I am writing this after going through Books VI and VII of the Confessions of St. Augustine. I think various parts of the Confessions could be understood and connected in light of understanding what it means for a truth to be embodied or personified. The parts I have in mind include (a) several episodes where other people make an impression on Augustine and (b) Augustine’s appeal to Christ (toward the end of Book VII) as the embodiment of Truth, as he moves out of a Platonist phase.
Alternative phrases to “embodiment of truth” could be “embodiment of a principle,” or “personification of a principle,” but I hope the writing is clear enough to render this matter relatively minor.
Embodiment of an Idea
In general, what does it mean for an idea to be embodied? What does it mean, for example, to embody justice, truth, hope, love, charity, or loyalty?
Embodying an idea differs from defining the idea with language. By defining something, we place its representation in front of us, within a shared field that isn’t associated with any individual. By contrast, when someone embodies an idea, they bring it to life through action. Moreover, we aren’t talking about only a single action in one occasion, but about a series of actual/potential actions. These actions must be intentional, they must show consistency and reliability through time, and they must not easily yield to external pressure. In other words, the actions must come from a solid place, and we can call that solid place the person’s character (Aristotle).
To embody an idea, therefore, is to bring out the idea-in-action to life in encountering particular human situations. Once again, the supposed wellspring of the idea-in-action is the person’s character. An idea-in-action doesn’t become detached from the person, and from the person’s goal-directedness. The person shows the idea, not by giving a general definition of it, but by living and striving according to the idea (Laruelle). It makes sense to say that embodying an idea is done by walking along a particular path. If we want to be presented with the living manifestation of the idea, the idea-in-action, then we ought to know the person and their character/path. To know this person (more/less) means, in part, to know the idea (more/less).
Grasping the idea from the idea-in-action isn’t a straightforward matter. It requires time and a trained eye. Even after knowing what Julia does in a Situations A, B, & C, observers might still make different predictions about what she would do in Situation D. That is because the idea-in-action, being anchored to the situations at hand, gives a partial and incomplete view of the idea. This shortcoming is also present–though better hidden–in definitions of an idea, because there are implicit situations that shape the idea’s general, impersonal representation.
One advantage of embodying an idea, assuming that it is truly embodied by someone(s), is that the person or group now becomes an infinite source of knowing for others. If someone has truly embodied the idea of justice or truth, then trying to understand them, as they move through different situations, gives us a chance to understand the idea through its various instantiations (get the idea from the series of idea-in-action). Perhaps after enough observations, we could even generalize the idea–how it would be instantiated–to situations we have not yet encountered. People do this when they try to simulate the presence of a person in a given situation by asking questions that take the form, “What would Jesus do?”.
There is another, and I think more important, advantage of embodying an idea over having a definition of it. By being alive, present, and responsive to change, a characters that is the wellspring of ideas-in-action can prevent the dominance of definitional, frozen, and ideological definitions of the idea over people. It is the person who has to give life to the idea, rather than the idea enforcing “Life” upon the person (Laruelle).
Examples from Augustine
An important example in Confessions comes in Book VI (6), where Augustine remembers seeing a beggar on the street. The beggar seems cheerful and happy. He has had some food and drink and he is laughing with others. Comparing himself with the beggar, Augustine notices how his own life is characterized by an intense and perpetual striving toward a contentment that seems out of reach, whereas the beggar is content without any such striving. He asks himself two questions: (1) Would I have preferred to be happy? (2) Would I have chosen to switch places with the beggar? To (1) he responds “Yes”, but to (2) he responds “No.” Looking at the two answers together, we could say Augustine doesn’t wants happiness simply as a quality of experience, but a path, a striving–a character. His reflections on how happiness is embodied in the beggar makes him more aware of the idea of happiness and how he would want to embody happiness himself.
Another example comes from the discussion of Alypius (Book VI: 10), one of Augustine’s close friends. Alypius embodies the idea of justice by refusing bribes and by refusing to yield to blackmail. Through his actions, he shows himself to be a wellspring of the idea of justice and he shows the idea of justice by embodying it.
These reflections on Alypius differ, for example, from the brief reference to Nebridius (and his refutation of Manichaeism). The counter-Manichaeism ideas of Nebridius need not be embodied by him in the same way that justice is embodied by Alypius. In the case of Nebridius, it might seem as if he stumbled upon something that could have be found and used by anyone else. But in the case of Alypius, his character isn’t separable from the way in which he shows/embodies the idea of justice. The difference is in how close the idea is to the person’s own telos.
Through embodying an idea, the human person reveals her own character at the same time that she signifies the idea/principle through her actions. Being a moving principle of action (Aristotle) means the person can be responsive, to what is unique to any given situation, rather than following previously established formulae and definitions.
Platonism & Christianity
This line of thinking, I believe, is crucial in understanding why Augustine separates himself from the Platonists in favor of Christianity. Whereas Platonism attended to the idea of Truth (separated from bodies, persons, activities), Christianity attended to the figure of Christ as the embodiment (personification) of Truth. Attending to truth-in-person (idea-in-action) means we have a mediator between what is abstract (idea/principle) and what is concrete (isolated actions). We can relate to this “mediator” (the complete person; Book VII: 19) if we want to be in touch with the principle (Book VII: 18).
Finally, the body carries a passion that is missing in abstract propositions of Platonism (Book VII: 21). Truth without passion is cold and indifferent. Truth-embodied is not only relatable, but itself carries the desire to relate. When we talk about the embodiment of Truth, therefore, we are necessarily referring to an instantiation of an idea that is intermixed with the desire to connect and be connected.
Augustine himself embodies such a desire throughout the Confessions. He does not recount the events of his life in a cold and indifferent manner. On the contrary, his acts of remembering are interweaved with (and moved by) a constantly-surfacing desire to connect, to join, and to-be-one-with.
To see my other Augustine-inspired reflections, see the playlist below.