Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1

It takes so much time to learn, but it’s worth it, right?

You know, maybe not.

I’m reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, and though it was written 1600 years ago, the way he was taught doesn’t sound all that different from today. (Less focus on STEM.) 

The way he describes how he learned, and why, is a lot like what children are taught today. The effects are similar, too: they’re disastrous. To Augustine, we veer way off course regarding what’s really important when teaching, learning and seeking excellence.

It starts like this. St. Augustine wasn’t born a saint (or maybe he was, I don’t know how that works), he was born a baby. Babies can’t talk, but they make up for that in being very mean. Their meanness gets them what they want until that time they learn to talk.

Being weak, babies’ bodies are harmless, but babies’ minds aren’t harmless. I myself have observed (carefully enough that I know what I’m writing about) a tiny child who was jealous: he couldn’t speak yet, but his face was pale and had a hateful expression as he glared at the child who shared his nurse. Who doesn’t know that this happens?

In Book One, Augustine sets up a process of learning, which starts with learning to talk. Learning to talk comes through repetition and sheer force of desire to get what one (as a baby) wants.

In due course, when I had heard words often in their proper places in a variety of sentences, I gradually deduced what they were symbols for; and once I had tamed my mouth and made it use these symbols, I could announce my wishes through them.

Thus I began to share with those around me the symbols for making wishes known, and I ventured farther from shore on the stormy sea of our common human life—depending on my parents’ authority and the power of people older than myself.

After that, teachers take over. He gets to school and first learns how to read and write, and second learns foreign languages (Greek), literature and rhetoric.

So the progression of learning in Augustine’s society goes like this:

Learning to Talk → Becoming Literate → Literature/Foreign Languages

This is a bad way to order and organize learning.

First, Augustine argues, literacy is a higher skill than being book smart. People don’t just forget how to read and write, even after not doing it for months. People all the time forget the important parts of stories and speeches.

If I were to ask which it would be a greater drawback in this life of ours for any given person to forget, reading and writing or those poetic fairy tales, who (unless he’d forgotten his own existence, i.e., was brain-dead) wouldn’t see what the answer needed to be?

Secondly, what is it that we’re trying to do with all this third-stage learning? It’s not what’s most valuable to Augustine, that’s for sure.

Throughout Book One, Augustine sets up a second progression, that of the value of learning. It goes something like

Getting what you want  →  Understanding the world  →  Being correct and skillful

This is how it works in the world, at least. It’s not the best way. Beyond learning to read and write all teachers care about is being correct and skillful. You’re meant to value this above all else too, and that’s a bad focus. There’s no consideration for whether what you did is true or good.

If someone who upholds and teaches those ancient tenets should, against the rules of the language, pronounce the word homo, or “human being,” without an aspiration in the first syllable, as ’omo, he would offend other human beings more than if, in violation of your decrees, he hated a member of the humanity to which he belongs.

As a mere boy, I sprawled like a forlorn lover on the threshold of such ethics. In this arena, on this wrestling floor, I was more wary of making a mistake in pronunciation than of envying people who didn’t make one when I did.

Teachers, like in Augustine’s language class here, emphasize the value of the quality of your speech and pronunciation more than guiding you on whether what you’re saying is moral.

So we’ll revise our progression on the value of learning. It should be something like

Getting what you want  →  Understanding the world  → Being correct and skillful  Being true and good

That, of course, is not how curricula were set up in the 400s, and maybe less today (more STEM). So learning in school starts as a positive, and looks like it’ll continue to be a path toward excellence or what’s Good. But we veer off. This focus on correctness can actually drive you away from what’s good and true. And to Augustine, away from God.

Well shit. Where does that leave us? I’m not in school, but I do enjoy reading and learning, and I wear learning around as some sort of virtue. Is it? It doesn’t sound like it.

Throughout Book One, Augustine wrestles with this as he recounts his early life. How could it be that what he thought was the right path, what adults told him was valuable, could be so completely blind to the actual path — knowing and becoming closer to God?

Today it’s well worn to think ‘yeah, what society thinks is right probably isn’t.’ But Augustine’s compact dissection of book learning in Book One is fresh, even one and a half millennia later. What is it that we’re doing here?

FOOTNOTE: I’m reading Sarah Ruden’s translation of Confessions, and it’s outstanding and lively. Pick this one up.