Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Change and Identity, Infancy and Pre-Infancy, Personhood

In Confessions 1.6.9, Augustine wonders aloud at the stability of his identity, his “ego,” over time as he leaves different stages of life (or they leave him). The issue arises at the beginning of the paragraph, where he writes: et ecce infantia mea olim mortua est et ego vivo (“And behold, my infancy at some point died and [yet] I live”), where the ego is emphatic because grammatically unnecessary, and in this instance is contrastive with mea. Our infancy (which in some sense “belongs” to us–mea) dies, and yet we (ourselves–ego) live. God, in contrast, lives always, and nothing dies in him (qui et semper vivis et nihil moritur in te). The unchangeable God is the source of our stability in the midst of change, and so Augustine turns to the immutable and always self-identical God to enlighten him as to his own unstable stability.

Rather than moving forward in time, he then moves backward–not “what came after infancy?” but “what preceded it?”1 Can we push identity back further? It would seem that we can: Augustine, in response to the question of whether infancy itself followed another period now dead (mortuae), answers with a question: an illa est, quam egi intra viscera matris meae? (“Or was it that period that I spent in the womb of my mother?”).

The “I” here, the ego, is the same as that in the first sentence of the paragraph. It was Augustine who was alive there in the womb, even though he does not remember it himself and is dependent on the testimony of others and personal experience: nam et de illa mihi nonnihil indicatum est et praegnantes ipse vidi feminas (“For [it is the case] both [that] something concerning this [stage] was pointed out to me and [that] I myself have seen pregnant women”). His identity, his personhood, his “Augustinitas,” reaches back before birth to the period intra viscera. Beyond that, he is not able to go. Regarding the period before before his conception, he asks, fuine alicubi aut aliquis? (“Was I anywhere or anyone?”). Neither testimony nor experience nor memory can give him any insight into this last question. Only then does the status of the ego become unclear.

But at every stage after conception, including not only infancy but also gestation, the status of his ego is not unclear to him, even though he does not have personal memory of the earliest phases of his pre- and post-natal development: regardless of his memory, his person existed.

qui habet aures audiendi audiat.


  1. His search for origins goes back to 1.6.7, where he writes: quid enim est quod volo dicere, domine, nisi quia nescio unde venerim huc, in istam dico vitam mortalem an mortem vitalem? (“For what is it that I want to say, Lord, except that I do not know whence I came into this dying life or living death?”).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.