What profit it a man? – Augustine on education

posted in: classical | 1

As I slowly make my way through The Great Tradition, I am fascinated to read what the best minds of the past have prioritized in education. Particularly because I am now in the Church Fathers section, it is so good to see how they handled the transition from the classical world into Christendom – they knew philosophy, science, and the arts were not automatically corrupting simply because they came from the Gentiles.

What Augustine had to say about education - both classical and Christian

Augustine will have a bit more to say about that in the next section, but first in the book were several pages of excerpts from The Confessions dealing with Augustine’s own education – and its use and misuse in his life.

Near the end, he makes it clear in 3 sentences the whole point of learning, and what to prioritize in education.

Happiness is found in the glory of God.

I want to lead with an Augustine quote from The City of God, which I’m slowly listening to on Audible:

It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.

All men desire to be happy. Education, you might say, is for happiness.

That actually is what Aristotle said, in a round-about way, because he said true happiness comes from virtue, from having an upright character, and that education’s job is to cultivate virtue.

Augustine, in The City of God, shows how Romans were looking for happiness in all the wrong places.

The difference between pagan and Christian is not what we desire, but where we look for fulfillment of that desire. This is Augustine’s apologetic: You want to be happy. I know where true happiness is found. It is found in obedience to the One, True, Triune God, Who reveals Himself in Scripture.

John Piper’s Desiring God is, actually, a riff off this theme.



So, if God is the source of happiness, what good is learning? Isn’t it unnecessary to happiness?



Augustine, in a section of The Confessions quoted in The Great Tradition, tells us about the three possible kinds of students and wraps it up with what sounds to me like a warning (italics in the original):

Doth then, O Lord God of truth, whoso knoweth these things, therefore please Thee? Surely unhappy is he who knoweth all these, and knoweth not Thee: but happy whoso knoweth Thee, though he know not these. And whoso knoweth both Thee and them is not the happier for them, but for Thee only, if *knowing Thee*, he *glorifies Thee as God, and is thankful, and becomes not vain in his imaginations.*

So:


  • It is unprofitable for a soul to have knowledge without having God.
  • It is profitable for a soul to have God, even if he has no knowledge.

What of those who have both God & knowledge?

They (i.e. We) must guard our hearts and minds, that the knowledge does not puff us up to pride but turns us in gratitude always back to our Savior.

So the knowledge is only good, and only produces happiness, if it’s used for God’s glory instead of our own.

So a believer, whose all this world of wealth is, and who having nothing, yet possesseth all things, by cleaving unto Thee, whom all things serve

What examples of using knowledge to glorify God can you think of? Please share in the comments!


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Augustine was a well-educated church father who had a lot to say about education - what we should study and why we should learn it. Find out more here.

One Response

  1. Katie M
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    I read in John Pipers Advent devotional today (Good News of Great Joy), concerning the Magi and the purpose of their gifts to Jesus. We don’t give to God because he needs anything (Acts 17:25), nor to bribe him (Duet 10:17). We give to God, to say “You are my treasure, not these things.”

    I was thinking that education and its benefits is similar. I can delight in the gift of what I’m learning, but when I make that the end (“I’m so smart”), it becomes pride. If I use what I’ve learned (or my gifts or talents) for God, to glorify him, to serve others, without looking for any reward, then I am no longer hoarding my learning. I am simply enjoying God, for who he is, not what I get from him.

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