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The Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy in the Early Dialogues of St. Augustine

On whose side is St. Augustine of Hippo in the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry? In his four Cassiciacum dialogues, Augustine obviously favors the former, but his rhapsodic use of poetry in the dialogues—and indeed his own poetics in crafting these works—point to a more complicated attitude than is initially apparent. This essay offers an overview of the conflict between philosophy and poetry in Plato’s Republic, establishes the reemergence of that conflict in Augustine’s four earliest dialogues, and explores Augustine’s somewhat surprising solution.

After he was delivered from the necessity of making provision for the flesh in its concupiscence and after tendering his resignation as a professor of rhetoric, St. Augustine was, in the autumn of 386 a.d., eager to explore his newfound Christian faith and prepare for his reception into the Catholic Church. His conversion, momentous though it was, did not so much entail a repudiation of all that he had learned and studied as it did a transformation of what had brought him to the threshold of religious belief. Chief among the spoils of Augustine’s early education was philosophy, which he understood primarily as an all-encompassing love of wisdom and only secondarily (and perhaps decadently) as a confederacy of competing schools of thought (see Confessions 3.4.8).

Although he profited most from philosophy with respect to two arguably arcane metaphysical topics (the nature of immaterial substance and of evil),1 and although the foundational philosophy of Plato was largely [End Page 15] mediated to him through the writings of Cicero and the Neo-Platonists, Augustine somehow managed to surmise something of the original breadth and depth of Platonic philosophy. This is evident in Augustine’s four so-called Cassiciacum dialogues, written around November 386 while on retreat at a friend’s villa in the town of Cassiciacum, outside of Milan. In them, Augustine engages a debate found in several of Plato’s dialogues, “the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.”2 Augustine’s own position falls decidedly on the side of philosophy, yet his treatment of poetry in the dialogues as well as his own poetics in crafting them betray a more nuanced and multipronged strategy than is initially apparent.

To understand why such a quarrel took place at Cassiciacum in the first place and why Augustine thought it important to include in his earliest writings as a Christian believer, I first offer an overview of the conflict between philosophy and poetry as described in Plato’s Republic. The overview, which disavows any claim to encapsulate the final Platonic position on the matter, will help place Augustine’s own questions into their proper context. Then I trace the reemergence of that conflict in the Cassiciacum dialogues—Against the Academics, On the Happy Life, On Order, and the Soliloquies—before examining Augustine’s somewhat surprising solution to it.


Socrates’s criticism of poetry in the Republic can be principally found in two places. First, in books 2 and 3 (Rep. 2.376d–3.403c), Socrates and his associates subject the poetry of Homer and others to a searing censure, concluding that little of the patrimony of Greek literature can be allowed into the perfectly just city. Only “fine lies,” Socrates asserts, should be used to educate the city’s young and impressionable guardian or warrior class, not “bad lies” that poorly represent the gods, heroes, and the afterlife (Rep. 2.377d–e).

Socrates’s main criterion for determining which representations are good and which are not is the degree to which they promote a salubrious notion of virtue and justice. The gods, for instance, must not be depicted as petty or warring with each other, as this image is likely to encourage the same behavior in its listeners (Rep. 2.378b–e). Similarly, death and the afterlife should not be portrayed in any way that would undermine the audience’s cultivation of, or zeal for, courage. Hades should not be represented as a dreary place where both the brave and [End Page 16] the cowardly receive the same wages, nor should portrayals of excessive mourning take place over fallen comrades (Rep. 3.386a–388b). Operative in Socrates’s critique is the assumption that human beings are imitative by nature and that the best human beings should only imitate what is best, not what is wicked or base (Rep. 3.395c). Consequently, tragedy and comedy, both of which—as theatrical performances—involve imitation of many different kinds of men and women, will be banned from the city (Rep. 3.394d–397b).

In book 10 (Rep. 10.595a–608b), Socrates returns to the topic of poetry and its mimetic qualities. If the Ideas or Forms of things are created by the gods and the things themselves by various craftsmen, then poetry, Socrates concludes, is an imitation of an imitation, a shadowy reality that is three removes from the truth (Rep. 10.597b–e). The poet, in turn, is not a wise communicator of knowledge about the divine but a “craftsman of a phantom” (Rep. 10.599d), an ignoramus whose only skill is a certain kind of charming mimicry (Rep. 10.602a–b). Moreover, because it generally appeals to the irrational rather than the calculating part of the soul (that is, to the lowest and basest passions), poetry has a pernicious effect on the moral development of all (Rep. 10.602c–607a); with its seductive appeal to our emotions, it effectively privileges “pleasure and pain” over law and argument (Rep. 10.607a).

