Primary Source: From The Confessions of St. Augustine (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.4)

One of the first books Augustine wrote after becoming a Christian was his Confessions, the world’s first autobiography. In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his life all the way from his infancy to the time he became a Christian. In the selection below, Augustine discusses the education he received as a child.

 

But what was the cause of my dislike of Greek literature, which I studied from my boyhood, I cannot even now understand. For the Latin I loved exceedingly— not what our first masters, but what the grammarians teach; for those primary lessons of reading, writing, and ciphering, I considered no less of a burden and a punishment than Greek. Yet whence was this unless from the sin and vanity of this life? For I was but flesh, a wind that passes away and comes not again. For those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will; while in the others I was compelled to learn about the wanderings of a certain Æneas, oblivious of my own, and to weep for Biab dead, because she slew herself for love; while at the same time Ibrooked with dry eyes my wretched self dying far from You, in the midst of those things, O God, my life.

For what can be more wretched than the wretch who pities not himself shedding tears over the death of Dido for love of Æneas, but shedding no tears over his own death in not loving You, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, and the power that weddest my mind with my innermost thoughts? I did not love You, and committed fornication against You; and those around me thus sinning cried, Well done! Well done! For the friendship of this world is fornication against You; and Well done! Well done! is cried until one feels ashamed not to be such a man. And for this I shed no tears, though I wept for Dido, who sought death at the sword’s point, myself the while seeking the lowest of Your creatures— having forsaken You— earth tending to the earth; and if forbidden to read these things, how grieved would I feel that I was not permitted to read what grieved me. This sort of madness is considered a more honourable and more fruitful learning than that by which I learned to read and write.

But now, O my God, cry unto my soul; and let Your Truth say unto me, It is not so; it is not so; better much was that first teaching. For behold, I would rather forget the wanderings of Æneas, and all such things, than how to write and read. But it is true that over the entrance of the grammar school there hangs a veil; but this is not so much a sign of the majesty of the mystery, as of a covering for error. Let not them exclaim against me of whom I am no longer in fear, while I confess to You, my God, that which my soul desires, and acquiesce in reprehending my evil ways, that I may love Your good ways. Neither let those cry out against me who buy or sell grammar-learning. For if I ask them whether it be true, as the poet says, that Æneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know, the learned will deny it to be true. But if I ask with what letters the name Æneas is written, all who have learned this will answer truly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have arrived at as to these signs. Again, if I should ask which, if forgotten, would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what every one would answer who had not entirely forgotten himself? I erred, then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to those more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. One and one are two, two and two are four, this was then in truth a hateful song to me; while the wooden horse full of armed men, and the burning of Troy, and the spectral image of Creusa were a most pleasant spectacle of vanity.

Church Fathers (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.3)

One of the biggest challenges that Christians faced early in the Middle Ages was the task of figuring out who Jesus was and what people should do about that. Even after Arius, there were differences in beliefs among Christians. Some, for example, believed that Jesus was only God and had not really become completely a human being. Others believed that he was two people, one human and one God. A group of leaders called the Church Fathers took up the challenge of answering questions about what Christians should believe and do.

Among the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo is the most famous and one of the most important. Augustine was born in 354.  His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but because his father still worshipped the old Roman gods Augustine was not baptized as a baby nor raised as a Christian. Instead, he was able to choose what religion he wanted to be. As a result, he spent his early years moving between the various philosophies that were popular in his day, such as Neoplatonism, a religion built on Plato’s ideas, and Manicheism, a religion that believed there were two gods, one good and the other evil. Eventually, Augustine decided to become a Christian. After he was baptized, he moved back to his home in North Africa and became a bishop there. He spent the rest of his life writing important books about theology and defending orthodox Christian belief against the heretics, who believed different things from the official teachings of the Church.

Augustine was the first Christian to write in detail about beliefs that later became very popular among Christians. Augustine was among the first to write about Original Sin, for example. Original Sin is the belief that all human beings are guilty of the sin of Adam when he disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Augustine died in 430.

The last of the major Christian heresies was iconoclasm, which means “image-smashing.” In the 8th century, there were Christians who began to believe that it was wrong to make paintings and statues of Jesus and other religious figures. They believed that because Jesus was God and God cannot be shown in a picture Jesus should not be shown in pictures. In response, another ecumenical council, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was called by the Byzantine Empress Irene. Just as they had at the First Ecumenical Council under Constantine, the bishops of the Christian Church gathered together at Nicaea in 787. They decided that because Jesus had become a human being and pictures can be made of human beings Jesus too can be shown in pictures.

