St. Augustine, Teaching, and Piety

Carl Hamilton (’21) discusses the impact on his life of reading Augustine’s Confessions.

Dickinson’s seal is emblazoned on mugs, envelopes, and Britton Plaza, but its Latin motto is little understood by the community at large. Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas, is simple Latin: “Through piety and learning liberty is (made) safe.” But the ease of translation belies the difficulty of understanding. What is piety? What is learning? And finally what is liberty itself? Such pregnant concepts lie in so few words.

photo of the college seal with Latin motto
In the summer of 1784, as the college’s founders discussed the formation of the college, Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson were asked to create a suitable seal for the institution. The resulting seal consists of an open bible, a telescope and a cap surrounded by the inscription “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas.”

“Liberty is made safe through character and learning” is the translation on a wall in the registrar’s office, and on the college website. There is no need to consult a Latin dictionary to be  struck by the 21st-century individualism of translating pietas (piety) as “character.” As if the ambiguity already present in the words properly translated was not enough, here the school itself is officially promulgating an incorrect translation of its motto.

To communicate my views on the motto, specifically the words doctrina and pietate, I must enlist the aid of St. Augustine through my personal experiences with his autobiography, Confessions. By reading this book, I learned that learning and piety, formerly two very separate concepts in my mind, depend wholly on each other, such that one cannot be separated from the other without losing the integrity of both.

Doctrina

Teaching, learning, academicism, however you may translate doctrina, has always been a prominent part of my life. From an early age I had loved books, learning to read The Cat in the Hat before ascending to more refined works such as Encyclopedia Brown and, later, Shakespeare. In elementary school, I was always excelling in the highest level classes. As I progressed in my schooling, math became a challenge. I failed a math final in tenth grade and gladly took a much lower level class as a junior; but, when it came to humanities, I was always performing at the highest levels.

And oh, how I delighted in such subjects! Nothing would please me more than causing aesthetic or literary conflagrations of opinions. As one of a conservative bent, my very liberal senior-year English class provided fertile ground for this squabbling.  If I left class shaking my head in disgust or victory, it had been a good day. Through sheer knowledge, I was able to dominate most arguments, or, as Quintilian quotes Cicero as saying, to “throw dust in the eyes of my jury.” I remember haughtily correcting someone across the class who claimed that Shakespeare lived under Queen Victoria with a snobbish, “Actually, you mean Elizabeth.”

In high school I found Latin, which subject shamefully became the primary outlet for this intellectual pride. At that time, I could think of nothing so pleasing as having others recognize my wide erudition. Although I loved learning, I desired academic mastery mainly for the sake of myself, not the material per se, and certainly not for any moral or intellectual good. I sought to understand so that I might show off for rewards on tests, in classroom competitions, or in discussions. In Latin 4, the other seniors and I so dominated discussions that on the mid-year evaluations one of the juniors wrote, “Why do the seniors have to be so intimidating?”

I question now whether I would have been as zealous for learning had those direct benefits not existed? If you had asked me the purpose of Latin and liberal learning at the time, I probably would have propounded lofty Arnoldian platitudes that learning enriches the soul with “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” But such would have been a deception: I was greatly advancing in doctrina, or so I thought, blind to any higher aims than my own success.

It was during high school in fact when I first picked up Confessions but stopped reading somewhere in the second or third book. The impact it had on my immature self was minimal, for I remember thinking, “How could he dare assert the vanity of Vergil and classical learning in general?” I recall expressing this alarming thought to my Latin teacher, who responded, “Well, I guess he realized he had found something greater.” I walked away unimpressed with his answer. The irony was mine though, for less than two years later I would take and read Augustine again, wherein I would find something far greater than Vergil indeed.

As to piety, religion certainly was not absent from my life at this time. I began attending the Latin Mass, the rite of Catholic Mass in effect from 1570 until 1969. Being very wary of the liberal reforms in the Church after Vatican II, I was constantly researching and trying to practice Her traditional ways. But my learning and my piety, except for the Latin connection at Mass, were almost entirely separate at this time. From Monday to Friday I boasted in the classroom; on Sundays I was humble at Mass, and never the twain shall meet.