Although Socrates is again critical of both tragedy and comedy, he is especially hard on the former. Tragedy is seductive and enchanting, drawing in the audience, as if by a spell, to the false world of the poet. At its core that world is antiphilosophical, for it is a world of often contradictory divine laws and capricious Fates, a dark and inscrutable universe rather than an intelligible and coherent cosmos capable of being explored and understood by human reason. Further, tragedy exerts tremendous sway over our emotions, nourishing the soul’s senseless side by overpowering the soul’s disinterested ability to calculate coolly (Rep. 10.605c). Ironically, the tragic hero’s journey to self-knowledge is what keeps us from ours; for, by seeing what price the tragic hero pays for his self-knowledge, we are relieved that we are not he and leave it at that.

More than any other genre, tragedy fulfills Jocosta’s prayer in Oedipus Tyrannus: “May you never come to know who you are” (1. 1067). Tragedy has a distracting effect on audiences, as it allows them to learn of horrible truths such as murder and incest only in others, never in the potencies of their own dark and wicked hearts. As Aristotle notes, tragedy thus displaces the emotions (especially fear) of the audience onto the stage and keeps them there (Poetics 1453a–1454a). This catharsis can [End Page 17] be useful for the city and for sick, uneducated souls, but at most it only alleviates the symptoms temporarily rather than effect a genuine cure of the disease (Rep. 10.606a–b). For these reasons, Socrates describes tragedy as a “maimer of thought” (Rep. 10.595b).3

Although Socrates’s second examination of poetry in book 10 of the Republic initially appears to be as damning as his first, it ultimately softens his earlier stance. Whereas his censoring of the poets in books 2 and 3 leaves little poetry remaining except a few tattered (and boring) speeches and hymns, his later criticism leaves the door open for a wide array of poetic and theatrical imitation, provided that the poet or playwright has a real knowledge of the highest things rather than a mere knack for imitating appearances. Put simply, poetry might not be so bad were it to be placed in the hands of a philosopher, someone who could put “pleasure and pain” in the service of “law and argument” and thus restore the horse to its rightful place before the cart.

As if to confirm this, Socrates ends the Republic with what we may consider his own stab at poetizing. The Myth of Er, a story about an afterlife where the just are rewarded and the wicked punished, and where being just according to philosophy is depicted as superior to being just by mere habituation, is essentially Socrates’s rewriting of the Homeric underworld; for although Socrates’s myth contains a substantially different morale, it is peopled with many of the same characters (Rep. 10.614b–621d). The Myth of Er is, in other words, Socrates’s own poetically crafted, noble lie told for the benefit of the unphilosophic masses.


That Augustine is aware of and sympathetic to the Socratic debate about poetry may be ascertained from several passages in the Cassiciacum dialogues. In On Order Augustine describes narrative (historia) as “filled with more worries than with charm or truth.”4 In the Soliloquies, a recurring discussion of theater is mixed with an implicit preference for comedy over tragedy. In one passage, the character Reason divides the “false” into that which strives to be and that which pretends to be; he then subdivides that which pretends to be into the deceptive and the nondeceptive (Sol. 2.9.16). The reader is therefore left with three categories of falsehood: deceptive pretense, nondeceptive pretense, and the “striving.” Into the latter category Reason places mirror reflections as well as paintings and sculptures, for they “strive to be” like the originals they impersonate. Into the second category he places jokes as [End Page 18] well as “farces and comedies and many poems” for, although they are false, they seek to delight rather than deceive. Absent, however, is any mention of tragedy, even though Reason alludes to it in a slightly different context soon after (Sol. 2.10.18).

Why does Reason not mention tragedy along with comedy as an innocent example of nondeceptive pretense? Perhaps because it is not innocent. Aside from the simple mechanics of impersonating historical or fictional figures on the stage, there is something deceptive about tragedy. Even if classical tragedy is written to effect a certain kind of release and delight in the audience (Aristotle’s catharsis), it is a perverse delight, one that feeds off a certain sickness and involves a certain kind of lying.

Most of Augustine’s philosophical scrutiny of the poets involves his pupil Licentius. A young man somewhere between the ages of fifteen and thirty, Licentius is the son of Romanianus, the wealthy benefactor and relative of Augustine to whom Against the Academics is dedicated. Licentius is talented and bright, and his zeal for philosophy is so impressive that Augustine holds him up as a model for his father to imitate.5 But two or so weeks after his arrival at the Cassiciacum villa, Licentius’s philosophical progress is impeded by “a sudden and strange dedication to poetry” (ord. 1.2.5; see also c. Ac. 2.4.10). Bold and impetuous and often carried away by emotion, Licentius’s soul becomes a dramatic battleground for the quarrel between philosophy and poetry.

