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Youth, Culture and Discernment: The experience of Augustine and Basil

Enrico Cattaneo, SJ - La civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Aug 16th 2023

At a time when scientific subjects appear to have won a place of prominence in education and training, often for merely utilitarian reasons, it is more important than ever to bring young people close or closer to the humanities. This is indispensable because it enables young people to identify the necessary criteria to discern what is good and what is less good in the culture they inhabit; it provokes within them those questions and doubts that are fundamental on the journey toward maturity.

In this regard, it is interesting to be familiar with the personal experiences – in school and in encountering the culture of their times – of two Church Fathers: Augustine and Basil.


The example of Saint Augustine

In his Confessions,[1] Augustine recalls his first years of school when the education system happily resorted to coercion and punishment. Like all children Augustine preferred playing more than studying, but to make the children study, teachers did not hesitate to inflict punishment, even corporal punishment. “I was sent to school to learn to read and write, but I, poor wretch, did not know what use there was in it” (I 9.14).

Augustine realizes later on that school effectively serves to prepare young people to get ahead in the world, to acquire honors and riches. But is this the true school? Augustine notes a contradiction within the system: if children play ball instead of studying, they are punished; but when adults are idle, it is called “business,” and no one says anything because this is precisely what school has prepared them for (cf. I 9.15).

The problem, therefore, is how to use education well (bene uti) (I 10.16). But who teaches us to use it well and for good? As an adolescent, Augustine was attracted to poets like Virgil, but hated studying grammar. Yet, he asks himself, “What is more useful? Knowing how and why Dido took her own life, or learning how to read and write?”

His school curriculum included learning a foreign language, which at the time was Greek, but Augustine always felt a strong aversion to this subject. In later years he came to regret it. He recognizes that “free curiosity has more force in our learning than rigorous enforcement” (I 14.23), but admits that both are needed, because we cannot study only what we enjoy: there are “bitter things that are good for us” (salubres amaritudines) and “enjoyable things that are bad for us” (iucunditate pestifera) (ibid).

Furthermore, Augustine asks, is it possible when we study to separate form from content? The teachers focus on teaching students not to make mistakes in their grammar or syntax. Meanwhile, though, they pass on mythological tales through the poets who do not hesitate to ascribe to the gods the most miserable of human passions, and these, after all, are what students most enjoy (cf. I 16.25). And yet, Augustine says, even if it is hidden, the voice of conscience always remains: indeed “no science of letters can be so innate as the record of conscience” (I 18.29).

Upon arriving in Carthage to continue his studies, Augustine immersed himself in the culture of the city: theaters, shows, love affairs. “To love and to be loved” (III 1.1): this was his project in life. But this is not a real project, since it is guided solely by strong emotions that in the end produce only “inflamed swelling, infections and putrefied sores” (III 2.4). So the question is: “My life being such, was it life?” (ibid). Augustine, turning to God, recognizes that even in that moral disorder “Your faithful mercy hovered over me from afar” (III 3.5), although it took the painful form of interior flagellation: “and in all these things you did scourge me!” (ibid).

Thanks to his intelligence, Augustine found himself at the top of his class, which made him proud and full of himself, but never pushed him to bullying younger boys as his classmates did (cf. III 3.6). However, there followed an event that started something new in his life, something promising, something that awakened the depths of his heart. This event was the reading of a text, Hortensius, by Cicero. It was not a religious book, but an invitation to philosophy. For the first time, when Augustine was 19, the words of a book pierced his heart and opened his eyes. “Every vain hope at once became worthless to me, and I longed with an incredibly burning desire for an immortality of wisdom” (III 4.7). But this was just the beginning of a long, difficult, stormy voyage.[2]

First of all Augustine decided to read the Bible, certain that he would find the Christ his mother had taught him to invoke. But he was disappointed. He approached the Scriptures as an intellectual, and they seemed to him a work “unworthy to be compared to the stateliness” of Cicero (III 5.9). In reality, he says, “my swelling pride shrank from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce its interior” (ibid).[3] Thus, he ended up embracing Manicheism, a sect that spoke much about truth, but did not follow reason. As often happens today, Augustine, who thought of himself as an intellectual, came to embrace ridiculous beliefs, those of a fundamentally superstitious religion, that kept him in thrall for nine years. He was also tempted by astrology and horoscopes, though only occasionally (cf. IV 3.4).

