Part II: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

During his time with the Manicheans, Augustine began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with their teachings and had accumulated a number of questions that none of his fellow Manichees were able to answer adequately. His friends, however, assured him that when Faustus arrived, he would be able to sufficiently address and respond to Augustine’s questions. Yet, when Augustine met Faustus and had the opportunity to engage him on various issues, he found Faustus wanting. Indeed, Faustus lived up to reputation as a gifted orator, but his content had no substance. This marks another significant turning point in Augustine’s journey. In fact, as he looks back on this event, he again sees God’s providential care and guidance. As Augustine explains, God himself had been teaching him to listen with a spiritually attuned ear and to recognize that God alone is the (true, inner) teacher of truth.

“I had already learned under your tuition that nothing should be regarded as true because it is eloquently stated, nor false because the words sound clumsy. On the other hand, it is not true for being expressed in uncouth language either, or false because couched in splendid words. I had come to understand that just as wholesome and rubbishy food may both be served equally well in sophisticated dishes or in others of rustic quality, so too can wisdom and foolishness be proffered in language elegant or plain.”

Augustine has clearly made progress at this point, as he is less attracted by mere external adornments, and continues to long for that which truly feeds his soul—whether it be served in sophisticated or rustic dishes. Augustine’s thirst for content over form (as conveyed in his judgment of Mani), however, should not be taken as a wholesale dismissal or repudiation of the importance of articulate rhetorical style.

In light of Faustus’ inability to answer Augustine’s questions, Augustine entertains for a brief period of time Academic skepticism, and as a result, considers the possibility that perhaps truth cannot be obtained. Yet, he does not seem to take the skeptical position too much to heart, as he continues to wrestle with theological questions (e.g., God’s omnipresence, the nature of evil etc.) and even longed to discuss the scriptures with someone who knew them well. After a brief teaching stint in Rome, Augustine moves to Milan and there meets this “someone,” viz., Bishop Ambrose, whom God will use to help Augustine overcome the many false views that he had acquired through the Manichean teachings on Scripture. As Augustine himself admits, he first came to hear Ambrose with less than virtuous motives; however, as he sat under Ambrose’s teaching he began to be drawn in not only by his rhetorical skill but likewise by the weightiness of his content. Describing his experience of listening to Ambrose’s orations, Augustine writes:

“[A]s his words, which I enjoyed, penetrated my mind, the substance, which I overlooked, seeped in with them, for I could not separate the two. As I opened my heart to appreciate how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only by slow degrees. At first the case he was making began to seem defensible to me, and I realized that the Catholic faith, in support of which I had believed nothing could be advanced against Manichean opponents, was in fact intellectually respectable.”

What proved to be a particularly important breakthrough for Augustine was Ambrose’s explanation of the figurative or “spiritual” interpretation of Scripture. The Manichees had interpreted a number of texts from the Old Testament in a strictly literal sense, which caused serious problems in Augustine’s understanding of God’s nature and character. Now that Augustine had (through Ambrose) gained this new hermeneutical approach to Scripture, many of his former objections and misunderstandings were swept away. Although now Augustine has more or less repudiated his Manichean beliefs and has significantly less “intellectual” excuses for rejecting the Catholic faith, his flirtation with skepticism rears its head and allows him to remain at a distance from a more intimate embrace of Christianity. One of his chief stumbling blocks—itself a hangover from his now abandoned Manichean worldview—is Augustine’s inability to conceive of God as immaterial. This barrier will be removed in his encounter with the writings of the Platonists, which will be covered in the next post.

Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.