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Fathers of the Church

Letter VI


Augustine’s friend Nebridius, after complementing him on the Christian and philosophical richness of his letters, poses some questions about the faculties of memory and imagination. Augustine responds in letter VII.


The correspondence of St. Augustine that has been preserved includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 1-30 span the period between his conversion and his episcopal ordination.

by Augustine of Hippo in 389 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. Your letters I have great pleasure in keeping as carefully as my own eyes. For they are great, not indeed in length, but in the greatness of the subjects discussed in them, and in the great ability with which the truth in regard to these subjects is demonstrated. They shall bring to my ear the voice of Christ, and the teaching of Plato and of Plotinus. To me, therefore, they shall ever be pleasant to hear, because of their eloquent style; easy to read, because of their brevity; and profitable to understand, because of the wisdom which they contain. Be at pains, therefore, to teach me everything which, to your judgment, commends itself as holy or good. As to this letter in particular, answer it when you are ready to discuss a subtle problem in regard to memory, and the images presented by the imagination. My opinion is, that although there can be such images independently of memory, there is no exercise of memory independently of such images. You will say, What, then, takes place when memory is exercised in recalling an act of understanding or of thought? I answer this objection by saying, that such acts can be recalled by memory for this reason, that in the supposed act of understanding or of thought we gave birth to something conditioned by space or by time, which is of such a nature that it can be reproduced by the imagination: for either we connected the use of words with the exercise of the understanding and with the thoughts, and words are conditioned by time, and thus fall within the domain of the senses or of the imaginative faculty; or if we did not join words with the mental act, our intellect at all events experienced in the act of thinking something which was of such a nature as could produce in the mind that which, by the aid of the imaginative faculty, memory could recall. These things I have stated, as usual, without much consideration, and in a somewhat confused manner: do you examine them, and, rejecting what is false, acquaint me by letter with what you hold as the truth on this subject.

2. Listen also to this question: Why, I should like to know, do we not affirm that the phantasy [imaginative faculty] derives all its images from itself, rather than say that it receives these from the senses? For it is possible that, as the intellectual faculty of the soul is indebted to the senses, not for the objects upon which the intellect is exercised, but rather for the admonition arousing it to see these objects, in the same manner the imaginative faculty may be indebted to the senses, not for the images which are the objects upon which it is exercised, but rather for the admonition arousing it to contemplate these images. And perhaps it is in this way that we are to explain the fact that the imagination perceives some objects which the senses never perceived, whereby it is shown that it has all its images within itself, and from itself. You will answer me what you think of this question also.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.