Pietas

In the fall of 2017, my freshman year at college, I once again took and read the Confessions. I know not why, but I sat in the library and read the first book, getting lost in time as I got lost in the truth of what I was reading, with each sentence being a carefully mounted attack against the once impregnable fortifications of my pride.

Augustine, an academically talented boy, found himself, I realized, in a very similar situation to my own. Born in Thagaste, North Africa, in 354, he was raised in the Catholic faith by his mother, Monica (later St. Monica). In adolescence he drifted from the faith and came in adulthood to hold a chair of rhetoric in Rome. Eventually, hearing angelic voices in a garden telling him, tolle, lege, (“take and read”), he left his career to be welcomed back into the Church. He rose to become a priest and then in 396 a bishop in Hippo, less than 60 miles from his native Thagaste. In this position he wrote his theological masterpieces, On Christian Teaching, On the Trinity, and On the City of God against the Pagans. These, among his other works, did more to intellectually buttress the Church than probably any others until St. Thomas’ Summa in the 1200’s.

But while his theological works received the greatest attention in the Middle Ages, they present very little of Augustine the man. Only since the 19th century, the age of the Romantics, has Confessions received a large amount of attention (See Garry Wills’ 2011 book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, p. 137). Nevertheless, much comment on Confessions neglects its personal aspects, or perverts its personal aspects for selfish ends, as the Freudians do whose “Psychobiography,” as Wills says, “found Confessions irresistible,” by asserting that his mother Monica was a dominating force throughout Augustine’s life. Some used the historical-critical method, such as Harnack in the 19th century and Courcelle in the 20th, to carp at the work for inconsistencies with his letters, ironically mirroring Augustine’s own meaningless historical fault-finding in the Old Testament (Wills, p. 141). Other philosophers focused on the abstract parts of Confessions, such as Wittgenstein on language acquisition, or Heidegger on the meaning of time as discussed in the last, non-autobiographical section of the book (pp. 145–146).

Most of these are important avenues of study, ones which Augustine encourages through Confessions and from which I have benefitted in my own theological thought. But in order to reach the noble heights of such works I needed the milk of Augustine’s personal reflection, not yet the strong meat of his theology. I found such reflection in the early books of his Confessions, where Augustine describes in lacerating detail his encounters with schooling during boyhood and adolescence. These meditations of his pierced my being on that day in the library.

In Book 1 Augustine expounds most fully his unpleasant schooling experience. He describes being taught grammar by the grammatici, the first teachers in a boy’s Roman education to “get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches.” He continues in this condemnatory vein saying that, “the idling of men is called business; the idling of boys [ball playing], though exactly like, is punished by those same men” (1.9.15). While I agreed with these criticisms of his own political society, ambitious as ours is, the last point in this section brought the condemnation onto me: “if on some trifling point [the teacher] had the worst of the argument with some fellow-master, he was more torn with angry vanity than I when I was beaten with a game of ball.” (Confessions 1.9, trans. Sheed). What does that describe but my classroom experience, especially in high school, where I can think of countless times being either piqued by someone’s better knowledge, or proud that I had just displayed my own voluminous knowledge? Like Augustine, these bouts had earned me applause of “Well done! Well done!” (1.13.21). But it is a tragic irony that the external flatteries of the world cause the internal swollenness of the soul.

At this early stage in Augustine’s career, he was being taught the grammar of Latin and Greek, which, as most students attest, is a miserable and grueling process. But, when his class starts reading literature, especially Vergil, he becomes wholly taken and “weeps for the death that Dido suffered…and not for the death” which comes “through not loving God” (ibid.). This love of literature he counts as a worse evil than oratorical pride because an emotional immersion in Vergil turned his attention away from an emotional connection with God. What purpose, Augustine frustratingly asks, do the fictional stories of Aeneid serve? Nothing, he would say, save to avert attention from God. Hearing the harsh finality of this condemnation, I the reader stood doubly condemned. While he had loved Vergil for his poem, I loved Vergil both for his poem and for what he could give me, mainly academic honor and prestige, such as a 5 on the AP Latin test.

