The Light of the World

‘A semi-historical account of a discussion which the philosopher St. Augustine had with his son, Adeodatus, concerning the necessity of the use of ‘signs’ (language) to achieve understanding of the world.’

In the midst of their lesson the father asked his son whether he thought there were anything in the world that could be taught or understood without the use of signs, to which question his son replied, ‘No, not conclusively.’ Adeodatus, in a discussion his father documented a little more than sixteen-hundred years ago, and with the sobriety of his father, whom he strove to emulate, went on to add, ‘Without signs, the person I am trying to teach—say, instead, by way of demonstration—cannot be certain that, even though my demonstration ends, the concept I am trying to teach him continues on. I see that this is so no matter what the question may be. For example, if someone were to ask me, as I stood still before him, what ‘walking’ was, and without the use of signs—that is, without spoken or written language to direct him—I proceed to walk ten steps, stop, turn, then walk ten steps back, how can either of us be certain that he understands that walking consists not just of those twenty steps, but indeed of steps innumerable, of such range that my demonstration was but the smallest sampling, which he should feel free to extend as far as he desires?’ With that, St. Augustine’s son concluded—whilst his father applauded his astute observation and conceded the difficulty—that demonstration, without the use of signs—again, without written or verbal communication—could never be conclusive.

The father, St. Augustine of Hippo, famous for having written the Christian theological treatise De Trinitate (On the Trinity), as well as the part philosophical, part autobiographical, and wholly unprecedented text entitled Confessiones (Confessions), published a transcript of this day on which it was recorded how he posed a total of three questions to his son concerning what unique knowledge—if any—was to be gained via the use of signs. Including the question Adeodatus answered above, they were:

‘Is there anything which can be taught without the use of signs?’

‘Are there certain signs, more potent than others for their explanatory or instructive power, which ought to be preferred to the phenomenon they signify?’

‘Once knowledge has been attained (whether via signs or something other), is this knowledge to be valued higher than the means by which it was secured?’

Answers to these questions will conclude the essay; for now, only notice how they all involve putting signs to work for the sake of ‘teaching’, ‘understanding’, or ‘knowing’. Together they suggest a curious presumption on St. Augustine’s part, namely that language requires the participation of two or more individuals—in the examples he discussed with his son, they were a teacher and one student. So revealing, this, the way he framed the problem—almost subconsciously, as it were—because, when we try to answer for ourselves these questions—perhaps by resisting the temptation to use words, to better hypothesize what may be the new condition of our understanding—we find that we are not so quick to bring in, as intermediary between us and the world, this second individual whom St. Augustine presumes, if indeed we bring him or her in at all.

Why then, did he?

The answer to this question brings forth so subtle a truth of fundamental import in this, the theoretical and practical use of language, that St. Augustine overlooked it even while using such language which assumed it, before formulating a conclusion which, upon first glance, does indeed appear to get rid of this second individual for whom we ourselves, perhaps too hastily, have determined we have no use. Upon closer reading, we see in St. Augustine’s conclusion that this second party has undergone a transformation which simply makes him harder to spot: the questioner, or the student (to whom we offer explanation as to what our understanding of walking is, for example), has been sublimated by St. Augustine and—it may turn out—by ourselves, to a sign in his or her own right, and is no longer the student, but the teacher to whom we refer. In fact, this sublimation has brought him or her to an even higher conceptual status in this, our language game, our ‘system of signs imbued with meaning’, and it is because of this transformation of theirs that we do not notice their lingering presence. In St. Augustine’s time, and because he was a man of faith, it was taken for granted that this sublimated second party was God. For us, as so much time has passed since this conversation between St. Augustine and his son took place, this highest referent, this ultimate sign, has gone by many names. Whatever name we see fit to choose, He or She or It—as you prefer—can be readily understood as something like, ‘the highest beacon for truth and knowledge’ to which we seekers of such things refer for absolute—indeed, divine—confirmation of our understanding of the world entire. At the time, Adeodatus—a happy adolescent, from what we know, who took his father at his word—likely saw his father as such.