Although Augustine is keen to have his pupils become proficient in the liberal arts (which, of course, includes the study of poetry), he is alarmed by both the degree and content of Licentius’s newfound love. Licentius’s poetic enthusiasms are immoderate and excessive, affecting not only his interest in philosophy but even his physical appetite (see c. Ac. 2.4.10 and 3.4.7; see also ord. 1.3.8). As for content, Licentius shows a recurring interest in tragedies. He becomes so “inflamed” for poetry after hearing books 2 through 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid (which recounts the tale of Dido and Aeneas) that Augustine feels compelled to “restrain him a bit” (c. Ac. 2.4.10). Licentius also begins chanting verses from Greek tragedy (c. Ac. 3.4.7) and takes a keen interest in the story of Pyramus and Thysbe, a tragedy not unlike Romeo and Juliet, involving two young lovers who communicate to each other through a wall that their warring families share (ord.1.3.8). Significantly, in Ovid’s version, a daughter of Minyas first tells the tale rather than attend a Dionysian festival, as if to suggest that men of higher caliber will always choose tragic love stories over bacchanalia (Metamorphoses 4.35–54). [End Page 19]

But while such predilections are certainly more commendable than living according to one’s lowest appetites, they are still ultimately susceptible to them. Suggestively, Licentius’s love of the Pyramus and Thysbe story is mentioned in a passage where Augustine is trying to arouse in him a sense of wonder, the beginning of all philosophy (ord. 1.3.6). The hypnotizing allure of tragedy is thus contrasted with the invigorating awe of philosophy.6


Augustine uses a variety of pedagogical techniques in response to Licentius’s enchantment with poetry. In addition to exhorting him to a love of philosophy (c. Ac. 2.4.10), Augustine employs verbal corrections that range from light humor to heavy chastisement. In Against the Academics, after Licentius waxes on about eating excessively “when our mind is intent on something else,” Augustine playfully remonstrates him. Listen to the question at hand, he says, “lest I have to endure without measure your going over those poetic measures of yours” (c. Ac. 2.4.10). Augustine is hoping that a gentle jab will impress upon his pupil the importance of measure not only in meter and verse but in the love of poetry itself: a consistency should maintain between the ordering of one’s loves and the ordering of one’s verses.7

The lesson, however, is lost on the passionate youth. The next evening, Augustine draws attention to the fact that Licentius had spent the afternoon composing poetry, obliquely indicating a discrepancy between the young man’s actions and his conviction, which he had been vigorously defending the day before, that the truth should be sought above all else (c. Ac. 3.1.1). Augustine is now a little less playful and a little more blunt. “I reckoned I should bring this up,” he says to the group, “so that philosophy might seize and claim for herself a greater share of [Licentius’s] affection than the discipline of poetry or any other discipline. The time for this to happen is now” (c. Ac. 3.1.1).

But the student continues to ignore the advice. Later, Licentius leaves the lunch table early in order to indulge his obsession with poetry, this time singing verses from Greek tragedy that he, a Latin speaker, does not understand (c. Ac. 3.4.7). Augustine, escalating his level of criticism yet again, now compares Licentius to a caged parrot stupidly mouthing words that are unintelligible to him. The metaphor is harsh enough on its own terms, but it also relates to a fable told by Augustine involving two heavenly birds that are sisters, Philosophy (the love of wisdom) [End Page 20] and Philocaly (the love of beauty). Philocaly differs from her wise sister in at least three respects: she is mired in “the birdlime of lust,” she is imprisoned in a cage, and she does not know whence she came (c. Ac. 2.3.7). With his surrender to the beauty of the mere sounds of tragic poetry, Licentius is falling into the lesser good of philocaly, where he will be mired in disordered desires and bereft of self-knowledge.

The latter is already proving true. Licentius had boasted that his concentration on meters would not impede his physical appetite (c. Ac. 2.4.10). Here, however, his boast is refuted by his own actions: as a result of concentrating intensely on his verses, he has neglected to satisfy the demands of the body by leaving lunch early and forgetting to drink something (c. Ac. 3.4.7). Narrating this incident to the reader, Augustine describes Licentius as not being satiated by Mount Helicon, a metonymy for the Muses and the fine arts. The Muses fail to satisfy on two levels. They do not satisfy Licentius’s physical thirst: and here is an echo of the legend recorded in Plato’s Phaedrus of the men who, enraptured by the Muses’ invention of singing, sang without food or drink until they died (Phaedrus 259b–c). Nor do they satisfy Licentius’s thirst for poetry: either his enthusiasm is insatiable or—more likely—his poetic talent is not equal to his enthusiasm. As Socrates points out, a poet without the divine madness of the Muses is mediocre (Phaedrus 245a).

