Chapters 14-18: Confessions of Saint Augustine: Vanity
Chapter 14. Why He Despised Greek Literature and Easily Learned Latin.
23. But why, then, did I dislike Greek learning which was full of like tales? For Homer also was skilled in inventing similar stories, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he disagreeable to me as a boy. I believe Virgil, indeed, would be the same to Grecian children, if compelled to learn him, as I was Homer. The difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of learning a foreign language mingled as it were with gall all the sweetness of those fabulous Grecian stories. For not a single word of it did I understand, and to make me do so, they vehemently urged me with cruel threatenings and punishments. There was a time also when (as an infant) I knew no Latin; but this I acquired without any fear or tormenting, by merely taking notice, amid the blandishments of my nurses, the jests of those who smiled on me, and the sportiveness of those who toyed with me. I learned all this, indeed, without being urged by any pressure of punishment, for my own heart urged me to bring forth its own conceptions, which I could not do unless by learning words, not of those who taught me, but of those who talked to me; into whose ears, also, I brought forth whatever I discerned. From this it is sufficiently clear that a free curiosity has more influence in our learning these things than a necessity full of fear. But this last restrains the overflowings of that freedom, through Your laws, O God — Your laws, from the ferule of the schoolmaster to the trials of the martyr, being effective to mingle for us a salutary bitter, calling us back to Yourself from the pernicious delights which allure us from You.
Chapter 15. He Entreats God, that Whatever Useful Things He Learned as a Boy May Be Dedicated to Him.
24. Hear my prayer, O Lord; let not my soul faint under Your discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto You Your mercies, whereby You have saved me from all my most mischievous ways, that You might become sweet to me beyond all the seductions which I used to follow; and that I may love You entirely, and grasp Your hand with my whole heart, and that You may deliver me from every temptation, even unto the end. For lo, O Lord, my King and my God, for Your service be whatever useful thing I learned as a boy — for Your service what I speak, and write, and count. For when I learned vain things, You granted me Your discipline; and my sin in taking delight in those vanities, You have forgiven me. I learned, indeed, in them many useful words; but these may be learned in things not vain, and that is the safe way for youths to walk in.
Chapter 16. He Disapproves of the Mode of Educating Youth and He Points Out Why Wickedness is Attributed to the Gods by the Poets.
25. But woe unto you, you stream of human custom! Who shall stay your course? How long shall it be before you are dried up? How long will you carry down the sons of Eve into that huge and formidable ocean, which even they who are embarked on the cross (lignum) can scarce pass over? Do I not read in you of Jove the thunderer and adulterer? And the two verily he could not be; but it was that, while the fictitious thunder served as a cloak, he might have warrant to imitate real adultery. Yet which of our gowned masters can lend a temperate ear to a man of his school who cries out and says: “These were Homer’s fictions; he transfers things human to the gods. I could have wished him to transfer divine things to us.” But it would have been more true had he said: “These are, indeed, his fictions, but he attributed divine attributes to sinful men, that crimes might not be accounted crimes, and that whosoever committed any might appear to imitate the celestial gods and not abandoned men.”
26. And yet, you stream of hell, into you are cast the sons of men, with rewards for learning these things; and much is made of it when this is going on in the forum in the sight of laws which grant a salary over and above the rewards. And you beat against your rocks and roar, saying, “Hence words are learned; hence eloquence is to be attained, most necessary to persuade people to your way of thinking, and to unfold your opinions.” So, in truth, we should never have understood these words, golden shower, bosom, intrigue, highest heavens, and other words written in the same place, unless Terence had introduced a good-for-nothing youth upon the stage, setting up Jove as his example of lewdness:—
“Viewing a picture, where the tale was drawn,
Of Jove’s descending in a golden shower
To Danaë’s bosom . . . with a woman to intrigue.
And see how he excites himself to lust, as if by celestial authority, when he says:—
Who shakes the highest heavens with his thunder,
And I, poor mortal man, not do the same!
I did it, and with all my heart I did it.”
Not one whit more easily are the words learned for this vileness, but by their means is the vileness perpetrated with more confidence. I do not blame the words, they being, as it were, choice and precious vessels, but the wine of error which was drunk in them to us by inebriated teachers; and unless we drank, we were beaten, without liberty of appeal to any sober judge. And yet, O my God — in whose presence I can now with security recall this — did I, unhappy one, learn these things willingly, and with delight, and for this was I called a boy of good promise.
