Salvation and Semiosis in Augustine’s de Doctrina Christiana

Salvation and Semiosis in Augustine’s de Doctrina Christiana July 4, 2005

Augustine’s de doctrina Christiana is most relevant to contemporary theological and philosophical concerns. It anticipates Wittgenstein, Peirce, and Eco, as well as the cultural anthropologists; it has an almost postmodern feel at certain points; it is a text in theological hermeneutics. Augustine’s answers are sometimes (in my view) deeply wrong; but he asks all the right questions. Or most.

de doctrina deserves every bit of the scrutiny and commentary it has received over the past millennium and a half. It certainly deserves better than I’ve given it, but since I’ll never have a chance to finish this, I’ll put it here in its unfinished, pockmarked, embryonic form.

I. Things, Signs, and the Pilgrimage of Interpretation.
Augustine began de doctrina Christiana in the 390s, but laid it a aside for three decades after getting to somewhere in the middle of the third book. It has been suggested that the preface gives us a clue to the reasons for the interruption. He begins the preface by answering three types of critics of his enterprise: First, those who fail to understand the rules he gives for interpreting Scripture. To these, his answer is that he has done his best, and they must be blind if they cannot see. Second, there are those who will attempt to use the rules but will use them badly so that they get no illumination from Scripture in spite of the rules. These are people who focus on the pointing finger instead of what’s being pointed at, and again Augustine is not to blame for their ignorance. Finally, he addresses those who do not believe that they need rules to interpret Scripture, relying instead on divine illumination alone without any human aid. Augustine spends most time with the last category. Some have suggested that this third class specifically included “Tyconius,” a “Donatist” whose book on hermeneutical rules is discussed later in de doctrina. From Augustine’s letters, we know that Augustine had difficulty understanding this treatise, and it has been suggested that his frustration with it led him to abandon the project for a time.

Augustine compares learning of Scripture to learning of the alphabet, to basic literacy. Admittedly, some extraordinary saints learn the Scripture merely from hearing (Antony, supposedly; and Augustine cites the example of a slave who even learned the alphabet by prayer). Ordinary men use ordinary means, and that inevitably means human mediation. Thus, “each one of us learnt our native language by habitually hearing it spoken from the very beginnings of childhood, and acquired others . . . either by hearing them in the same way or by learning them from a human teacher.” Extraordinary examples do not cancel the need for ordinary means.

Augustine attempts to discern the logic for God’s decision to teach us through human instruments rather than directly through the Spirit (this is similar to Calvin’s rationale for preaching). First, it leads to humility. One must humble oneself to learn from a teacher. Teachers, too, should practice humility, humbly communicating what they have learned. It is an “arrogant and dangerous temptations” to pursue knowledge of the Scriptures without any dependence on anyone else. Thus, Scriptural interpretation must take place within the church, and this leads to the second rationale for human mediation, love: “how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind? Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other human beings.” One of the purposes of the study of Scripture is to promote the love that binds the church together. Love results from reading of Scripture not merely because Scripture exhorts us to love. Rather, the very process of reading and studying Scripture together binds us together. Further, this quotation suggests that individual souls are not merely juxtaposed to one another, as if the teacher remained “outside” the student during the process of teaching. Rather, souls mingle and overflow, a suggestion that souls are made in the image of the perichoretic life of the Trinity.

The bulk of Books 1 and 2 are concerned with the relationship of signs and things, and Augustine spends most of his book 1 describing things. He distinguishes signs and things first in 1.4: A “thing” is something that “is not employed to signify something else,” while “signs” are “things employed to signify something else.” A sign is a subclass of thing, a kind of thing used to signify other things, particularly thoughts, as he explains in 2.1: “a sign is a thing which of itself makes some other thing come to mind, besides the impression that it presents to the senses.” For instance, “we see a footprint and think that the animal whose footprint it is has passed by”; smoke evokes the idea of fire; a trumpet calls soldiers to battle.

For Augustine, this is not an absolute distinction. He almost immediately qualifies it by noting that certain things signify: “the log that Moses threw into the bitter waters or the stone that Jacob used or the sheep that Abraham sacrificed for his son” are “things, but they are at the same time signs of other things.” The distinction between signs and things is a relative one: the two are not two types of things so much as two states in which things may stand. Things can become signs; all signs are in fact types of things. What Augustine does not say here is that all things are in some sense signs, since they are all created to evoke the glory and character of God. Augustine appears to be operating with a conception of “nature” as fundamentally in-significant. Signification is not the nature of reality, but something done or imposed on a preexistent natural condition.

