Augustine’s Cicero

Today, December 7, is the anniversary of the death of the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero. He was important in his own day, of course, but has also been equally, if not more, important in his afterlife.

One of his great postmortem accomplishments was converting St. Augustine to the love of wisdom. Augustine mentions his encounter with Cicero in a few places (On the Happy Life; Soliloquies); here is the most famous, his account in Confessions 3:

[I]n this book of his, entitled Hortensius, he urgently commends the study of philosophy. That work did renovate my attitude; it changed my please, directing them to you, Master, and altered my aspirations and desires. Suddenly all my empty ambition was deeply discounted, and with an unbelievable seething of my heart I longed for everlasting wisdom. I began to pick myself up so that I could return to you. It wasn’t to sharpening my tongue–though this was my purported purpose, for which the tuition financed by my mother went at this time, when I was eighteen, my father having died three years before–it wasn’t, I repeat, to sharpening my tongue that I applied that book; and it wasn’t the style in which it spoke, but what it said that persuaded me.

How I burned, my God, how I burned to fly back from these earthly places to you, even though I didn’t know what you would do with me! But wisdom is with you. The Greek name philosophia means “love of wisdom,” and this love set me on fire through Cicero’s treatise.

There are those who debauch others through “philosophy,” using that great and persuasive and respectable word to gloss over and whitewash whatever they do wrong; and in this book are singled out and censured nearly all those who, in Cicero’s time and before, were in this category. This book lays out that rescuing instruction from your Spirit through your dutiful and reverent slave, Paul: “Look out for anyone who wants to trick you through philosophy and lead you meaninglessly astray, according to received human wisdom, and according to this material universe, and not according to Christ, because in him there lives the entire fullness of what is holy, in physical form.”

At that time–as you know, light of my heart–I had no knowledge yet of this passage from the apostles’ writings; yet I was delighted by one thing in Cicero’s urgings: I was supposed to conceive an affection for and seek out and grasp and hold and embrace, for all I was worth, not this or that system but philosophy herself, whatever she was; that’s why his words instilled such a thrill in me, why such a flame flared up.

(trans. Sarah Ruden)


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