Ss. Patrick and Augustine on Language and Education

Happy St. Patrick’s day! Below are two passages, one from St. Patrick and the other from St. Augustine. Both of their remarks on the difficulty of expressing our thoughts (Patrick: “I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul” and Augustine: “dwelling long in the tedious processes of syllables which come far beneath the standard of our ideas”) come in a discussion of preaching or catechesis. St. Patrick’s work seems to be a general letter of exhortation to recognize God’s greatness and St. Augustine’s is a set of instructions on how to catechize. This makes sense: trying to explain the reasons for a fact to someone else often leaves you fumbling with words to express what is self-evident in your mind (once in high school a classmate noted how this happens when explaining the limit surface area-to-volume ratio sets on cell size). Given how “much our articulate speech may differ from the vivacity of our intelligence,” it does seem reasonable to wonder how speech even has the ability to help us learn. According to Thomas Aquinas, words themselves do not provide knowledge but prompt the learner to derive conclusions from their own innate first principles, in a similar way to how the doctor only provides medicine for consumption, but it is the body which takes the medicine where it needs to go and brings it to take its effect. The role the student plays is significant. We often forget that when we are presenting students with new arguments, not only do they have to see how successive steps follow logically, but they also need to see why the argument had to go in this direction and not in any other direction (e.g., in a math proof, students often ask “why couldn’t you do this instead?”). This obviously fits with Aristotle’s account of certain knowledge: “We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing, as opposed to knowing it in the accidental way in which the sophist knows, when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is” (Posterior Analytics, 1.2).

This is why I have long thought to write, but up to now I have hesitated, because I feared what people would say. This is because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and the sacred writings, and never had to change their way of speaking since childhood, but always grew better and better at it. For me, however, my speech and words have been translated into a foreign language, as it can be easily seen from my writings the standard of the instruction and learning I have had. As it is said: ‘The wise person is known through speech, and also understanding and knowledge and the teaching of truth [Sir 4:29].’ However, even though there’s truth in my excuse, it gets me nowhere. Now, in my old age, I want to do what I was unable to do in my youth. My sins then prevented me from really taking in what I read. But who believes me, even were I to repeat what I said previously? I was taken prisoner as a youth, particularly young in the matter of being able to speak, and before I knew what I should seek and what I should avoid. That is why, today, I blush and am afraid to expose my lack of experience, because I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul.
—St. Patrick, Confessio, 9-10. Patrick’s remaining writings (the Confessio and the Epistola) are available for free online.

Now if the cause of our sadness lies in the circumstance that our hearer does not apprehend what we mean, so that we have to come down in a certain fashion from the elevation of our own conceptions, and are under the necessity of dwelling long in the tedious processes of syllables which come far beneath the standard of our ideas, and have anxiously to consider how that which we ourselves take in with a most rapid draught of mental apprehension is to be given forth by the mouth of flesh in the long and perplexed intricacies of its method of enunciation; and if the great dissimilarity thus felt (between our utterance and our thought) makes it distasteful to us to speak, and a pleasure to us to keep silence, then let us ponder what has been set before us by Him who has “showed us an example that we should follow His steps.” For however much our articulate speech may differ from the vivacity of our intelligence, much greater is the difference of the flesh of mortality from the equality of God.
—St. Augustine, On the Catechising of the Uninstructed, 10.15.

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2 thoughts on “Ss. Patrick and Augustine on Language and Education

    1. That is an excellent observation I hadn’t really noticed. St. Augustine has a beautiful passage about something similar in the Confessions (7.7.11): “You knew what I was suffering and no man knew it. For how little it was that my tongue uttered of it in the ears even of my closest friends! Could they hear the tumult of my soul, for whose utterance no time or voice of mine would have been sufficient? Yet into Your hearing came all that I cried forth in the anguish of my heart…”

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