Carl Hamilton: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Flea and the Soldier (1606)

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Carl Hamilton (Dickinson ’21) reads, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Flea and the Soldier,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

De Pulice et Milite (On the Flea and the Soldier)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B7b.

Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli,

aevo si veteri sit tribuenda fides.

Fama refert, illum pulsa formidine, quondam

saltibus intrepidis insiluisse pedi

militis eximii, multorum caede cruenti,

quem voluit stimulis exagitare suis.

Unde etiam hic tremulo gemibundus pectore, numen

Herculeum voto flebiliore vocat,

suppetias misero ut veniat, viresve ministret,

aut acres morsus saevitiemque domet.

Negligit Alcides nequiquam vota ferentem,

ridiculis renuens edere rebus opem.

Iamque adeo observans nullam restare salutem

haesitat, ambiguus mentis, opisque carens,

dum tandem adductus pulex maerore precantis

aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum.

Haec ubi facta, imo suspiria pectore ducens

miles iners tremula talia voce refert:

“Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles,

imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros:

Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem,

quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?”


A little flea sometimes shows great boldness,

If the old tale is to be believed.

Fame reports that that flea, fear having been repulsed, once

With unshaken leaps hopped upon the foot

Of a select soldier, one bloody with the slaying of many men,

Whom the flea wished to attack with his own stings.

Whence also this solider, sighing in his quaking chest, called on

Hercules’ divinity with a lamentable prayer,

So that he would give succor to a miserable one, or lend his strength,

Or vanquish the sharp bites and the cruelty.

Alcides ignored the one bringing prayers in vain,

Refusing to offer help to risible matters.

And already noticing up to this point that no aid remains,

He hesitates, uncertain of his mind, and lacking help,

Until finally the flea, having been persuaded by the sorrow of the one praying,

Fled and sought another place in the house.

When these things were done, drawing sighs from his deepest heart,

The lazy soldier spoke as follows with a quivering voice:

“You who are accustomed to conquer rebels with an aggressive courage,

And help unwarlike men with your club,

If you did not come bravely against a small enemy,

Why would I hope, if now more serious things should weigh me down?”

Vocabulary and notes

pulex pulicis m: flea

interdum: sometimes, occasionally

audacia –ae f: boldness, intrepidity: subject, magna predicate adjective

pusillus –a –um: very small

tribuo tribuere tribui tribitus: grant bestow; allow

aevo…fides: lit. “faith for an ancient time,” meaning, “if we are willing to believe old stories”

formido formidinis f: fear, dread

saltus saltus m: jump, leap

intrepidus –a –um: fearless, unshaken

insilio –ire insilui insultus: leap, bound

eximius –a –um: select, special

caedes –is f: cutting; killing

cruentus –a –um: bloodstained, red

stimulus –i m: prick, sting

exagito (1): harass, disturb; attack

tremulus – a- um: quaking, shaking

gemibundus –a –um: groaning, sighing (more often spelled gemebundus)

flebilis –e: lamentable, tearful

suppetiae –arum f: assistance, succor

ministro (1): execute, carry out; usually meaning giving assistance or aid, here it refers to Hercules’ using his strength for aid

morsus –us m: bite, sting

saevitia –ae f: rage, cruelty; note the variety of conjunctions, ve, aut, que

domo (1): conquer, vanquish

negilgo –ere neglexi neglectus: neglect, ignore; take ferentem as object, vota as object of ferentem

Alcides: Hercules, old birth name for Hercules

nequiquam: in vain

ridiculus –a –um: funny, absurd, risible

renuo –ere renui: shake the head, refuse, decline

observo (1): watch, notice

resto (1): stand firm, remain

haesito (1): hesitate, be uncertain

ambiguus –a –um: doubtful, uncertain

adduco –ere adduxi adductus: induce, persuade

maeror –oris: m. sorrow, grief

aedis –is f: house

imus –a –um: lowest, deepest

suspirium –i n. sigh

iners inertis: sluggish, inactive

tremulus –a –um: shaking, quaking, quivering

pugnax pugnacis: aggressive, pugnacious

rebellis, rebellis m: rebel

inbellis –e: unwarlike, peaceful

fustis –is: cudgel, club

exiguus –a –um: paltry, inadequate

si…hostem: protasis of afuture more vivid condition

gravo (1): weigh down, oppress: graviora subject, me object

quid sperem: apodosis of two protases, the future more vivid above and the following present contrary to fact protasis with which it most closely accords, forming a complete present cont. fact condition.

