Augustine was born in Roman North Africa in AD 354 and died in 430. He was one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, had an enormous influence on Church and Society in the Middle Ages, was a major influence on the Protestant reformers and continues to this day to be highly influential.
Augustine was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the North African city of Tagaste. He describes his life before his conversion in his greatly esteemed work, The Confessions. He converted to the Christian faith when he was thirty-two. Saint Ambrose, Augustine’s mother and her prayers, and pagan thinkers, especially Cicero, Plato, and Plotinus influenced his conversion to Christianity.
There are those who have opposed liberal arts education because of its close association with pagan thought. Others, like Augustine “affirmed that Christians can make a particular use of the liberal arts.”[i] Augustine believed that the liberal arts “were helpful in giving one the skills to interpret Scripture.”[ii] He argues for this use in his work, On Christian Doctrine. “Augustine borrows imagery,” observes Brad Green, “from Exodus and the account of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.”[iii] God told the Israelites that He would make the Egyptians “favorably disposed” towards them, and the Israelites would be able to “Plunder the Egyptians.” Augustine asserts that Christians should “Plunder the Egyptians” – the “goods” being plundered are the liberal arts— and use them for Christian purposes.[iv]Augustine asserts that the liberal arts can be “both enjoyed for its own sake and used for some other end, for he discusses how the liberal arts he so plainly enjoyed should be used in the study and teaching of Scripture.”[v] He also emphasizes developing the Moral Virtues. Augustine taught that “love must be properly ordered, directed toward God and neighbors as well as one’s own soul. So to study Scripture aright, the soul must be freed from the disorder of lower desires: moral and intellectual development are both required.”[vi]
One can clearly see both from Augustine’s life and his writings that Augustine “was impacted for the good” by his reading of pagan writers. For example, Cicero’s Hortensius was influential in Augustine’s journey to Christ. In mentioning this work, Augustine writes that the “book changed my affections. It turned my prayers to you, Lord, and caused me to have different purposes and desires. All my vain hopes forwith became worthless to me, and with incredible ardor of heart of heart I desired undying wisdom, I began to rise up, so that I might return to you. ”[vii] Augustine recognized a certain value in pagan literature and thought, even though he also voiced concerns about it. Augustine expands this idea in his writings:
We [Christians] should not abandon music because of the superstitions of pagans if there is anything we can take from it that might help us understand the Holy Scriptures…. Nor is there any reason we should refuse to study literature because it is said that Mercury discovered it. That the pagans have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue and prefer to worship in the form of stone things which ought to be carried in the heart is no reason we should abandon justice and virtue. On the contrary, let everyone who is a good and true Christian understand that truth belongs to his Master wherever it is found.”[viii]
[i] Brad Green, “Augustine, Modernity, and the Recovery of True Education.” Unpublished paper, retrieved 09-13-2010.( http://bradleyggreen.com/attachments/077_Augustine%20Modernity%20and%20Education.pdf), 2.
[v] Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 31.
[vii] Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality : Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls, Ga.: Toccoa Falls College, 1996), 47; Saint Augustine, Confessions(trans. John K. Ryan; New York, et al: Doubleday, 1960), 3.4.7.
[viii] Ibid., 47-48.