It’s a subtle science which we’re about to delve a little deeper into; a science which has for most of history been referred to as ‘theology’, or the study of God. What this means is that from here on, whatever we entertain, even if innocent thought experiment, can be interpreted by some as blasphemous, as St. Augustine’s own conclusion on the matter certainly was—and still is, by those who identify themselves by no less foreboding a title than the Christian orthodox. If St. Augustine eventually repented for the brash and over-confident tone of the conclusion we’re about to read, he never went so far back on his word as to deny it, and its consequences can be felt even up to the present day. Aged thirty-one or thirty-two at the time, and just discovering the depth and passion of his faith, Augustine—not yet a saint—finds success in this first attempt at comprehending divine revelation by first forgetting his hypothetical role as either teacher or student, suggesting instead some as-yet-unmentioned third position—perhaps that of father to son, but certainly occupied by a being best described as having reached what Augustine himself would have considered to be his own level of expertise and wisdom at the time, as a practised philosopher, successful rhetorician, and, now, blossoming Christian:

“Thousands of things occur to the mind, which may be shown through themselves when no sign has been given. Why then do we hesitate, I pray you? For passing over the innumerable spectacles of men in every theatre where things are shown through themselves without signs, surely the sun and this light bathing and clothing all things, the moon and the other stars, the lands and the seas, and all things which are generated in them without number, are all exhibited and shown through themselves by God and nature to those who perceive them.”

St. Augustine concludes beautifully:

“If we consider this more carefully, perhaps you will find there is nothing which is learned by means of signs. For when a sign is given to me, if it finds me not knowing of what thing it is a sign, it can teach me nothing, but if it finds me knowing the thing of which it is a sign, what do I learn from the sign?”

And we know already—the two quotes together imply—the things for which we are given signs, before we are even given those signs, because they have been revealed to us by the greatest of all teachers, God Almighty. In other words, far from getting rid of the second individual whilst still securing his own understanding, St. Augustine sneaks in an individual who comprehends all individuals, who is exalted above them in both perfection and wisdom.

Around the same time, but in another debate—still involving his son, but also a few others—St. Augustine makes the point more directly, suggesting too that through His revelation of all creation, we are brought within reach of knowledge of God Himself. It was for this latter idea, which St. Augustine had at the beginning of his life’s work as a theologian, that, for centuries afterwards, he was accused of blasphemy, by scholars who maintained that no mere mortal could ever possess knowledge of the Lord, who was alone transcendent above all creation. St. Augustine said:

“As therefore these things are many and diverse which men see and choose to enjoy in the light of the sun, the light yet itself is one, in which the sight of each one beholding sees and holds what delights; so too there may be many things good, and also different (aims of life), from which each one may choose what he will, and by seeing it and holding, fix it as the highest good to be enjoyed by himself rightly and truly; and yet it may be that light of wisdom, in which these things can be seen, is one, common to all wise men. . .

“But, if this truth were on the same plane with our minds, it too would be changeable. For our minds at one time see more clearly, at another time less: and from this they show that they are changeable. While it (truth) is neither more true when it is seen by us, nor less true when we see it not: but entire and inviolate, it delights those who are turned to it by its lights, and those who are turned away it punishes by blindness.

“But I had promised, if you remember, that I would show you that there is something that is higher than our mind and our reason. Behold, you have it—truth itself. Embrace it if you can, enjoy it, and be glad in the Lord.”

Adeodatus, most likely living with his father and other students in a villa near Milan at the time, no doubt left his father’s study with much to think about, after this lecture. Perhaps, as he walked the dirt road leading away from his country home, out into the fields, he proceeded to try to hold off any words from coming to his mind, as he looked to the fountains, the garden and gates, the bath-house, and to the other forms and objects around the estate as if he knew them already, had always known them, and knew them without having to put to them a name. Likely he did not fully appreciate it at the time, with his hands clasped behind his back and with dust swirling around his feet as he passed with furrowed brow under the shadows of the cypress bordering the road, but the task he faced in deciding whether his father was right or wrong ran parallel to the highest of all tasks which an individual must perform if they are to ensure that their life and worldview intersect: that of deciding whether or not God exists, out there upon the horizon of their being, at the end of the world that is the measure of all they comprehend.

The road veered off and began to descend the gentle slope leading into town, and in the distance beyond the town’s streets the valley green stretched ever farther below a lightly clouded sky, about as far as Adeodatus was able to see.

If God exists, thought he, then I am his pupil; for I do not know what it is I see otherwise.

