St. Augustine’s 6 Principles for Analyzing Culture Today.

Certainly Augustine’s penetrating analyses of his culture has many principles to teach us in modern times. I’ll extract six.

First, Augustine calls us to abandon extreme views of Christ and culture, and be rather more discerning in our approach. Augustine rejects philosophy as a whole, but also praises the work of Cicero, who genuinely led him on a search for truth[1]. Augustine’s mentor, Simplicianus, praises God that Augustine was reading Plato, for “in the Platonists, he said, God and his Word are constantly implied[2].” While Augustine rejects philosophy as ultimate, he doesn’t reject it as a whole. Regularly, Augustine filters through cultural products, quoting some playwrights for support, others for rejection. Rather than demonize certain aspects of culture, Augustine listens closely for the “divine spark of the intellect” to shine through.

  Secondly, St. Augustine affirms the value of skill in culture. He blatantly calls some poetry “bad”, such as the poetry of the prophet Sybil of Erythrae[3]. He also admits that his view of the Bible was jaded by its seeming lack of art, but later saw its beauty: “Its plain language and simple style make it accessible to everyone, and yet it absorbs the attention of the learned[4].” He praises music that is well-constructed, and relates that his original attraction to the church was the oratory style of Ambrose[5].

Third, Augustine sees much culture as a neutral tool for good or ill. Soon after his conversion, Augustine ceased teaching his carnal pupils in Carthage, so “they should no longer buy from my lips any weapon to arm their madness[6].” He compares this art of eloquence to fine glasses, which are filled up with wine by the pagans until it goes to their heads[7]. Also, in an extraordinary survey of culture, Augustine is elated with praise that God has endowed man with so many gifts of “genius”, though he’s spoken against these institutions for the most part: “Has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts…so that this vigor of mind…betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts?” He goes on to praise God for the cultural products of men, including weaving, building, agriculture, navigation, pottery, painting, sculpture, theater, hunting, poisons, weapons, engines of destruction, medicines, culinary arts and seasonings, oration, writing, music, mathematics, and astronomy[8].  These in themselves, he asserts, are gifts of God.

Fourth, Augustine was well aware that cultural products always run the risk of disordering our affections. He laments the great emphasis schools place on grammar[9] and poetry[10] while neglecting weightier matters of the law. He is weary of arts that cause the applause of men, for pride, he believed, was the original sin[11]. Finally, he considered much of culture a danger in that it is a distraction from true spirituality. He recounts his lying to his teachers and avoiding valuable study to enjoy a “futile show”[12]. He rejects even “innocent” entertainment, as it distracts from a life of prayer: “I no longer go to watch a dog chasing a hare at the games in the circus,” says Augustine, “For when our hearts become repositories piled high with such worthless stock as this, it is the cause of interruption and distraction from our prayers…all kinds of trivial thoughts break in and cut us off from the great act of prayer[13].” He admonishes those who are unsure of their attachment to worldly things to do without them for a time, and see how it stirs them[14].

Fifth, Augustine did not believe Christians ought to flee culture, but bless it. Augustine believed there is no real “escape” from culture, as the city of man and of God are destined to be entangled until final judgment[15]. Rather than shun involvement in the world, “we should aim at using our position and influence, if these have been honorably attained, for the welfare of those who are under us”, for “…it is the necessity of love to undertake requisite business[16].” He borrows from the prophet Jeremiah in noting that the peace of the city does the church good, for “In the peace thereof shall ye have peace’ – the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy[17]…In this world, therefore, the dominion of good men is profitable, not so much for themselves as for human affairs.”

Finally, we learn from St. Augustine that culture is a valuable apologetic tool. Augustine uses many illustrations and quotes from poets and philosophers alike to make his points[18], and even uses pagan examples to spur Christians to greater zeal[19]. He himself rejected the Manichees because the leader, Faustus, had “no claims to scholarship[20].” He is able to gain credibility with the masses by appealing to his personal knowledge of their culture and “not from our own conjectures”[21]. He uses philosophical language to persuade, calling Jesus the ultimate “Principle”, the “Truth”, or the “Being who is[22].” All of these instruments Augustine steals from the world and uses for the glory of God.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the genius of this careful thinker and lover of God, St. Augustine. The breadth and depth of his knowledge is incredible; his thoughtfulness profound; his insights penetrating. However, Augustine would remind us that it does not take a genius to practice these principles of engaging in culture, for it was unlearned fishermen who first spread the gospel. Rather, the saint would encourage all to use their gifts for God’s glory, keep their affections on Christ, and do all they could to make his name great. In this, we would do well to follow in the footsteps of the great saint of God.


[1] Confessions, 58-59

[2] Confessions, 159

[3] City of God, 567

[4] Confessions, 60, 117

[5] Ibid. 107

[6] 182, Confessions.

[7] Ibid. 37

[8] City of God. 767-768

[9] Confessions 39

[10] Ibid. 71

[11] Ibid. 245

[12] Ibid. 31-39

[13] Ibid. 244

[14] Ibid. 245-246

[15] City of God, 35

[16] Ibid. 630-31

[17] City of God, 638-639

[18] Ibid. 300-305

[19] Ibid. 151

[20] Confessions 98

[21] City of God 98-99

[22] Ibid. 294

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nmcdonal

2 Comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed this series on Augustine, Nick. Today’s piece reads like a primer on how to apply passages like Philippians 4:8 –

    Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

    and Romans 12:9 –

    Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

    Then I got to your concluding paragraph, which is a wonderful encouragement to all of us who are nowhere near as brainy as that Augustine fellow!

    Tim

    • Thanks, Tim – nice biblical application, my friend. I agree – spending a week with Augustine made me feel like an intellectual ninny. But spending the last decade with the Holy Spirit puts things in perspective.

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