With regard to learning, the relation between signs and things is stated in 1.4: teaching is “of signs or things” and “things are learnt through signs.” Knowledge of signs leads thus to knowledge of things. This claim is the focal point of his earlier treatise de Magistro. After beginning de Magistro by leading Adeodatus toward that conclusion that we learn nothing apart from verbal or gestural signs (10.29-30), he immediately veers in another direction by claiming that knowledge is more valuable than signs, which (questionably) assumes that a thing can be cognitively grasped without the use of signs (10.31). He then states this dilemma: “when I am shown a sign, it cannot teach me anything if it finds me ignorant of the reality for which the sign stands; but if it finds me acquainted with the reality, what do I learn from the sign?” (10.33; 11.36). Knowledge of reality does not come through signs after all, but the reverse; one can know that a sign is a sign only when one knows the reality, so that knowledge is gained precisely by opening a gap between signum and res (10.33), which Augustine eventually bridges with the deus ex machina of the “Interior Teacher,” Christ. Adeodatus concludes that human teaching does not transmit knowledge deploys verba externa to remind us that Christ dwells within.

De Magistro presents a straightforwardly Platonic view of signs. There is a memory or internal knowledge that merely needs to be stimulated by the external sign, but the sign does not actually communicate. In de doctrina, Augustine stays closer to the claim that we learn about things through sign. Yet, he also explores various ways in which this signifying process goes wrong. Fundamentally,
the signifying process goes wrong when signs and things are confused. This leads to a kind of idolatry, and this is the focal point of Augustine’s discussion of things “useful” and things “enjoyable.”

For Augustine, “enjoy” (frui) means “to enjoy for its own sake”: “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love.” The over-arching metaphor in which this distinction is introduction is the pilgrimage (peregrinatio). Pilgrims never reach their destination if they are fascinated by the delights of the journey, “perversely enjoying things we should be using.” And if we are preoccupied with the things along the path of our pilgrimage, we will be reluctant to finish our journey, being ensnared in the wrong kind of pleasure and estranged from the homeland whose pleasures could make us happy.

With this definition and metaphor in place, it is clearly true that “the things to be enjoyed are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” since He is the end of our journey. If we allow anything to impede that journey, we are being led astray by false pleasures. But this way of setting things up leads to some oddities, as Augustine eventually realizes. His refusal to “enjoy” anything for its own sake must mean also other human beings,” since human beings are a type of res (1.39f.). Should we enjoy one another or use one another or both? This, Augustine says, is a “magna quaestio.”

He initially concludes that other human beings are to be “used.” We are commanded to love our neighbor, but issue is whether this love for neighbor is an end in itself or a means to another end. If he says love of neighbor is end in itself, then the neighbor becomes the source of the happy life, which Augustine does not want to say. So he must say that the love of neighbor must come under the category of uti. This strikes Augustine as an odd way to put things, and he introduces a third category, based on the command to love, a love that approaches enjoyment because it is a love directed toward God. In 1.43, he writes, “if he loves himself on his own account, he does not relate himself to God, but turns to himself and not to something unchangeable. And for this reason it is with a certain insufficiency that he enjoys himself, because when totally absorbed and controlled by the unchangeable good he is a better man than when his attention leaves it.” Too love God with whole heart, soul, and strength means that “any other object of love that enters the mind should be swept towards the same destination as that to which the whole flood of our love is directed. So a person who loves his neighbor properly should, in concert with him, aim to love God with all his heart, all his soul, and all his mind . . . he relates his love of himself and his neighbor entirely to his love of God.” After some lengthy discussion, he ultimately brings the use-in-love and enjoyment into close connection (1.79): Enjoying someone or something is “very close to that of using someone or something together with love.” The object of love properly brings pleasure to us, but this pleasure that the object of love brings to us should be related to our “permanent goal.” We enjoy our neighbor not in a literal but in a transferred sense.