Similar Aesopic Fables

ΨΎΛΛΑ (The Flea)

From K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854)  #424, p. 205

ψύλλα ποτὲ πηδήσασα ἐπὶ πόδα ἀνδρὸς ἐκάθισεν. ὁ δὲ τὸν Ἡρακλῆν ἐπὶ συμμαχίαν ἐκάλει. τῆς δὲ ἐκεῖθεν αὖθις ἀφαλομένης στενάξας εἶπεν· „ὦ Ἡράκλεις, εἰ ἐπὶ ψύλλῃ οὐ συνεμάχησας, πῶς ἐπὶ μείζοσιν ἀνταγωνισταῖς συνεργήσεις;“

ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ μὴ δεῖν ἐπὶ τῶν ἐλαχίστων τοῦ θείου δεῖσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀναγκαίων.

Once upon a time a flea, having landed on the foot of a man, sat down. The man was calling Heracles for aid. And with the flea jumping off again, the man, having sighed deeply, said: “Ο Heracles, if you did not help (me) against a flea, how will you assist against larger rivals?”

The story shows that one must not ask the gods for the smallest things, but for necessary things.

Pulex, Homo, et Hercules (The Flea, the Man, and Hercules)

From Laura Gibbs, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010), #703, p. 224 (Perry #231), from Joachim Camerarius’ Fabulae Aesopicae (1579)

Cum insiluisset pulex in pedem cuiusdam, ille ad opprimendum hunc Herculem invocavit. Sed cum pulex se illinc mox saltu subduxisset, cum gemitu ille “Hercules,” inquit, “quid ego abs te opis in magnis periculis exspectem, qui contra pulicem adesse mihi noluisti?”

When the flea had jumped on the foot of a certain man, that man invoked Hercules for squashing this flea. But when the flea had soon removed himself from there with a leap, that man said with a groan, “Hercules, what aid can I expect from you in great dangers, you who did not wish to help me against a flea?”


While adhering to the basic storyline, Elizabeth Jane Weston’s retelling of “The Flea and the Soldier” embellishes the tale for great humorous effect. In her hands, what by many accounts is a short fable of proper religion becomes an ironic tale of a great solider being laid low by the smallest of annoyances. By showing the laughter of the gods at the soldier’s pleas, Weston invites us to see the fable as a comedy of humanity, rather than a religious admonition.

Weston makes many innovations when it comes to the human character, starting with his identity. In Gibbs he is called cuiusdam, “a certain man,” and in the Greek version “a man.” This title, vague as regards everything but sex, closes readers off from any knowledge of the human character. For Weston, though, he is a miles “soldier,” which signifies a certain toughness in the contrast to the very small, pusillus, flea. Weston deepens the soldier’s characterization by relating what kind of a solider he is, one who is eximii, multorum caede cruenti, “select, bloodstained from the killing of many men.” This description increases the stature of the solider by making him especially pugnacious and, so it seems, intrepid in dangers.

But not for long does this impression last. Weston has built this image of soldier for optimal ironic contrast, a kind of poetic form of “the bigger they come the harder they fall.” In the very next line Weston subverts the soldier’s daring, when, upon being bitten, he sighs, gemebundus, from his quaking chest, tremulo pectore. He calls himself a miserable one, misero, and the bites of the flea sharp, acres morsus, all while calling for the strength, vires, of Hercules to save him. By depicting him first as bloody and then as pusillanimous, Weston has made the solider not merely pathetic, but bathetic. Any strength the solider may have had has instantly vanished by being made so helpless by something so small.

The reader feels his fall so quickly and clearly because of Weston’s remarkable concision. As we saw above, she communicates the soldier’s valor in one simple line, but one which is quite vivid with the image of a blood-stained warrior. She then relates his helplessness in four lines filled with five pregnant adjectives, tremulo, gemibundus, flebiliore, misero, acres. For the reader, the celerity of the verse mimics the quickness of the soldier’s change from brave to weak. Weston causes the reader to understand that perhaps his strength was simply masking his inner weakness all along.