A similar pedagogical pattern emerges in On Order. Upon discovering that Licentius is awake in the middle of the night, Augustine teases the youth by saying, “I see that your Muse has lit you a nightlight” (ord. 1.3.6). When Licentius then intelligently answers a question about natural causality, Augustine gives him an ironic compliment: “You were right not to have been wondering about anything and to be inwardly occupying yourself with Calliope,” the leader of the Muses (ord. 1.3.7). And when Licentius replies with an observation that shows philosophical promise, Augustine drops all wryness and exclaims: “Well done! Well done. You have most definitely perceived a great deal and ventured a great deal. And believe me: this surpasses Helicon, whose summit you’re striving to reach as if it were heaven, by a long shot. But I very much wish that you would remain present to this sentiment, for I shall attempt to undermine it” (ord. 1.3.8).

Licentius, however, does not want to philosophize and asks to be left alone; worse, he begins singing out loud the story of Pyramus and Thysbe. Augustine fears “no small thing—namely, that after having been thoroughly bowled over by the pursuit of poetry, he was now being snatched far away from philosophy” (ord. 1.3.8). The word he uses here [End Page 21] for being “bowled over” is provolutus, to be rolled over again and again. To put it in Socratic terms, Licentius is being tossed about by a love of “pleasure and pain” rather than piloted by a love of “law and argument.” Augustine therefore berates his student in no uncertain terms. “I’m annoyed at you,” he says. “Singing and howling in every kind of meter, you pursue those verses of yours that are trying to erect between you and the truth a wall more monstrous than the one between your lovers, for they used to breathe to each other through a tiny ingrown crack” (ord. 1.3.8).

To Augustine’s surprise, the strategy works this time. Contrite, Licentius assents to Augustine’s proposal and adds: “For why should I hesitate to demolish the wall of whose mention you have made before it’s fully built? Poetry surely cannot turn me away from philosophy as much as a distrust of finding the truth” (ord. 1.4.10). After a particularly insightful philosophical disputation, Licentius goes on to profess: “I won’t hesitate to say to you all that I have suddenly become quite averse to those verses. Something (I don’t know what) has at this moment shone brightly on me with a different, a far different, light. Philosophy is more beautiful, I admit, than Thysbe, than Pyramus, than the famous Venus and Cupid and all such loves of this kind” (ord. 1.8.21). Augustine as narrator then adds: “And with a sigh he gave thanks to Christ.”


Augustine deploys more than a verbal barrage of carrots and sticks to disabuse his students of poetry’s charms. He also adopts the paradoxical tactic of fighting fire with fire, using poetry against itself as part of a broader strategy of subordinating poetry to philosophy. In Against the Academics, Augustine offers a philosophical interpretation of the sea god, Proteus, as an allegory of human understanding so that his students “may see that poets shouldn’t be completely disregarded by philosophy” (c. Ac. 3.6.13). In On Order, when Licentius expresses his contrition for obsessing over Pyramus and Thysbe, the youth quotes a line from Terence and applies it to his own situation (ord. 1.3.9); as if to ratify Licentius’s impulse, Augustine does the same thing moments later with a verse from the Aeneid (ord. 1.4.10). The Cassiciacum dialogues, in fact, abound in allusions to the works of Terence, Horace, Plautus, and even Lucretius. Motifs from classical mythology are not uncommon either: in addition to Proteus and the Muses, the reader encounters [End Page 22] references to Hecuba, Priam, Hector, Andromache, Hercules, Achilles, Medea, Scylla and Charybdis, Daedalus, Venus, and Cupid.

But the most important poet at Cassiciacum is Vergil, of whose Aeneid the retreatants read half a book daily (ord. 1.8.26). Augustine does not explain why the moving verses of Rome’s great epic poet occupy a place of honor in a setting devoted to weakening poetry’s powers of seduction. Perhaps it is because, like it or not, having a thorough knowledge of Vergil is essential to being an educated Roman, and one of Augustine’s goals at Cassiciacum is the education of his pupils. Were this Augustine’s rationale, it would be analogous to John Henry Newman’s recommendation that Catholics be familiar with Milton or Gibbon, for although “we may most seriously protest against the spirit which ever lives, and the tendency which ever operates, in every page of their writings … they are an integral portion of English Literature … we cannot deny their power. … We must take things as they are if we take them at all.”8

There is another possibility. Despite Licentius’s enthrallment with the love story of Dido and Aeneas, the Aeneid may be a poem that serves as a bridge between poetry and philosophy, or, more properly speaking, it is a poem duly informed by philosophical notions of virtue and justice. Specifically, the Aeneid—as we see especially in Aeneas’s journey to the underworld—may be construed as Vergil’s version of the Myth of Er writ large and adapted to the peculiarities of the Roman people. Although it is far beyond the scope of this essay to justify this thesis, if it did prove to be true, it would certainly be consistent with Augustine’s (and Socrates’s) strategy of not rejecting poetry tout court but of subordinating it to philosophy.