Chapter 17. He Continues on the Unhappy Method of Training Youth in Literary Subjects.
27. Bear with me, my God, while I speak a little of those talents You have bestowed upon me, and on what follies I wasted them. For a lesson sufficiently disquieting to my soul was given me, in hope of praise, and fear of shame or stripes, to speak the words of Juno, as she raged and sorrowed that she could not
From all approaches of the Dardan king,”
which I had heard Juno never uttered. Yet were we compelled to stray in the footsteps of these poetic fictions, and to turn that into prose which the poet had said in verse. And his speaking was most applauded in whom, according to the reputation of the persons delineated, the passions of anger and sorrow were most strikingly reproduced and clothed in the most suitable language. But what is it to me, O my true Life, my God, that my declaiming was applauded above that of many who were my contemporaries and fellow-students? Behold, is not all this smoke and wind? Was there nothing else, too, on which I could exercise my wit and tongue? Your praise, Lord, Your praises might have supported the tendrils of my heart by Your Scriptures; so had it not been dragged away by these empty trifles, a shameful prey of the fowls of the air. For there is more than one way in which men sacrifice to the fallen angels.
Chapter 18. Men Desire to Observe the Rules of Learning, But Neglect the Eternal Rules of Everlasting Safety.
28. But what matter of surprise is it that I was thus carried towards vanity, and went forth from You, O my God, when men were proposed to me to imitate, who, should they in relating any acts of theirs — not in themselves evil— be guilty of a barbarism or solecism, when censured for it became confounded; but when they made a full and ornate oration, in well-chosen words, concerning their own licentiousness, and were applauded for it, they boasted? You see this, O Lord, and keep silence, “long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth,” as You are. Will You keep silence for ever? And even now You draw out of this vast deep the soul that seeks You and thirsts after Your delights, whose heart said to You, I have sought Your face, “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” For I was far from Your face, through my darkened (Romans 1:21) affections. For it is not by our feet, nor by change of place, that we either turn from You or return to You. Or, indeed, did that younger son look out for horses, or chariots, or ships, or fly away with visible wings, or journey by the motion of his limbs, that he might, in a far country, prodigally waste all that You gave him when he set out? A kind Father when You gave, and kinder still when he returned destitute! (Luke 15:11-32) So, then, in wanton, that is to say, in darkened affections, lies distance from Your face.
29. Behold, O Lord God, and behold patiently, as You are wont to do, how diligently the sons of men observe the conventional rules of letters and syllables, received from those who spoke prior to them, and yet neglect the eternal rules of everlasting salvation received from You, insomuch that he who practices or teaches the hereditary rules of pronunciation, if, contrary to grammatical usage, he should say, without aspirating the first letter, a uman being, will offend men more than if, in opposition to Your commandments, he, a human being, were to hate a human being. As if, indeed, any man should feel that an enemy could be more destructive to him than that hatred with which he is excited against him, or that he could destroy more utterly him whom he persecutes than he destroys his own soul by his enmity. And of a truth, there is no science of letters more innate than the writing of conscience— that he is doing unto another what he himself would not suffer. How mysterious are You, who in silence dwell on high, (Isaiah 33:5) You God, the only great, who by an unwearied law deal out the punishment of blindness to illicit desires! When a man seeking for the reputation of eloquence stands before a human judge while a thronging multitude surrounds him, inveighs against his enemy with the most fierce hatred, he takes most vigilant heed that his tongue slips not into grammatical error, but takes no heed lest through the fury of his spirit he cut off a man from his fellow men.