But if the solider himself lacks a true soldier’s mettle, with whom do these qualities lie? The answer is with the flea. By going back to the beginning of the poem, we will notice that Weston always describes the strength of the flea as a contrast to the weakness of the solider. The first line is a marvelous study of this ironic turn: Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli. The flea here, although small, nevertheless has great boldness. The brilliant antithesis of magna and pusilli as the heroic clausula foreshadows the central contrast of the poem, namely that the mighty are weak (soldier) and the weak are mighty (flea). The flea leaps fearlessly, saltibus intrepidis, upon the man, wishing to strike him with his own stings, stimulis exagitare suis. The reflexive adjective suis attributes an unexpected daring to the flea, who wants to give the soldier, a “taste of his own warlike medicine,” so to speak. The flea then flees to seek another foot to pester, aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum. In a role reversal, the flea has now become more of a soldier than the actual soldier, acutely beating his enemy and moving on to fight the next battle.

We have yet to mention Hercules, to whom the solider prays for aid. In most versions he is silent, present only through the vocative of the soldier’s plea which ends the poem. Not content with a mute character, Weston endows him with a judgement more savage than silence. Hercules instead declines to help the man because his pleas are for “absurd things,” ridiculis rebus. The silence of Hercules found in other versions leaves the reason for rejection open to interpretation. Was Hercules offended by such a small plea? Did he simply not care about a flea? Weston’s telling settles these questions with the introduction of humor. Hercules is essentially saying to the solider, “Oh come on, get over yourself.”

All three of these characterizations anticipate the final questions of the solider, which act as both the climax and the moral of the tale. Inactive with a shaking voice, iners tremula talia voce, the solider pleads with Hercules. He begins by reciting the attributes of the god, who vanquishes the rebels in battle with a warlike virility, and gives aid to the peaceful with a cudgel, Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles, imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros. These attributes serve both as flattery for Hercules and as reasons why Hercules should have helped him. The beautiful irony here is that presumably the solider thinks he possesses these warlike qualities. He then continues with his final helpless inquiry, that if Hercules will not help him against a small enemy, how could he hope for aid when large dangers beset him? Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem, quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?

This final line acts as the negative moral of the fable, spelled out explicitly in the Greek version as: “The myth shows that one must not ask god for the smallest things, but for necessary things.” Weston’s fable adds depth to this moral by telling us why the gods won’t help, namely, because such pleas are ridiculous and completely within human power to solve. In this way Weston is using this fable in a decidedly humanist fashion. Far from, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “Knock and the door will be open for you,” Weston’s fable here says “If you can get in the door by yourself, do it.” The soldier’s former bravery causes us, as well as Hercules, to laugh at his pitiful importuning precisely because he can “get in the door” but instead surrenders to the divine.

Throughout her life, Weston indeed got herself in the door both in her career and her poetry. Aided by her friend Baldhoven, she tirelessly promoted her poetry both in the older feudal ways, by writing to Rudolf II and King James as potential patrons, as well as the newer commercial avenue, by ensuring the publication of her poems. In her poetry itself, Weston relished the classical potential of the Renaissance, seen most vividly here in her use of the learned “Alcides” for Hercules. She also circulated her poetry among the learned and very male elite, something rare in her day, but even rarer before the Renaissance. All told, Weston was the anti-solider, one who seized upon her human potential for poetic creativity, undaunted by the many fleas of her life, most notably poverty after the mysterious ill-fortune of her stepfather. Weston thus allows us to read her “The Flea and the Solider” as a humorous assertion of humanist creative potential, in which God is there, but distant, and human achievement and concerns come to the fore.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

The New Testament of Vergil: Vergilian Fulfillment and Transcendence in Vida’s Christiad

Marco Girolamo Vida’s Vergilian-style epic on the life of Christ does more than present the familiar story in epic dress, argues Carl Hamilton (’21), it successfully solves a key problem in Renaissance approaches to Vergil.

The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 - 1561)
The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561) Image: Getty Museum

Could Vergil, who died 19 years before Christ’s birth, have been a Christian? Had he somehow read the Old Testament? Was he unwittingly a vessel for Christian ideas? Many Renaissance readers idolized the beauty and eloquence of the poet but were uneasy about his pre-Christian origin. They tried to find ways to argue that Vergil’s poetry was consistent with, or even prophetically expressive of, Christian truth. Commentators used allegory to find hidden Christian messages in his works, especially the Eclogues and the Aeneid.

