It is a conspicuous, if seldom noted, historical truth that during the first millenium of Christian history the Church attracted many of the most gifted minds in the ancient world. The parade of luminaries is quite astonishing: Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthge, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor; and of course the four Latin doctores ecclesiae, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Yet, Augustine towers over all. It is not hyperbolic to say during his lifetime he was the most intelligent man in the Mediterranean world. Between Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece and Thomas Aquinas in the high middle ages, he has no peer.
Augustine surpasses measurement. More than any other thinker from antiquity he is a world. He lived very long, seventy-six years, wrote more profusely, and thought more deeply than any other early Christian thinker, and his imagination moved across a much larger canvas. He pondered all the great questions debated by thoughtful men and women in ancient Greece and Rome: freedom and determinism, how does one know, what is the highest good (summum bonum), what makes human beings unique, what kind of a being is God, how did the world come to be, how does one account for evil, what is the place of the affections in the virtuous life. He was fascinated by two of the most mysterious and elusive aspects of human experience: memory and time.
“Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery. . . a power of profound and infinite multiplicity.” With its huge cavern filled with mysterious and secret nooks and crannies memory eludes our understanding. In the “vast hall of my memory,” wrote Augustine, I meet “all the sensations I have experienced . . . and there I also meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it.” He recognized that memory has to do not only with recalling what one has experienced, but discovering what was already there buried deep within the recesses of the mind “even before I learned them.”
Of time he wrote: “What is time? . . . Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.”