Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey

By Joy A. Palmer; Liora Bresler et al. | Go to book overview

SAINT AUGUSTINE 354-430

In your gift we find our rest. There are you our joy. Our rest is our peace…. A body by its weight tends to move to its proper place. Things which are not in their intended position are restless. Once they are in their ordered position, they are at rest. My weight is my love. 1

Aurelius Augustinus, whom we know as St Augustine, was born in 354 in the small North African town of Thagaste. His mother Monica was a Christian; his father Patricius was a pagan, who received baptism on his death-bed. At the time of Augustine's birth, the Roman Empire in the West had less than a hundred and twenty years to run before its final collapse: when he came to die as Bishop of Hippo, that city was being besieged by the Vandals. The writings he left were destined to be read in a world very different from his own.

He was subjected to the disheartening procedures of education in those days: learning by rote, a concentration upon single words to the neglect of the whole, artificial composition, and instruction in Greek that nauseated him-he never read Greek copiously and with ease. The whole process was well seasoned with corporal punishment. He writes in the first book of the Confessions about the pains and terror and boredom of his school-days, and yet the education he received (at great cost to his parents) made him a member of a caste that might find acceptance anywhere in the Roman world.

Augustine began to teach, first in Thagaste and then in Carthage. He formed a stable liaison with a woman of a lower social class than himself, and a son was born to them. His education had been literary, but he encountered a philosophical writing by Cicero (now surviving only in fragments)-the Hortensius, which placed the highest happiness in the quest for Wisdom, and he was much moved by it. But a reading of the Bible disappointed him, and he entered a subordinate rank among the Manichees-a dualistic religion which made the Good principle be good indeed, but not omnipotent. He eventually went to Rome and then to the Imperial City of Milan, where he became Professor of Rhetoric. His faithful companion was taken from him-she was an impediment to his advancement. His Manichean beliefs petered out, and he veered to scepticism; but a reading of books by 'Platonists' (Plotinus and Porphyry) led him nearer to Christianity. His taking the final step in 386 is told in the eighth book of the Confessions (written thirteen years after the event). His baptism took place at Milan. Within three years, his mother and his son were both dead, and Augustine returned to Africa and was ordained a priest. In 395, he was made a bishop by force-such was a custom in those days-and bore for the rest of his life the burden of administration which this entailed.

His voluminous writings include commentaries on Scripture, devotional works, philosophical treatises against scepticism and on the freedom of the will, educational works, the Confessions themselves, and writings against theological opponents. The first, and obviously, of these was against the Manichees. Then he wrote opposing the Donatists, an African sect that wanted to limit the Church to those who were perfect. He also wrote in opposition to the Pelagians, a sect of British origin that did not do justice to

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