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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Book XIII is tricky; it is often skipped when people teach Augustine. He is trying to read the opening verses of Genesis in several ways simultaneously. First, to stress the utter dependence of all of creation upon God; second, to integrate into Christianity the basic metaphysics of Plato and Plotinus; third, as a metaphorically compressed history of the church and its organisation.
So, creation occurs in two steams -- the spiritual and the corporeal (XIII.2) -- and in each stream in three phases -- original creation, conversion, and formation. The original creation is of that which is formless (shapeless as you translate it); conversion is when the first creation 'hears' the Word of God (that is, it returns to the call of its creator; this is passive for the corporeal, but active for the spiritual); formation is the result. The primary concern of Book XIII is spiritual creation; whereas corporeal creation is dealt with more fully in Book XII.
The first phase of corporeal creation is unformed matter, the Earth prior to it being made up of things (XII. 3-4). But, just like you, Augustine finds he cannot really understand unformed matter (XII.6). Our intelligence or reason deals with or thinks with forms, and thus that which is unformed seems impossible. By unformed does not just mean changeable (most forms are), nor does it simply mean ugly or misshapen (although Augustine uses these as metaphors frequently enough). The closest he can get (again in XII.6) is that the unformed is the stage between forms.