30. These were the customs in the midst of which I, unhappy boy, was cast, and on that arena it was that I was more fearful of perpetrating a barbarism than, having done so, of envying those who had not. These things I declare and confess unto You, my God, for which I was applauded by them whom I then thought it my whole duty to please, for I did not perceive the gulf of infamy wherein I was cast away from Your eyes. For in Your eyes what was more infamous than I was already, displeasing even those like myself, deceiving with innumerable lies both tutor, and masters, and parents, from love of play, a desire to see frivolous spectacles, and a stage-stuck restlessness, to imitate them? Pilferings I committed from my parents’ cellar and table, either enslaved by gluttony, or that I might have something to give to boys who sold me their play, who, though they sold it, liked it as well as I. In this play, likewise, I often sought dishonest victories, I myself being conquered by the vain desire of pre-eminence. And what could I so little endure, or, if I detected it, censured I so violently, as the very things I did to others, and, when myself detected I was censured, preferred rather to quarrel than to yield? Is this the innocence of childhood? Nay, Lord, nay, Lord; I entreat Your mercy, O my God. For these same sins, as we grow older, are transferred from governors and masters, from nuts, and balls, and sparrows, to magistrates and kings, to gold, and lands, and slaves, just as the rod is succeeded by more severe chastisements. It was, then, the stature of childhood that You, O our King, approved of as an emblem of humility when You said: “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
31. But yet, O Lord, to You, most excellent and most good, You Architect and Governor of the universe, thanks had been due unto You, our God, even had You willed that I should not survive my boyhood. For I existed even then; I lived, and felt, and was solicitous about my own well-being — a trace of that most mysterious unity from which I had my being; I kept watch by my inner sense over the wholeness of my senses, and in these insignificant pursuits, and also in my thoughts on things insignificant, I learned to take pleasure in truth. I was averse to being deceived, I had a vigorous memory, was provided with the power of speech, was softened by friendship, shunned sorrow, meanness, ignorance. In such a being what was not wonderful and praiseworthy? But all these are gifts of my God; I did not give them to myself; and they are good, and all these constitute myself. Good, then, is He that made me, and He is my God; and before Him will I rejoice exceedingly for every good gift which, as a boy, I had. For in this lay my sin, that not in Him, but in His creatures — myself and the rest — I sought for pleasures, honors, and truths, falling thereby into sorrows, troubles, and errors. Thanks be to You, my joy, my pride, my confidence, my God — thanks be to You for Your gifts; but preserve them to me. For thus will You preserve me; and those things which You have given me shall be developed and perfected, and I myself shall be with You, for from You is my being.
Chapters 14-18. A question we have probably all asked at one time or another was this: When will I ever use this? We may have asked it in school, or in a lesson our parents tried to teach us or something more. But have we ever asked God to help us to use those things that we have learned in our childhood? And have we tried to ask God to help us discern those things that we learn into a focus into those things that we will in fact use to become closer to God, the ultimate purpose in our lives?
For this is how Saint Augustine begins Chapter 15, with a prayer asking God to help “me come to love thee wholly.” He further comes to the insight that in what we learn or do we should seek to avoid those things that are vain (things that do not lead us to God) from those things, where we could have received the same benefit were we to focus upon things that are less vain.
For what Augustine reflects upon was what he know sees as a lack of quality in his childhood. He did not focus on what was important, and he resented the discipline imposed upon him. He wished to play, but not always at those things that were found to be helpful to the formation of a boy into the type of man who achieves the way in which God calls him to be.
For in what Augustine learned as a boy showed the folly of the gods of the Greek world. Far from being the divine being worthy of seeking in a deep relationship, that can only be guided by the love of God for us and the gift of his grace, Augustine found himself being caught up in the vanity of subjects and readings that only proved the weakness of the gods and fed his own vanity.
And his pursuits had no higher or noble purpose. They did not lead him to pursue or pray or reflect upon those things that would have led him closer to God. And so Augustine feels somewhat deceived because the things he was taught were really of little use to the quest of accepting God’s salvation.
Questions to Ponder
When you consider your schooling and the subjects you learned in school, what comes to mind as the subjects and topics that you felt led you to God? What led you away from God?
In what ways are you able to appreciate today what you were not able to appreciate as a child in terms of what your teachers or parents were trying to teach you?
In what ways did you learn the importance of being disciplined to something that you might not have enjoyed at the time but later in life were to come to know and see its purpose in your life?
How were you taught about God as a child? And if you were not, how would you describe the ways in which you found values taught?
Is there a way to see or understand the nuance of learning things for the intrinsic value they hold, and things that are frivolous or vain?
Note: The text that we are using did not include a chapter 14.
The Previous Chapters of The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 15-19
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 11-13
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 6-10
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 3-5
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 1-2
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Introduction