Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.
Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church. Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional theologian.
Michael P. Foley of Baylor University is offering a new translation of the four dialogues that is being published by Yale University Press in four volumes. Foley describes these dialogues as Augustine’s “first written venture into what is now sometimes called philosophical theology” (xxiv). Foley offers expert guidance in how to approach these dialogues, recommending that they should be read as dramatic narrative, should be read together, and should be read in order (xxxiii–xxxiv). He observes that they should be read not merely as a step in Augustine’s development but as “in their own right the culmination of a long and eventful intellectual journey” (xxxv). On the question “Are the dialogues Christian?” Foley argues, despite arguments that they are merely about philosophy, that they “have a pervasively Christian content” (xl).
One last comment on the dialogues as a whole. There are four volumes to the Cassiciacum dialogues: Against the Academics, On the Happy Life, On Order, and the Soliloquies. Foley gives a helpful summary of the argument of the four books in progression that I think is valuable to reproduce here:
Intellectual, moral, and religious conversion begins with a rejection of skepticism, which deadens the desire for truth by preaching its unattainability (Against the Academics); progresses with an intensified desire to become happy and know God, who is the Truth (On the Happy Life); turns on an understanding of God’s order through the soul’s coming to know itself (On Order); and is ratified with a more explicit affirmation of the soul’s knowledge of itself and its participation in God (Soliloquies). (xxxiv–xxxv)
What follows is a discussion of the first volume, Against the Academics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher).
From a historical standpoint, several observations struck me as I read Against the Academics. First, here we see an Augustine who is steeped in classical philosophy, a man trained in dialectic. He is an expert debater and teacher, and it is clear that these skills would serve him well throughout his life as a churchman and theologian. In Against the Academics, readers get to see Augustine the teacher in action, interacting with his students. Augustine commends the process of the disputation because the goal is “for the sake of exercising you and challenging you to fine-tune your mind” (54). Augustine is seeking to guide them to discover truth.
Augustine’s humanity is also on display. He jokes with his interlocutors, and they joke back. They also get frustrated with each other at times. They have to delay their debates to complete their physical chores for the day, and meals interrupt their discussions. Far from an ivory tower theologian, here we see Augustine in the flesh.
These dialogues are a precursor to the Augustine who wrote The Confessions and The City of God. Here we see an Augustine who is not yet steeped in the Scriptures but who is fully committed to Jesus Christ. Thus, it strikes me that this Augustine is in some ways unlike the later Augustine, elevating the pursuit of bare philosophy, debating philosophical ideas in a way that reflects his earlier rhythm of life as a dialectician, and not yet fully immersed in church life. At the same time, the later Augustine is still visible in some ways even here—his intellectual prowess, his faith in Christ, his reliance on the revelation of God, and his fervor to defend truth.
In fact, Augustine shows that he is concerned more about truth than about glory. Augustine admitted that he was ready to “voluntarily profess” defeat, if indeed he was conquered, because, he said, “We are discussing these matters not for the sake of gaining glory, but in order to discover the truth” (98). This statement, whether delivered mainly for rhetorical effect or not, certainly represents an ideal in how one goes about debating any philosophical topic. Perhaps the main reason this ideal is disregarded today is the reigning belief that truth cannot be found.
And that brings us to the main topic under consideration in Against the Academics: Is it possible to know truth? That this question was bandied about in the fourth century AD should caution us in thinking that our own era is unique. Epistemological skepticism is no new issue, and we should take heart in knowing that philosophers like Augustine have addressed this perennial philosophical problem in centuries past. Against the Academics provides a solid response to such notions. Augustine carefully shows problems with intellectual skepticism and defends reasons for why truth can be found.
He closes the book with confidence that he may find wisdom: “I don’t think I should despair of obtaining it someday; at least having put in low regard all the other things that mortals consider good, I have resolved to devote myself to a search for wisdom” (112). The Academics are really a deterrent to truth seeking, but in Augustine’s view, the authority of Christ is a solid foundation for pursuing truth.
It certainly helps to have familiarity with the philosophical debates and figures in Augustine’s day while reading this volume. Foley provides helpful guidance in this vein through detailed endnotes and a commentary that runs about the length of the treatise itself. This book is an excellent resource for Augustine specialists. It will also appeal to those with an interest in philosophy as it relates to Christianity. And it has an appeal for historians seeking to fill out their understanding of Augustine and his life, development, and thought. The book includes gems by Augustine, but you have to dig for them. Augustine, ever the teacher, wouldn’t have it any other way.
I close this review of Against the Academics with a theme that undergirded Augustine’s entire approach to Christian thought. At the end of the discourse, Augustine says, “I am now of such a mind that I impatiently long to apprehend what is true not only through believing, but also through understanding” (112). Here Augustine gives his first foretaste of the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” which Anselm of Canterbury would articulate so powerfully. Augustine embodied that notion. Here at the outset of his faith, he did not pretend to have obtained full understanding, but he believed in Christ, which gave him the basis for pursuing understanding and the confidence that he would attain it. An approach well worth consideration by skeptics in our day as well.
***I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.