6 minute read

St. Augustine (354–430)

Augustine and Teaching, Influence

St. Augustine was bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, and his writings established the intellectual foundations of Christianity in the West. He was born in Thagaste, a town forty-five miles south of Hippo in the Roman province of Numidia, which is now Algeria. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, a Christian. In his late teens he went to Carthage for further study, and through his reading of Cicero, he became enthused about philosophy. He became a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage and later in Rome and Milan. Augustine was a restless seeker rather than a systematic thinker, and after a brief flirtation with the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeanism, he immersed himself in the Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus. His whole life may be characterized as an intellectual and moral struggle with the problem of evil, a struggle that he worked out through synthesizing the ideas of the Neoplatonists with Christianity. He upheld the teachings of the Bible, but he realized that maintaining them in the intellectual and political climate of his age required a broad liberal education.

In his struggle against evil, Augustine believed in a hierarchy of being in which God was the Supreme Being on whom all other beings, that is, all other links in the great chain of being, were totally dependent. All beings were good because they tended back toward their creator who had made them from nothing. Humans, however, possess free will, and can only tend back to God by an act of the will. Man's refusal to turn to God is, in this way of thinking, nonbeing, or evil, so although the whole of creation is good, evil comes into the world through man's rejection of the good, the true, and the beautiful, that is, God. The ultimate purpose of education, then, is turning toward God, and Augustine thought the way to God was to look into oneself. It is here one finds an essential distinction Augustine makes between knowing about something (cogitare), and understanding (scire). One can know about oneself, but it is through understanding the mystery of oneself that one can come to understand the mystery of God. Thus the restless pursuit of God is always a pursuit of a goal that recedes from the seeker. As humans are mysteries to themselves, God is understood as wholly mysterious.

Augustine and Teaching

To be a teacher in the context of this struggle was, for Augustine, an act of love. Indeed, he advised teachers to "Imitate the good, bear with the evil, love all" (1952, p. 87). This love was required, for he knew the hardships of study, and the active resistance of the young to learning. He also considered language to be as much a hindrance as a help to learning. The mind, he said, moves faster than the words the teacher utters, and the words do not adequately express what the teacher intends. Additionally, the student hears the words in his own way, and attends not only to the words, but also to the teacher's tone of voice and other nonverbal signs, thus often misunderstanding the meaning of the teacher. The teacher, thus, must welcome students' questions even when they interrupt his speech. He must listen to his students and converse with them, and question them on their motives as well as their understanding. He saw education as a process of posing problems and seeking answers through conversation. Further, he saw teaching as mere preparation for understanding, which he considered an illumination of the "the teacher within," who is Christ.

Augustine, then, thought teachers should adapt their teaching to their students, whom he distinguished into three kinds: those well educated in the liberal arts, those who had studied with inferior teachers of rhetoric and who thought they understood things they did not actually understand, and those who were uneducated. The teacher needs to begin with all students by questioning them about what they know. When teaching well-educated students, Augustine cautioned teachers not to repeat for them what they already knew, but to move them along quickly to material they had not yet mastered. When teaching the superficially educated student, the teacher needed to insist upon the difference between having words and having understanding. These students needed to learn docility and to develop the kind of humility that was not overly critical of minor errors in the speech of others. With regard to the uneducated student, Augustine encouraged the teacher to be simple, clear, direct, and patient. This kind of teaching required much repetition, and could induce boredom in the teacher, but Augustine thought this boredom would be overcome by a sympathy with the student according to which, "they, as it were, speak in us what they hear, while we, after a fashion, learn in them what we teach" (1952, p.41). This kind of sympathy induces joy in the teacher and joy in the student.

All three of these kinds of teaching are to be done in what Augustine called the restrained style. This style requires the teacher not to overload the student with too much material, but to stay on one theme at a time, to reveal to the student what is hidden from him, to solve difficulties, and to anticipate other questions that might arise. Teachers also should be able from time to time to speak in what he called the mixed style–using elaborate yet well-balanced phrases and rhythms–for the purpose of delighting their students and attracting them to the beauty of the material. Teachers should also be able to speak in the grand style, which aims at moving students to action. What makes the grand style unique is not its verbal elaborations, but the fact that it comes from the heart–from emotion and passion–thus moving students to obey God and use his creation to arrive at full enjoyment of God. This hoped-for response is wholly consistent with what is probably the most famous quotation from Augustine's autobiography, The Confessions: "You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you" (1997b, p. 3).


Of the two great traditions in liberal education, the oratorical and the philosophical, Augustine is distinctly an orator. He believed more in imparting the truth to students than in supporting the individual student's quest for truth. He used the dialogical mode as one who knows the truth, unlike the Greek philosopher Socrates, who used dialogue as one who does not know anything. He thus established a Christian philosophy, which has influenced scholars and educators throughout the history of the West.

Augustine directly influenced the Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus and the Spanish prelate and scholar Isidore of Seville who, in the sixth and seventh centuries, established the seven liberal arts as a way of enriching the study of the Scriptures. The Anglo-Saxon scholar and headmaster Alcuin, in the eighth century, used Augustine's works on Christian teaching as textbooks. The Italian philosopher and religious leader Thomas Aquinas's attempt in the thirteenth century at synthesizing Aristotle and Christian faith may be understood as an extension of the work of Augustine, as can the Christian humanism of the Dutch scholar Erasmus in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Augustine's use of psychological autobiography speaks directly to those educators who view introspection and empathy as critical features in the life of a teacher. His awareness of the centrality of personal and political struggle in human existence, and of the educative and healing power of human dialogue still speaks to the condition of many teachers and educators.


AUGUSTINE, ST. 1952. The First Catechetical Instruction (400), trans. Joseph P. Christopher. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.

AUGUSTINE, ST. 1968. The Teacher (389), trans. Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

AUGUSTINE, ST. 1997a. On Christian Teaching (426), trans. R. P. H. Green. New York: Oxford University Press.

AUGUSTINE, ST. 1997b. The Confessions (400), trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books.

BROWN, PETER. 1969. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

CHADWICK, HENRY. 1996. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press.

RIST, JOHN M. 1999. Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press.

STOCK, BRIAN. 1996. Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)