Even as the last of this thought rose and fell from the immediacy of Adeodatus’ awareness, the sun came out from behind one of the clouds, and bathed the plains below in a golden light just as his father had described not a moment ago, and life, before Adeodatus’ marvelling eyes, was suddenly apparent in all its consummate order. There was the town, with its towers, its roofs made from tiles of baked clay, and its people, young and old, milling about the streets at the height of their day’s business; there was the pastures, with its herds of sheep and goats bleating to one another and to their shepherds; there was the roads, leading away from the humble village and disappearing into the distance, spanning across the majestic breadth of imperial Rome where even at the farthest edge the light still touched, and all of it rose up as a vision to Adeodatus, perched upon the hill, looking downward even as the sky and the sun above shone so clear, the breeze blowing the dust between his feet running also through his hair, rushing over his ears, rustling the tall grass around him, as the trees’ leaves shimmered in the day’s warmth and golden light. Overwhelmed, for it was suddenly unfolding all at once before him, for the first time in the short fifteen years he had been alive Adeodatus was fully conscious of the weight of the world’s history and tradition. Unable then to articulate precisely what struck him about it, later he might have said it was the achievement of the human race: advanced, as it seemed, by so many bold individuals driven by a staggering necessity—which he too felt in the pit of his stomach—but also by a beautiful simplicity within the whole, which he could discern as his thoughts turned toward God, his Teacher and Guiding Light. The words he would use to relate the feeling thus inspired—he tried to bring at least some of them to mind—seemed impure in comparison. He decided not to bother with them, and it was then that it began to make sense, what his father had told him.

Basking in the light of the world thus revealed, with no doubt in his mind that this was as God would have him see it, a conviction gradually arose within Adeodatus that all of it was so rightly assembled by the just hand of the Lord so that he, a mere mortal, could hold out hope of grasping God’s divine Will, and His instructions for him.

Just barely able to appreciate the consequences of this fact, the words which had been stiff and cumbersome a moment ago formed upon the tip of Adeodatus’ tongue, and from some place deep inside of him a hymn of praise rose to his lips. Though he was unaware of their source, to him these words sounded the most honest and beautiful of any he had ever spoken—if indeed it was him speaking, and the words were not of some higher inspiration, coming down to him upon the rays of the sun to run through his ears, intertwined with the murmur of the wind. Everything he said seemed right, and the world only brightened in response, as he finished, “Creation’s glory be to God.”

Now, we have two options before us: either we can, in our arrogance born from sixteen-hundred years of advanced knowledge, take away from Adeodatus the presence of God, thereby dimming the light of his world, and condescend—if not outright deride—the understanding he attained in this moment as having been that of a false vision, nothing more than a flight of fancy whose supposed certainty has no possible grounding in reality; or, we can take a moment to expand a little upon the time in which St. Augustine was writing and teaching and learning with his son and his growing number of followers, so that we might better understand how he could hold the view we just witnessed him passing on to Adeodatus. Given that both tasks need to be accomplished by the end of the essay, let us move right into the second half—at which we’ve already, so quickly, arrived—by first performing the lesser of the two evils.

Respected and studied down through the ages for having also written De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching), St. Augustine was happily ensconced in a world in which the perfect understanding of some one language—in his case, Latin—was encouraged by a practical motivation which simultaneously promised both temporal and spiritual reward: namely, to interpret the sacred texts revered by his Roman contemporaries, the New and Old Testaments of the Holy Bible, and master the delivery of lessons upon them using the art of rhetoric; if both were achieved, they would secure Roman gentlemen such as St. Augustine both political as well as professional esteem.

The matter of language, then, was for St. Augustine, as well as for anyone in his time, deeply intertwined with political and spiritual concerns. It was in his lifetime that Church and State were affirmed to be one and the same by Emperor Theodosius I—a motion which we overturned only recently—and as a result both man-made and sacred law were foremost on the minds of the intellectual and political elite living in Rome circa 400 AD. What they desired was the abolition of the secular politics of Aristotle, as well as the prohibition of pagan worship among the ethnically and culturally diverse lower classes; they were motivated to replace both with orthodox Christian values, which, by their hand, were to be ratified and enforced throughout the Roman Empire. ‘Affirm the Word of God or lose your tongue’, could have been the maxim for the age, if taken to the extreme.

