Plato held that
the Form of the Good makes other Forms intelligible to us in a way comparable
to how the sun makes physical objects visible to us.  He also took our knowledge of the Forms to be
inexplicable in empirical terms, since the Forms have a necessity, eternity,
and perfection that the objects of the senses lack.  His solution was to regard knowledge of the
Forms as a kind of recollection of a direct access the soul had to them prior
to its entrapment in the body.

St. Augustine
inherited this Platonic picture and transformed it.  The Form of the Good becomes God; the other
Forms become ideas in the divine intellect; and recollection is replaced by
divine illumination of the human mind. 
The general idea and motivation of Augustine’s doctrine of divine
illumination is clear enough, at least in light of its Platonic
background.  But nailing down it precise
content is notoriously difficult. 

The Platonic background

How was the
Form of the Good supposed to make the other Forms intelligible, on Plato’s
account?  Here’s one way to think about
it.  A Form is a standard of
perfection.  A particular triangle is a
better or worse specimen of triangularity the more or less perfectly it
participates in the Form of Triangle. 
For instance, a triangle drawn slowly and carefully using a ruler is a
better specimen than one drawn hastily and sloppily, because it more perfectly
approximates the standard that is the Form. 
Something similar can be said of all other things and their degrees of
approximation to the standards that are the Forms they participate in.

Now, to understand
the Form of X (whatever X is) as the standard by reference to which a
particular X is a good X is essentially to see the Form as itself an instance
of goodness – as participating in the Form of the Good.  In this way the Form of the Good illuminates – it makes intelligible to
the eye of the intellect – the other Forms. 

But for
Plato, you’re not going to get knowledge of the Form of the Good from
acquaintance from particular good things, any more than you’re going to arrive
at knowledge of the Form of Triangle from particular triangles.  And thus you’re not going to get it from
sensory experience, which can only ever get you acquainted with
particulars.  So our knowledge of the
Forms must be a kind of drawing out of what was already in us prior to experience.  And since it can only have gotten in us by
some sort of contact with the Forms, and we haven’t had such contact in this
life, we must have had such contact prior to this life.  Knowledge of the Forms is thus a remembering
of this prior contact.

The Augustinian transformation

The skeptical
reader might wonder whether Augustine’s alteration of Plato’s general picture
is motivated merely by Christian theological concerns, with no independent philosophical
rationale.  But that is not the
case.  For one thing, during the long history
of the Platonic tradition between Plato and Augustine, God had, for
philosophical reasons, already long since displaced the Form of the Good as the
first principle of all things (even if Augustine’s view of the divine nature
differed in important respects from that of predecessors like Plotinus).

More to the
present point, potential theological problems with the notion of the
pre-existence of the soul were not the reason Augustine rejected the theory of
recollection.  The reason had rather to
do with inadequacies in that theory as an account of our knowledge of the
Forms.  As Peter King notes (in his
article on Augustine’s epistemology in the
of The Cambridge
Companion to Augustine
), Augustine was keen to emphasize the objectivity of our knowledge of eternal
truths of a mathematical sort, and of the Forms in general.  When you and I grasp that 2 + 2 = 4, it is one and the same truth that we both
intersubjectively grasp, just as it is one and the same table we are looking at
when we both see the table before us.  Similarly,
when you and I contemplate the Form of Triangle, it is one and the same objective reality that we both contemplate.  But the most one could be aware of via memory
is a subjective mental representation
of a Form, not the Form itself.  Hence,
recollection of a purported acquaintance with the Forms prior to birth cannot
explain how we intersubjectively know them now. 

Something going
on now must account for that.  King points out that for Augustine, we also
need to account for the way that here and
you can come to understand such eternal truths, in a flash of insight
or moment when it “clicks” (as when you figure out a proof or otherwise grasp
the connections of logical necessity between propositions).  Mere recollection of something you
purportedly learned prior to your soul’s incarnation in the body cannot account
for that.  The theory of illumination is
meant to explain all of this.

