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Role of Friend in Self-Knowledge Essay

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Updated: Oct 31st, 2020


There can be only a few doubts that both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have contributed rather substantially to the formation of the metaphysical discourse in Western philosophy. In particular, the theologians in question have helped establishing the main axiomatic postulates of what later came to be known as the “body-mind dualism”. Their another important contribution had to do with defining the main principles of subjecting the surrounding physical reality to the ontological inquiry.

Nevertheless, even though Augustine and Aquinas have been equally preoccupied with trying to defend the epistemic soundness of Christianity, their “technical” approaches to doing this differed rather substantially. In my paper, I will substantiate the validity of this statement, with respect to the given topic, while answering the thematically relevant questions from the provided list.

Augustine’s Conclusion

According to Augustine, one’s friends play a few important functions, within the context of how he or she goes about striving to attain a true knowledge of self. Probably the most important of them has to do with the fact that, as Augustine saw it, a person’s socialization with friends will make it much more likely for him or her to stay in close touch with its deep-seated sense of self-identity (soul), the integrity of which is being negatively impacted by the flow of time.

The reason for this is that the very fact that we are able to retain the long-term relationship with our friends means that we tend to assess the surrounding reality in a similar manner with the former. Therefore, by keeping in close touch with his/her friends, one is able to experience its past as the present – something that in its turn is supposed to help the concerned individual to attain an intuitive awareness of its individuality (soul) as a “thing-in-itself”. Consequently, this is expected to empower the person rather considerably, in the sense of strengthening his/her desire to convert to Christianity:

With these past (friendship-related) impressions, I can construct now this, now that, image of things that I either have experienced or have believed on the basis of experience–and from these I can further construct future actions, events, and hopes; and I can meditate on all these things as if they were present (Augustine X, VIII).

Allegorically speaking, Augustine believed that friendship is the key to discovering oneself.

The philosopher also used to emphasize the importance of friends, within the context of how people go about trying to achieve self-actualization. The reason for this is that one’s very presence in the company of friends, establishes the objective preconditions for him/her to be willing to engage with these individuals verbally. And, according to Augustine, language/verbalization is the actual channel through which the “divine” reality is letting people know of its existence.

Therefore, the measure of one’s verbal proficiency is reflective of his or her varying ability to understand the actual mechanics of how this world turns around – something that will have an utterly empowering effect on the person in question:

So it was that by frequently hearing words, in different phrases, I gradually identified the objects which the words stood for and, having formed my mouth to repeat these signs, I was thereby able to express my will (Augustine I, VIII).

Finally, Augustine used to promote the idea that while in the company of close friends, a person undergoes the spiritual growth at a much rate as compared to what it would have been the case, had he or she choose in favor of the solitary approach to attaining self-knowledge. The reason for this is that the philosopher appears to have been aware of the systemic aspects of one’s behavior as the group member.

In its turn, this implies that we do only need friends, but we need “good friends”. In the Confessions, this idea continues to recur throughout the book’s entirety, with the author’s initial realization of the fact that “one is whoever happened to be his friends” dating back to the time when he stole a pear from the neighbors while in the company of some maliciously minded boys. According to the theologian, he would not have “sinned” if it was not up to his friendship with these boys:

I did not realize this (the sinfulness of stealing a pear) and rushed on headlong with such blindness that, among my friends, I was ashamed to be less shameless than they, when I heard them boasting of their disgraceful exploits (Augustine II, III).

Evidently enough, Augustine believed that there is an ambivalent quality to one’s decision to lead a socially integrated lifestyle. Hence, the philosopher’s insistence that an individual must exercise an extreme caution when it comes to befriending others.

Augustine’s Arguments

The author’s conclusion, regarding the epistemic function of friends, cannot be discussed outside of the clearly Neoplatonic essence of his religious metaphysics. In a similar manner with Plato, Augustine used to insist that the physical world around us is merely a faint shadow of the spiritual (invisible) reality of “God’s Kingdom”, which is quite inaccessible to our six senses. Therefore, when it comes to trying to get closer to God, one must prompt its mind to operate in the “introspective” mode – something that explains the philosopher’s fondness of mediation, as the instrument of accomplishing this particular objective. While expounding on the essence of Augustine’s Neoplatonism, Cary stated:

(According to Augustine) the mind is not like the eye, which has to look outside itself to see itself, using something like a mirror as a medium of reflection. Instead, it turns directly to itself: something pertaining to its own nature is in its sight and it is called back to it when it thinks of itself by a turning that is incorporeal, not in the dimension of space (193).

