St. Augustine’s Confessions is often viewed as a personal account of spiritual development in the early church, but its implications for education are hard to miss. On the first page of the text, Augustine pleads to God: “Grant me Lord to know and understand” as he seeks to rest his anxious heart. Education, for Augustine, is not merely of an academic nature. Rather, “education signifies the process, concerted activity, or achievement that befits or capacitates one for a more perfect or complete performance of some desirable or wished-for activity.” This stands in contrast to the educational philosophies of his day that focused on rhetoric, philosophy, and in general, the liberal arts. It is not contrasting in form, rather in content. His Confessions provides its reader with a picture of Augustine’s own intellectual development as well as an educational philosophy that illuminates the soul on its path to God.
This philosophical tract is important given Augustine’s historical context. He was born in Thagaste, a small town in North Africa, in 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. His mother, Monica has a significant presence within the text as a symbol of piety in the young Augustine’s life. Confessions was written between 397-400, just following the reign of Theodosius I. Just before Theodosius I ascended to the throne, Julian the Apostate was the emperor. In 362, he issued an edict that “forbade Christian professors to teach classical literature in the schools throughout the empire.” This meant material hardship for Christians who lost their teaching positions; it also meant that Christians needed to get creative in light of having the institutional rug pulled out from beneath them.
Confessions is part of the larger patristic response to the liberal arts tradition of the day. Augustine was the first major Christian thinker “to analyze systematically the traditional liberal arts curriculum known within the ancient world, which he went on to transform for the purposes of Christian instruction.” In doing so, he both appropriates and rejects aspects of pagan learning as he integrates the model within his Christian worldview. It is not the formal presentation of it, however. Augustine’s educational model is articulated in his De doctrina Christiana, which was published about the same time that Confessions was written. Further research could ask if De doctrina Christiana is the Confessions’ theory applied to practice.
His educational theory must be viewed in light of his Neoplatonism. Ryan Topping, a Catholic theologian, writes that Augustine sees education as “a training in both the knowledge of the proper end and the knowledge of the right method that could bring that end into actuality.” In terms of Christianity, where education takes the form of catechesis, one realizes the end of being with God and how one is saved. Augustine wants to move along the platonic realms of reality to the incorporeal, contemplation of God.
Because of the work’s first nine books of biography, the reader sees Augustine go through the stages of life much like one would see an undergraduate turn into a scholar. His education begins in boyhood, as seen in Book I. He begins his studies with disdain, for he “had no love for reading books and hated being forced to study them.” The older narrator interjects to claim that “this aversion must have been sin and the vanity of life.” Indeed, Augustine sees his youthful laziness as the punishment of his own disordered mind. His serious, rigorous educational pursuits are clear attempts to reorder the mind to God.
The education that reorders is not one of mere emotion and aesthetics. That is what comprises the curriculum of his day that he rejects. Augustine does this when discussing Virgil’s Aeneid and the foolishness of weeping over Dido’s plight. Instead of feeling sorry for Aeneas’ lover, he claims that the tale caused him to abandon God “to pursue the lowest things of [his] creation.” Still, he values the vividness of the Latin language to be found in the Aeneid because it was his in his primary tongue. That he struggled with the Greek texts showed him that education ought to be characterized by free curiosity, which has “greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion.” After this realization, he prays again, asking God to use what he learned in boyhood for his service.
That his dedication was a service to God becomes clear in looking at Augustine’s vocations before and after his conversion. As a boy and young man, Augustine witnessed the hypocrisy of his pagan teachers. He says that it is no wonder he was led away from God in his youth: he had horrible role models. These men "would be covered in embarrassment if, in describing their own actions…they were caught using a barbarism or a solecism in speech. But if they described their lusts in a rich vocabulary of well-constructed prose with a copious and ornate style, they received praise and congratulated themselves. Here, Augustine is broadening education to include virtue, or at least a proper ordering of the appetites. These men are too concerned with rhetoric, as Augustine was in his early life, to be bothered with their immoral lifestyles.
Augustine’s disordered mind is further evident during his time at school. In Book III, he gives his account of his time studying in Carthage. While there, his curriculum had him reading Cicero’s Hortensius, which encourages its readers to study philosophy. The illuminating effects of philosophy are important for Augustine, as they begin to correct his mind, even if it is just a minute turn. He says that “the book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself.” For the first time in the text, Augustine as character rather than narrator is valuing something for its content rather than its superficial style. This further inspires him to study Scripture. At this juncture, the reader sees Augustine slide back into his ways. With pride, he deems the Scriptures as “a text lowly to the beginner but, on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries.” He initially is blinded by the Bible’s simple prose, but he later realizes that the Bible’s mysteries have been tamed for the reader and grow with him over time.