To remove myself from this condemnation of literary vanity, Augustine taught me to focus on teleology. Book 1 is essentially a study of these ends, a meditation upon why people take certain actions. He finds that, when he reads Cicero’s Hortensius, “Suddenly all the vanity [he] had hoped in [he] saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire [he] longed after immortal wisdom. [He] had begun the journey upwards by which [he] was to return to You [God]” (3.4.7). Thus, looking back, he condemns his reliance on Vergil and his schoolmasters’ pride because their teleology was misplaced in “superfluous and self-indulgent” fictions, as he calls them in On Christian Teaching, and useless desires of personal gain (On Christian Teaching 2.25.39, trans. Greene). Augustine realizes that he should have cherished the grammatical teaching, which he called “the surer,” because Truth can arise from writing, such as in the Scriptures or theological writings, but not from pagan works, especially fictional ones such as poems: “Which loss would be more damaging to human life-the loss…of reading and writing or the loss of these poetic imaginings-there can be no question…” (Conf. 1.13.22)

These readings showed me, so puffed up in intellectual pride, that I was putting my justification in “so much smoke and wind,” false stories and vain pride, not upon truth, which is God (3.4.7). Augustine’s Confessions was my Hortensius, showing me that Truth, as Christ said He is, should be the aim of all intellectual endeavor. I will be good, but there will always be some Latinist better than I. I will understand Vergil, but someone will always have more insight than I. It was only through Confessions that I truly saw the vanity of all my fruitless pride and anger from intellectual superiority.

It was easy for me to read all these ideas and replace academic pride with a sharp anti-intellectualism. As The Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional work, states, “Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy: it is a good life which draws us closer to God” (The Imitation of Christ 1.1, trans. Jeffery). But, I thought, while my love of learning for my own sake was misdirected, certainly there had to be a place for learning? How else was I to apply my naturally eager mind? Surely the great intellectual saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. John Henry Newman, and of course, St. Augustine, had found a way to use their active minds in a manner efficacious for the faith and for salvation, not for their own vanity. But I found it hard to balance piety and learning, for it seemed the deeper I went into the one, the further I got from the other.

Doctrina pietate

To work out my Augustinian dilemma we must return to Dickinson’s motto. I have realized that learning and piety, doctrina et pietate, cannot work separately. As Augustine and I can attest, learning without piety leads to vanity, and piety without learning causes an unformed, undisciplined faith. Rather, I must borrow the syntax of that venerable Ciceronian phrase, otium cum dignitate, (leisure with dignity), to formulate a new motto which says doctrina cum pietate tuta libertas (By teaching with piety, liberty is safe). Salvation and justification do not come by displaying academic achievements, how much Greek history I know, or how many epic similes of Vergil I recall. They have their place in this earthly life, but they must eventually give way to Truth. If I, through some writing or study, might elucidate or communicate to someone a mere morsel of that truth, then I will not have labored fruitlessly.

I expect a conscious reader to ask, “Why are you a budding Classicist? Why would you ever read another pagan word in your life?” I can indeed read such things, because I do not share Augustine’s very strict views on art, which seem to restrict any art not directly efficacious for salvation. Rather, taking his teleology which submits all things toward salvation, I think non-religious art and entertainment is acceptable so long as one does not allow it to distract from the faith, as Vergil distracted Augustine. Neither I, nor St. Augustine, profess Fideism, which seeks to sever the bonds between Athens and Jerusalem, pagan and Christian art. One only has to read On Christian Teaching to see how indebted indeed Augustine’s homiletic theory is to Cicero’s Orator. So, I shall study Vergil’s metrical brilliance, stand in awe of Bach’s counterpoint, marvel at Van Gough’s vital globs, but recognize that all of this will pass away, but the words of Christ, who is the Word incarnate, will not pass away.

Confessions taught me to understand why Augustine wrote all his other theological works: out of love of God, not personal ambition. His writings, as St. Francis’ asceticism, St. Monica’s prayers, and St. Francis Xavier’s missionary work, were his way of living that love, a love of God which he cultivated, not as a mere tradition blindly handed down, but as a gift which received him and which he strove all his life to pay back through writing. And in turn Augustine’s writing, though separated in a dark manner through centuries, is a gift which I myself have received face to face, and which anyone could receive, if he should be willing to, like St. Augustine in the garden, tolle, lege.

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