Lastly, Augustine can heartily approve Licentius’s enthusiasm for a kind of poetry with which Socrates was unfamiliar: biblical poetry. When Licentius learns a new way of chanting the Psalms, Augustine encourages him in his efforts, even if this entails chanting those inspired verses in a questionable location: an outhouse (ord. 1.8.22–23).


In addition to using preexisting poetry to combat inordinate attachment to preexisting poetry, Augustine also encourages the composition of new poems and narratives. After surmising Licentius’s interest in the Pyramus and Thysbe tale, Augustine gives his pupil an interesting assignment: [End Page 23]

Where Pyramus and she kill themselves upon each other, as you were about to sing—in the very pain with which your poem should be furiously set alight, you have an excellent opportunity. Satirize the curse of that filthy lust and those poisoned fires as a result of which those pitiful events take place. Then, rise up wholeheartedly in praise of love pure and sincere, the love by which souls gifted in the disciplines and fair in virtue are joined to understanding through philosophy, and which not only escape death, but even enjoy to the fullest the happiest life.

(ord. 1.8.24)

Augustine’s call to satirize challenges Licentius to see through the indulgent self-pity and veiled lasciviousness of tragic love stories in the hopes that it will finish off his glossy-eyed infatuation with poetry. Moreover, Licentius is to turn tragedy into comedy: he is instructed to turn a tragic love story into a satire that ridicules the concupiscible and extols the philosophical. As we shall see later, by teaching him to laugh poetically at tragedy, Augustine is essentially preparing Licentius to write philosophical comedy in the tradition of Plato, Cicero—and himself.

Willing to practice what he preaches, Augustine himself gives his student a basic template in On Order when he satirizes the details of the Pyramus and Thysbe story. Instead of the two lovers in Ovid’s version romantically speaking to each other “whispers of delight” (murmures blanditiae) (Metamorphoses 4.70), Augustine comically depicts them breathing to each other (in se illi vel inolita rimula respirabant) (ord. 1.3.8); and when referring to the fissure in the wall through which they communicate their romantic yearnings, he uses the unromantic diction of a “tiny ingrown crack” (inolita rimula) (ord. 1.3.8).9

Indeed, satire appears to be one of Augustine’s preferred weapons of choice at Cassiciacum. The final book of Against the Academics is rife with satirical, even zany, elements. Augustine begins with a portrayal of contentious philosophical schools in a wild donnybrook (c. Ac. 3.7.15–3.9.19). Both the characters and the symbols of their schools that Augustine mentions are props well known to his readers: the palliums or cloaks of the philosophers, the cudgels of the Cynics, the debauched gardens or vineyards of the Epicureans, the boorish perch that is the Stoic porch, and so on (c. Ac. 3.7.16–3.8.17). Augustine’s caricatures border on the slapstick, as when he portrays Epicurus, author of an atomistic materialism in which pleasure is the highest good, chasing after atoms like a dirty old man harassing petite chambermaids (c. Ac. 3.10.23).10

Augustine is particularly impish regarding Academic skepticism, highlighting the school’s unintended tragic consequences by casting [End Page 24] it in a comedy of errors. To show the effects of the Academic doctrine of probability on the realm of ethics and law, Augustine describes a courtroom scene, worthy of Groucho Marx, involving a young man who has committed adultery with another man’s wife (c. Ac. 3.16.35). Because of Academic doubt, no one is certain whether the husband has been cuckolded: not the husband, not the judge, and not even the perpetrator. The husband cannot even know for certain whether he is sleeping with his wife, and the most that the judge can do is to declare the defendant “probably guilty.” But no matter: all the young man’s Academic lawyer has to do is persuade his client that the entire conviction was just a dream.

Finally, it should be noted that Augustine adopts other genres of composition as well, as when he becomes “another Aesop” in creating the fable of the sisters Philosophy and Philocaly (c. Ac. 2.3.7).