He then lived through the death of a dear friend and contemporary, which led him to question the meaning of life and why he felt so sad, to the point that “whatever I beheld was death” (IV 4.9). However, he failed to find any answers: “I became a great riddle to myself” (ibid). Meanwhile, he continued what we would call his university studies, which at the time were somewhat encyclopedic: eloquence, dialectic, geometry, music and arithmetic. A great deal of learning, but all geared toward acquiring power and prestige in society.

After finishing his studies and moving from Africa to Italy – first to Rome, and then to Milan – Augustine abandoned Manicheism, went through a period of skepticism, and eventually, after discovering the teachings of Ambrose, began to draw closer to the faith. Once again, books were what removed the final intellectual obstacles for him. These books were the Latin translations of the writings of the Neoplatonic philosophers. Then Augustine understood what is real: not only what is visible, but what is true. He understood that God is the true reality, not because he possesses a greater spatial dimension or because he is high up, above the sky, but because he is the source of all being. “And being admonished to return to myself, I entered even into my inward self […] and saw […] above my mind Unchangeable Light […] not the ordinary light that all flesh may see. […] Whoever knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and whoever knows this, knows eternity. Love knows it. O Truth, you are Eternity! and Love, you are Truth! and Eternity, you are Love! You are my God” (VII 10.16).

However, Augustine still had three more steps to take: first, setting aside his pride and recognizing “the humble Jesus and the teachings of his weakness” (VII 18.24); second, experiencing the grace that frees us from the slavery of sin (cf. VIII 12.29): and finally, entering into the Church of Christ through baptism, which he received at the hands of Bishop Ambrose during the Easter Vigil in A.D. 387 (cf. IX 6.14).

Here ends the youthful journey of Augustine. He counted himself among those who, “either since adolescence, or having been jostled around roughly and for a long time, turn to look at certain signs and, while still lost among the waves, remember their beloved homeland and steer a straight course toward it, without delay or deceit.”[4]

Basil and the young

Some 30 years before Augustine, a young man who had been educated at the schools in Athens was baptized in Cappadocia. Although his family was profoundly Christian, Basil himself, as was common at the time, had delayed his baptism. The decision to be baptized was not for him a simple adherence to the faith of his fathers, but a real conversion. In an autobiographical text written toward the end of his life, Basil says: “I wasted a great amount of time in the service of vanity, and I spent most of my youth in pointless endeavors, since I dedicated it to the acquisition of a knowledge that God has shown to be madness.[5] Suddenly, one day, as if waking from a deep sleep, I lifted my eyes toward the wondrous light of truth of the Gospel, thus seeing the pointlessness of the knowledge of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing (1 Cor 2:6). Bitterly regretting my miserable life, I prayed that I might be granted a guide to orient me on the path toward the principles of piety” (Ep. 223.2).

Here, Basil is talking about his university years in Athens. His studies included philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and, most importantly, literature and rhetoric. He considered all of this “vanity,” with reference to two texts of Saint Paul against the “knowledge of this world.” However, this passage should be read in context, since it is a letter to his former master of asceticism. It would have been wrong to praise secular knowledge, which cannot, in any case, compete with the truth of the Gospel. But Basil does not condemn it either: he simply says that it does not truly help to orient life.

In order to properly understand the thinking of Basil on classical culture, we must turn to a very singular piece, written for young people to help them with their studies. The problem that Basil addresses here is education.[6] In school, young people studied the classical authors (particularly the poets), but these works often talk about the gods of Greek mythology and recount episodes that are morally reprehensible. So how should a young Christian scholar behave? Should he give up studying? Basil rules this out because it would mean giving up on culture. What is required is a criterion of discernment: this means clearly understanding the ultimate direction of life, which is what characterizes life as a Christian existence. Without this clarity, there is no possibility of fruitfulness, no discernment. But where does Basil locate this Christian identity?