No author reconciled Vergil and Christianity better than Marco Girolamo Vida in his 1535 work the Christiad (The Epic of Christ). The Christiad dramatically narrates the life of Christ from Holy Week until Pentecost in 6,000 Latin hexameter lines in the style of Vergil’s Aeneid. When published, some scholars, such as Bartolomeo Botta, saw the work as the final overthrow of Vergil. Students could now learn proper Latin and Christianity at the same time, without the immoral pagan content. But since Mario Di Cesare’s 1964 landmark work, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic, scholars have begun to appreciate Christiad’s unique synthesis of Classical and Christian ideas.[1]

The language of the Bible, especially of the Gospels, is basic. It lacks the poetic flourish of Cicero or Vergil so beloved by Renaissance readers. This lack of polish in the Bible proved troublesome for many previous Christians, such as Saints Augustine and Jerome. The well-known story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead is told quite simply in St. John’s Gospel (11: 33–43 Douay- Rheims):

Jesus, therefore…groaned in the spirit, and troubled himself…And Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind, have caused that this man should not die? Jesus therefore again groaning in himself, cometh to the sepulchre… And Jesus lifting up his eyes said: Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast heard me…because of the people who stand about have I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. When he had said these things, he cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come forth.

But Vida uses this simplicity to his artistic advantage. He transforms the journalistic recounting of John into a scene of high drama (Book 1, lines 262–280, trans. Gardner):

From all the neighboring mountains the entire population …filled the city…The hero [Christ] stood motionless in the very center, his hands and eyes raised to heaven, and in the silence of prayer he called to his Father. In equal silence and tension the townspeople observed him, wondering what he might command… Twice his face went white. Twice he groaned in his breathless chest and nodded his noble head. And lo, the doors of the tomb suddenly seemed to tremble. All at once, a sudden fear froze the blood in each of the onlookers and a chill invaded the depths of their hearts. Finally, the son of God addressed these words on high: “Father in heaven, until now you have never denied my prayers…This great populace [has] seen how vast your power is. Now, you servants…remove the marble lid of the tomb.”

The dialogue of the Jews in John become visual cues, as frozen blood and a chill fills the onlookers. Vida capitalizes on Christ’s double groaning in John to express His complete grief in face, chest and head “twice…twice.” Most dramatically, the silent prayer of Christ mirrors the silence of the onlookers, as if time, too tense to move, has stopped for a brief moment. But notice that, for all the heightened tension, Vida retains the moral content of John. Christ is not a sensationalist miracle-worker, but the pious Son of God. We see him suffer and groan, as in John. This pain continues throughout the Christiad to emphasize the cruelty of the Savior’s Passion. Vida thus successfully transmits a Christian message through a dramatic, Vergilian medium.

It was not enough for Vida merely to imitate Vergil. In fact, his age demanded more. Vida lived in a time of peculiar balance in Italy, where the intellect and the faith were both held in high esteem. His Italy was modern enough that the learning of the ancients was no more an immediate threat to Catholic orthodoxy, but traditional enough that no challenge to the Magisterium would be tolerated.

In the religious realm, Protestantism was nascent, and Pope Leo X, Vida’s patron, condemned Luther’s heresies in the 1520 bull Exsurge Domino. In the intellectual community, scholars, although enamored with Vergil, struggled to make his writings wholly consonant with Christianity.

One such scholar, Christoforo Landino, said there were two theologies present, the ancient and Christian, theologica prisca and theologica nostra. According to Landino, these were “two branches of the same stream.” The job of the commentator was to reconcile them. This reconciliation came mostly through allegory, where Vergilian concepts were said to represent Christian ideas. Vergil’s poem Eclogue 4, called “Messianic” by some Christians because of its apparent prediction of Christ’s birth, was the center of this analysis (Eclogue 4.4–10 trans. Fairclough in the Loeb):

Now is come the last age of the Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

According to the common Christianizing allegorical reading, the Virgin mentioned is the Virgin Mary; the descent from heaven represents the incarnate God-Man Christ sent by God the Father; and the golden race (gens aurea) represents the Christians. But this reading is blind to the poem’s context. Even St. Jerome in the late 300s called it childish. Renaissance commentators were eventually forced to admit the failure of attempts to Christianize Vergil. The Aeneid, after all, posits reincarnation of souls in Book VI, a wholly non-Catholic doctrine.

