Against the Academics and On the Teacher (Augustine)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Augustine. Against the Academics and The Teacher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press.

Perhaps you have been at a revival service and the preacher asked, “Are you saved?” To which you replied, in your heart at least, yes. “But do you know that you are saved? Do you know that you know that you are saved?” A bit outlandish, but this is the problem of epistemology. Can one have certainty? The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero balked at this idea. While never going as far as pure skepticism, he was reluctant to commit to certainty. He balked at Zeno the Stoic’s claim that the mind receives external impressions and can form true propositions from these impressions.

Augustine picks up Cicero’s claim and stages a series of conversations at a villa retreat. The claim begins, not with epistemology, but with ethics. What is happiness? It is living in accordance with what is best in man. What then is best in man? The mind, the ruling part of the spirit (1.2.25; however, Augustine revises this to mean that happiness is subordinating what is best in mind, the mind, to life with God).

Can you be truly happy if you cannot know the truth, or can we only hope to be happy on the journey? To put it in modern parlance: we cannot know the destination, only the journey.

Responding to the Academicians is more difficult than one might surmise. They are not relativists. They are not sinister university professors. By all accounts, they likely believe in truth. In practical terms, however, they withhold assent to anything resembling the truth. At best, they can only assent to what is “truth-like.” Augustine cuts that off at the pass. How can one know what is truth-like if one cannot know the truth?

That is a good check on the Academicians, but it might not overturn their program. Augustine develops it more formally:

(1) The wise man perceives at least one thing that is truth and not merely truth-like: the wise man perceives wisdom.

At this point the Academic can either deny that the wise man perceives wisdom, or he can deny that wisdom can be found. Neither position is feasible. Augustine wins the debate, but it is a technical knock-out. To be fair, that is the most one can advance on Cicero. Cicero does not claim knowledge is impossible, only that one should withhold assent. It is a modest claim and can only merit a modest rebuttal.

The Teacher

The Teacher is Augustine’s conversation with his son, Aedolatus. It is a Christian retelling of Plato’s Meno. If Against the Academicians sought the possibility of knowledge, this dialogue seeks the reality of teaching. We know by experience that we learn things. We move from a state of not-knowing to a state of knowing. That seems obvious, but there is a problem, perhaps. What accounts for that “jump” from ignorance to knowledge?

This is a problem only a Platonist could have. It is not merely a movement from ignorance to knowledge. One must remember that for a Platonist knowledge is correlative to being, ignorance to becoming. Truth can never “touch” the realm of becoming, the realm in which we live. Plato’s solution was found in “remembering” (and remembering, one should remember, was found in an early form of reincarnation). Augustine goes beyond remembering to divine illumination. Illumination, however, is only hinted at in this dialogue. It is not fully developed.

While not stated at the outset, Augustine’s goal is to move from the sign/thing dialectic to knowing by illumination. As one remembers (no pun intended) from On Christian Doctrine, we know things by signs. If Augustine does not give us a fully worked out theory of illumination, he does provide a good taxonomy of signification.

Some items are non-signs, such as self-exhibiting items (103 n.19). Signs can signify things or other signs. Aedodatus gives the following taxonomy (9.27) :

(a) the name
(b) the thing
(c) knowledge of the name
(d) knowledge of the thing


No doubt On the Teacher is stylized and artificial at points; nonetheless, it is a wonderful window into how Augustine taught. He allows his son to draw out the implications. One should read the text primarily for that insight. The epistemology in these two sets of dialogues presumes a good knowledge of Stoic and Ciceronian theories of knowledge, and for that reason it is an intermediate text.
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