Last week I posted a brief article on Augustine’s suspicious attitude toward literature. This article is the first in brief series I have planned on how Christians should view literature.
Given the comments I received on my initial post, it became clear to me that I had to make my case more clearly. So in this post I hope to clarify my argument about Augustine’s distrust of literature.
Definition and Summary
First of all, I use the term “literature” to refer to imaginative, fictional, or mythical narratives. In the fourth century AD, this would be limited mostly to epic poetry and drama. Literature, then, refers to a genre of writing distinct from philosophy and rhetoric. This use of terms is consistent with my translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Maria Boulding’s translation for the Augustinian Heritage Institute). I have too little knowledge of Latin to do anything other than trust the translator.
Second, I summarized Augustine’s charges against literature as follows:
- Literature distracts us from things of primary importance and has no usefulness for the life of the soul.
- Literature negatively shapes our emotions, our values, and our moral responses to the world.
Comments from readers last week sent me back to Augustine’s Confessions to scrutinize certain passages. This rereading made me all the more certain of Augustine’s distrust of literature. But I also realized that Augustine’s distrust is limited to specific types of stories and specific methods of teaching.
To explain this, I want to look closely at a lengthy passage from Book I of Confessions. This passage appears just after Augustine explains how he wept over Dido’s death (I.21). Because the passage is so long, I will break it into smaller sections and give commentary after each section.
How Literature Can Distract Us
After lamenting his folly of loving the stories of Virgil more than the gift of reading itself, Augustine prays,
I am undoubtedly more ready today to forget the wanderings of Aeneas and so forth than how to write and read. Curtains may well hang at the entrances to schools of literature, but they serve less to signal the prestige of elite instruction than to conceal error. Let not those buyers and sellers of literary studies shout me down, my God, as I confess to you according to my soul’s need, and acquiesce as you chide me for those evil ways of mine and bring me to love your good ways; let them not shout me down, for I fear them no longer…” (I.22).
Here, Augustine moves away from his personal experiences with Virgil and makes more universal statements about the study of literature. He says that the schools of literature “conceal error”, and his use of the present tense indicates that they continue to do so.
He goes on to contrast his “evil ways of mine” with God’s “good ways”. What were Augustine’s evil ways? To be more moved by Dido’s fictional death than by truth; to place greater value on reading literature than the more practical skills of reading and writing.
…If I then go further and ask which would be a graver handicap in this life, to forget how to read or write, or to forget those poetic fantasies, can one doubt what answer would be given by anyone in his right mind? Sin I did, then, in boyhood, by preferring those frivolous tales to much more useful attainments, or rather by loving the one and loathing the other…” (I.22).
Augustine makes a clear universal claim here: it is sin to prefer literature to the more useful skills of reading and writing. This is still a personalized statement, but surely if such preference is a sin for Augustine, it would be a sin for anyone else!
While one could argue that Augustine is critiquing a misuse of literature rather than literature itself here, Augustine take no pains to make such a distinction. He describes the literature of Virgil as “poetic fantasies” and “frivolous tales”—hardly honorific terms.
How Literature Can Warp Us
Augustine’s final assessment of this episode in his life contains clear warnings about the dangers of literature:
…you have forgiven the sins of self-indulgence I committed in those frivolous studies. Through them I acquired a great many useful words, though admittedly the same words can be learned just as well from texts which are by no means frivolous, and would make a safer path for children to tread. Woe, woe to you, you flood of human custom! Who can keep his footing against you? Will you never run dry? How long will you toss the children of Eve into a vast, terrifying sea, which even those afloat on the saving wood can scarcely cross? Did you not give me a story to read in which Jupiter is both the thunderer and an adulterer?…It would be truer to say that Homer did indeed make up these tales with an aura of divinity, so that depraved actions should be reckoned depraved no longer, since anyone who behaved so could pretend to be imitating not abandoned humans but the gods above” (I.24-25).
In this passage, Augustine explicitly states that literature is dangerous! He refers specifically to Virgil, Homer, and Terence and wishes that children could become literate by a “safer path” than the one offered by these authors. And what is the danger of these authors? That young readers will begin to imitate the actions of the characters, especially the divine characters.
Augustine concludes his critique of the dangers of literature by writing, “It is simply not true that such words are more conveniently learned from obscene stories of this type, though it is all too true that under the influence of the words obscene deeds are the more boldly committed” (I.26).
Notice that in this passage Augustine critiques the stories themselves. He also critiques the schools of literature, the teachers, and himself. But he clearly concludes that epic poetry and drama are dangerously affective, encouraging youth toward immoral responses to their reading.
Augustine goes on in Confessions to describe the positive impact that philosophy had on him—especially Cicero’s lost Hortensius and the writings of the Neoplatonists. But Augustine’s argument against literature in Book I goes without qualification for the rest of this book. In no later passage (to the best of my knowledge) does Augustine temper his condemnation of literature.
Why I Agree with Augustine
I agree with Augustine when he says that literature can negatively affect the reader. Stories have the power to engage the imagination, shape loves, and create loyalties. Certain texts will warp undiscerning readers. This is why students must be carefully instructed to know how to interpret texts, movies, arguments, and images along Scriptural lines.
However, I disagree with Augustine if his “safer path for children to tread” is limited simply to replacing Virgil and Terence with stories that can’t possibly tempt students to immorality. Though I agree that undiscerning readers can be negatively affected by certain books, the best solution is for them to read with discernment.
In fact, students should read Virgil’s Aeneid, Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, and a host of other “obscene stories.” But they should do so with a good teacher who will show them how to read these books with Scriptural discernment. Such instruction actually inoculates students against the “obscene deeds” in these stories, allowing them to study and enjoy great works of art without being tempted to imitate the immorality they depict.
I think Augustine would agree with this method of education, as I hope to show in next week’s post.
At first glance, Augustine’s critique as stated in Confessions seems too broad. He condemns by name nearly all the literature of his day. But he also longs for a “safer path for children to tread” in their education, different types of stories that might encourage readers to imitate virtue instead of “obscene deeds.”
If Augustine had known the glories of Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, I do not doubt that Augustine would have affirmed them as beneficial for the young mind and soul, just as countless writers and thinkers have since.
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