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Saint Augustine and Classical Education

In Saint Augustine’s deeply personal work, Confessions, he shares the story of his life up to his eventual conversion to the Christian faith. His odyssey through life is, at times, one of bitter inner conflict between his intellect and faith. Augustine’s classical education had a profound affect on the way he viewed the world, and eventually had a major affect on the way he approached Christianity. He is definitely an “intellectual” Christian, and viewed many aspects of his faith from this perspective. Augustine’s attitude towards classical literature and thought was at times slightly self-contradictory. It is clear, however, that although he was grateful for the education he was given, it was not necessary to his conversion. At many points throughout his life, his education actually seemed to hinder his flight towards Christianity.
Augustine continually incorporated Bible verses and passages into his own writing, artfully blending the Scriptures in with his own views. His attitude toward intellect is best illustrated by this short passage in Corinthians:

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength… but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” -(Corinthians 25-28)

Augustine believed that the pursuit of wisdom without recognizing the importance and the power of God was useless. In his view it was a sin for a man to have that much pride and arrogance about his own intellect. Augustine recalled that as a very young man he himself succumbed to excessive pride. He fervently desired the recognition and prestige that came with being an accomplished rhetorician. He “squandered the brains [God] gave [him] on foolish delusions.” (I, 37)
Augustine considered his pursuit of worldly wisdom a futile effort at this point in his life because he did not fully understand the meaning behind what he was learning.

“ I read and understood by myself all the books that I could find on the so-called liberal arts, for in those days I was a good-for-nothing and a slave to sordid ambitions. But what advantage did I gain from them? I read them with pleasure, but I did not know the real source of such true and certain facts they contained… for what good was my ability, if I did not use it well?” (IV, 89)

He thought that a person did not necessarily need wisdom to understand and embrace God; he need only have faith. In book five, Augustine spoke of this principle by comparing two men:

“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you has all the wealth of the world…” (V, 95)

It can be argued that his intellectual pursuits further complicated his conversion because he was tormented by certain philosophical questions that became obstacles to his ultimate goals. In his youth he was obsessed with counting all the branches, while never seeing the whole tree. At times Augustine asserted that his pursuit of worldly wisdom was in direct conflict with his journey towards God.

“What, then, was the value to me of my intelligence, which could take these subjects in its stride, and all those books, with their tangled problems, which I unraveled without the help of any human tutor, when in the doctrine of your love I was lost in the most hideous error and vast sacrilege?” (IV, 89)

Despite all of the negative aspects of his education on which Augustine focused, it is obvious that his schooling was an essential part of his character. Other than Christianity, his education was the most important factor that shaped his early life. Augustine would have been a different man without this education, and without it his conversion would also have been different. His circuitous route to his final acceptance of God would have been far less significant were it not for this long and difficult intellectual struggle. It is clear that his education in rhetoric provided him with the skills necessary for shaping Confessions into a highly persuasive work. Confessions is not only a self-analysis, but also a testimony to the power of the Lord. Augustine wanted his readers to be fully convinced that the ultimate and only Truth was what he had discovered after his years of conflict between philosophy and faith. His credo, “I believe in order that I may understand,” (VI, 127) said much about his attitude towards the relationship between faith and reason.

When Augustine made the decision to fully convert to Christianity in Book VIII, it was truly a “leap of faith.” He knew then that he had to leave part of his philosophical pursuits behind and commit himself fully to Christ.

“For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?’” (VIII, 177)

Augustine then heard a child say “Take it and read, take it and read,” and he interpreted that as a divine command to pick up the Bible. He read the first section he opened to, Paul, and made the decision to become a celibate and devoted servant of God. Augustine was a rationalist man throughout the work, and yet his most defining moment is one of pure faith.
Only after years of personal struggle did Augustine arrive at his own religious revelation. This ultimately made his conversion much more profound. To fully and eloquently express himself and his thoughts was essential to his writings. Clearly, he used his knowledge of rhetoric and the arts to express his views more effectively. His prose is both immaculate and powerful. The result was a masterpiece that greatly affected the growth of early Christianity.


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