The Two Visions of St. Augustine


A common thread of faith and reason runs through the two different theological visions of St. Augustine in his Confessions. This can be seen by comparing the ascent, the vision, the descent, and language in the two visions. Although other parts of the text will be referred to, the central part of these visions are as follows:

Vision 1: "... in an instant of awe, my mind attained to the sight of the God who IS. Then, at last, I caught sight of your invisible nature, as it is known through your creatures. But I had no strength to fix my gaze upon them. In my weakness I recoiled and fell back..."

Vision 2: "And while we spoke of the Eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it. Then, with a sigh, leaving our spiritual harvest bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own speech,..." (Page 197)

The two excerpts are written in similar styles. Both contain strong Platonist language, such as references to the line (the image of climbing to knowledge in the second vision, page 197), the cave ("confusion of images," in the first vision, page 151), and the sun (the transient quality of the first vision, page 152). The language in each vision also refers to the method of ascent. In the first vision, Augustine makes his ascent by reason, seen through words like, "my thoughts," "the power of reason," and "bodily sense." In the second vision, Augustine and his mother, Monica, make the ascent by the power of love. This is seen by words such as, "flame of love," "our hearts," and "strength of our hearts." (Page 197)

The method of ascent to each vision is significant when considering the role that faith and reason play in each. Together, the method of ascent, faith, and reason represent Augustine's journey to faith.

The first ascent is necessarily made by the mind and reason, necessarily because Augustine has not yet received faith, which would enable him to go farther. (Page 151) Augustine begins his ascent with questions about the nature of his mind. He tries to answer these through the consideration of material things, the soul, and reason itself. (Page 151) Everything that he deliberates is arrived at by a reasonable chain of thought that takes place in his mind.

Augustine and his mother, Monica, make the second ascent through love for God (or faith). (Page 197) Because faith reveals divine knowledge, which is more important than human knowledge, reason becomes of secondary importance. The ascent of Augustine and Monica, his mother, begins with the question of what a saint's eternal life would be like. (Page 197) The ensuing dialogue starts with the consideration of material things and moves to the soul, like the first vision. (Pages 151, 197) However, they are enabled by faith to move beyond this to consider things that are beyond reason (such as the "eternal Wisdom," page 197), which was impossible in the first vision. In fact, many of the aspects discussed in the second vision are beyond reason and must be understood by the heart, or faith. (Page 197)

The question as to the significance of Monica's presence may arise. When considered in an allegorical context, the presence of Augustine's mother in the second vision is significant. In the first vision, Augustine is thinking in his own mind, with no other opinions available. This represents the solitary state he is in with relation to God. In the second vision, Augustine is involved in a dialogue, with his mother, a saintly woman. This symbolizes his new ability to communicate with God.

In both visions, the chain of thought, whether through reason or faith, leads to a concept of God. In the first vision, this idea is an "instant of awe" where Augustine recognizes God. (Page 151) This instant has not been longed for or desired. However, in the second vision, the chain of thought leads to a "touching" of the eternal Wisdom, which is the purpose of the ascent. The success of Augustine and Monica in the second vision lies in the power of their hearts, or their faith (Page 197), where the fault of Augustine in the first vision lies in the weakness of his will and soul. (Page 151) It is