“The soul, loving its own power, slides away from the whole which is common to all into the part which is its own private property. By following God’s directions and being perfectly governed by his laws it could enjoy the whole universe of creation; but by the apostasy of pride which is called the beginning of sin it strives to grab something more than the whole and to govern it by its own laws; and because there is nothing more than the whole it is thrust back into anxiety over a part, and so by being greedy for more it gets less […] It drags the deceptive semblances of bodily things inside, and plays about with them in idle meditation until it cannot even think of anything divine except as being such.”
Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity
Augustine’s point seems to be that as a person views the universe in exclusive relation to themselves, and as everything is mapped in relation to self, reality is necessarily distorted. There is a tragic link between egocentricity and a narrowness of understanding. Yet as we defer to God and submit to his thinking on the whole then the whole is ours to understand. But as we seek to snatch the whole and make it our own and govern it ourselves we lose the whole, and our view of reality atrophies. And Augustine notes that this shrivelling of reality in our own perception – even the reality of God – is barely noticable but results in a universe bound to the constraints of our concepts and imagination. And God becomes an unreal caricature, too small to need to bother with. And when the Bible shows us that perhaps reality is bigger than we thought it can only be conceived of as a threat.
Here Augustine is describing the noetic effects of sin; sin twists our knowing. It shatters our understanding and our ability to understand. As our pride reaches out to snatch reality back from God and to set ourselves up as the determiners of good and evil, so then our understanding of reality distorts and shrinks and our view of the universe clouds over. And so in reaching out for more than the whole we end up with far less.