St. Augustine of Hippo was born in Northern Africa in the 4th century AD. A bishop of the Hippo Regius region in Numidia, he is widely considered one of the most influential early Christians, mainly due to his prolific writings. Despite his saintly status, Augustine lived a worldly life before his conversion, and documented his travels around the Roman Empire in the autobiographical work Confessions. While reading, I found several parallels between the ancient world that Augustine describes and our modern world.
1. Education without Virtue
If you are aware of current cultural trends or have children in public school, then it probably isn’t a surprise to learn that our modern educational system promotes some questionable – if not downright dangerous – ideologies. From critical race theory to drag queen story hour, today’s children are being fed spoonfuls of nonsense along with an already watered-down core curriculum. Although our educational system is quite different from the ancient world’s that Augustine experienced, the way in which error and immorality are taught and perpetuated throughout the system parallels what Augustine documented over 1500 years ago. In one particular example, Augustine laments how he was forced to learn, upon punishment of violence, myths about Jove’s (Jupiter’s) lewd exploits:
“These words are not learned one whit more easily because of this vileness, but through them the vileness is more boldly perpetrated. I do not blame the words, for they are, as it were, choice and precious vessels, but I do deplore the wine of error which was poured out to us by teachers already drunk. And, unless we also drank we were beaten, without liberty of appeal to a sober judge. And yet, O my God, in whose presence I can now with security recall this, I learned these things willingly and with delight, and for it I was called a boy of good promise.”(Book 1, Chapter 16)
Augustine initially absorbed the “wine of error” he was taught and digested the information “willingly and with delight.” Unfortunately, I fear many of our young people are imbibing the foolishness of our modern education in a similar way, and do not perceive that the “knowledge” they receive is not always helpful but misguided. Augustine’s writings prove that the difficulties we face in trying to educate our children properly are not new but ancient in origin.
2. The Distraction of Popular Culture
Throughout the ancient world various forms of amusement were available to those with extra cash to spend. Much like today, popular entertainment was a way to escape from the mundane routine of everyday life and experience the extraordinary. One of the most common forms of entertainment were stage plays, often in the form of tragedy. Augustine admits he grew fascinated by them during his youth, enchanted by the lamentable fictional scenarios:
“Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists.”(Book 3 Chapter 2)
Similar to today, love stories were popular:
“in those days in the theaters I sympathized with lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another, although this was done fictitiously in the play. And when they lost one another, I grieved with them, as if pitying them, and yet had delight in both grief and pity.”(Book 3 Chapter 2)
Augustine realized that this form of entertainment wasn’t always enlightening to say the least. Although captivating, popular culture is often damaging to the soul if it glorifies immoral behavior. When one turns on Netflix or any other major streaming platform, it’s easy to find content that celebrates wrongful behavior. In fact, and I’m sure many reading this can empathize, it’s often more difficult to find the few shows that promote basic ethics than it is the countless programs that have an inverted morality.
Not only damaging to the soul, an obsession with the latest trend or hot entertainment often gets in the way of doing productive activities i.e. studying, working, learning a new skill. If you’ve ever spent some time scrolling through Instagram or Facebook you know how time-sucking these activities can be: hours and hours gone with nothing to show for it. Augustine wrote about something similar when his pupil named Alypius became addicted to one of the most gruesome trends of his day – the gladiatorial matches – and stopped appearing for Augustine’s lessons. Augustine writes:
“I then came to discover how fatally he doted upon the circus, and I was deeply grieved, for he seemed likely to cast away his very great promise–if, indeed, he had not already done so… For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.”(Book 6, Chapter 7 and 8)
The passage underscores my first point about how popular culture often celebrates immorality (the gladiatorial matches are pretty much the quintessential example of unethical entertainment), and Alypius’s plight shows us that these distractions can ultimately trap us and prevent us from pursuing worthwhile goals. Today’s distractions may not be at the same intensity as a bloodthirsty mob cheering for death, drunk on “blood lust,” however popular culture still tries its best to ensnare us with graphic TV shows, bikini-clad Instagram models, and music featuring obscene or nonsensical lyrics. All of these things distract us from worthwhile activities and leave us unfulfilled. Deleting social media, unsubscribing from Netflix, and avoiding the newest music trends can help us avoid the blood lust and stay focused on productive goals.
3. The Limits of Materialism
That science and religion are utterly opposed and irreconcilable has been a sentiment that just won’t die. People often confuse science with materialism. Materialism is the increasingly popular belief that everything that exists can be measured scientifically, which implies that all religions that believe in deities or the supernatural are false. In materialism, the physical universe is the only thing that exists. Augustine recognized this line of thinking in his own time, as he bemoaned the astrologers who failed to inquire about the universe’s grand design:
“They have discovered much; and have foretold, many years in advance, the day, the hour, and the extent of the eclipses of those luminaries, the sun and the moon. Their calculations did not fail, and it came to pass as they predicted. And they wrote down the rules they had discovered, so that to this day they may be read and from them may be calculated in what year and month and day and hour of the day, and at what quarter of its light, either the moon or the sun will be eclipsed, and it will come to pass just as predicted. And men who are ignorant in these matters marvel and are amazed; and those who understand them exult and are exalted. Both, by an impious pride, withdraw from you and forsake your light. They foretell an eclipse of the sun before it happens, but they do not see their own eclipse which is even now occurring. For they do not ask, as religious men should, what is the source of the intelligence by which they investigate these matters.”(Book 5 Chapter 3)
The similarities between the astrologers mentioned above and the modern materialist atheist crowd are striking. They carry themselves with pride at their own intellect and reduce all questions to science. Although a useful tool for matters of the physical universe, science is not equipped to handle the why questions, only the how. This leaves out most of philosophy and theology. Augustine’s reflection on the materialist astrologers proves that many of man’s “new” ways of thinking are really ideas that have been continually washed and recycled for generations.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Augustine’s Confessions offers a vivid reflection on the saint’s wandering life and eventual conversion. The glimpses into Augustine’s thoughts are highly relatable, and the cities and people he describes are easily mistakable for modern equivalents, proving that mankind hasn’t changed a bit.
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