Gilbert Meilaender on limits to self-knowledge

Any attempt definitively to review our lives or integrate fully their divergent strands may be futile; for we cannot find a place from which to see ourselves whole, to catch the heart and hold it still.

That is the profound insight of book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions. … For when in book 10 Augustine begins to take stock of how well he is doing in his attempt, since his conversion, to live the Christian life, he comes to see that this is a question he cannot answer.

A reader beginning the Confessions is likely to get the impression that its author understands the course of his life, but it turns out that this sort of life review can be done only by God. Unable to see himself whole and entire, Augustine finally has to acknowledge that our lives are a mystery to us. ‘What then am I, my God? What is my nature? A life various, manifold, and quite immeasurable. … I dive down deep as I can, and I can find no end.’ God knows the course of Augustine’s life better than he knows it himself, and, hence, the recounting of that life must become confession. ‘I will confess what I know of myself, and I will confess what I do not know of myself.’

We cannot really determine whether the course of our life, passing through its various stages, has had the kind of integrity and wholeness needed to make it complete. The division of life into ages offers a certain sense of completion—but at the cost of our capacity for free self-transcendence. … And the related vision of life’s course as a career offers what is, in the end, only an illusion of self-control and self-understanding.

Gilbert Meilaender, “A Complete Life,” First Things, no. 219 (Jan 2012). Also available in Should We Live Forever? (Eerdmans, 2013): 89-106.

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