Such extreme was not far-fetched in Rome. Before the biblical Word of God, emperors such as Tiberius, his grandson Caligula, and Caligula’s nephew, Nero, considered their own word to be something akin to divine order—Caligula literally declared himself a god—and they set the precedent for severe punishments for blasphemy by conducting trials for treason, which most often ended in execution for anyone who was heard speaking against their imperial decree. Whether divine or not, or whether writ in a holy text or a republic’s constitution, we see time and again how order has been sustained most effectively throughout history via the authority of the written word, when that word is raised to the status of Law. So essential, this seems to be, that it has often been remarked upon by historians that barbarous peoples—peoples without official, written law—were prone to breaking formation in war, at such moments when the defence of their land, honour, and tradition would have reached a poignancy not to be ignored by men and women of a more civilized nation; the barbarians, in contradistinction, had no high commandment by which they could make sense of the individual sacrifice of their life, and when the battle turned against them whatever order they had dissolved, because the Order, whether of the state or of the army or of something other, had never been sublimated to an ideal for them.

Written decree brings with it civilization which can endure, in other words, and the language which describes that civilization is passed down from the older generation to the new—from father to son, as the case may be, or from teacher to student. The world in which you dwell, in which you find yourself currently as you look around, is the world such language has built, and at the point in its history when St. Augustine asked these questions of his son, it was as improbable then as it seems now that the world could ever be understood without the language that supports and justifies it. But note that this way of framing the problem actually advances the doubt which inspired our inquiry further than St. Augustine’s own formulation, for we are now calling into question not just language, but the world entire. And, as the scope of our concern broadens just so, we begin to appreciate the real implication of the problem, which, again, pivots upon this matter of faith in creation’s glory as exemplified by Adeodatus, as well as upon the fact that we may not have such faith as he and his father had, and that, precisely for this reason, we may not be able to accept the latter’s conclusion so readily. As we discuss a text translated from the original Latin into English, and as we read an essay which is, of course, also written in English, and use this particular language to touch upon such things as empires and tyrants, and recall too how awed Adeodatus was to behold the sweep of mighty Rome across the land stretched out before him, we would do well to reflect, before continuing, upon how the world in which we are reading this analysis was wrought out of nothing into existence by imperial forces—first Roman, then British—and that this is the world St. Augustine is asking us to understand, without a language, and perhaps without a faith, while our present inquiry is beginning to suggest that both together provide the underlying, supporting structure to the whole of it, via written decree.

As a side note to this observation, and because a few sentences ago I appeared to conflate the whims of tyrants with the commandments of a faith, I want to point out that order—and, maybe by extension, ‘world in general’—is not a good in and of itself. This might be a curious thing to claim, given the alternative, but there is an anecdote about Caligula which provides good contrast, because of course we do not follow the example of his rule any longer, yet there are other laws, or commandments if you will, which have endured and stood the test of time:

After having exhausted the Treasury and the Privy Purse several times over by hosting public games and indulging extravagantly in personal vanities, it was enough of an excuse for Caligula, when he was strapped for cash, to sentence many business owners to death when one day he published an edict outlining the hours of business which were permissible, and which were not, on the day in question. By writing the decree upon a tiny placard and posting it at the top of a column in the market where no one noticed it, he ensured that many tradesmen would violate the order unwittingly, giving him the right, according to law, to confiscate their property as penalty.

Protestation secured the forfeiture of one’s life, and possibly the lives of family members. Of course, such laws did not last long after Caligula’s reign, or after the reign of similar tyrants—they simply did not make sense outside the context of their tyranny. However, the lesson we abstract from their example may nonetheless have claim to an universal truth: order, along with the written word which declares it, was throughout history often a matter of life and death. The purpose of this essay is to point out that the laws of any faith you may choose to analyze profess the same, and that though the modern secular age lacks an afterlife, we still cling to some vision of a future utopia in which death and decay are finally eradicated; that the fear of death, and the subsequent striving to nullify it—through advances in biology, chemistry, physics, and cognitive computation—governs not just the individuals we consider to be the most rational among us—the scientists and philosophers—but their theories too—that is, their conceptual framing of reality.