The category of love helps us to see what this whole discussion is doing at the beginning of a treatise that is mainly about interpretation and homiletics. He expounds the point by distinguishing four types of relations: we are related to things above us, to ourselves, to things close to us, and to things beneath us. We need no help in loving ourselves or loving what is below us. Augustine’s prime example of the latter seems to be the body, which is lower than the soul. It is possible that someone might love something else more than his body, and therefore be willing to give up bodily health and safety for that higher good. Even when something is loved more, the body is still loved. These sorts of loves, then, come naturally. But we need to be instructed about love of what is above and what is close beside us. And this, he says, is the focus of Scripture. Scripture instructs us about God and man, and in each case the instruction is mainly about charity. This is the sum of Scriptural revelation: love for God and for man.

Augustine’s treatment of things used and enjoyed is not a digression from his treatment of semiotics, hermeneutics, or homiletics. It is for Augustine the indispensable foundation for all knowledge and teaching of Scripture, The Triune God is the “thing” that the “signs” of Scripture reveal. The love of God and love of neighbor are the substance to which the Scriptural signs point. If we are not led to this thing, then our understanding of Scripture is certainly wrong (1.86). Augustine’s hermeneutic is thus not so much an analogia fidei as an analogia caritatis. Whatever builds up love should be discovered and taught. This implies that even wrong interpretations that serve the pilgrim in moving toward his destination are useful and good. Scriptural signs are designed to point us to eternal things (1.92), the Triune God who is the “thing” that can truly be enjoyed, without end and without disappointment (1.95).

Augustine has another reason for distinguishing signs and things at the outset. In a discussion of metaphorical language, he claims that taking a figure literally is deadly (3.20f). Literalizing a figure is and leads to a kind of “spiritual slavery” that interprets signs as things. Anyone who confuses signs and things is incapable of rising about the signs to the things they signify. This is the heart of Augustine’s criticism of Judaism (3.22). The distinction between sign and thing is here integrated into an account of redemptive history, so that there is a movement from sign to thing in the history of salvation. Yet, Jews remained attached to the signs that were to give way when the thing to which they pointed arrived. Of course, the Jews were in a superior position to the Gentiles because their signs were signs of real things. But the advantage of the Jew also makes their attachment to signs all that more tragic, since they had the chance to raise up from signs to the true God but failed to do so. More on this below.

II. Semiotics and salvation.
In addition to things (whether useful or enjoyable) and in addition to things that are also signs, there are things that are nothing but signs: “There are other signs whose whole function consists in signifying. Words, for example: nobody uses words except in order to signify something. From this it may be understood what I mean by signs: those things which are employed to signify something” (1.5). Signification occurs when a thing or a “pure sign” evokes a thought that is something beyond the sensible impression of the thing itself. The triadic character of Augustine’s semiotic is notable. A sign evokes a thought, but only for a subject or interpreter. R.A. Markus claims that this is an Augustinian innovation. Earlier attempts to define signs had been diadic, or had included “concept” as a third element, but none had arrived at the triadic relation that included the interpreter in the very definition of sign.

Augustine further highlights the role of personal signifiers by distinguishing between signa naturalia and signa data, usually rendered as “natural signs” and “given” or “conventional” signs. Natural signs are not dependent on the wish or intention to signify. Signs signify mainly because there is a causal connection between the res and the signum. Signa data depends on some agreement of human beings. A word does not evoke a particular though
t unless the hearer or reader already colludes voluntarily in the language game in play.

Even when talking about signa naturalia Augustine has an expansive conception of sign. Among the examples he gives is the “expression of an angry or depressed person signifies an emotional state even if there is no such wish on the part of the person who is angry or depressed, and likewise any other emotion is revealed by the evidence of the face even if we are not seeking to reveal it.” Signa data cover an even wider range of phenomena. Gestures are signs (2.5; 2.100), and in some places he suggests that the whole realm of human culture is a semiotic process. Augustine does not confine signs to “visible” impressions. Sounds and smells can be “significant” as well as sights. Augustine does not even confine signa data to human beings: “Some animals, too, have signs among themselves by which they show the desires of their minds: a cockerel on finding food gives a vocal sign to its hen to come quickly, and a dove calls to, or is called by, its mate by cooing” (2.4). Though these animal “conventions” are not the result of voluntary decision, they function as a kind of linguistic system among the animals using them.

