Augustine of Hippo

Assigned: Saint Augustine of Hippo. From On Christian Teaching (166-77), Books 2 and 3. Also read the editors’ introduction (164-65).

On Christian Teaching (circa 395 C.E.)

From Book 2

1. On 166-67 (“When I was writing about…”), how does Saint Augustine distinguish words or signs from things? What are the two kinds of signs, according to him? What distinctions does he make between things and signs? Which kind of sign does Augustine exclude from his analysis? Which kind does he privilege, and why?

2. On 167 (“But spoken words cease to exist…”), describe the main features of Augustine’s account of the spoken and written word. Afterwards, compare and contrast this account with the one set forth by Plato’s Socrates in Phaedrus—the story about Theuth’s invention of writing (Leitch 89-95). From your modern perspective, which account do you find more valuable or insightful about the written word, and why?

3. On 167-68 (“But casual readers are misled…”), Augustine addresses the value of metaphorical or figurative language as well as of interpretive difficulty. On what basis does he especially welcome the frequent use of figurative language in the scriptures in comparison with the more literal language they also contain? What benefit do we get from a metaphorical expression that we don’t get from literal speech or writing? With regard to the more difficult passages, in what sense does Augustine consider such difficulty “divinely predetermined” (167 bottom)—what benefits do readers derive from it, and what other factor helps to alleviate anxiety on their part when they are unable to determine the meaning of a particular passage?

4. On 168-70 (“There are two reasons why…”), what two main reasons, according to Augustine, account for misunderstandings in the interpretation of written texts? What is most helpful, in his view, when literal (as opposed to figurative) language is misunderstood? Why is it so useful to know not just Latin (the lingua franca of Augustine’s time) but also Greek and Hebrew? Why, as well, is the sheer multiplicity of translations of scripture into Latin more helpful than not? (169) By inference, what principle does Augustine apparently believe counteracts what might otherwise be a tendency towards interpretive chaos due to so many translations being circulated?

5. On 171-73 (“As for metaphorical signs…”), Augustine discusses some of the reasons why people misinterpret written works that contain figurative or non-literal language. What reasons does he identify, and how does he explain their significance? How, for example, does a person’s being “ignorant of the qualities of animals or stones or plants or other things” (171) hinder proper understanding of the scriptures? By implication, what would be an effective remedy in this case? What about problems stemming from ignorance of numbers and music theory? How does such ignorance get in the way of understanding the scriptures? (171-72)

From Book 3

6. On 173-75 (“The student who fears God…”), on what basis does Augustine express confidence that many of the problems leading to misinterpretation of either literal or metaphorical language in scripture can be dealt with efficiently? What measures, in his view, can help prepare students of scripture to arrive at a sufficiently sound understanding of the biblical texts they study? With regard to problems arising from misunderstanding of literal language, what does Augustine counsel?

7. On 175-76 (“As well as these ambiguities…”), what safeguards does Augustine identify for dealing with potential misunderstandings arising from the interpretation of figurative language? Why, in his view, is it especially unfortunate when a reader mistakes figurative language for literal—what are the spiritual consequences of that kind of error? Finally, what basic test does Augustine offer for distinguishing when to interpret a passage literally or figuratively? (176)

8. On 176-77 (“The literary-minded should be…”), in these final two paragraphs of our selection, how does Augustine address the issue of metaphor’s utility and value in scripture? In what sense does he offer an implicit defense of figuration in the holy scriptures, and what part does his reference both to tropes in learned Latin grammar books and to the speech habits of common, uneducated people play in this implied justification?

9. General question: In On Christian Teaching, how similar is Saint Augustine’s account of scriptural language and its difficulties to that of later Christian authors such as Saint Thomas Aquinas (Leitch 189-94) and Dante Alighieri (Leitch 194-99)? To what extent does Augustine’s work in this area seem to be a guide for both authors?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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