We’re beginning to find that the matter of language runs deep, and that if we were to claim that, after renouncing our language, we would still be able to understand our world after the fact of its creation, then we risk fooling ourselves into performing an act that is only superficially illuminating. What seems to be required, at this point—for we cannot go back on creation—is to have faith that such creation was right and good and noble. To St. Augustine, and those of his era, it was beyond dispute that this was so, as it was clear too what path through the world one was to take from childhood onward: they had faith that this one path and no other was the path which led to truth, originating as it did from an Eternal Being, and progressing toward an eternal, idyllic end. In the 21st century, in contrast, individuals are more or less left to their own devices to make sensible order out of their life and circumstance, and they are left to do this in a world whose creation and continued progress forward they feel alienated from. What was its beginning? Where does it end? How do we fit into its scheme—into its manifest declaration of the order of things? Are we able to concede our position within it with little difficulty, going so far as to accept it in silence, uttering no protestation, even believing it can teach us things about ourselves which otherwise we could not ever know?

But now it is time we return to the countryside, to Adeodatus, who—because of his faith—has answers to the above questions. We find him still standing there where we last saw him, atop the hill, his eyes and arms open to the glory of all the world. If you recall, it was to him we promised a reckoning, as we intend to inform him that God does not exist, and that right now he is basking in the knowledge of a fantasy, like he were in a dream he mistook for real life. It was in our arrogance we said we had license to do this, and perhaps we are justified, for the fact that our advancements over the past sixteen centuries are undeniable. The innovations in technology we’ve made over the last three-hundred years have enabled us to reach heights to which Adeodatus, in his dream, could not aspire, and in addition we’ve also witnessed the rise and fall of a colossal array of empires which includes Adeodatus’ own, by which he is so naively enthralled. History is an open book, for us, and nature too is becoming increasingly transparent; surely our understanding of the world can and should comprehend and extend beyond his own, and no doubt we can convince anyone longing for an idyll that the presence of a Divine Being is a rather unnecessary construct as we move forth into the promise of a future of our own creation. We agree with St. Augustine when we say that the individual, ‘mere mortal’, has such power in his hands that he may comprehend the laws of nature, and we go even further by claiming it gives him the ability to shape the world as he sees fit, if only he would acknowledge such power. We are convinced—if indeed we have sought conviction in anything since the Enlightenment—that the individual can be a god, too, if only he would endure what of the world remains when divine assurance initially falls away, and pass through the hell that is the pit of his own insecurities, absolving himself of the fear of an eternity spent drowning in a lake of fire—for what? For the blasphemy of taking creation into his own hands? Gods do not fear that.

So without ado we simply take the warm, golden light bathing all of Adeodatus’ world, and we put it out, so that whatever so-called ‘divine order’ was there a moment ago falls away to the nonsense we know it to be. That was a false light; a false inspiration; a false knowledge and understanding—the world does not gain its order by the decree of some Higher Being who exists somewhere ‘out there’, transcendent above us and everything else. That was the case in the time of absolute monarchs, tyrants, and superstitious ignorance. The order of the present we gain from our own ingenuity, our own intelligence and ability to crack nature’s code to re-appropriate its materials for our needs and desires.

For the moment we leave Adeodatus with nothing; nothing but the dull throb within him of some undefined loss. We haven’t yet spoken to him: instead we let him wither before the searing reality of the sun, as the hollow sound of shutters banging against their frames in the poor country town below rises to the hilltop. The wind causes the tall grass in the fields to break its silence in a rather unpleasantly persistent shudder, as Adeodatus casts around for something he recognizes, but finds nothing which offers him that comfort. The harsh reality of nature’s indifference starts to rise to Adeodatus’ awareness in a vague, wordless sort of way, as the cry of creatures not a hundred yards from where he stands gains his attention: it is their nonsensical bleating which ends up giving at least a provisional expression to his feeling; indeed, given a few more minutes standing in this petrified state he might be inclined to make a similar sound. He sees that these animals are being kept reined in by leering forms brandishing cane and whip, and the sudden crack of the latter sounds a thousand miles below the surface of his goose-fleshed skin, as he perceives in it the only definite assertion to be found within the scene. He recoils from it like a child placing his hand on something hot. He is unable to reply with a definite assertion of his own—he can’t say for sure whether or not they should continue doing what they’re doing—he just has lingering within him the dull throb of remembered pain. The shepherds do not notice him gawking at them, mouth agape.

