Saint Augustine’s Attention Deficit Disorder

By Rick Segreda

(Originally published in Mahattanville College's Touchstone, March 1988)

All minds are created equal. Yes? No. Some people are born retarded, some with mental illnesses, and some with learning disabilities. With regards to the latter, we know that many people of accomplishment, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill, had dyslexia, but as far as I can tell, when the subject of their dyslexia is mentioned, all we hear about is how much they accomplished in spite of, not because of, their disabilities. The thing about people with learning disabilities is that very often they are as strong in some areas of learning as they are weak in others. Thus, we can understand why, even though he flunked math, Einstein was such a great physicist. What I would like to do with regard to one great thinker, Saint Augustine, is to show that 1)Augustine had a learning disability, and 2) that the virtues and limitations of his thought can be attributed to it.

It seems very likely that St. Augustine (AD 354 -430), one of the most influential thinkers in western history, had attention deficit disorder, a.k.a., ADD. What is ADD? It is a neurological disorder whose major symptoms include a high level of distractibility, difficulty in organizing, impulsively and what I would described as mental hyperactivity: having a mind that is constantly buzzing with thoughts. As Frank Wolkenberg, who has ADD, writes in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, "Disorganized, unwanted information pours in ceaselessly. It [ADD] is a very egalitarian disability. The trash collector in the alley demands as much attention as the boss on the phone." Excess distractibility and disorganized thought are mentioned as problems for Augustine in book ten of his Confessions:

Nevertheless, there are many occasions, small and contemptible enough, in which our curiosity is daily tempted, and it is impossible to count the times we slip...I no longer go to the games to see a dog chasing a hare, but if I see this sport going on, it may distract me from serious reflection -- not, indeed, so as to make me turn my horse's body out of the way, but enough to alter my heart's inclination. And unless you [God] showed me my infirmity and quickly admonished me...I would stand languidly gaping at it.

What shall I say of those occasions when, sitting at home, my attention is attracted by a lizard catching flies or by a spider entangling them in his web...Our prayers are interrupted and disturbed, and when, in your presence, we direct the voice of our hearts to your ears, this important matter is broken off by an invasion of idle, empty thoughts, coming from I know not where."

As can be discerned from the above passage, Augustine is very hard on himself for what he views as his lack of mental self-discipline, and such self-criticism is common among people with neurological disorders.

Even more significant, Augustine’s is pre-Eisensteinian insight into time’s elastic nature – Boethius, for one, preceded him – but the fact that the arrived at such an insight does, when considered along with his distractibility problems, point up to his having ADD. As Wolkenberg says: "At the heart of ADD is a relativistic perception of time and space…there is no sense of a continuos whole against which to measure the parts…Everything must be done now, impulsively." It would be worthwhile to investigate to what extent did Einstein’s neurological disorder affect his insights into time and space.

What is also worth noting is Augustine’s guilt-ridden obsession with sensual lusts, like sex, food and wine. As Wolkenberg says above, people with ADD tend to be excessively impulsive. It is not uncommon, therefore, for someone with ADD to develop an addiction, be it alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, or sex.

Last, but not least, is Augustine’s relentless search for inner peace throughout The Confessions. Mood swings are another major of ADD, with what Wolkenberg says are cyclical "shifts from elation to depression every hours or days." One can say, then, that Augustine’s dissatisfaction with sensual pleasure and various philosophies as the key to a happy life were exacerbated by mood swings and resulted in him having a greater awareness than most people of his time of how true serenity must have a spiritual, not material basis.

Insofar as it helped Augustine achieve such philosophical and spiritual insights, one can say it was a fortunate thing that he had ADD, but it had it’s drawbacks as well. Not being able to identify the real cause of his restless mind and heart, he, as a Christian, attributed it to the effects of original sin, and from his subjective experience of life, he developed a theory of human nature that emphasized man at his worst. For example, in book one of The Confessions, arguing how we are all born in a state of complete selfishness, Augustine writes: "I myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak, it was livid as it watched another infant at his breast." Earlier he had already mentioned how impatient he was as an infant. The problem is, however, that extreme impatience and excessive anger are symptoms of ADD. Since Augustine probably had ADD, chances are he was very observant of ADD characteristics in others.

Like Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, Augustine was driven by a lust for both the intellectual and sensual, but unlike Brecht’s conception of Galileo as an anti-hero, Augustine realized that these were just the effects of an unconscious lust for the spiritual, which nothing less than God’s grace could satisfy. Nonetheless, Augustine would probably have had a much easier time being at peace with himself if he knew what we know today about neurological disorders, and considering his influence as a thinker, history, culture, and theology might have been a little different.


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