The basic idea

Recall that
for Augustine, the Forms are to be understood as ideas in the divine
intellect.  Indeed, their necessity,
eternity, and perfection provide the basis of an argument for the existence of
a divine mind to ground them.  (I develop
a modernized version of the Augustinian argument for God’s existence in chapter
3 of Five
Proofs of the Existence of God

How, then,
can we know the Forms?  For example, how
could we know the Form of Triangle from experience of particular individual
triangles?  For any such triangle is
neither necessary nor eternal, but comes into being and passes away.  It is also imperfect, lacking the perfect
straightness of sides that a triangle is supposed to have given its
essence.  And any sensory representations
or mental images we can form of a triangle are going to have the same defects.  Whatever else we can know of a triangle
through sensation and imagination, the necessity, eternity, and perfection of
the Form it participates in cannot be known that way.

Now, compare
such a triangle to a red object sitting in a dark room, or to a red stained
glass window on a moonless night.  The
redness is there in the object or the window, but you will not see it without
light.  You see the red of the object
when light shines on it, and the red of the window when the light shines
through it.  Absent such light, the
redness will be invisible, even if you can know other features of such objects
(by touching them say).  But the presence
of the light immediately reveals the redness to the eye.  You might even say: “Aha!  It’s red!”

Augustine holds, something analogous to light, but coming from God – in whom
exists the Form of Triangle in all its necessity, eternity, and perfection – is
what reveals these properties to the “eye” of the human intellect.  You might even have a flash of understanding
that yields an “Aha!”

Illuminating illumination

The analogy between
divine illumination and Plato’s comparison of the Form of the Good to the sun
makes the general outlines of Augustine’s idea clear enough.  But making out the details is difficult.  Exactly what does this “illumination” amount
to?  Obviously it does not involve light
of the ordinary sort.  But what, then?

For starters,
it is useful to keep in mind that we often describe the intellect as seeing that a proposition is true or
that the conclusion of an argument follows from its premises.  There is an analogy between what the eye does
when it sees a physical object and what the intellect is doing.  And it is not unreasonable to suppose that
there might also be an analogy between the means
by which the eye does what it does and the means by which the intellect does
what it does.  If the former sort of seeing requires light,
so too might the latter sort of “seeing” require something analogous to light.

But by itself
that doesn’t tell us much.  The help
provided by the analogy with Plato’s comparison of the Form of the Good to the
sun is also limited.  Yes, the divine
intellect illuminates the Forms for our minds just as the Form of the Good was
said to do.  But the manner in which they
do so is evidently different, at least given my proposed reading of how this
works in the case of the Form of the Good. 
I suggested that we read Plato as holding that, just as a tree and a
triangle participate in the Form of Tree and the Form of Triangle,
respectively, those Forms in turn participate in the Form of the Good.  And this makes those Forms intelligible, in
the same way they make particular trees and triangles intelligible.

But seeing
this involves (a) grasping the Form of the Good and (b) grasping the relation
between the other Forms and it.  That is
to say, it involves mental acts precisely of the kind that Augustine is trying
to explain.  So, illumination of the kind
he is appealing to is evidently different
and more fundamental
than the kind of which Plato was speaking (at least as
I’m reading Plato).  But then, what does it amount to if it isn’t quite what
Plato was speaking of?  The doctrine of
illumination needs some illumination.

Three interpretations

Over the
centuries, there have been three main approaches to spelling out Augustine’s
position in more detail.  The first holds
that in knowing the Forms, the human mind sees directly into God’s own
mind.  The way you grasp the necessity,
eternity, and perfection of the Form of Triangle, for example, is by virtue of
your mind’s ascending from acquaintance with mere particular individual
triangles and becoming acquainted instead with the divine idea of
triangularity.  This interpretation is
associated with the early modern philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and is known
as “ontologism.”

This interpretation
would certainly make it clearer what illumination amounts to.  But unfortunately, it is highly problematic
both philosophically and theologically. 
The standard objection is that it would seem to imply that we have a
direct intellectual grasp of God’s essence, which we clearly do not have.  If we did, we would have complete beatitude
and be unable to doubt God’s existence, neither of which is the case.  It is also absurd to think that all people who
are able to grasp even basic mathematical truths like 2 + 2 = 4 – which
includes those who are utterly foolish and morally depraved no less than the
wise and saintly – are thereby able directly to know God’s mind.  (Certainly, Augustine would not have held
such a thing.)