However, adopting a strongly introspective approach to cognition is easier said than done. The reason for this has to do with the fact that, as opposed to what it is the case with God, human beings simply do not have what it takes to have a spatially prolonged grasp on the reality. This simply could not be otherwise – whereas God simultaneously exists in the past, present, and future, people are only capable of interacting with the immediate present while negatively affected the strongly emotive (and consequentially inaccurate) recollections of the past.

To complicate the matter even further, the human brain tends to alter the very fabric of one’s memories of the past, which deals yet another blow to the casuistic integrity of the person’s self-knowledge. In this regard, we can refer to people’s tendency to assess the same event that has taken place in their lives from different (and even opposite) perspectives. For example, it may seem like a really good idea having your tongue pierced when you are a teen. After you reach the age of fifty, however, the same idea will not appear to you quite as appealing. If the very passage of time causes our sense of self-knowledge to undergo a continual metamorphosis, how can we even come close to understanding who we truly are?

Augustine addresses this dilemma as follows. Even though there is hardly anything constant about how people position themselves throughout their lives, most of them are unconsciously aware of the presence of the never-changing “soul” inside of them. Therefore, by spending time with friends, we are able to revive the memories of the long-gone days – hence, coming to realize our essence as the spatially extended beings, just as it is the case with the Creator himself. In its turn, this is supposed to provide us with the powerful incentive to serve God, as the true purpose of our existence:

I give thanks to thee, O Lord of heaven and earth, giving praise to thee for that first being and my infancy of which I have no memory. For thou hast granted to man that he should come to self-knowledge through the knowledge of others (Augustine I, VI).

Therefore, there is indeed nothing accidental about the earlier mentioned peculiarities of Augustine’s stance on friendship, as the instrument of helping the involved participants reach spiritual maturity.

Aquinas on Self-Knowledge

Whereas it will be appropriate to suggest that Augustine’s approach to attaining self-knowledge has a strong Neoplatonic quality to it, the same suggestion clearly does not apply to the epistemic philosophy of Aquinas. The rationale behind this suggestion is that, unlike Augustine, Aquinas was an adherent of the Aristotelean dialectical paradigm, concerned with stressing out the intrinsic interrelatedness between the reality’s “physical” and “spiritual” emanations. In this regard, Macdonald came up with the perfectly legitimate observation:

On Aquinas’s view, mind and world simply belong together: as created by God… This means that the world is directly accessible in sense experience as well as thought, such that in sense experience and thought we are in direct sensory and intellective contact with extra-sensory and extramental objects and states of affairs (82).

Whereas Augustine used to believe that the true quintessence of just about everything in this world belongs to the “ideational” realm of “God’s Kingdom”, and that one cannot expect to be in the position to learn more about God by learning more about the dialectical nature of the relationship between causes and effects in our world, Aquinas was not quite as skeptical about such a hypothetical possibility.

According to him, there is very little rationale in downplaying the importance of the reality’s sensorial extrapolations (Kondrick 205). After all, just about every cognitive process inside one’s mind cannot be evaluated outside of what used to account for the experiential context at the time when it has taken place. The philosopher’s following statement is very clear about this: “The intellect understands itself in the same way as it understands other things.

But it understands other things, not by their essence, but by their similitudes. Therefore, it does not understand itself by its own essence” (Aquinas 86, 2). What this means is that, contrary to how Augustine saw it, it is possible to go about exploring the ways of God by mean of learning more about the cause-effect ways of the world in which we all live. In other words, positivist science is just as appropriate of a tool of getting to know God better as it is being the case with a prayer/religious meditation.

Aquinas’s Critique

Because of the above-mentioned, it will not be much of a challenge to formulate the Aquinas’s would-be objection to Augustine’s conceptualization of communal interconnectedness as the facilitator of self-knowledge. In all probability, Aquinas would suggest that Augustine’s account of self-knowledge is rather speculative and even heretical to an extent. After all, Confessions draw a clear line between the immaterial “divine” realm, on one hand, and the one of mortal people, on the other, while implying that the former is much superior to the latter.

