Augustine of Hippo

354-430 AD

St AugustineSt. Augustine, most remembered for his theological work, also contributed to the fields of medicine, rhetoric, disability, and education. During his twenties, he taught grammar and ran a school of rhetoric in Carthage in North Africa (now Algeria), the place where he was born and raised. In 383 he moved Rome and there he established his own school of rhetoric. He became disillusioned with this, since his students cheated him out of their fees, so in 384 he moved to Milan, Italy where he became a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court.

In 386, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis, which led him to convert to Christianity, he abandoned his career as an educator and teacher of rhetoric. He left his teaching position in Milan to devote himself fully to the church teachings and study. He returned to Africa in 388 and founded a monastery at Hippo. He was appointed Bishop of Hippo in 395 and held that position for the remainder of his life. Augustine eventually wrote about all this in his influential autobiography, Confessions.

St. Augustine, in his, On Christian doctrine (De doctrina Christina), composed between 396 and 426 AD, offered the first of the medieval treatises on the communicative arts. Augustine argued that students who are studying to be preachers and religious figures need to learn to use rhetoric to win souls and to learn some principles of discourse in order to do so. He also favored imitation as a learning strategy, over memorizing principles or rules. Finally, Augustine appealed to teachers and students of preaching that they use the wisdom and styles of Bible as a guide for learning how to deliver speech, rather than relying on inspiration gained from ancient pagan classics such as Homer's Illiad and Odyssey.

Like his historical predecessors, Augustine subscribed to ventricular theory as a way to conceptualize information processing.

Since there is no bodily motion following sensation without an interval of time, and since we cannot act spontaneously after a lapse of time except with the aid of memory, the medical writers point out that there are three ventricles in the brain. One of these, which is in the front near the face, is the one from which all sensation comes; the second, which is in the back of the brain near the neck, is the one from which all motion comes; the third, which is between the first two, is where the medical writers place the seat of memory. Since movement follows sensation, a man without this seat of memory would be unable to know what he ought to do if he should forget what he has done. Now, the medical writers say that the existence of these ventricles has been proved by clear indications in cases in which these parts of the brain have been affected by some disease or pathological condition. For when sensation, motion, or memory of motion were impaired, there was a clear indication of the function of each ventricle, and by applying remedies to these different ventricles physicians determined which parts needed healing (Augustine, 401/1982, vol. 2, pp. 18 - 19).

Augustine also theorized about the psycholinguistic processing involved in word production. (He didn't call it that.) He postulated in his De Tractate (chapter viii paragraph 6) that there were three levels for producing words. They begin in the imagination, then they proceed to a consideration of how they are to be pronounced, and finally they are articulated. Augustine says it this way:

And when indeed I wish to speak of Carthage, I seek within myself what to speak, and I find within myself a notion or image of Carthage; but I have received this through the body, that is, through the perception of the body, since I have been present in that city in the body, and I saw and perceived it, and retained it in my memory, that I might find within myself a word concerning it, whenever I might wish to speak of it. For its word is the image itself of it in my memory, not that sound of two syllables when Carthage is named, or even when that name itself is thought of silently from time to time, but that which I discern in my mind, when I utter that dissyllable with my voice, or even before I utter it (Augustine, 1887, Chapter 8, Paragraph 6).

Finally, Augustine made contributions to medieval educational practices. He recommended individualizing educational practices to fit the students' educational backgrounds. He classified students into three types:

For well-educated students, the teacher should provide new material in areas that the student has not covered; for uneducated students the teacher should repeat until the student understands, and for the mis-educated, the teacher should teach humility and explain the difference between "having words and having understanding".

Augustine recommended that teachers respond positively to students, even when interrupted by them, and that they should use restraint when presenting new material, not presenting too much at a time. Teachers should listen to what their students have to say. They should question them on their motives as well as their understandings. He saw education as a process of posing problems and seeking answers through conversation.

Another interesting contribution to education was Augustine's recognition of different teaching styles and their functions. A mixed style includes complex and elaborate displays of material to help students see the beauty in the subject. The grand style is exciting and heartfelt, but not as demonstrative. It's purpose is also to ignite passion for the subject.

Saint Augustine's writings have been influential throughout the ages. The Anglo-Saxon scholar and headmaster Alcuin, in the eighth century, used Augustine's works on Christian teaching as textbooks. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, and Erasmus in the 15th century both built upon his efforts to synthesize Aristotelian and Christian doctrine.

Selected writings of St. Augustine, arranged chronologically

Augustine, Saint (389/1968). The Teacher, trans. Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Augustine, Saint (400/1952). The First Catechetical Instruction, trans. Joseph P. Christopher. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.

Augustine, Saint (400/1997). The Confessions (400), trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books.

Augustine, Saint (426/1997). On Christian teaching , trans. R. P. H. Green. New York: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint (1887). On the trinity, Book 8, Chapter 6. Translated by Arthur West Haddan. Retrieved from, February 27, 2010.

Writings about Saint Augustine arranged alphabetically

Brown, Peter (1969). Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chadwick, Henry (1996). Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fulkerson, Gerald (1985). Augustine's attitude toward rhetoric in "De Doctrina Christiana": The significance of 2.37.55. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 15, 3/4 (Summer - Autumn, 1985), 108-111.

Leonard, Timothy (2010). Augustine, St. (354-430). In James Gruthie Encyclopedia of education. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. 159-161. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Retrieved on February 21, 2010 from:

Murphy, James J. (1960). St. Augustine and the debate about Christian rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 46, 400-410.

Murphy, James J. (1974). Rhetoric in the middle ages: A history of rhetorical theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (See pp. 56-64 on St. Augustine's way of using rhetoric to teach the art of preaching.)

Rist, John M. (1999). Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stock, Brian (1996). Augustine the reader: Meditation, self knowledge, and the ethics of interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wollock, Jeffrey (1997). The noblest animate motion: Speech physiology and medicine in pre-Cartesian linguistic thought. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.