Augustine’s use of poetry as a means of moderating or refining one’s love for it also extends to a proficiency in the art as a whole. When Licentius grows fond of parroting lines from Greek tragedy, Augustine offers him some interesting advice. “I certainly hope that at some point you gain mastery over this poetry of yours which you have been coveting,” he declares. “Not that I’m terribly delighted by such perfection, but I see that you’re burning for it so much that you won’t be able to escape this love unless you become disdainful of it, which is what usually happens without any difficulty when perfection is reached” (c. Ac. 3.4.7). Aside from the psychologically astute observation that total mastery of a skill often leads to boredom with it, Augustine’s remark bespeaks a consistent objective: to lead his pupils in an ascent not around but through the liberal arts to higher forms of wisdom, even though some of those arts are potentially dangerous in their power to distract and detain.

This objective is likewise evident in another of Augustine’s responses to Licentius’s dalliance with Pyramus and Thysbe. When Licentius vows a renewed loyalty to philosophy after being upbraided for his excessive attachment to poetry, Augustine praises him for his choice, extolling the beauty of a life lived in pursuing and attaining the truth. But instead of inviting him to spring to the heights of philosophy or theology directly, Augustine orders him to go back to “those Muses,” adding: “If you care about order, you must return to those verses. For an education in the liberal disciplines (if, of course, moderate and concise) produces lovers [End Page 25] more lively, more persevering, and better groomed for embracing the truth; and as a result they more ardently desire, more consistently pursue, and finally, more sweetly cling to that which is called, Licentius, the happy life” (ord. 1.8.24).

Augustine will not let the immoderate excesses of Licentius deter him from recommending and attempting to implement a moderate curriculum that fully educates the soul and makes it fit for contemplation of the highest things, a curriculum that includes a healthy amount of poetry. As Augustine puts it in On Order, reason “favors the poets” (ord. 2.14.41). A product of human reason, poetry bears traces of the “reasonable” (rationabile) in its rules, its meter, and its meaning (ord. 2.11.31–34). Learning the arts of grammar (which includes historia) and music (which includes poetic verse) therefore strengthens reason to detect traces of itself in human speech and prepare it, step by step, to come eventually into its own (ord. 2.14.39–41).

This ultimate goal gives poetry much of its value. Augustine has little patience for those who would cherish poetry as an end unto itself, and he is especially critical of those “vain, curious, and absurd” people who use their knowledge of poetry as an occasion for pride, condescendingly asking unanswerable riddles of the less proficient about the (nonexistent) name of Euryalus’s mother in the Aeneid (ord. 2.12.37).


But perhaps the most intriguing avenue to explore in the quarrel between philosophy and poetry is the dialogue genre itself. One functional way to define the dialogue invented by Plato is as a form of writing that remains faithful to Socrates’s way of life while successfully neutralizing or circumventing Socrates’s objections to writing. Although the Platonic dialogue is beautiful, it does not have the overpowering pathos of an epic or tragedy, a restraint that keeps the reader’s mind more alert and less lulled. This has the effect of placing on the reader a certain onus to figure out the dialogue’s true import, to question the apparent contradictions of its fictions or statements and to search for a possible reconciliation. In short, rather than hypnotize the reader with charm, the dialogue irritates him/her into being inquisitive, perceptive, and rational. Such a quality, one could say, is more comic in character than tragic for, like a comedy, a philosophical dialogue has a more permeable “fourth wall” between the action of the narrative and the audience. [End Page 26]

Put differently, the dialogue’s comic structure forces the reader to “get the joke,” to discover independently the knowledge being sought and thereby experience the delight of comprehension (see Downey, pp. 121–26). And reinforcing this comic dimension is the philosopher’s playfulness that springs from his bemused indifference to the petty things, such as money or health or recognition, which most human beings regard with inordinate seriousness. A truly great soul, Cicero reminds his son, “holds as trivial the things that to the many seem to be outstanding and important” (De officiis 1.20.67).

Further, instead of abstracting from conventional comedy and tragedy, the philosophical dialogue incorporates them, not only in the discussions of the interlocutors but in more subtle ways. The “three waves of ridicule” in the Republic, for instance, can be seen as recapitulations of other Greek drama. The first wave, with its comical depiction of equality between the sexes, is in the tradition of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (5.450c–457c); the second wave of women and children in common, with its dark references to abortion and infanticide and its hints of incest, is in the tradition of Attic tragedy (5.457d–471e); and the third wave, the rule of the philosopher king, marks the new genre of philosophical comedy (5.473c–541b; see Bloom, pp. 380–81, 384–85, 408).