A second
interpretation holds that “illumination” amounts merely to the fact that God
conserves the human intellect in being and concurs with its operation (just as
he conserves and concurs with everything else), where the intellect is that
aspect of our nature that is uniquely God-like. 
This sort of interpretation is sometimes proposed by Thomists as a way
of reconciling Augustine’s epistemology with Aquinas’s.  But it is decidedly deflationary, reducing
Augustine’s view to just a colorful but very imprecise way of saying what
Aquinas would later say with more precision. 
Whereas the first interpretation makes the doctrine of illumination very
interesting but highly problematic, the second makes it unproblematic but also
uninteresting.  It also just isn’t
exegetically plausible as a reading of Augustine, who was thinking along
Platonic rather than Aristotelian lines.

The correct
interpretation is surely the third one, which is a middle ground between the
first two.  That is to say, it reads
Augustine as making a stronger and more distinctive claim about the nature of
illumination than the second interpretation does, but without going to the
extreme of saying that the human mind can peer directly into the divine mind.

The basic
idea of this third interpretation can be understood by returning to the analogy
of the red object and stained glass that are illuminated by sunlight.  When you see the redness of the illuminated
object or the glass, it is the object and the glass that you are looking at,
not the sun itself.  The sun is not what you see, rather it is that by which you see.  But it is nevertheless something distinct
from you, and without the help of which your eye would be unable to detect the

light from the divine intellect is what illuminates the Forms for our
intellects.  This divine light is not
itself what the intellect sees
(contrary to the first, ontologistic interpretation of Augustine), but rather
that by which the intellect
sees.  But still (and contrary to the
second, Thomistic interpretation of Augustine), it is something distinct from
any activity of the human intellect itself, and distinct from God’s conservation
and concurrence with it.  It is an extra divine assistance without which the
intellect, relying merely on its own capacities, would be unable to grasp the
necessity, eternity, and perfection of the Forms.

Residual obscurity

This is
helpful, though more as a way of telling us what illumination does not involve rather than what it does
involve.  To be sure, it is clear that it
involves a kind of divine causality over and above the conservation and
concurrence with the human intellect considered just by itself.  But exactly what is the nature of this

Gareth Matthews
(in his essay on Augustine’s epistemology in the first
of the Cambridge Companion to
) suggests a further interesting interpretive detail.  As I discussed in a
post from a few years ago
, Augustine developed an early version of the view
that material phenomena are by themselves inherently semantically indeterminate (a thesis much explored by contemporary analytic
philosophers like Quine and Kripke).  That
is to say, given just the physical facts alone,
there can be no fact of the matter about exactly what an utterance, gesture, or
physical representation means.  If you
add to this the premise that there nevertheless sometimes is a fact of the matter about what they mean, it follows that there
must be some additional factor over and above the physical facts.

Matthews suggests
that dealing with this issue is another job that Augustine intends the doctrine
of divine illumination to do.  Hence,
consider a triangle drawn in black outline on a marker board, and also all the physical
facts involved in your seeing it and judging it to be a triangle (the causal
relations between the marker board and your eyes, the brain activity going on
as you look at and contemplate it, the utterances you make as you look at it, and
so on).  The semantic indeterminacy
arguments developed by Augustine, Quine, Kripke, et al. show that these physical facts alone could not suffice
to determine that you are conceptualizing what you are looking at as a triangle – as opposed, say, to conceptualizing
it as a triangle with black outlines,
specifically, or as a trilateral, or

And yet
there is a fact of the matter about
which of these is in reality the way you are conceptualizing it.  Matthews’ suggestion is that divine illumination
is at least part of the story about what makes this the case.  You might think of it on the following analogy
(mine rather than Matthews’).  Suppose
you are trying to get someone to see something in the distance, such as a
certain constellation of stars.  He says:
“I don’t see it.  Where?”  You grab his head and move it slightly, directing
or aiming it toward the specific area of the night sky you want him to
see.  Then he does.  “Oh yes, now I see it!”

seems to be suggesting that divine illumination is analogous to that.  The physical facts, even together with the
facts about your own immaterial intellect, are not sufficient to determine that
you will conceptualize what you see as a
, rather than as a triangle
with black outlines,
specifically, or as
a trilateral
.  But the divine
intellect “grabs” your intellect, as it were, and directs or aims it in such a
way that at that moment you conceptualize it the first way rather than the
other ways. 

Naturally, this
raises all sorts of further questions. 
But it does seem to illuminate a little further the nature of the
causality Augustine attributes to divine illumination.


on the immateriality of the mind

and Heraclitus on the present moment

on semantic indeterminacy

divine intellect


affinity argument

pre-existence of the soul

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