Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Augustine's "On Teaching" 2:73-152

I have been working through Augustine's De doctrina christiana again. Here are my posts so far:

Preface and Book I
Book II, first post

Now here is the rest of Book II.
1. Two kinds of learning in pagan society: 1) human made, 2) divine made. He then spends some time talking about human superstition, which is quite fun, for we catch a glimpse of superstitions in Roman culture in Augustine's day. He also includes some of what we might call astrology today.

He talks about how the fifth and sixth months (their year started in March) could be renamed after Julius and Augustus Caesar by imperial decree because there was no real god to offend. He disproves the validity of astrology by pointing out how completely different twins can be, even though they come out of the womb one right after the other without any significant interval. They are both born under the same constellations, but can be quite different in their life's outcome.

He also relays the notion that we find in some Jewish writings and that I think is reflected at some points in the NT that the wicked angels inhabit the lowest sky or heaven. Thus in the NT, Satan is called the "ruler and power of the air" (Eph. 2:2).

I suspect we see the antecedent of some twentieth century views on words as signs in Augustine, and hear I am thinking especially of de Saussure. Augustine indicates that many words have meaning because of agreed convention (that is the signs have no intrinsic meaning). He mentions lege, which means "read" in Latin but "speak" in Greek (93).

2. Having covered human learning that is superstitious, he turns to human learning that is not superstitious.
  • "Everyone aims at some degree of similarity when they use signs, making signs as similar as possible to the things which are signified" (98).
  • "Nothing should be thought more peculiar to mankind than lies and falsehoods" (99).
There's a helpful section here where he speaks of valid human learning. The sense is similar to "all truth is God's truth" although Augustine is unreflective about presuppositions and such. History is history and can be used to correct faulty interpretations of the Bible. He does not see himself of course as correcting the Bible but of correcting interpretations of the Bible with secular history.
  • "For what has already gone into the past and cannot be undone must be considered part of the history of time, whose creator and controller is God" (56).
BTW, he gets the relative timing of Plato and Jeremiah wrong in this section, something he corrects in City of God.

Medicine is different from superstition and is valid as a source of knowledge. Astronomy as it comes to the predictable motions of the planets and stars is valid, although it can be a waste of time. :-) Logic and arithmetic are valid sources of knowledge, including arguments like syllogisms and non sequitur arguments.
  • "The validity of syllogisms is not something instituted by humans, but observed and recorded by them, so that the subject may be taught or learnt. It is built into the permanent and divinely instituted system of things" (121).
There's some good basic logic in these sections.

3. "Falsehood is the description of something which is not actually in the state in which it is asserted to be" (130). "There are two kinds of falsehood, one consisting of things which cannot possibly be true, another of things which are not true, but could be."

Here's a good quote: "The pleasure derived from the open display of truth is greater than the assistance gained from discussing or examining it, though indeed these things can sharpen the intellect, which is a good thing provided that they do not also make people more mischievous or conceited or, in other words, more inclined to deceive others by plausible talk and questioning, or to think that by learning these things they have done something marvelous or which entitles them to consider themselves superior to ordinary unsophisticated people" (135).

As he approaches the end of Book II, Augustine suggests that secular studies that do not contribute to our understanding of Scripture are more or less useless (140). Nothing in excess. However, he finds great use in Platonism (surprise).

Basically, pagan knowledge is like all the gold taken from Egypt in contrast to all the gold of Solomon's kingdom. "What a person learns independently of scripture is condemned there if it is harmful, but found there if it is useful" (151).

Of course, since he interprets much of Scripture figurally, he is wrong. He thinks he sees all truths in Scripture, but many he brings to the Scriptures. Scripture tells us all things necessary for life and salvation. It doesn't tell us how to build a watch. And that's okay.

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