Why does Augustine discuss the word “metheglin” in book X of De Trinitate?
“What you are absolutely ignorant of you simply cannot love in any sense whatever.” To love something then means to know some aspect of it, at the least. You may love something, of course, without fully comprehending it, and in most cases this is the normal way. Indeed, we will never comprehend God.
However, there has to be something which is the object of our love. This something could even be knowledge itself, and to know there is something unknown that you want to know is to already know “something” is there to know. You may not know the answer to a question, but you, knowing the question, will desire the answer. You cannot desire the answer without knowing there is a question to which an answer belongs.
Here, Augustine uses the unknown word “metheglin,” and the point is that, upon hearing this, one recognizes that this is a word, and that it therefore is a sign that, once known, provides meaning. It is like seeing smoke and knowing there is some cause. We can love fire by loving smoke and loving its cause, without knowing what that cause actually is. Here, we do somewhat the same thing with a conventional sign rather than a natural one.
As a rational animal, we seek to know, and an unknown sign is something we are aware of that in turn makes us aware of something we do not know. Naturally, then, we want to know this. We seek the cause, and eventually, we seek the first cause. We rest in knowing this first cause, and love this resting.
“When we hear of ‘God’ we know we hear a sign that has meaning. That much we know; but the reality of God we are driven to seek.”
This, of course, reminds one of the Ontological argument of St. Anslem and his followers (followers at least in this). And the fool says in his “heart,” not his “mind,” there is no God. So we, by this argument, seem to know God in some way and seek to know him all the more. We don’t think of it like “gobbledy goo” or some made up term, but that there is a real substance to know behind the term. If there was just a sound, but nothing we knew it signified, we wouldn’t seek to know what it meant. So, as Anselm himself intended to extend in some way the thought of Augustine as he interpreted it, in the term God we know something real is there that we want to know more.
‘Enter into the cell of your mind, shut out everything except God and whatever helps you to seek Him once the door is shut. Speak now, my heart, and say to God, “I seek your face; your face, Lord, I seek.”‘ – Proslogion
I am not here trying to affirm or deny the validity of the argument, but merely reflect on it as a development of seeking to know that which we know in some way but not in another…it is certainly different from hearing “metheglin” which we may not know the meaning of at all, or of “unicorn,” of which knowledge of its meaning does not affirm its existence. Yet, we know something of God, and yet we do not comprehend God.
Do we therefore know something of God and not something else, like a percentage of God that we do and do not know? I think not. We cannot say that we are limited in our knowledge of God because we can only know a certain “amount” of Him (He is infinite; what would “amount” mean?) or a certain “part” of Him (He is simple and not composed of parts and thus, what would this mean either?).
So we may learn that metheglin is the Greek word for mead (temetum is the Latin word), a sort of wine made with honey. We can even approach “comprehending” it. But we cannot do this with God. We cannot, then, know God in a univocal way with knowing things of this world, yet we are not agnostic in our knowledge of God either. Once again, analogy comes into play.
We must “seek His face” always. Our joy, after all, is in contemplating God, who is (except of Himself) never to be comprehended.