Augustine was the type of student who set the curve on a test. He describes his academic pursuits in his work Confessions. At the age of 18 he was reading Cicero’s Hortensius in which Cicero defends the importance of philosophic study within a society. At the age of 20 he read Aristotle’s Ten Categories. While many of his peers understood Aristotle only after much tutoring, Augustine was able to master the work on his own (“The book seemed to me an extremely clear statement!”).
Augustine was a voracious reader recalling that he “read and understood all the books I could get hold of on the arts which they call liberal.” He goes on to say, “I was not aware that these arts are very difficult to understand even for studious and intelligent people, until I tried to explain them to such people and found the student of outstanding quality was the one who did not lag behind me in my exposition.” Not many people could keep up with Augustine’s amazing intellect.
It is a difficult task for anyone to be humble when you realize you are the smartest person in the room, and Augustine was no different. When he read scripture he found it to be “unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” He continues, “My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness. Yet the Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them. I disdained to be a little beginner. Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult. That is why I fell in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious.”
I wonder if those proud men Augustine alluded to sounded anything like Dennis R. Trumble. In his article entitled “One Longsome Argument” Trumble describes his view of the creation/evolution debate:
[N]ever in the history of science has a more prolonged and passionate debate dogged the heels of a theory so thoroughly researched and repeatedly validated. And the end is nowhere in sight. Despite all evidence to the contrary, a large portion of the world’s population continues to cling to the belief that human beings are fundamentally different from all other life forms and that our origins are unique. It’s a lovely sentiment to be sure, but how is it that so many people continue to be drawn to this thoroughly discredited notion?
Trumble cannot understand why humans cling to the idea that we are unique beings. He continues:
Like most mystic mindsets, creationist beliefs are normally instilled at an early age, nurtured by well-meaning parents and sustained by religious organizations whose vested leaders are traditionally loath to amend church doctrine in the face of emergent scientific facts. It was only with the advent of modern civilization that this age-old habit finally began to outlive its usefulness and yield serious negative consequences-most notably by granting gratuitous momentum to all kinds of ill-conceived notions about how the world is “supposed” to work. Today, this surge of ideological inertia remains a surprisingly powerful force, pushing beliefs as impossibly anachronistic as geocentrism and flat-Earth cosmology past the ramparts of the enlightenment to foul the fringes of modern thought.
Trumble believes that science is enabling us to get rid of old bad habits and replace them with new modern understandings (facts he calls them) about reality. He understands that at one time these traditions, however naïve they were, were probably helpful to the development of civilization.
Augustine points out that his intellect is a gift from God. He writes, “Quick thinking and capacity for acute analysis are your gift.” Augustine realizes, as he reflects back on his time of academic study, that his ideas were empty and powerless without God.
Augustine wonders what good does it do to be able to “elucidate extremely complicated books, when my comprehension of religion was erroneous distorted, and shamefully sacrilegious?” Unless one realizes that the point of academic work is to understand God and His purposes it is an erroneous pursuit.
Augustine understands what it means to have raw intellectual ability, but that is only one aspect of our humanity. To flourish as a human you need to be able to understand yourself in light of God’s purposes. Augustine understands that God “stirs man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Seems simple enough, and yet a man as intelligent as Augustine spent his whole life humbly trying to understand the complexity of this purpose. It seems that arrogance has no place in such a lofty pursuit as this.