The life of St.Augustine, one of the most eminent theologian of the Middle Ages, could be divided into two parts: pre-Christian and Christian. His conversion at a relatively mature age made his Confessions a unique work, where a Christian regards a non-Christian life, distracting and leading away from God, basing on a personal experience rather than from a standpoint of an external observer, knowing little or nothing of the activities and experience he criticizes or condemns. One of such reprehensible activities, according to St.Augustine, is the reading of fictional literature.
“I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas, forgetful of my own, and to weep for dead Dido, because she killed herself for love; the while, with dry eyes, I endured my miserable self dying among these things, far from Thee, O God my life. For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love to Aeneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee, O God.”
(Confessions, I,13.20 – I,13.21)
St. Augustine sees in fictional literature a powerful distraction from God and one’s salvation. While human mind must be constantly urged towards God, a lover of literature deliberately turns it elsewhere. The reader’s emotional and intellectual energy is misdirected. He is emotionally involved in ephemeral tragedy of non-existent characters, ignoring his own very real tragedy of detachment from God. Greek literature, suggests St.Augustine, may have done and do even more harm, as it describes blameworthy deeds ascribing them to gods and thus justifying them (Confessions, I,16.25).
Nevertheless, not all early Christian authors shared St.Augustine’s opinion. St.Basil of Caesaria advised young men to be “conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul's salvation (St.Basil, II). He considered fictional literature, along with other secular books, to be “not altogether different” from the Holy Scriptures, and allowing the reader to “perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors (St.Basil, II).” As the main advantage of secular literature he points out its better, to use a medical term, assimilability. One must “become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun's reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself” (St.Basil, II). Thus, according to St.Basil, fictional literature in particular may be a means of a person’s search for God, though secondary or preliminary in relation to the Holy Scriptures.
In my opinion, the life of St.Augustine himself somewhat refutes his argument. As I see it, it was his brilliant secular education which imparted to his literary works their vivid imagery, excellent examples, figures of speech and fine style. Would he have become a brilliant rhetor had he confined his reading exclusively to the Christian literature? His acquaintance with the best examples of Greek and Latin rhetorics enabled him to create the best examples of early Christian literature, making his works more powerful, more convincing, more enjoyable to read for an educated reader, a connoisseur of rhetoric similar to himself.
Why does St.Augustine deliberately ignore the positive influence of his secular education - and classical literature in particular as its integral part - on his life and on his career as a writer? I suppose that St.Augustine’s rigidity in his condemnation has its roots first and foremost in the genre of his Confessions, which forced him to accuse rather than justify, look for negative, rather than positive influence. As a modern researcher writes, “the overall theme of the Confessions, transcending its very many digressions, is not simply Augustine’s life, but his life insofar as it illustrates an idea that was uppermost in his mind, as it must be in the mind of anyone who feels that he has been entrusted with a mission, the theme of conversion. It is a salvational theme. … It was a near-obsession in Augustine’s mind” (Teske 81). In my opinion, the words about fictional literature in his Confessions are dictated by this “near-obsession”, or rather his over-zeal, his desire to condemn everything which does not lead a person (or did not lead him personally) to God directly, with the shortest route (like the Holy Scriptures). Equally religious, but less categorical authors, such as St.Basil of Caesaria, were less implacable towards secular literature, basing, probably, on St.Paul’s words: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12). St.Augustine could not forgive classical literature for having once brought him under its power for a brief period of time. However, eventually it was he who brought it under his own power and used it ad majorem Dei gloriam.
St.Basil of Caesaria. Address to young men on the right use of Greek literature. Christian Classics Etherial Library. Web. < http://www.ccel.org>
Battenhouse, R.W., ed. A Companion to the study of St.Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Print.
“Saint Augustine.” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Mar 24 2000. Web. <http://plato.stanford.edu>
Teske, Roland J. “Homo Spiritualis in the Confessions of St.Augustine.” Augustine: from Rhetor to Theologian.
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992. Print.