To understand the profound thinking of the great Cappadocian, we must reread the opening of his speech to young people. He says to them, and I paraphrase: Dear sons, you are about to enter into life. I have more experience than you. I have learned that in life there are mixed fortunes, and that we need an orientation; otherwise we get lost. I, as a father, can help you. But it will be up to you whether you belong to the category of the good-for-nothing, as the poet Hesiod would say, or whether you seriously commit, learning to look inward, and listening to what I say. First, then, you must love books; they are not lifeless objects, but in fact through them “you will interact with the most illustrious men of antiquity” (I 5). However, you must not follow them blindly, entrusting to them “the tiller of your mind, but rather, embracing what is useful, you must also discern what should be discarded” (I 6).

To read books without losing your way, Basil continues, you must try to live in accordance with your most profound desire, which is the desire for truth, for good, for beauty – the desire to contemplate reality, that which is, that being which is you and all the things of creation that surround you. But you must not fall into the trap of thinking that this desire can be realized in these things of creation, however beautiful or attractive they may be, because these objects of human longing are not the ultimate realities. “It is not having illustrious ancestors; it is not having a beautiful, strong and healthy body; it is not success in every field or achieving the pinnacle of political power; whatever you can think of that is human,” none of this will satisfy our hopes (II 2). What we must “love and pursue with all our strength” (II 3) is “preparing for a life of another kind,” one where happiness, good and truth are eternal, while the good things of this life are only shadow and dream compared to those “true realities” (II 5).

It would take too long at this point, Basil continues, to explain what this “real life” consists of, because you are all still too young. You will understand it by assimilating the Sacred Scriptures. But you can start practicing with the books of classical authors, because they contain many things useful to life; or rather, they prepare you for the battle of existence because life is a battle, in fact “the greatest of all battles” (II 8), and we must be well prepared for it. By practicing the habit of seeking the reflections of truth, good and virtue present in these authors, eventually you will be able to fix your gaze “on the light itself” (II 10).

This approach of Basil has something unique: more than on the level of dogma or doctrine, he locates Christian identity within knowing the ultimate meaning of life – what we are made for, what we are destined for. Without this objective, which is never detached from Christ but always based on him, the explanation of Basil would risk being merely a moralistic lecture, no different from those of the Stoics.

On this basis, it is possible to read the classical authors without danger, but rather with discernment and fruitfulness. The benefit is in the fact that, despite its limitations, secular culture, when based on human nature, which is created for good, often confirms Christian moral doctrine, and this can be of great help in strengthening our faith.

What is authentically human is Christian, and what is Christian is also authentically human. According to Basil, an encounter between secular and Christian cultures is possible on this premise. The Bible itself offers an example of this in the figure of Moses: educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, he was given the grace of a divine revelation about the reality of being (which is to say, on the things that are because they have received their being from He who is); and then he used all of his experience (human and divine, and therefore true wisdom) in service of the people of God, as legislator and educator (cf. III 3).

Basil sees his own personal story reflected in the story of Moses: educated first in human knowledge (through his studies in Athens), he then discovered the beauty of divine knowledge,

revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, and finally accepted the role of bishop in service of the people of God.[7]


Young people spend the majority of their time in school, and in school they acquire the cultural base that will make them active citizens and protagonists within their societies. Without culture, a young person is cut off and has no future. However, not all young people around the world have easy access to education. In some countries, there is still a strong tradition of excluding girls from school.[8] In any case, studying and learning are commitments that require effort and application, which is why many young people who might have access to school abandon it or attend it passively, unproductively. It must also be said that culture is not only about learning a science, but also about acquiring a job.

Normally we distinguish between sciences and humanities. The subject matters of science, like mathematics, chemistry and biology, are the same everywhere. They are transcultural: the physics taught in Mexico is the same as the physics taught in Nigeria. Sciences are dominant in schools today, while humanities are in serious crisis.

