A Letter From Augustine to Dioscorus

In her 2007 lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled Reviving Christian Psychology, Dr. Ellen Charry from Princeton Theological Seminary has an interesting analysis of Christianity being “thoroughly psychological” [1] with its practical manifestation mainly found in St. Augustine’s “theological psychotherapy”. Charry writes:

Classical Christianity is thoroughly psychological because it is based on a biblically inspired understanding of the psyche, the self, the soul. In modern technical theological language this is referred to as theological anthropology, Christianity’s reading of human nature [2].

In reference to Augustine, Charry recognizes his recognition of people as “spiritually ill.” Especially that “he insisted that only divine assistance can give us the freedom that we need to change for the better. On our own we are helpless” [3]. How was it that Augustine went about doing this fashion of direction and turning people towards divine aid that Charry is discussing here? The most evident place of Augustine’s directional instruction is found in his letters. My particular area of concern in his letter to Dioscorus (A.D. 410) is relevant to that of Christian apologists and philosophers alike even today.

The wisdom and relevant usage of Augustine’s rebuke to young Dioscorus was something very home-hitting for myself, and I think for those who perhaps read the letter themselves will see the apologetic merit found in this ancient piece of Augustine’s teaching.

Dioscorus’ Message of Concern

In replying to an intelligent young student named Dioscorus, Augustine saw from his request a contextual test of patience. He writes in a theme of rebuke: “This way is first humility, second humility, third humility and no matter how often you keep asking me, I will say the same over and over again” (Augustine, Letter 118). Why had Augustine reacted in this way to his student? What provoked Augustine to be irritated with Dioscorus’ request? To quote in full, Dioscorus writes in his letter to Augustine:

…without further preface, I beg your attention. The aged Alypius had often promised, in an answer to my request, that he would, with your help, furnish a reply to a very few brief questions of mine in regard to the Dialogues of Cicero; and as he is said to be at present in Mauritania, I ask and earnestly entreat you to condescend to give, without his assistance, those answers which, even had your brother been present, it would doubtless have fallen to you to furnish [ … ] This request of mine you can grant without effort, by merely speaking. I might importune you at a greater length, and through many of your dear friends; but I know your disposition, that you do not desire to be solicited, but show kindness readily to all, if only there be nothing improper in the thing requested: and there is absolutely nothing improper in what I ask.

Be this, however, as it may, I beg you to do me this kindness, for I am on the point of embarking on a voyage. You know how very painful it is to me to be burdensome to anyone, and much more to one of your frank disposition; but God alone knows how irresistible is the pressure of the necessity under which I have made this application [ … ] Therefore, I implore you, answer all my queries without delay. Send me not away downcast. I ask this so that I may see my parents; for on this one errand I have sent Cerdo to you, and I now delay only till he return. [4]

In other words, just before he is to bound ship to go see his parents, Dioscorus is writing to Augustine about “a reply to a very few brief questions [ … ] in regard to the Dialogues of Cicero”; so that he might be well-equipped for a reply that he is expecting from some far more intelligent opponents of his. Dioscorus writes: “[Y]ou know the ways of men, how prone they are to censure, and you see how anyone will be regarded as illiterate and stupid who, when questions addressed to him, can return no answer.”

Thus, in order to soften his request, Dioscorus begins to speak in a gracious tone of his teacher’s “disposition”: “This request of mine you can grant without effort, by merely speaking. I might importune you at a greater length, and through many of your dear friends; but I know your disposition, that you do not desire to be solicited, but show kindness readily to all, if only there be nothing improper in the thing requested: and there is absolutely nothing improper in what I ask.” However, though appearing gracious, upon receiving this letter Augustine is rather annoyed:

You have sent suddenly upon me a countless multitude of questions, by which you must have purposed to blockade me on every side, or rather bury me completely, even if you were under the impression that I was otherwise unoccupied and at leisure; for how could I, even though wholly at leisure, furnish the solution of so many questions to one in such haste as you are, and, in fact, as you write, on the eve of a journey? [5]

In other words, “How could I possibly answer all these perplexing questions about Cicero just before you leave on a journey?” Thus, Augustine later says to Dioscorus “I would [ … ] fain snatch you forcibly away from the midst of those inquiries in which you so much delight, and fix you down among the cares which engage my attention, in order that you may either learn not to be unprofitably curious, or desist from presuming to impose the task of feeding and fostering your curiosity upon men among whose cares one of the greatest is to repress and curb those who are too inquisitive.”

