Notes of these seminars, compiled by a secretary, became the basis of the Dialogues of Augustine that still exist today. After his celebrated moral conversion in the garden at Milan in September of the year 386, Augustine needed some unhurried time to think about what had spiritually happened within him. A few days later Augustine, being ill, took advantage of the autumn holidays and, resigning his teaching position in Milan to go to nearby Cassiciacum, to the country estate of his friend, Verecundus. He went with Monica, Adeodatus, and some of his friends, relatives and pupils. It was there that he gave himself to the pursuit of true philosophy which, for him, was now not able to be separated from the Christian religion.
The relaxed routine and rural atmosphere of Cassiciacum allowed Augustine the space and companionship he needed in preparing for his forthcoming baptism. There were memorable philosophical conversations each morning and evening. There Augustine was intellectually gifted in facilitating the most elevating of discussions from the most simple of conversational topics. He took this opportunity to continue the education of his young friends. He achieved this by their having literary readings in common, and by philosophical seminars or dialogues. These were written down by a secretary. They became the foundation of the written "Dialogues" of Augustine that still exist today.
The favourite topics at these conferences were truth, certainty (Contra Academicos - "Against the Academics"), true happiness in philosophy (De beata vita - "On a Happy Life"), the Providential order of the world and the problem of evil (De ordine - "On Order"), God ("Soliloquies"), and the soul ("On the Immortality of the Soul.") These early dialogues have an unique aspect among the works of Augustine because they were written soon after he came to Christian belief but before his baptism. As well, they were subsequent to his encounter with Neo-Platonism but before his studies of the Bible. Augustine himself later remarked on how little Scripture he had quoted in them.
Even up to the present day, scholars differ about whether the contents of the Dialogues are an accurately-edited transcript of the thought of Augustine's fellow-participants, or alternatively are more of an exposition of Augustine's own mind. If the latter were true, this raises the further question of resolving the content with his mindset at Cassiciacum that Augustine reported in his Confessions. At least because of these circumstances, the Dialogues receive a moderate review. As well, large sections within the Dialogues are trivial and some parts even erroneous. A few sections, however, are important for giving a first account of certain lines of thinking that will become characteristic of the later major works of Augustine, such as the Confessions or De Trinitate ("On the Trinity").
De Ordine ("On Order") is a typical example of these Dialogues. It contains more than anecdotes about the life in Cassiciacum and some unimportant discussion among the only half-educated companions of Augustine. It also contains a highly condensed treatise on the sciences that has attracted the attention of modern scholarship. As well it gives the beginnings of the thought of Augustine that the goal of education must focus on God. This is in conformity with the world view that Augustine adopted and later promoted. In the Dialogue named Contra Academicos ("Against the Academics"), Augustine described the ideal peace of this existence, which was energised only by the passion for truth. In part of the twentieth century there was a scholarly debate as to whether Augustine at Cassiciacum, preparing for baptism but as yet unbaptised, was writing as a Neo-Platonist philosopher or as a Christian. The argument now seems to have been decided in favour of the latter option.
In these Dialogues, Augustine reveals the intimate details of his conversion, the argument that convinced him of conversion (the life and achievements of the Apostles), his progress in the Faith by reading the Epistles of Paul (cf. Confessions 2, 2), his delightful conferences with his friends on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the wonderful transformations worked in his soul by faith. He even refers to his victory over the intellectual pride which his studies of neo-Platonism had aroused in him (De beata vita:"On The Happy Life," 1, 2), the eventual calming of his passions, and his significant decision to choose wisdom as his only spouse. (Soliloquies, 1, 10)
He departed from Cassiciacum more ready for baptism than when he had arrived there months earlier. He had worked out his intellectual difficulties and was now prepared to approach baptism. He had found an acceptable response to philosophical scepticism, and was again eager in the pursuit of wisdom. The more-intellectual "Milanese" style of Christianity he saw in Bishop Ambrose of Milan fitted with his studies of Neo-Platonism, and made the possibility of his actual involvement in baptism and Christian practice intellectually comfortable for him. AN2113