Happiness and Wisdom: Augustine’s Early Theology of Education

Ryan N. S. Topping
Published by The Catholic University of America Press in 2012

Reviewed by W. Brian Shelton, Historical Theology, Toccoa Falls College

Unbeknownst to many, a liberal arts curriculum consisting of the trivium and the quadrivium did not exist in antiquity. This was instead a medieval development, owing its pedigree to antiquity and in large part to Augustine, who set out immediately after his conversion to solidify this tradition into a larger model of spiritual learning. This era of his life and contributions is explored by Ryan N. S. Topping, who is Pope John XXIII Chair of Studies in Catholic Theology at St. Thomas University in Canada.

In this second book on Augustine, Topping draws together the theological, educational, and philosophical thoughts of this great church father who sought to establish a Christian liberal arts agenda, so that Christians could advance pedagogically as part of a larger spiritual enterprise of faith. Topping particularly seeks to employ Augustine’s writings on the liberal arts as a lens for understanding his moral theology. For this church father, the liberal arts experience is a means to subject one’s mind and heart submissively to God that leads to a powerful model for both intellectual learning and for spiritual development. He writes:“Augustine’s writings on liberal education reflect his most ambitious sustained attempt at showing how far reason can aid in the divine task of redemption” (8).

The author focuses on this giant’s earliest educational and moral thought from Cassiciacum, the short era after his conversion up to his ordination in AD 391. This historical investigation was made before he turned to more focused biblical studies and prior to De doctrina Chrisitana, providing for us a source to connect his epistemology and his moral theology that are often isolated from one another (15). Basil’s Ad Adulescentes is the only systematic assessment of the liberal arts tradition by a Christian before Augustine, and by considering the handling of pagan liberal arts by Origen, Jerome, and Lactantius, he developed a broader scheme for the aspirations of a comprehensive moral theology that would be foundational for his great theological contributions. Of course, by focusing on one early stream of his writing, Topping avoids the mammoth challenge of writing on Augustine’s comprehensive view of a given topic. After this era, he would build his great theological system off of these years foundational to his own teaching practices in the church. Although the early years are in view, the study allows an obvious trajectory into his later explorations on epistemology and ethics.

Augustine’s liberal arts vision is a response to both Ciceronian skepticism and Manichean dualism, and Topping takes a whole chapter to show this development in his thinking in a way that would resonate with any scholar who knows the formative value of these eras of his life (15). The liberal arts find congruency with the image of God, and the order of creation is mirrored in these studies that the mind may discover meaning and fulfillment in faith pursuits. Another whole chapter explores how Augustine found the case for skepticism lacking on logical, epistemological, and moral grounds: “The skeptic fails to read the universe aright … Augustine claimed nothing less than that what you are capable to know depends partially upon the condition of your soul. Psychology matters,” the author insists (125). Thus, prayer holds a significant place in solving the epistemological challenge of humanity. Finally, a chapter considers his Platonic epistemology, where Augustine shows confidence in the church, its teachers, and the instruction of ethical living. The presence of Christ is the inner teacher in these educational means, so that Topping declares, “Augustine implies that the liberal disciplines in some way participate in Christ and have them as their object” (226; italics in original).

Augustine’s efforts exceed both classical and earlier patristic efforts to establish such a meaningful Christian educational experience, one which considers how learning leads to happiness and would impact the medieval educational direction of the church in the West. In particular, happiness and wisdom are means and evidences of the soul’s ascent through the liberal arts in the process of Christian learning. His early writings on liberal education attempt to substantiate the bold claim that by an ordered sequence of contemplation the believer can move through the disciplines “from corporeal realities to incorporeal ones” up to the mind of God himself (227). In forming his theory of learning, Augustine seeks to avoid two extremes of failing to situate his theory of the liberal arts within a theologically consistent view, on the one hand, and an educational theory susceptible to reductionism of self-serving psychological motivations on the other (15).

The distinctive contribution of the book is to show that liberal learning is spiritual, and all systems of ethics and doctrine stem from this process of pedagogy. This thesis is important for Christian higher education today, with particular application to ethics. Topping writes how Augustine’s “fascinating and ambitious early program for the liberal arts sits well within the structure of his emerging moral theology” (15). In a word that takes some acclamation for the reader, “happiness” is the final purpose of education. Other topics—even traditional ones such as grace and Christology—are secondary in the process for Topping’s view of Augustine. Authority, virtue, eschatology, reason, and even the prerequisite faith line up to support this proximate purpose for education: happiness. They find expression in the cultivation of virtue and the formation of a believing community, and they are replete in his educational vision and underlie his moral theology.

The work is not without an intellectual application that finds personal meaning to the reader. For example, through prayer we “can experience partial reparation of our will, here and now” (125). There is application for the teacher, too, as teaching is “an act of friendship motivated by a dual love for God and for the student” (17). Topping makes sure that the subject of Augustine himself does not distract the scholar today who attempts to study the Almighty and his mysterious ways, as the church father would hope to direct us to understand how the created order in a scientific era would speak to us about the mind of God. His famous dictum credo ut intelligam [“I believe that I may understand”] is an underlying theme to the work that is not always spelled out, yet the liberal arts education creates space for teachers and disciples to discover God for themselves. Although the phrase implies certain propositions in a larger dialectic (180-183), Topping contrasts Immanuel Kant to Augustine, the latter of whom acknowledges that an intellectual community and a dogmatic spiritual tradition is an essential part of liberal education. Such reflection makes the work a quintessential basis for the enterprise of Christian higher education, providing a strengthened, ancient rationale for the frontiers explored regularly by Christian Scholar’s Review.

The scholarship in the work is solid. Predictably, Peter Brown, Carol Harrison, and Philip Cary find places of engagement, as well as a well-informed knowledge of Christian and pagan antiquity. Noticing the practice and culture of the day, the author rightly represents Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle with clear awareness that the reader may understand Augustine’s Christian paedeia as a product of both the Greek and Latin philosophers as well as the church fathers. His research is marked by lucid connections, and he supplements it with notes and a bibliography. This makes the work an excellent tool for graduate study on Augustine, and an illustrative source for evidencing how the writings of church history find application in our society today. “In our time reason, virtue, and piety are everywhere under siege … Augustine’s work nurtures hope for what the mind and heart can achieve with learning and with faith” (232). This work elucidates Augustine’s educational and spiritual values in a way that impresses and inspires.

Cite this article
W. Brian Shelton, “Happiness and Wisdom: Augustine’s Early Theology of Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 449-451

W. Brian Shelton

Toccoa Falls College
W. Brian Shelton is a Fellow with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Leadership Development Institute and the Georgia Governor’s Teaching Fellowship, as well as former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Toccoa Falls College.