On the “Hortensius”

In book three of the Confessions, Augustine is nineteen. He has just arrived in Carthage from the hinterlands of Thagaste and Madura to learn rhetoric, after which the best students were directed to “study of the law.” The big city was a boiling “caldron of illicit loves.” His peers admired him. He meant to “excel” but realized that “the less honest” he was, the “more famous” he should be. He did stay away from the worst deeds of his friends, but he was ashamed that he did not join their fun wherein most everyone made fools of everyone else.

This account is pretty standard stuff about early college life in almost any age, including our own. “With these men as companions of my immaturity, I was studying the books of eloquence; for in eloquence it was my ambition to shine, all from a damnable vaingloriousness and for the satisfaction of human vanity.”

Augustine did not like studying Greek, but loved Cicero and Virgil. He was a romantic young man, already settled with a young lady. Had he continued along in this path, he might well have become rich and famous in his time, but corrupt too.

Then something happened that I have always considered one of the great moments in human history. But no one, including Augustine, knew its significance at the time. Many still don’t. Great events begin in stillness, in what seem to be sheer accidents. But no reason can be found why accidents cannot also be elements of providence.

Augustine is preparing classes. He is following “the normal course of study,” something evidently prescribed by rule or tradition. He chanced on a dialogue of Cicero about a certain Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. In this work, Cicero seeks to convince Hortensius to change his ways.

Evidently, Hortensius was quite an eloquent gentleman with a good reputation. The only drawback was that he made his reputation by defending corrupt governors and politicians. Cicero wanted him to see that human happiness is something greater. He wanted, in other words, to introduce him to philosophy.

Saint Augustine by Gerard Seghers, c. 1650 [National Trust, Kingston Lacy]

Cicero’s dialogue was itself apparently redolent of Aristotle’s Protrepticus, a lost work that was designed to introduce students into the proper study of what is best in us and in reality. (See Thomas Prüfer, “A Protreptic: What Is Philosophy?” Communio, 30, Summer 2003).

My interest in this dialogue is not so much Cicero’s explanation of just how to do this. The fact is that we do not have this dialogue of Cicero. Most of what we know about it comes from Augustine’s citations of it. We do not even have Aristotle’s Protrepticus. Yet we know that they existed and changed lives. Or at least we know that the Hortensius changed one life, that of Augustine.

“Quite definitely it changed the direction of my mind, altered my prayer to you, O Lord, and gave me a new purpose and ambition. Suddenly, all the vanity I had hoped in, I saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire I longed after immortal wisdom.” If we ourselves could read Cicero’s dialogue, we might react the same way as Augustine, but it is enough for my purposes here to observe the way the young Augustine responded to it.

Of course, the first thing Augustine did on finishing it was to go out and mess up his already messed-up life further by joining the Manichees. He did this in part because they could justify the way he was living. That is, his philosophy followed his morals, not vice versa as it should be. But the spark was there. Augustine began to realize that Scripture is not as confusing as he thought. He then runs into the Platonists who explain to him why God is not a body. But he adds, in a famous passage, that the Platonists spoke of the Word, but not of the Word made flesh.

In Confessions Book VII, Augustine returned to this topic. He was now a dozen years beyond nineteen when he first “was stirred by the reading of Cicero’s Hortensius to the study of wisdom and here was I still postponing the giving up of this world’s happiness to devote myself to the search for that of which not the finding only but the mere seeking is better than to find all the treasures and kingdoms of men, better than all the bodily pleasures though they were to be had by merely a nod.”

The key words are “stirring” and “seeking.” At the center of every human existence is found a moment of unrest when this “stirring” and “seeking” occur. It must be either accepted or rejected as the impetus that moves our very being, whether to philosophy or to the kingdoms of men. The ultimate story of our lives, when worked out, will follow how we responded to those first “stirrings” that Augustine saw in the Hortensius.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019