And, there is a strong Manichaean undertone to such an idea. Given the history of Augustine’s involvement with Manichaeism through the early phase of his life, this certainly does not come as a particular surprise. Such a point of view, however, is far from being considered representing an undisputed truth-value. The reason for this is quite apparent – the Neoplatonic (Augustinian) strategy for accumulating self-knowledge is not consistent with the real ways of the world, which are just as “divine” as those of the “Kingdom of Heaven”. This, of course, can serve as yet additional indication of Christianity’s fallaciousness, as a religion.

Evidently enough, Aquinas wanted to “fix” the situation, in this regard, while making sure that one’s willingness to adopt the identity of a Christian is indeed ontologically valid. As Scott aptly observed: “Thomistic ontological epistemology bears relevance for empirical science. This is because if truth claims are epistemic, they should be potentially verifiable through falsificatory tests” (253).

This provides us with the rationale to suggest that Aquinas would be unlikely to find Augustine’s outlook on the role of friends as the agents of self-knowledge very convincing, especially given the earlier mentioned ambivalent quality to it. At the same time, it would also be rather unlikely for Aquinas being willing to criticize Augustine publicly – even today, both theologians are commonly regarded to have equally contributed to the development of the Catholic theological doctrine. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was assumed that Augustine’s epistemic stance did correlate perfectly well with that of Aquinas – hence the Church’s willingness to sanctify both philosophers.

Responses to Criticism

We can speculate that while addressing Aquinas’s criticism, Augustine would once again refer to the fact that experiential knowledge cannot possibly be deemed a methodologically appropriate pathway towards gaining self-awareness. The reason for this is that what we learn about the surrounding environment (and our place in it) only indirectly relates to this environment’s “ideational” nature.

There is even more to it – by allowing the epistemic apparatus of a secular science to be utilized for defending the theological soundness of Christianity (the idea endorsed by Aquinas), one will inevitably create the objective prerequisites for the former to begin weakening this religion from within. It needs to be said that such a development did take place later in the history. After all, both Galilei and Copernicus have received an extensive theological training with Thomism at its core.

In his turn, Aquinas would be likely to refute such an argumentative claim by pointing to the fact that, whereas the deployment of the Augustinian epistemological approach did make a certain sense in the 4th century AD, this has effectively ceased to be the case through the “advanced Middle Ages” period. This simply could not be otherwise – by the 13th century, Christianly has undergone a transformation from being just another quasi-religious suicidal cult, followed by those who were expecting to see the second coming of the “Savior” during their lifetime, to the continent’s most powerful religion, capable of waging wars (against the “infidels”) of its own.

By this time, it was no longer appropriate for Christian theologians to focus on exploiting the apocalyptic anxieties in people while denying the possibility for empirical science to be able to serve even a subservient role to religion. Science and religion had to be “reunited” – hence, the discursive significance of Thomism.


I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, as to what account for the most fundamental differences between the gnoseological approaches by Augustine and Aquinas, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.

Whereas Augustine used to draw heavily from Plato, Aquinas has made a point in using the Aristotelian dialectics as the foundation of his religious philosophy. There is, however, a good reason to think of both theologians as having been mutually complementary, in the epistemic sense of this word. This is another reason to believe that Augustine and Aquinas did contribute to the developmental progress of Western philosophy rather substantially – despite the fact that doing this was the last thing on their mind at the time.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Theologiae.” Web.

Augustine. “Confessions.” Gutenberg. Web.

Cary, Phillip. “The Inner Word Prior to Language: Augustine as Platonist Alternative to Gadamerian Hermeneutics.” Philosophy Today, vol. 55, no. 2, 2011, pp. 192-198.

Kondrick, Linda. “Thomism and Science Education: History Informs a Modern Debate.” Integrative and Comparative Biology, vol. 48, no. 2, 2008, pp. 202–212.

Macdonald, Paul. “Direct Realism and Aquinas’s Account of Cognition.” Knowledge and the Transcendent: An Inquiry into the Mind’s Relationship to God, edited by Paul Macdonald, Catholic University of America Press, 2009, pp. 81–134.

Scott, Callum D. “Facing Being: The Significance of Thomist Ontological Epistemology to Realism in Post-Kantian Philosophy.” South African Journal of Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 3, 2014, pp. 347-364.

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