2/02/2008

Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo...

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, dominating, like a pyramid, antiquity and the succeeding ages. Compared with the great philosophers of past centuries and modern times, he is the equal of them all; among theologians he is undeniably the first, and such has been his influence that none of the Fathers, Scholastics, or Reformers has surpassed it.

Today, I wish to reflect on St. Augustine teaching on the arts – “liberal arts” which are propaideutic to philosophy. As we know Christian theology, as philosophy, the true wisdom and, rhetorically, the true eloquence, was in Augustine’s time’s goal of the search of all true seekers for wisdom and happiness. We also need to remember that St. Augustine always tried to be faithful to the search for both wisdom and eloquence (he also never lost sight of the importance of two conversions: to philosophy itself as the search for true wisdom and to he “invisible”, the “intelligible”, the “spiritual” via “some writings of the Platonists.”).

In his culture grammar retains the first place in the order of studies, but the study of words should not interfere with the search for the truth which they contain. The choicest gift of bright minds is the love of truth, not of the words expressing it. In estimating the importance of linguistic studies as a means of interpreting Scripture, stress should be laid upon exegetical, rather than technical grammar. Dialectic must also prove its worth in the interpretation of Scripture; “it traverses the entire text like a tissue of nerves“(De Doctrina Christiana 40). Rhetoric contains the rules of fuller discussion it is to be used rather to set forth that we have understood than to aid us in understanding (De Doctrina Christiana 18).

Augustine's concern is to make sure the reader understands that for the Christian there can be no other independent, self-verifying, non-subjective source of knowledge besides divine inspiration working through the church and its scriptures. The biblical image Augustine invokes was popular among Christians considering the uses of secular wisdom. The truths elaborated by the philosophers of old is drawn from the depths of an all-ruling Providence, and it should be applied by the Christian in the spirit of the Gospel, just as the Israelites used the sacred vessels of the Egyptians for the service of the true God (De Doctrina Christiana 41).

Finally, the literary work that probably took Augustine's time and energies immediately after he left De Doctrina Christiana uncompleted was nothing less than the Confessions. From the Confessions (X, 27, 38)I want to conclude with this Augustine's prayer:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness
I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you
they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

Note: If you want to read a book Confesiones, see here http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/jod.html

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