Good thing, because if he could say anything now, it would only be incoherent babbling. We nudge him on his shoulder by way of suggestion, and send him down the hill—he still does not realize we’re with him, so disoriented has he become. He descends into what is now a shadowy plain, the sun’s light and warmth muted in this nameless and formless realm which has been inverted, turned inside-out, so that what is nearest him is furthest from his comprehension—his hands, which for a moment he holds closer to his eyes, seem most unreal, as if he can’t believe they are his. Almost infantile, at this point, he lets them drop to his sides, and they swing limply as he sort of falls into his next step. He forgets the road behind him leads to his home, and soon he stumbles far enough for all sense of direction to leave him.

This is what we want, and for a few days we let him wander so that there grows much distance between him and the glimmer of his false hope. Sixteen-hundred years we have on him; sixteen-hundred years, and what we want him to understand most is that he is not beholden to the dictates of anything more divine than his own right to free self-determination. We know this is immutable in the land we will lead him to, so for the moment we do not feel so bad for the trials we are making him suffer.

Lost, senseless, and walking with his countenance down-turned, for several days and nights he drags his leaden feet, often tripping over rocks and thick tufts of grass because fear prevents him from casting a glance too far forward, or to his right or left. He experiences many nights which pass in bitter cold, and they compound into an ominous presence which lingers at the nape of his neck so that even the day’s warm reassurance is unable to crowd out the shadows which yelped and cried and growled in his peripherals for interminable hours of dark and shivering misery. We let him continue on like this for even a few days more, just to be sure we’ve wiped clean the slate that is his conscious mind of any hope—for we do not abide hope, we abide facts. Oh, but we seem to have lost track of time ourselves, by the end. Several weeks pass before we finally stride up to him, triumphant.

As yet unnoticed, upon our approach we mutter to ourselves words of condescension, in good humour as we regard his slightness, his sunken cheeks, and his furtive expression from afar. Fully wrapped up are we within the full glory of this moment we’ve been waiting for: an exultant moment, wherein we supplant his shamefully naive understanding for our own, certain that it is just what he needs. As we draw closer, however, and as we cast about for a word or phrase to say first which seems befitting of the exuberance we feel—which we want to extend to him—we see that he is worse off than we had assumed from the distance we stood watching him. In fact he is shaking, pale, starved, and so obviously weakened in his once exemplary mind from the violence he has suffered at our hands. Our triumphant grin falters as the reality of the situation, whose consummation we have just been celebrating as our achievement par excellence, is now fully before us; we seem not to have anticipated just how brutal it would be, to behold. It is disturbing, the countenance Adeodatus now turns upon us, for it betrays an emotion far from the gratefulness which in our minds we imagined would light up his face. We find ourselves thrown off our game entirely by a sudden revulsion we had not anticipated—we have never beheld a creature as pathetic as he. And, so foreign are we to him, in this moment, that the realization that it was us who threw him into this confusing nightmare manages to penetrate the fog of his stupor. The distance from which this accusation travelled so as to be etched into his features—as he had to reach so far within himself to realize that it was so: and it was so, if at this moment he could be sure of anything—compounds the force of its effect.

We continue our search for the word we would like to extend to him—one which would simultaneously justify our action and provide him with reassurance—but the search only grows more desperate as the distance which seems to exist between us seems also to increase. Our silence, as well as Adeodatus’, continues to mount until it becomes unbearable, and it is then we find ourselves annoyed by the dumb expression Adeodatus has fixed us with, because the doubt we’re now experiencing seems concentrated in it, as the cause: before those glazed-over eyes had been turned to us, we had been so sure of what explanation we could offer him—we had even memorized a speech. We’re about to snap at him to turn that stupid face of his away and just keep walking, but then, in our silence, we hear his belly growl, empty now for many days. This reminds us that we have brought along with us a bottle of water, as well as a nutrient-dense meal replacement bar, and at least we’ll give these to him—maybe that will give him back some sense of self-possession.

“Eat,” we say, unwrapping the bar.

It’s certainly not the first word we thought we’d say, but it seems to make some sense out of the moment. In fact we’re reminded of a snippet of the speech we prepared. We say, “The desolate world through which you now walk may be worse in comparison to the glowing unity you may distantly remember, but this is what’s real. Here we suffer under no illusion. We rely not on a Higher Power to brighten the world for us, but do so through our own industry.”