Moreover, whereas school is practically the only provider of scientific knowledge, there are various agents of differing value contributing to culture in a broader sense: first and foremost the family, but also religious communities, political parties, associations, mass media, the internet and so on. All this creates social customs containing, alongside the good, less good elements, or elements that are absolutely reprehensible, all of which influence the behavior of people. We need only to think of cultures built on mafia dealings that practice corruption and intimidation; of cultures that inculcate fanaticism and intolerance from an early age; of cultures that, in practice if not by law, deny religious freedom and freedom of speech. It is necessary, therefore, to be discerning. But who teaches young people to do this? Who teaches them to distinguish what is true, right and good from what is false, deceptive and destructive?

This is why it is very important to put young people in touch with the humanities, particularly if their education is primarily scientific. By humanities we mean not only the great classical authors – and each country has its own classics – but also contemporary ones. A true author is one who reflects on the human person, who starts from the questions about being human, the problems, the dramas, and cannot speak about them without feeling the presence of a Mystery. In this sense, we must include not only writers but also artists who have expressed themselves in painting, sculpture, architecture, music and so on. None of them has or can have answers, but the important thing is that they ask questions and provoke doubts. Young people need this, in order not to be manipulated by the culture of falsehood or by the dictatorship of a single way of thinking. But it is not easy to uncover the fundamental questions present in a literary text or a work of art.[9] In order to transmit this humanities culture, we also need teachers who have been on their own personal journeys.

Of course, sometimes things are not so simple, because true freedom of education is not guaranteed always and everywhere. In many parts of the world, this freedom does not exist, because governments control schools and often impose their ideologies, bending reality to their ideas instead of adjusting their ideas to reality. Even in the so-called free world, we do not always find true plurality of thought. Sometimes, even in universities, those who stray from dominant thinking are marginalized and silenced. The Church, despite everything, still offers one of the few spaces of freedom, although she too is often reduced to silence.

The examples of Augustine and Basil show the importance of the humanities, a culture that does not necessarily need to be religious, as long as it is truly human, capable of uncovering those questions and doubts that can lead the young people of today to freedom and responsibility. And that might even turn out to be a road toward the Truth in its entirety.

[1].cf. St. Augustine, The Confessions.

[2].“Navigation is a disquieting metaphor for human disorientation, in which autobiographical memories are intertwined with the effort of reflection: the sense of longing for a safe shore, awoken in Augustine by his reading of Cicero, is not in itself enough to extricate him from the haze that keeps him adrift, although it does constitute an indispensable starting point for orientation” (L. Alici, “Introduzione generale,” in Agostino, La dottrina cristiana, Rome, Città Nuova, 1992, XX).

[3].Fortified by this first negative experience, Augustine subsequently committed himself to expounding at length on how to approach the Sacred Scriptures in a productive manner, free from the slavery of fundamentalism and from the false liberty of free interpretation, which both distract from the real aim of the Scriptures, which is to “inculcate charity.” cf. E. Cattaneo, Evangelo, Chiesa e carità nei Padri, Rome, AVE, 1995, 85-98.

[4].St. Augustine, De beata vita, 1,2.

[5].cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20: “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

[6].cf. M. Naldini (ed.), Basilio di Cesarea. Discorso ai giovani (Oratio ad adolescentes), Florence, Nardini, 1990.

[7].Saint Augustine, too, might very much recognize himself in Basil’s approach. He too addresses “young people passionate about learning, blessed with intelligence and fearful of God,” and knows that what they seek with their whole being is happiness (beatam vitam). But this should not make them feel secure, as if sciences or human institutions were enough to provide the happiness they seek. Everything must be judged “with a clear head and with diligence,” looking to Christ. cf. St. Augustine, La dottrina cristiana, Rome, Città Nuova, 1992, II, 39, 58.

[8].The case of the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai is a well-known example. On the September 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala suffered a critical injury to the head when she was shot by two Taliban militants who had boarded her school bus in an attempt to silence her. Their reasons for targeting her was that she had denounced the Taliban opposition to educating girls (cf. G. Pani, “Il caso Malala: l’istruzione contro la violenza,” in Civ. Catt. 2015 I 391-399). From England, where she now lives with her family, Malala promotes a global campaign to support the right of girls to receive an education not only in elementary school but also at higher levels. Speaking at the United Nations headquarters, she said: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” (cf. August 20, 2013).

[9].cf. a good example in F. Castelli, El gran teatro del mundo. Scenografie letterarie, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2012.

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