[2.6.1] St Augustine on the Soul, Learning, Will and Illumination

In St Augustine’s (354-430 AD) analysis, there are three different external sources from where the Human Soul can receive impulses and information leading to the Truth:

  1. a psychical object in the external world accessed through the 5 senses
  2. Teacher, through signs (e.g., spoken or written textual teachings, testimonies, revelations – like the Bible)
  3. God through illumination

The 1st source exists in the sensible/physical, while the 2nd and 3rd is in the intelligible/spiritual realm.

According to the standard (but maybe simplistic view – see Augustine on the Varieties of Understanding and Why There is No Learning from Words”) Augustine sustains, that information transmitted with signs by a trustworthy Teacher (like textual information) is not enough for a true understanding; Sense perception and/or illumination is also needed to attain it.

It is noteworthy the presence of the stoic assent [2.2.1] and the importance of free will [2.8.6] in this structure (see UML Use Case diagram below).

Augustine on human soul, learning, will and illumination
FacultyObject/Related Use Case
REASON (ratio)Use REASON (Ratio) to access Knowledge (Sciencia) and Truth: Reason is the highest function of Soul, co-ordinates the subordinated faculties, provides deductive, logical thinking and access to Knowledge and Truth.
REASON (ratio) “The mechanics of the will in Augustine’s moral psychology is strongly indebted to the Stoic theory of assent [to impulse], which it however modifies in at least one respect” (Mendelson, 2018)
(scire, intellegere)
UNDERSTANDING (scire, intellegere): is cognitive state characterized posession and autonomuous usage of concepts.
“Augustine thinks of understanding rather than justification as the differentiating ingredient of knowledge, the main thesis of the De Magistro, that no man can teach another knowledge (scientia), can now be glossed as the claim that no man can teach another to understand something. The argument will not be that information cannot be transmitted from one person to another, but that the appreciation or understanding of any such information is a task that each person must work at for himself.” (Burnyeat, 2018)
ILLUMINATION Precieve intelligible realities through ILLUMINATION: The Soul through Illumination precieves intelligible realities presented by God.
“Augustine uses an analogy as old as Plato according towhich the mind’s relation to intelligible objects is like the relation of the senses to sensible objects… Illumination is… something that is available to all rational minds, the atheistic mathematician as well as the pious farmer measuring a field.” (Mendelson, 2018)
BELIEF Form justified true BELIEF based on trust on the “Teacher”: Te objects of belief are concepts based on information transmitted through signs. Belief is necessary for understanding, and is based on trust.
IMAGINATION Use IMAGINATION to form concepts based on signs transmitted by the “Teacher”: Imagination is forming concepts based on information transmitted through signs.
INNER SENSE Senses coordinated by INNER SENSE (sensus interior): “The inner sense… makes us aware that the disparate information converging upon us from our various senses comes from a common external source (e.g., the smell and taste belong to the same object one is looking at while holding it in one’s hand). The inner sense also makes us aware when one of the senses is not functioning properly. In both of these respects, the inner sense bears an organizational and criterial relation to the senses, not only combining the information of the senses, but passing judgment on the results of this synthesis.” (Mendelson, 2018)
MEMORYUse MEMORY to store/recollect images and ideas: Memory stores images which originate from the Senses or from the IMAGINATION, and ideas.
5 senses: HEAR, SEE, SMELL, TASTE, TOUCHSenses are hierarchical: “The criteria governing the hierarchy are the relative publicity of the object of the cognitive capacity, the reliability of the capacity and its object , and, corresponding to both of these, the relative degree of immateriality and immutability of the object. Relying upon the criterion of relative publicity, Augustine begins by noting that even among the senses there is a hierarchy of sorts, for vision and hearing seem considerably less private than both smell and taste, wherein part of the object must actually be taken into one’s body and consumed during the process. Likewise, it seems possible to see or hear the same object at the same time. In between these two extremes is the sense of touch, since two individuals can touch the same part of an object, but not at the same time. Augustine also emphasizes the fact that even in sight and hearing, the most public of the senses, one’s relation to the object is always perspectival. For example, one’s visual or aural relation to the object imposes limits upon how many others can have a similar relation, as well as the nature of the relation they can have. Thus, sense experience, in addition to relating to objects that are material, mutable, and hence ultimately unreliable, is also intractably private.” (Mendelson, 2018)
WILLExercise free WILL to initiate action: “Like desires, first-order volitions are intentional or object-directed and operate on all levels of the soul. Like memory and thought, will is a constitutive element of the mind. It is closely related to love and, accordingly, the locus of moral evaluation. We act well or badly if and only if our actions spring from a good or evil will, which is equivalent to saying that they are motivated by right (i.e., God-directed) or perverse (i.e., self-directed) love (De civitate dei 14.7).
As in Stoicism, the will to act is triggered by an impression generated by an external object (visum). To this the mind responds with an appetitive motion that urges us to pursue or to avoid the object (e.g., delight or fear). But only when we give our inner consent [assent] to this impulse or withhold it, does a will emerge that, circumstances permitting, results in a corresponding action.” (Mendelson, 2018)


  • Burnyeat, Myles, “Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 61 (1987), 1–24.
  • King, Peter, “Augustine on the Impossibility of Teaching” in Metaphilosophy” 29 (1998), 179–195
  • Mendelson, Michael, “Saint Augustine“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Nawar, Tamer, “Augustine on the Varieties of Understanding and Why There is No Learning from Words”, Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy, Volume 3, (2015)
  • William P. O’Connor, “The Concept of the Human Soul according to Saint Augustine”, Dissertation 1921, Catholic University of America

First published: 23/05/2019

6 thoughts on “[2.6.1] St Augustine on the Soul, Learning, Will and Illumination

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