Signa data are designed to “show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learned.” The reason for employing signs is “to express and transmit to another’s mind what is in the mind [what is going on in the mind] of the person who gives the sign.” This is true even of Scripture, which comes to us written by human beings. “Emotions” is not the best word in the context. Augustine does not mean emotions in our sense, much less feelings. The Latin is “motus animi,” motions of the soul. Elsewhere, Augustine uses other phrases to describe this. In de Trinitate, he describes the origin of signification as id quod animo gerit, “what is going on in the soul,” and in de Trin 15, he calls this motion an internal word: verbum quod mente gerimus. Augustine employs an incarnational model for signification in 1.26 of de Trinitate: “When we speak, the word which we hold in our mind becomes a sound in order that what we have in our mind may pass through ears of flesh into the listener’s mind: this is called speech. Our thought, however, is not converted into the same sound, but remains intact in its own home, suffering no diminution from its change as it takes on the form of a word in order to make its way into the ears. In the same way the word of God became flesh in order to live in us but was unchanged.”

This broad definition creates certain tensions within Augustine’s semiotic theory, primarily because Augustine main definition of signum applies far better to some sorts of signs than it does to others. Are all signs such that they cause something else to come to mind than the impression they make on the senses? Might there be signs that have some other purpose than to bring something to mind? This comes into play especially acutely in the history of sacramental theology. Peter the Lombard employs Augustine’s definition of sign in his Sentences, and applies it, as Augustine himself did, to the sacraments. Sacraments are signs in the sense that they are designed to bring something else to mind. But this seems to me to rob the sacraments of much of their point. They are not signs to bring something to mind so much as actions to be performed by the church. Are the sacraments nothing else than means of communicating the “motions of the soul” from God to us?

Augustine’s theory is also open to the criticisms of poststructuralism, especially of Derrida. For Augustine, the “word” is the sonus, the spoken word, and Augustine is quite explicit that the written sign is a sign of the more original word. Thus, the words of Scripture (or of any other script) are two steps away from the motions of the soul: those motions are first incarnated in sounds, and then the verba are symbolized in visual signs. This is a classic form of phonocentricism, which Derrida has suggested is inherently bound up with Platonic dualisms of sensible and intelligible. In fact, Derrida argues that the entire paradigm of signifier/signified participates in this Platonic dualism.

Yet, Augustine’s insistence on a third, a triadic structure of signification, helps him escape some of the worse implications of Platonic semiosis. This is particularly evident in Augustine’s emphasis on the connection between signification and communion. By signifying the motions of our minds and hearts then, we are drawn into communication, and therefore communion with one another. Communication and communion/communities are linked in two ways. On the one hand, communication presupposes a common language. Signs mean something to somebody, and the sombodies who agree on meanings constitutes a linguistic community (so RA Markus). Thus, for instance, Augustine uses the example of a “cross” that means one thing to Greeks and another to Latins (2.93). This letter “has meaning not by nature but by agreement and convention.” Even the same sound can have different significances in different languages. “Beta” is the name of a letter in Greek, but a vegetable in Latin (“beet”). Thus, “all these meanings . . . derive their effects on the mind from each individual’s agreement with a particular convention. As this agreement varies in extent, so do their effects. People do not agree to use them because they were already meaningful; rather, they become meaningful because people agreed to use them.” Wherever there are conventions concerning the significance of sounds or visual signa, there has been some sort of common ground established, agreement among parties to use the sounds or signa in this way. Thus, signification presupposes community.

On the other hand, continual sharing of the motions of the soul with one another, through the signa data of our common language, binds us together into a more intimate friendship and association. In a famous statement in Contra Faustum 19.11, Augustine argues that “Men cannot be brought together (coagulari homines possunt) in the name of any religion, whether true or false, without being associated by means of some shared visible symbols or rituals” (signaculorum vel sacramentorum visibilium consortio colligentur). Augustine is here speaking specifically of religious communities, but his point is wider: Augustine cannot envision a community of any kind that is not bound together by common signs.

Given the importance of signs for communication, for forming community, and the central role that signification plays in culture generally, it seems that Augustine would give this a large role in his understanding of the effects of sin and the character of redemption. Sin disrupts the proper use of signs (and language) in various ways, so that the sinful use of signs is deeply involved in idolatry, and these sinful uses of signs corrupt alliances and communities. Finally, therefore, redemption means the restoration of right semiosis. Redemption means establishing the “symbol of the cross.”

One obvious way that sin disrupts the signifying process is that it has produced a diversity of languages that prevents communication and communion. In 2.8-9, Augustine refers to the incident at Babel, concluding that “wicked men justly received incompatible languages.” Ultimately, God has used even this for our redemption; the linguistic difficulties attending the interpretation of Scripture humble us so that, face with its profundities and puzzles, we are thrown back to communion with our fellows.