Augustine here is saying that something of far more importance can be addressed than what Dioscorus is asking. Of course, he recognizes that Dioscorus enjoys his studies and (perhaps) may even go on so as to say that he is well-equipped in his learning, but that his request is “useless” and also “troublesome to me.” (Augustine 410, Letter CXVIII).

Augustine’s Reply to Dioscorus

Augustine in a detailed analysis of Dioscorus’ letter responds to a wide number of his claims in an in-depth manner. Where Dioscorus had written: “I might importune you at a greater length, and through many of your dear friends; but I know your disposition, that you do not desire to be solicited, but show kindness readily to all…” Augustine responds:

In these words of your letter you are indeed right in your opinion as to myself, that I am desirous of showing kindness to all, if only there be nothing improper in the request made; but it is not my opinion that there is nothing improper in what you ask. For when I consider how a bishop is distracted and overwrought by the cares of his office clamoring on every side, it does not seem to me proper for him suddenly, as if deaf, to withdraw himself to the work of expounding to a single student some unimportant questions in the Dialogues of Cicero.

Thus, Augustine points out to Dioscorus the vain request he’s made in respect to misjudging the improper nature of his request. To finish with the thrust of Augustine’s rebuke and our matter of consideration, he writes:

“[Y]ou know the ways of men, how prone they are to censure, and you see how anyone will be regarded as illiterate and stupid who, when questions addressed to him, can return no answer.” On reading this sentence, I felt a burning desire to reply to your letter; for, by the morbid weakness of mind which this indicated, you pierced my inmost heart, and forced your way into the midst of my cares, so that I could not refuse to minister to your relief, so far as God might enable me – not by devising a solution of your difficulties, but by breaking the connection between your happiness and the wretched support on which it now hangs, viz. the opinions of men, and now fastening it to a hold which is firm and immovable [ … ]

You have, as I said before, read so many Dialogues, and devoted your attention to so many discussions of philosophers – tell me which of them has placed the chief end of his actions even of good and wise men?

This truly a remarkable statement. Instead of recognizing the intellectual vanity that Dioscorus blindly sees as an “urgency” in his request, Augustine rather points out “some unimportant questions in the Dialogues of Cicero” and his student’s indulging of “attention to so many discussions of philosophers.” The real apologetic merit associated with this exchange between Augustine and his young student can be spelled out in clear.

Advice Against the Mere Opinions of Men

The lack of intellectual humility on the part of Dioscorus (i.e., feeling obligated so as to formulate a reply) is something he falsely associated with illiteracy and stupidity. In his statement, “[Y]ou see how anyone will be regarded as illiterate and stupid who, when questions addressed to him, can return no answer”, Dioscorus interestingly uses the phrase regarded rather than proved. Why is this so? Augustine scorns this issue by replying that “he who fears to be subjected to the edge of the pruning-hook by the tongues of such men is a sapless log, and is therefore not only regarded as illiterate and stupid, but is actually such, and proved to be so.”

What a remarkable reflection of the discipline of apologetics! Namely, that forming a reply in respect to some given objection to a claim of Christianity or theism doesn’t necessarily demand a particular answer to that objection, so as to fail to do so will lead to our illiteracy and/or stupidity. C.S. Lewis puts it nicely when he says that “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be time to feed on it” [6].

This is something that can be learned from both apologetics student/beginners and apologetics teachers and should be recognized with grave importance. The manner of intellectual humility by which the Christian faith associates itself with is one of a Socratic optimism: “I don’t have wisdom, only God does; I simply pursue it.” Thus, respective beginners, take note: opponents stumbling upon your ignorance on some given objection to your position does not obligate a reply from your speculation, but does require your graceful attention to subject your pride in order that you aren’t merely making Christianity appear more intellectually attractive.

___________________

Notes:

  • [1] Ellen T. Charry, Augustine of Hippo: Father of Christian Psychology
  • [2] Ibid. 2
  • [3] Ibid. 9
  • [4] Letter CXVII, in Letters of St. Augustine, (ed.) Philip Schaff (Hendrickson: 1994) pp. 437-8
  • [5] Ibid., p. 438 (Letter CXVIII).
  • [6] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, from The Beloved Works of C.S. Lewis (Inspirational Press) p. 136
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