying to tackle the question in terms of what I think we can call ‘schizosophy’ ―which for me offers a more meaningful engagement than non philosophy―. This is good to know :-)

  4. Pingback: Conversación en Fractal Ontology «

  5. Well I can definitely see the point about a schizosophy. In most of my bracketed comments that I added into the essay, the questions revolve around explicitly Deleuzo-Guattarian themes. Definitely the one of the other inspirations animating the work here.

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