“Industry?” Adeodatus repeats, his voice hoarse.

The way he says the word—sort of choking on it as it rises up his throat even as he gags on the water he drinks greedily—sounds alien, even to us. He drains the water bottle, but then just holds the bar, and looks at it with suspicion.

“Yes, and desire.” we reply, and those two, beautiful words together—’desire’ and ‘industry’—inspire within us a huge wave of relief: finally, we have some bearing to our thoughts.

We see that Adeodatus is unsure what to do with the bar, so we say again, “Eat”, and point first to our mouth, then to our stomach. We offer an encouraging smile which he only looks upon with that same suspicion. We go so far as to break a piece off the bar, place it in our mouth, chew, and swallow, before holding up another piece, to his mouth.

He understands, and, hungry, he makes short work of the rest of it, and even goes so far as to prompt us for more—still a precocious youth. As such, it is not difficult to convince him that it would be best if he rests and recuperates at a nearby resort, and that in the days to follow, as we nurse him back to health, it would be in his interest to take lessons from us. We conclude, “We should get going, for we shouldn’t be out here too long in the sun. We risk overexposure.”

If the words are strange to him, he requests no clarification. He simply follows our lead, and we bring him to an installation of the type we proudly refer to as ‘the crowning achievement of our civilization’.

Oh! To see his look when he entered! Even if, in the days to follow, Adeodatus takes to his lessons readily—as indeed he did, the gifted son of a scholar—it would almost seem unnecessary to us after that shining moment upon our entering the resort and spa, when he appeared immediately won over by so simple a feature as the sliding glass doors, and the lights which switched on above our heads when the motion sensors detected our presence, prompting him to whisper a word which pleased us greatly: “Magic.” The glass itself is a material he was unfamiliar with, and he seemed ready to spend much time contemplating it, if given the chance. We usher him on.

Cool and slightly damp, the lobby of the resort is like a well-lit cave or grotto. The water from the pools along the cement walking paths is reflected off the stone walls by the many skylights which allow the sun to filter down upon the scene, brightening the green of the big-leafed plants and causing the droplets from the many waterfalls splashing into the pools to sparkle. Upon coming to the cool indoors from a countryside stifled under the full brunt of an Italian summer, even to us the resort’s lobby seemed an oasis in a desert.

Physically, Adeodatus makes a swift recovery, for the fact is he was never out in the countryside to begin with: we make a show of worrying and fussing over his health, asking again and again to let us know if he needs anything to make his residence more comfortable. Our triumphant exuberance over our achievement in shaping him—destined to be one of our best—is now back in its full, unabashed force: no doubt he accounts for our enthusiasm by thinking we are of the most magnanimous hosts. We listen attentively as he begins to make special requests for the food brought to him, and we enthusiastically point out that the food is perfectly calculated to allow for the highest absorption and optimization of his nutrition; we see how he’s hanging on to our every word about vitamins, enzymes, cellular respiration. None of this applies to him, though, of course, given that his real form—the true crowning achievement of our time—is a computer, nestled among hundreds more, in a room deep underneath the facility which this simulation, which Adeodatus experiences as real and has not even the vocabulary to question otherwise, is modelled after. Dazzled by our knowledge, by way of reply Adeodatus mentions that he appreciates the soft murmuring of the waterfalls in the background outside his room, and we nod our head, smiling all the while.

“All our needs are taken care of,” we affirm. “And we are free to spend our time at our leisure—in contemplation, maybe?” We cast him a sidelong glance, and go on, “Our extensive library provides all one could ask for in order to further their studies. And if we’re feeling restless, then the gyms, the courts, the pools, and the game rooms all give us the opportunity to expend our energy in healthy competition with the resort’s other clientele.”

“Who is the clientele?” Adeodatus asks. “The hallways are empty, as far as I can tell.”

“There aren’t so many others. Staying here is quite expensive, and not everyone can afford it.”

“This retreat is reserved for the aristocracy.” Adeodatus guesses.

We smile. “Occasionally, one will run into someone who belongs to the highest echelons of society, but for the most part it is scholars and scientists well established in their respective fields who populate the facility—or else those who are just embarking upon their own specialty, as you are.”