In the Christiad, Vida boldly reverses the method of the commentators who tried to use Christianity as a means of understanding Vergil—a doomed project due to the differences between the two. Instead, Vida uses Vergil as a means to understand Christianity. We see this change when Vida puts these famous lines from Eclogue 4 into the mouth of Mary before the Annunciation. Here Mary recalls her thoughts before the Angel Gabriel visits her (Book 2, lines 303-312):

For my part I kept recalling the teachings of the ancient prophets. But one above all remained fixed in my mind, placed there surely by some higher power. All the prophets had predicted that a royal virgin, who was without taint of the marriage bed and remained, astonishingly, a virgin, would bring into the light of the world a king of angels; and that, immediately upon his coming, there would be happiness everywhere and a golden age would arise throughout creation.

Mary’s talk of “the teachings of the ancient prophets” and the “royal virgin” points firmly toward the foretelling of the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 and its fulfillment through Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:23. But the quote of Vergil from Eclogue 4 in the final line forces a reconsidering of the preceding lines. Now, “all the prophets” become pagan poets, and the virgin who will bear Christ becomes the virgin of Eclogue 4.  By speaking these words, Vida has Mary become a prophetic vessel herself. She embodies Eclogue 4’s prophesy of the golden age, and in so doing eliminates need for the allegorizing commentator. Vergil’s words are now Christian words, as are his prophesies. Vergilian scholar  Craig Kallendorf calls this melding “a true fusion of Christian and pagan.” The connection between Vergil’s words and Christian meaning becomes explicit. Both Old Testament and Vergilian prophecy become fulfilled in Christ.

After Mary’s speech, Vida goes on to describe what exactly Eclogue 4’s fulfillment looks like in practice, namely the elevation of the Church over pagan Rome. In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas, the mythic founder of Rome, and the Sibyl, his guide, visit the underworld. While there, they receive prophecies from Aeneas’ father Anchises. He tells them that Rome’s mission is to “spare the conquered and subdue the proud.” In Christiad, Christ likewise receives a prophecy from God His Father before His death which clarifies what the “golden age” will be. The Father says that “Even Rome, that proud city laden with empire … will subject to you her fasces and the reins with which she rules the world.”

By using the word “proud,” as Vergil did, Vida implies that Rome, instead of having to conquer the proud, has become proud itself because of its conquering. This inversion of the word “proud” forces us to recognize what J. Christopher Warner, a scholar of biblical epic, calls “the gulf that is continuously asserted between [the Christiad] and its poetic model.” Vida’s gulf here posits that the proud pagan Rome failed, so it is the Church’s place to fill the void. By filling this void, Vida thus asserts that the Church’s Rome has fulfilled Anchises’ prophesy, and by extension Vergil’s, better than Vergil’s own Rome ever could.

In Book VI, Vida ends his poem by quoting Eclogue 4 one last time (Book 6, lines 985-986):

A golden race now rose up throughout the world

And the most beautiful age of all was just beginning

Where Vergil said “will spring up” (surget), Vida here says “now rose up” (surgit). How appropriate that this present tense verb reflects both cause and effect: because Christ is risen, the new race now rises with him. Instead of making an allegory out of Vergil, Vida here realizes his words. The Church is now definitively the fulfillment of Rome, and Christ’s disciples are the golden race.

Vida’s Christiad solves the problem of the Renaissance commentators. The narrative progression of the work, from prophecy (Book I) to fulfillment (Book VI), tracks the convergence of ancient and Christian theology into one stream. Instead of settling for the theological impasse and casting off Vergil, Vida instead crafted a poem which makes Vergil essential to its vision. He accomplished a rare feat: not only the enjoyment, but the understanding of his own work depends upon that of another. The greater the knowledge of not only Vergil, but also the Bible, one has before reading the Christiad, the more fulfilling a reading of the text will be. To close with a quote of Saint Paul, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face.” Vida has transformed Vergil’s prophecies, seen before in a riddling way, into face to face, or page to page, realizations of Christian truth.

[1] Mario Di Cesare, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

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.


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.


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.