The Cassiciacum dialogues, which are patterned on the Ciceronian adaptation of the Greek philosophical dialogue, are written with an eye to this broader tradition. Augustine is keenly aware of the dialogue’s protreptic character, which places a heavy onus on the reader. In On Order (1.11.31) he mocks those who pay no attention to what in a dialogue “is being explained and accomplished” as well as those who ignore the whence and “whither of the discussants’ efforts.” Further, the dialogues place strong emphasis throughout on the reader’s independent discovery of the truth vis-à-vis the texts. As Augustine tells Romanianus in Against the Academics, everything accomplished in the Cassiciacum corpus will remain a mere opinion in the mind of the reader, rather than genuine knowledge, until the reader “enters entirely into philosophy” and sees the truth for himself (c. Ac. 2.3.8).

Augustine is also quite playful in these exchanges. As we have already seen, several parts of the Cassiciacum dialogues are openly satirical in nature, while others are quietly whimsical. Augustine refers to several of his arguments as playthings that he brings out of their toy-trunk for amusement (c. Ac. 2.11.26, 2.13.29). One scene, in which Monica loses her temper after hearing Licentius chant in a latrine, borders on the bawdy (ord. 1.8.22). Other passages are more subtle but no less [End Page 27] humorous. In Against the Academics, Augustine begs Romanianus not to disdain the word “philocaly” (philocalia) because it is so popular, when in fact it is one of the only times in Latin literature that it is ever used (c. Ac. 2.3.7). As he confesses later in his life, Augustine is wont to be ironic in these works (Retractations 1.3.2). A distant disciple of Augustine, St. Thomas More, was once characterized as feigning seriousness so well when he was joking that his listeners had difficulty knowing when he spoke “in sport” and when “in good earnest.”11 One wonders if the same could not be said about Augustine at Cassiciacum.

Finally, the Cassiciacum dialogues show some of the same ability to incorporate other literary genres within themselves. We have already noted how book 3 of Against the Academics includes a “send-up” of the history of philosophy; it even includes stock characters from Roman farce, such as a city slicker and a country bumpkin (3.15.34).12 And in book 1 of On Order, a remarkable collage of scenes alternates between the comic and the tragic. A poignant moment in which Augustine weeps for joy is broken by the mildly Aristophanic bathroom humor involving Licentius and Monica (1.8.22). This is followed by a bitter altercation between two barnyard roosters coupled with a “tragic” fight between Licentius and Trygetius that ends with Augustine in tears over the destructive behavior of his pupils (1.10.29–30). The mood is lightened, however, when Monica’s question about whether women can be philosophers leads to the creation of a “female drama” that ends in laughter (1.11.31–33).


No evidence exists that Licentius ever completed his homework assignments. When he is instructed to satirize the story of Pyramus and Thysbe, he nods silently and departs without enthusiasm (ord. 1.8.24). And although we are told that he will provide a versified edition of Augustine’s fable about Philosophy and Philocaly, we never see or hear of a final draft (c. Ac. 2.3.7). Less than ten years later, around 395 a.d., Licentius sends Augustine a poem he has written as a cry for help and guidance. The composition is not only mediocre in its execution but strange in its content.13 Licentius professes to be united to Augustine by the same Christian faith, but his poem is syncretistic in its fusion of pagan imagery and Christian doctrine. God the Father is called “the governor of Olympus” (v. 27) and “the father of the gods” (v. 34), while Christ is “our Apollo” (v. 33) and “the illustrious offspring of thundering [End Page 28] Jove” (v. 44)—this at a point in history when Latin Christians were generally wary of adopting pagan religious terminology.14 The poem frequently refers to Augustine as a friend and teacher but, again in a breach of Christian protocol, makes no deferential acknowledgement of his priestly ordination, which occurred in 391 a.d.

Licentius is still trying, with only limited success, to appropriate the style and motifs of classical literature, while the Christian imagination has hardly penetrated him. In short, he is still beholden to the authority of the poets. We are therefore hardly surprised that, even though Licentius disavows a love of wealth and glory (vv. 106–111), Augustine takes up his pen “with a sad and pitiful heart” (Ep. 26.6) to tell his former student that because of the latter’s aversion to the “shackles of wisdom,” he is still “most dangerously shackled” to worldly and mortal things (Ep. 26.2). Lamenting Licentius’s “inflexibility, excessiveness, and imperviousness,” Augustine reminds him that the love of wisdom springing from a morally rectified soul is superior to poetic excellence (Ep. 26.4). “What is your golden tongue to me,” he writes, “when your heart is iron?” (Ep. 26.4).