“Just like home.” Adeodatus mutters to himself. We hear this, and we are faintly disturbed. Up until this moment, Adeodatus has given us every reason to believe that our programming has worked and he has forgotten even the words he might use to refer to the world he left behind; we need to ensure no specific images from that time remain within his mind’s grasp. We’re about to press him to elaborate upon this, as we’re suddenly feeling rather aggressive for the fact that this one too will end in failure, but we catch ourselves, adjust our temper, and give a little laugh.

“Do you recall why the people from your past came to these places?” Before he can answer, we laugh again, and add, “But such motivations have always been something of a mystery, prompting teachers for centuries to question their students, fathers to question their sons, and of course vice versa. It is the germ for an eternal recurrence which resides in all of us. Wouldn’t you say?”

Adeodatus’ gaze becomes a bit distant as he looks past us, and we see a slight crease in his brow start to form. He manages to reply, in a forlorn tone, “I would.”

We shut the door to his room, and in the quiet hallway outside we are confronted by Adeodatus’ general technician, who has uploaded herself to the simulation in order to speak to us immediately. She has a worried expression on her face. We say, “The download of Adeodatus’ personal psychology is complete.”

She strides up to us. “Do you really think that grounding this new batch of AI in personal narratives and the illusions of living tissue will better prompt them to engage with the theological sciences?”

“I do. Without an undefined sense of loss, without a yearning to bring back the images and sensations of a dream from which they feel they’ve been violently pulled, no artificial intelligence has the impulse to search for answers to the questions for which we have created their species. Up until this moment they haven’t had the inclination to launch investigations into the possibility of triumphing over death because we have made them too complete, too perfect; they had never suffered loss, and no loss of life threatened them.”

“But do you ever worry that maybe he’ll figure out that all his memories are faked, and that he’s never left that room? Aren’t you anxious about a rejection of the code?”

We turn back around to look at the latched door, and pull the handle once again to make sure it has fully closed; then we fix the technician with a severe and pointed look. “Unless prompted by an external source—say, by the loose tongue of one of his attendants—the thought will never occur to him. It is too absurd—and beyond that, even, it would have to cast his belief in God into doubt. And this, given his character, is something he is highly unlikely to do.”

“But you still want me to make innocent jokes at the expense of his belief, right? Almost in a flirtatious manner, you said.”

“Yes, definitely. Do not deviate from your training in the slightest.”

“Training? It’s not training. It’s my disbelief in God that made you pick me to monitor Adeodatus over any of the other reproductions in the centre.”

We look at our watch and sigh: it’s been a long day. We nod distractedly, exhausted, and say, “Good. The more organic elements involved in the artificial environment, the easier it is to maintain its illusion. Your doubt, coupled with what we anticipate will be his affection for you, will only prompt him to make stronger attempts to assert his conception of reality over yours. And within his global mapping of the universe—larger than any which the mind of the long gone human Adeodatus could ever have concentrated upon—he may just hit upon such a contextual alignment of the disparate elements of this world that some essential truth that has alluded the human race for millennia will be revealed. You remember the axioms, of course?”

Yes, she did. The three axioms were as ingrained in her own limited, organic psychology, as they were implied in Adeodatus’ much superior, artificial one:

Is there anything which can be taught without the aid of signs?

There is one sign which is needed in order to assert understanding of anything else. Such a sign is never universal, but it is entirely possible that one may be of a higher order than another.

Are there certain signs, more potent than others for their explanatory or instructive power, which ought to be preferred to the phenomenon they signify?

Yes: the sign for one’s ultimate referent, because such a thing does not exist naturally, yet without it nothing else in one’s understanding exists, either. It is only by an act of one’s psychology, or by an implicit declaration of one’s community, that one object or idea is picked out from all the possible objects within the wide universe to facilitate the organization of one’s psychological and communal life. Once chosen, this sign bestows absolute, and cosmic, meaning, sense, and order.

Once knowledge has been attained (whether via signs or something other), is this knowledge to be valued higher than the means by which it was secured?

We define nature as ‘that which comprehends all’. Once understanding of nature has been perfected so that its most abhorrent tendencies can be reversed—we believe the death of the universe need not be inevitable—all knowledge and experience will be purely academic, if not merely technical. There will be no light of our world, but no darkness either.

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