His conversion experience at thirty-two shows the height of his relationship with the Bible and its mystery. In an almost mystical encounter with the supernatural, Augustine hears a small child chanting in the distance, repeating “Pick up and read, pick up and read.” At this command, Augustine reads the first chapter of Scripture his eyes find. Far from his pre-converted scoffing, Augustine sees the Bible as an educational tool that causes “all the shadows of doubt [to be] dispelled.” Here, one sees the ultimate consummation of Augustine’s educational ideals. His passions have been reordered, while not completely in this life, to God and his mind has been illuminated to the source of goodness, truth, and beauty.
The less-studied Books X-XIII are a treasure trove of Augustine’s philosophical musings. He moves away from the elementary, corporeal things of his life to the abstract. Book X examines the conscience, as Augustine has previously reported on his own sins for nine books, and the nature of the memory and the happy life. On the happy life, Augustine defined it as “joy based on truth.” It is the judgment of this truth that proves intellectually difficult, but Augustine’s educational philosophy would argue that “divine illumination comes into play when ideas are held as truth that men ought to hold. It explains the sources of the universality and necessity of knowledge.”
This consideration of truth, especially divine truth, serves as the launch pad of Augustine’s deeper intellectual discussion of time in Book XI. He asks uncomfortable questions, as scholars should when making intellectual judgments, but he continues to weave in prayers that plead for God’s constant presence. Book XII continues the discussions from Book XI, but uses the preceding topics to comment on the creation account in Genesis. Augustine tips his metaphorical hat to the different readings that scholars have, and he contributes to that conversation in the rest of the book. Finally, the theme of the Genesis account presents itself in allegorical form in Book XIII that Frank describes as “an account of the stages of spiritual conversion by which all spiritual beings are called back toward the rest and peace of life with God.” Even Augustine’s Genesis account lines up with his educational philosophy of spiritual progression and illumination on the journey to eternal blessedness.
The illumination that comes from seeking God over prideful study without God leads to brighter understanding of the truth and a deeper love for God. At the conclusion of the text, Augustine has not completed his scholarly journey, but he has made incredible progress. Frank summarizes Augustine’s journey well: "Augustine decides to love God wholeheartedly, to prefer altogether the love of God to the range of past loves that had claimed parts of his soul, as it were, to the exclusion of God. With that decision, ‘a peaceful light streamed into my heart, and all the dark shadows of doubt fled away."
Not all study is harmful, but when it upsets the order of one’s loves, it can be dangerous. Confessions begins with a groaning heart that is lost apart from God. In the early days of his education, Augustine sees that his teachers are more concerned with winning that with the truth. His journey to illumination shows him the value of the truth, that leads him to close with a supplication to the only source of truth and knowledge: “What man can enable the human mind to understand this?...Only you [God] can be asked.” For Augustine, education is appealing to God to understand the truth and living that out in faithful, but critical study.
For Further Reading
Frank, William A. “A Reading of Augustine’s Confessions and Its Implications for Education.” Arts of Liberty no. 1 (2013): 26-50.
Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Trans. L. E. M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960.
Howie, George. St. Augustine on Education. South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, LTD. 1969.
Topping, Ryan. N.S. Happiness and Wisdom: Augustine’s Early Theology of Education, Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
Saint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 1
 William A. Frank, “A Reading of Augustine’s Confessions and Its Implications for Education,” Arts of Liberty no. 1 (2013): 44.
 Ryan N.S. Topping, Happiness and Wisdom: Augustine’s Early Theology of Education, (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012): 19.
 Topping, Happiness and Wisdom, 1.
 Topping, Happiness and Wisdom, 2.
 Augustine, Confessions, 14.
 Augustine, Confessions, 15.
 Augustine, Confessions, 16.
 Augustine, Confessions, 17.
 Augustine, Confessions, 20.
 Augustine, Confessions, 39.
 Augustine, Confessions, 40.
 George Howie, St. Augustine on Education,
 Augustine, Confessions, 152.
 Augustine, Confessions, 153.
 Augustine, Confessions, 199.
 Frank, “A Reading of Augustine’s Confessions,” 36.
 Frank, “A Reading of Augustine’s Confessions,” 42.
 Frank, “A Reading of Augustine’s Confessions,” 33.
 Augustine, Confessions, 305.