More intriguing is Augustine’s discussion of the role of pagan learning in hermeneutics. For Augustine (as for Origen), the liberal a
rts have no independent place in education. Earlier he envisioned composing a series of volumes on the various liberal arts, seeing them as preparation for Christianity. But only de Musica was completed. Here, the liberal arts are all subordinated to exegesis. It is useful for us to know something about science, languages, music, because these courses of study enable us to understand Scripture better (2.72).

Augustine sets out a scheme for classifying pagan learning. He first distinguishes between things humanly instituted and things divinely instituted. The latter refer to things that man discovered by investigation, whether enacted in time or created by God. History is a divine institution, as is logic (2.121). Within the former, humanly-instituted subjects, he subdivides between superstitious and non-superstitious pagan learning. He defines a superstitious practices as follows: “It concerns the making and worshipping of idols, or the worshipping or the created order or part of it as if it were god, or if it involves certain kinds of consultations or contacts about meaning arranged and ratified with demons (pacta quaedam significationum cum daemonibus placita atque foederata), such as the enterprises involved in the art of magic, which poets tend to mention rather than teach” (2.74). One of the great evils of this is that astrology and other superstitions enslave human beings. Astrologers tell the truth about the position of the stars but bring people into slavery: “when free people go to see such an astrologer, they pay money for the privilege of coming away as slaves of Mars or Venus, or rather all the stars” (2.79). More seriously, astrologers end up contracting their clients to demons. The idea that our character is bound to the stars: “because they involve signs instituted by human presumption, must be classed among those contracts and agreements made with devils” (2.86). Superstitious human institutions are covenants with demons.

How does this work? For Augustine, these contracts with demons, perverse communions and the cultures that flow from them, all arise from perverse uses of signs. He expounds on this in 2.92f. The signs used by astronomers are, like all semiotic systems, based on a common agreement about the meaning of the signs. If there were no conventional meaning, and no commonality in meaning, then the signs would not function. Therefore, signification, including the significations association with superstitions, necessarily presupposes a communion. Augustine says that “the influence of all these things varies in proportion to the extent of agreement achieved with demons” (tantum valent, quantum praesumptione animorum quasi communi quadam lingua cum daemonibus foederata sunt). Demonic activity is involved here: “Spirits who wish to deceive someone devise appropriate signs for each individual to match those in which they seem him caught up through his speculations and the conventions he accepts.” As the meaning of a word derives its effect from the common agreement about a language and as the signs of a language became meaningful through human institution so also, “the signs by which this deadly agreement with demons is achieved have an effect that is in proportion to each individual’s attention to them.” Christians must avoid superstitions because they involve “the contracts . . . of an untrustworthy and treacherous partnership established by this disastrous alliance of men and devils.” This is what Paul had in mind when he warned against eating at tables of demons.

For Augustine, the use of signs highlights the difference not only between Christianity andpaganism but between Christianity and Judaism (3.22). For Augustine, the entire OT system involved subjection to signa, a term that here seems especially to apply to the signa of the coming new covenant. Jews were subjected to signs, but these useful signs, since the signs of Israel pointed them to the truth of one God, and that would lead them to reality. They erred in the “spiritual slavery” of interpreting “signs as things,” so that they were “incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light (3.21). Pagans, by contrast, were also set on signs: but they set their attention and affection on signs of falsehoods. They were infatuated not by signs of reality but by signs that directed away from the true God. Their bondage thus was far worse than the Jews (3.28).

Christian freedom, however, means liberation from useful signs, not merely from useless signs. Christianity raises Jews above signs to the realities to which they pointed. When the gospel confronts pagans, it does away with the useless signs altogether. A Christian “attends to or worships a useful sign, one divinely instituted, and does realize its force and significance, does not worship a thing which is only apparent and transitory but rather the thing to which all such things are to be related.” This is true freedom (3.29). But this is not a liberation from signs as such. The church’s signs are fewer and simpler (3.31), but through the proper use of useful signs leads to the thing. Though he doesn’t introduce the ecclesial dimension here, the proper use of useful signs means the healing of the breaches and corruptions cause by misuse of signs in paganism and Judaism. Salvation means restoration of true semiosis, liberation from the idolatrous misuse of signs, and right participation in the absolutely useful signs of the New Covenant.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad