St. Augustine's attitude towards the study of the liberal arts is defined in his dialogue De Ordine (“On Order”).
There he wrote: "Instruction in the liberal arts, if only it is moderate and concise, produces devotees more alert and steadfast and better equipped for embracing truth.” Again, in his De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Instruction”), a manual of sacred rhetoric and interpretation of Holy Scripture, Augustine advised Christian orators not to despise the skill afforded by rhetoric though he warns him to employ this learning with reserve, rejecting what is harmful to his virtue.
It is in this connection that he used that beautiful simile which has ever since been quoted as the best illustration of the principles of Christian humanism. The Christian orator should imitate the Jewish people who, in their flight from Egypt, took with them the gold and costly garments of their oppressors to be put to a better use. In thereby making a proper use of rhetoric for strengthening a good cause, Augustine suggests that a Christian orator will be carrying on the tradition of such good and faithful men as St Cyprian, Lactantius, Victorinus, St Optatus, St Hilary of Poitiers, not to speak of the many Greek Christian authors who have made use of this procedure.
Image (above): The particular section of Gozzoli’s fresco series in the Augustinian church at San Gimignano that in the background shows Augustine and hermits. With artistic licence, the hermits are well-dressed. As well, the same fresco depicts the myth of Augustine’s conversation about the Trinity with a child playing in the sand (at left), and Augustine giving his Rule to friars (at right), who look more like Italians than North Africans. For an excellent description of each fresco in this series, go to the homepage of a teacher at Villanova University at http://www46.homepage.villanova.edu/john.immerwahr/aug.htmThat Augustine had this problem at heart may be seen from the fact that, shortly after his conversion, he began an encyclopedic work on the seven liberal arts, entitled Disciplinarum Libri (“Of the Discipline of Books”). One of the seven parts, De Grammatica, was completed at Milan in 387, and the section on music, or rather rhythm (De Musica Libri Sex), in Africa at a later date. The five remaining parts, De Dialectica, De Rhetorica, De Geometria, De Arithmetica, and De Philosophia, never passed beyond the stage of rough sketches and first drafts. Only fragments of these sections have survived the ages.
Furthermore, Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (“City of God”)and his numerous philosophical writings reflect both the excellent secular training which he had received and his endeavour to preserve the heritage of classical learning to posterity. The entire cultural program of the medieval Church was based on Augustine's idea which conceived of Christian humanism as a synthesis of the best elements of ancient culture and Christian thought. Considering this clearly-defined of Augustine towards classical studies as one of the two sources from which the Christian spirit drew its inspiration, it is interesting to examine whether and to what extent his avowed spiritual sons in the Order of St Augustine have upheld this educational tradition of their spiritual founding figure.
Preliminary studies on this subject are not lacking. For example, attention has been drawn to the close friendship which existed between the great humanist and poet Francesco Petrarch (1304 - 1374) and a distinguished group of Augustinian friars. Of these Augustinians there deserve special mention Denis of Borgo San Sepolcro, Bartholomew of Urbino, Luigi Marsigli, and Cardinal Bonaventura Baduario.
For further reading
As well as the five Augnet pages mentioned in the above paragraph, go to the Augnet pages on Humanism and Santo Spirito Monastery in Florence.