After these two steps of fear and piety, we come to the third step, knowledge, of which I have now undertaken to treat. For in this every earnest student of the Holy Scriptures exercises himself, to find nothing else in them but that God is to be loved for His own sake, and our neighbor for God’s sake…
It is necessary, then, that each man should first of all find in the Scriptures that he, through being entangled in the love of this world—i.e., of temporal things—has been drawn far away from such a love for God and such a love for his neighbor as Scripture enjoins. Then that fear which leads him to think of the judgment of God, and that piety which gives him no option but to believe in and submit to the authority of Scripture, compel him to bewail his condition. For the knowledge of a good hope makes a man not boastful, but sorrowful.
It’s been far too long since I’ve continued to examine St. Augustine’s “Steps to Wisdom.” The first two steps Augustine deals with are fear of God and piety. The next two ought to be dealt with together because the fourth is the answer to the dilemma of the third.
In the passage above, Augustine says that the third step towards wisdom is to seek out knowledge. If you want knowledge of God, he says, you have to read scripture! And of course we can apply this to other fields as well: If you want knowledge in science, you have to read science books. If you want to get good at math, you’re going to have to read the math textbook. If you want to learn history, you have to read what people throughout history wrote about their times.
A classical education is full of reading. We are pushing students to become independent scholars, after all, and reading the knowledge and wisdom of others is one of the most effective means of independent study. Young students read with their parents, then read on their own. As students get older, we expect them to do more on their own to prepare for class, and to seek out knowledge on their own. We teach them how to find good sources and to glean from them.
We might think that gaining knowledge would leave us feeling satisfied and good, or even perhaps inflated with how much we know. But Augustine says that this is not necessarily the case. The deeper we get to know scripture, he says, the more we ought to realize how much we don’t measure up to its standards. There’s a parallel for learners of any subject in that gaining knowledge in any field ought to reveal to us just how much we don’t know. Especially as students get older and start studying more complex material, they can quickly realize their own shortcomings, both as learners and as image-bearers of God. This can be overwhelming, disappointing, or frustrating for students.
And it’s at the point of this realization that we need step four–what Augustine calls “strength and resolution.” Augustine says that the Christian who is despairing of his moral shortcomings in the face of the standards of scripture needs the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen him so that he doesn’t fall into despair but rather rests in Christ’s finished work and looks forward to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
I think it’s significant that this step in pursuing wisdom is one that is done for the Christian by the Holy Spirit—strength and resolution are not feelings that we are able to muster on our own.
And there’s a parallel here for students pursuing wisdom in other academic fields as well. When they reach this fourth step, they are at the point where they can no longer continue on their own. They need help and encouragement. They’ve read enough that they are overwhelmed with new knowledge, or with knowledge that is difficult to grapple with, or both. Instead of allowing our students to wallow in a despairing attitude, (“I’ll never get this!”) we need teach them how to humbly face their own shortcomings, and encourage them to patiently and diligently keep trying.
Sometimes this means fixing our eye on the goal, and waiting on understanding. Just as sanctification does not happen over night, neither does gaining wisdom. As your students grow and learn, they will grapple with big ideas and learn to think rigorously. There will be days when it will be very hard, and they will be prone to fall into despair. Keep encouraging them.
Augustine says that the student of scripture can reach the point at which “he hungers and thirsts after righteousness,” rather than wallows in despair, by keeping his eye fixed on “the unchangeable Trinity in unity,” rather than on the self. While we are maleable and often fail, God is constant and promises to sanctify us.
Likewise, though we can’t always grasp truth easily and readily, truth is unchangeable. The truths and concepts your student strives to grasp are not going anywhere; maybe today is not the day your student “gets it,” but take comfort in the fact that God’s constancy means that truth is also constant; the truth will still be the truth tomorrow, and the next day, and whatever day it happens to be when your student does get it. In the meantime, do everything you can to encourage your student’s curiosity and hunger for knowledge and to help them humbly lift their gaze away from themselves and towards the Unchangeable.
Aubry Myers is the Director of Classical Education at Granite Classical Tutorials.