Why Augustine Didn’t Trust Literature

This is the first post in a series of three. Be sure to check out the second post and third post as well!

In the past decade, American Christians have become much more aware of the important role art and literature play in the life of faith. But there are still many, many Christians who are deeply suspicious of literature.

This suspicion is ancient, originating in the fledgling Church of the first century. The Church was birthed into the Augustan Roman culture, with its eloquent and decadent literature, its precise and pontificating philosophy. For the earliest Christians, literature was inextricable from Roman paganism. To read literature was to immerse oneself in a vision of the world clearly opposed to the teachings of Christ.

And so Tertullian, an early Church father, famously exclaimed, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” What place does pagan literature have in the Church? Why should Christians waste their time reading anything other than the Holy Scriptures?

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Through the following centuries, other famous Christian thinkers echoed Tertullian’s rhetorical challenge. Abelard asked, “What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospel, Cicero with the Apostle?” From Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin challenged the local monks by demanding to know “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”

But the strongest Christian argument against literature was voiced by none other than St. Augustine. His argument was strengthened by the fact that before being converted, Augustine had been thoroughly trained in classical literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. So Augustine’s condemnation is nothing less than damning.

Augustine presses two charges against literature:

  1. Literature distracts us from things of primary importance and has no usefulness for the life of the soul.
  2. Literature negatively shapes our emotions, our values, and our moral responses to the world.

Literature’s Waste of Time

Augustine’s central argument against literature appears in his spiritual autobiography The Confessions. Writing about his early education, Augustine argues that his study of the Aeneid was a waste of time—it was of no use to him:

How insane it is to regard these studies as more civilized and rewarding that the elementary lessons in which I learned to read and write!” (I.21).

Far more important were his earlier lessons in reading and writing, lessons of clear utility.

But what was most terrifying for Augustine was how his love for literature stole his attention away from the most important things. He was far more concerned with Dido’s overwrought doom than with his own slow, spiritual death.

I could weep over the death Dido brought upon herself out of love for Aeneas, yet I shed no tears over the death I brought upon myself by not loving you” (I.21).

For Augustine, literature is simply a distraction from things that really mattered.

Literature’s Impotent Emotions

But Augustine’s argument against literature isn’t limited to literature’s distracting qualities. In Book III of Confessions he writes of his first experiences of the theaters in Carthage. The actors would evoke from the audience powerful emotions of empathy, grief, and fear. But these emotions are duplicitous because they do not lead to any virtuous action on the part of the spectator:

In the capacity of spectator one welcomes sad feelings; in fact, the sadness itself is the pleasure. What incredible stupidity!…[H]ow real is the mercy evoked by fictional dramas? The listener is not moved to offer help, but merely invited to feel sorrow; and the more intensely he feels it the more highly he rates the actor in the play” (III.2, emphasis added).

Augustine realized that the plays were shaping his emotional responses outside of the theater as well. The stories of the theater were training his emotions in negative, sterile ways. Augustine loved for their own sake the emotions the plays awakened in him.

But to what end? He had no desire to undergo the woes he liked to watch. He felt no impulse to ease anyone’s sufferings. The emotions the theater awakened were impotent—they produced no fruitful action.

The Irony of Augustine’s Argument

Though Augustine’s arguments against literature are 1700 years old, they are still alive and well in the minds of many Christians (and non-Christians). Many people justify their avoidance of literature by appealing that 1) literature distracts from things that are actually important and 2) literature shapes us in negative ways.

Augustine’s argument has persisted in western society for 1700 years. Why?  Because Augustine wrote such fantastic books.  Despite Augustine’s condemnation of literature, his mind, imagination, and writing style were clearly shaped by Roman literature.  Augustine’s writing is so good, especially in The Confessions, that Augustine is considered one of the greatest literary voices of his age.

See the irony? Most people who voice Augustine’s argument have never read Augustine’s books. Most people who read Augustine’s books disagree with what Augustine says about literature.

But the reason Augustine’s argument against literature has enjoyed such a long life is because those who have disagreed with the argument keep reading and teaching the books of Virgil, Homer, Cicero—and of Augustine.

Question: Do you agree with Augustine’s assessment of literature? If not, how would you respond to it?