Later Christians looked to the Church Fathers as authorities on what Christians should believe. The religion the Church Fathers shaped became the religion of the Middle Ages. The beliefs and practices of most Christians today were formed by the Church Fathers.

 

Review Questions

 1. What is Original Sin?

2. What was the last major Christian heresy of the Middle Ages?

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

A return to the earlier, and more healthy, way of viewing foreign cultures through the lens of Western Civilization is simultaneously the first and final step in a process of the restoration of proper education in Western heritage. It is the first step in that a return to the traditional Western appreciation for diversity will restore a proper view of the West itself. Western Civilization cannot be seen as merely one civilization among many without doing a significant disservice to the history of the world. If Western Civilization can once again be seen as a hugely diverse entity which absorbs what is best in other cultures and transforms what is worst, as the finest, highest, and purest expression of the universal human condition rather than the perspective merely of Europeans, a proper view of the West will have been restored.

The approach of Justin Martyr and the subsequent Church Fathers who drew upon Justin’s ideas provides a model which can be imitated in the modern world. They viewed the ideas of the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans as worthy but incomplete and, through a long process of sorting and amalgamating brought them into the fold of Christendom, and therefore of Western Civilization, in a form modified in accordance with the fundamental standards of Christian belief. Similarly, the practices and ideas of non-Western civilizations can be seen as incomplete and flawed but nonetheless noble descriptions of the human experience. These practices and ideas can then be sorted for their value in the light of the universal truth and applicability of the standard practices and ideas at the core of Western Civilization, and finally completed and taken in. The awareness must remain, however, that these ideas are not being taken in because Western Civilization itself is lacking, but because these ideas are lacking and in need of completion, a completion by which Western Civilization is, in turn, strengthened.

In addition, the return to this proper perspective in Western Civilization of other civilizations must be supplemented with an immersion of primary and secondary students as well as college undergraduates in the foundational texts of Western Civilization. A true “common core” would reflect the full range and development of Western thought including its literary, scientific, and philosophical output. Texts should be selected for study by high school and college students based upon their importance to the history and thought of Western Civilization, rather than misguided hopes of engineering a pseudo-multicultural homogeneity. Through this process, the student will learn an appreciation for his own civilization, which will allow him to authentically appreciate other civilizations. He will also acquire a knowledge of the intellectual and social history of the modern world and, succinctly, the very best that has ever been thought.

The great texts of other civilizations as well as criticisms of Western Civilization from both within and without are best introduced only after this immersion in the texts of Western Civilization has occurred for some time. It is, in fact, only at this point that a student will be able to understand these critiques and appreciate these other civilizations. Reading a criticism without knowing what is being criticized will only produce prejudice. Learning about the thoughts and practices of others without having the firm foundation of one’s own intellectual heritage is a sure recipe for a confused, facile, and more than likely unsympathetic view of others.

The same is true of an appreciation for minority groups within Western Civilizations, such as African-Americans or the Jews of Europe. Their experience has been as much formed and informed by the history and thought of Western Civilization as have those of the majority populations and they, in turn, have had a significant effect on the development of Western Civilization. Once the wider context of Western Civilization is understood, the experience of smaller groups within it can at least be fully appreciated. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one demonstrative example. There, King argues against the tyranny of the majority within the United States, itself one of the great exemplars of the ideals of Western Civilization, using arguments from the history of Western Civilization, such as the early Christian martyrs, and the thought of Western Civilization, such as the concept of natural law. An approach to history which wrenches African-American history out of its Western context renders the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and indeed the entire Civil Rights struggle in the United States, unintelligible. In turn, the experience of African-Americans has done a great deal to shape subsequent developments both in the United States and in Western thought more generally. The student ignorant of these contributions will also experience the world as unintelligible.

For the American student who is not educated in Western Civilization and who does not come to view the world and himself through the lens of this civilization, the entire world, in fact, is unintelligible. “Know thyself” was one of the most profound mottos of ancient Greece. To “know thyself” one must first know the forces, social, political, and ideological, which have been one’s shaping forces. One should, in addition, be exposed to those ideas which best describe the nature and situation of man in any social, political, or ideological context. With an understanding of self comes an understanding of the world. A thorough grounding in the history and thought of Western Civilization, far from inculcating notions of innate European superiority or any such nonsense, will allow young people to see the world from the standpoint of a thorough understanding and an appreciation for authentic diversity.

Concluding Thoughts on Personhood (Personhood Part VII)

The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.

The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77

While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.

Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.

Notes


76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.

77 Ibid.

78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.