Title: "St. Augustine's Confessions: A Preface to Medieval Philosophy", Teaching Philosophy, 12/1, 1989, 13-21.
Author: Alan Perreiah
Date: February 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 Augustine's Confessions meets all the criteria that one might set for a teaching text. It is readily available, accessible yet challenging, historically important, and personally inspirational.  However some philosophers dismiss it as primarily a religious work. If it has any fault then it is the sheer diversity of themes with which it deals. It is an excellent text to use to teach medieval philosophy.
The Confessions focus upon the themes of self-knowledge and self-control. As such they follow in the Socratic tradition of philosophy.  In particular, Augustine outlines his central preoccupations as 'to be', 'to know', and 'to will' [Conf. 13.11]. These three concerns may be seen to correspond to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
Theory of Knowledge
Augustine's principal contribution to epistemology is his theory of illumination, in which sensory data is unified by the power of the imagination.  This theory respects not only the role of rational judgements but also memory and the imagination. Moreover, the relationship between memory and writing forms an interesting theme for modern students unfamiliar with oral literary traditions.
Augustine's influence upon Western ethics makes him essential reading here. Central is his focus on the seven deadly sins and the relationship between these and the Greek notion of an individual's potentiality towards goodness.  Discussions of the Socratic thesis 'knowledge is virtue' and the Manichean claim that 'matter is evil and spirit is good' can also be found. Although one might not want to accept Augustine's conclusions, an examination of his discussions can nevertheless be very instructive.
Augustine's discussion of the nature of time is well known and interesting contrasts can be drawn between this and Aristotle's discussion in the Physics.  For Augustine, time is more subjective than objective, being dependent upon human consciousness. Augustine also discusses problems associated with primary matter and the creation of the cosmos, echoing the speculations of the Presocratics. The concept of nothingness also appears in a number of different contexts and Augustine draws upon Plotinian sources here.
When teaching Augustine, the author makes reference to Plato,  Aristotle, Cicero, the Stoics, and Plotinus, as well as the relevant aspects of Christian thought. A wide range of philosophical concepts is also covered, including truth, necessity, goodness, virtue, freedom, and infinity.
By covering these sources and topics students gain all they need to understand a wide range of later medieval philosophers, as well as certain Renaissance thinkers. They also benefit from a philosophical glance backwards, especially towards Neoplatonism.  The only obvious topic not directly addressed in the Confessions is the problem of universals. However Augustine still provides many of the conceptual resources necessary to grapple with that later medieval debate.
The author's suggestion that the Confessions form a text especially suited to teaching is, I think, a valuable one. As he notes, an important merit of the Confessions is its accessibility. Like Plato's early dialogues, the Confessions are an eminently readable text. Students can happily read it on the bus, unlike, say, Kant's first Critique. Yet at the same time it introduces a series of complex and ongoing philosophical debates.
The bulk of the article is devoted to brief summaries of the central philosophical themes in the Confessions. These summaries function as justifications designed to convince the post-Enlightenment atheist philosopher that there is something of philosophical value in this early Christian text. The author does manage to draw out the philosophical value of some of the material in the Confessions but he says little about the precise nature of the rest of its contents. This text may well have some philosophical value, but does it have enough to warrant an entire course? The author does make a good case, but perhaps not all will be convinced.
I am, however, inspired to look again at the Confessions after reading this article and, in particular, to consider it as a text with which to teach. The connections that the author draws between Augustine and Greek philosophy are particularly suggestive (although probably no surprise to an Augustine scholar). However, in my undergraduate days I would have been very suspicious if I had been given so overtly a religious text to read. I would have needed its philosophical merits spelled out to me at the outset, and I suggest that anyone planning to use such a text should do so for the benefit of any post-Enlightenment atheist students. But if one wants to teach medieval philosophy, one just has to accept that philosophical arguments are often embedded within religious discourse. Within this specific context (i.e. teaching medieval philosophy), the Confessions may well be an ideal place to begin. Moreover, they may also form an ideal text with which to bridge the gap between courses in ancient philosophy and medieval philosophy. If the appropriate historical connections are made and the relevant philosophical themes are developed, then I imagine that the Confessions could be used with considerable success.
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