Augustine's De Magistro Suggests Your Project Is Meaningful

The way down from Wonderland station through Boston and into Harvard Yard takes an hour or more. And, on a cold day as it was in the winter of 1999, the winter before my daughter was born, it seeps into the soul. You can shrug on a coat with your books. It helps. But when you are pushing thirty and grasping for the empty matches of an academic career, you bring the cold in with you. At least it keeps you awake.

My memory is as clear as the daylight. I walk up from the screeching yellow darkness of the Red Line into Harvard Square. People are everywhere. If you are lucky, the church bells will be going--calling you to prayer . . . or time. I pinch myself, hurrying through Harvard Square and belonging--if only obliquely, but still belonging. I take a right past the mess hall and go down a block. Parked cars, utility trucks, cracked sidewalk, a moonscape of unmelted ice and pitted footprints. It turn left along the back of the library and into the divinity school. It is always a shock that no one throws me out.

I was bound for my professor's office, Dr. Philip Clayton. Third floor. I have no idea why I needed to see him. He was teaching the early Enlightenment: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Schleiermacher, Lessing, Tillich, and a few others. When I reached his office, he was busy with a graduate student. So I waited. But the door was open, and Herr Clayton had warmed to his subject.

"I want you," he said--his voice suggesting he was taking pains to make himself as clear as possible, "to read, understand, and discuss what I am teaching you. But I would rather help you to discover your own project." The student, a young woman by her voice, said something. She sounded halting and confused. "Yes," he assured her, "I think your work has been good. But in the paper you are working on, I'd like to see you find the edges of what you are about. What are your questions? If I can help you discover those, then I have done what I set out to do." She spoke again, and I strained to pick out her words.

And somewhere between her evident confusion and his probing encouragement, I realized I was hearing myself. Whatever it was I’d come for, it no longer mattered. This was the better thing. I was that young graduate student, trying so hard to do what was expected. And he, a world-class scholar, a protégé of Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was today guest-lecturing at Harvard and would, tomorrow, assume some higher star, he was saying that all the books are but window-dressing and windmills for a better way that Clayton called “your project.”

Do I have a project? What is my project? “If I can help you find the edges of what you are about,” he said.

As providence always seems to do, the right book came along: the Westminster edition of Augustine’s earlier writings. (It was already in my backpack.) It is a collection of eight essays beginning with his soliloquies and including his more famous work De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will). I already had begun reading the second essay, “The Teacher” (in Latin De Magistro or, if you like, the Maestro.)

You may not know it, but Augustine had a son named Adeodatus. He loved his son very much. If you know where to look, there are passages that crackle with paternal pride. The early material of the Confessions, for example, are modeled from his impressions of Adeodatus’s babyhood. “So I have been told, and I believe it on the strength of what we see other babies doing . . . Little by little I began to notice where I was, and I would try to make my wishes known to those who might satisfy them; but I was frustrated in this, because my desires were inside me, while other people were outside and could by no effort of understanding enter my mind. So I tossed about” (1.8). Like all fathers, Augustine bragged about how capable and smart his son was, smarter even than himself, he said. Yet, Adeodatus only lived into his early twenties.

I don’t know if it was years after his death or if the manuscript had been written earlier when Adeodatus was still alive. But in its present form, De Magistro is Augustine’s love letter to his son in the form of a Platonic dialogue. He and his sixteen-year-old son are talking together. Together they pursue the truth. See how smart he is, you can feel Augustine saying. See how he leads and pulls ahead.

The two of them are on about speech. About words as signs and the signified, and whether words can convey anything worth knowing. Knowledge and teaching require words. But words themselves mean nothing. It is the signified, the things in the world, that are the content. A man knows what the word “walking” means when he observes someone walking. So “the sign is learned from knowing the thing.” Meaning is discovered by the senses, not by knowing a word.

Ah, but what about inner objects? So instead of a stone or a bird, what if the object is a mental proof, figure, or insight? Here the senses cannot go. Such things are looked “upon directly in the inner light of truth which illumines the inner man.” There, some other force stamps things as true or false. Some other light allows individuals whose minds are completely separate from each other to nevertheless agree on what is true and what is false. This seal of the truth, says Augustine, is provided by the magistro, the teacher. My hearer is “taught not by my words but by the things themselves which inwardly God has made manifest to him.” A person can hear and understand words—and Augustine even grants that the hearer can assume that the words heard come from the mind of the speaker. But, are the words true?

“When the teachers have expounded by means of words all the disciplines which they profess to teach, the disciplines also of virtue and wisdom, then their pupils take thought within themselves whether what they have been told is true, looking to the inward truth, that is to say, so far as they are able. In this way they learn.”

That inner judgment, the sentence of truth or falsehood by which one learns, this, Augustine says, is the inner teacher. “Now we should not only believe but also begin to understand how truly it is written by divine authority that we are to call no one on earth our teacher, for One is our teacher who is in heaven.”

Augustine having finished his speech, Adeodatus gets the last word. “I have learned,” he says, “that in order to know the truth of what is spoken, I must be taught by him who dwells within and gives me counsel about words spoken externally in the ear. By his favour I shall love him the more ardently the more I advance in learning.”

Since that day sitting outside Dr. Clayton’s office, his encouragement has stayed with me. Discover your project. Find out where the edges of your questions occur. Learn them. Follow them.

Nevertheless, it was Augustine that provided the why. It was Augustine that made the project meaningful. Because Augustine gestured with his words toward the source of that project: the inner teacher, God. Or, if you like, the indwelling God, the Holy Spirit.

My apologies for moving so quickly. This is running very long. Let me say it like this: Is the intellectual life meaningful? Is its pursuit, its inner dialogue, its question and discovery and question, worthwhile?

Augustine says, yes. He says it is not a foolish exercise, this finding your project. He gives it a name. Not that he calls it this, but this is what it is: sanctification. The pursuit of a disciple.