Licentius, then, never rises to the challenge of successfully reconciling the allure of poetry with the vocation of philosophy, which is a shame. His own failure, however, need not be a forecast of the reader’s. Just as followers of Plato’s Republic may be converted to the philosophical life despite the ostensible intransigence of characters like Glaucon and Adeimantus, so too may the readers of the Cassiciacum dialogues, learning from Licentius’s mistakes, subordinate their love of the Muses to that of Lady Wisdom, thereby gaining the riches of both. Yet that gain can be accomplished only by resisting the temptation to read Augustine’s dialogues as a univocal treatise in which character, setting, plot, and—above all—the ironies to which these elements give rise have no bearing upon meaning. Facta non verba, as the Romans used to say. With its literary interplay between speech and action, Augustine’s own dialogic poesis is his ultimate and most eloquent answer at Cassiciacum to the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. [End Page 29]

Michael P. Foley
Baylor University


1. See Augustine, Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), 7.1.1, 7.9.13–16.22; hereafter cited in the text by book, chapter, and paragraph numbers.

2. Plato, Republic 10.607b; hereafter abbreviated Rep. All translations of the Republic are taken from Allan Bloom’s The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968); hereafter abbreviated Bloom.

3. For the sake of brevity I am offering a truncated summary of a complex topic. For a more robust account, see Patrick Downey, Serious Comedy: The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001); hereafter abbreviated Downey.

4. Augustine, De ordine 2.12.27, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, XXIX, ed. W. M. Green and K. D. Daur (Turnhout: Brepols, 1970); hereafter abbreviated ord. All translations of Latin in this essay are mine.

5. See Augustine, Contra Academicos 1.1.4, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, XXIX, ed. W. M. Green and K. D. Daur (Turnhout: Brepols, 1970); hereafter abbreviated c. Ac.

6. Both the love of wisdom and the love of theatrical or narrative spectacle begin in wonder, which is why Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, compares “philosophical wonder to fascination with mythic narrative. In both the wisdom-lover (φιλόσοφός) and myth-lover (φιλόμυθος) the critical psychological condition is recognition of ignorance (1.2.982b17–19)” (David H. Calhoun, “Entranced by the Spectacle of Truth: Wonder, Mystery, and Philosophical Film,” unpublished). Similarly, Socrates in Plato’s Republic calls true philosophers those who love the spectacle of truth (Rep. 5.475e). Nevertheless, the danger of “myth-loving” is that this form of wonder will distract someone from the wonder that leads to wisdom loving (see Rep. 5.475d).

7. Seneca makes a similar point when he speaks of the moral ordering of one’s soul as more important than harmonious ordering in music: “You teach me how the treble and bass are in accord with each other and how a harmony is produced from the different notes of the strings. Instead, make it so that my soul is in harmony with itself, and let not my plans be out of tune. You show me what the sorrowful keys are. Instead, show me how to refrain from making a sorrowful sound in the midst of adversity” (Epistle 88.9, from Seneca: Epistles 66–92 (Loeb No. 76), ed. Richard Gummere [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920], my translation).

8. John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), chapter 3, §3.2, p. 231.

9. Inolita, from inolescere (to grow in or implant), is a curious choice that I suspect was motivated in part for its comic effect.

10. “That pleasure-monger … gleefully embraces atoms in the dark as if they were his very own petite chambermaids, that is, minute bodies” (Iste luxuriosus … atomos quasi ancillulas suas, id est corpuscular … in tenebris laetus amplectitur). Significantly, ancillula, a young female slave or serving maid, which I have translated as “petite chambermaid,” is a word common in Roman comedy (Plautus, Casina 2.2.21, Menaechmi 2.2.66, Miles Gloriosus 3.1.99, 3.3.38, 4.1.41, 4.3.40; Terence, Heautontimorumenos 2.3.11, 2.3.52, Eunuchus 1.2.86, Phormio 4.3.60, 5.5.10). [End Page 30]

11. See Thomas More, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, in the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 6, part 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), p. 69.

12. For more on farces in Roman theater, see Tenney Frank, Life and Literature in the Roman Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), pp. 126–29.

13. That said, it was memorable enough for Boethius to recall Licentius’s poem in prison and to incorporate its opening stanza in the Consolation of Philosophy. See Danuta Shanzer, “Arcanum Varronis Iter: Licentius’ Verse Epistle to Augustine,” Revue des Études Augustiniennes 37 (1991):142.

14. In the fourth century, Latin-speaking Christians were more selective and careful in their appropriation of pagan religious terms than in later ages, as the old religion was still around as a viable threat. Once the gods were thoroughly dead, Christians could afford to be freer in their use of pagan Latin diction. Even though Augustine himself later regrets some of his nods to pagan mythology in the Cassiciacum dialogues (Retractations 1.3.2), those nods amount to little in comparison with Licentius’s eclectic poem. For more on the changes in Christian attitude to pagan religious terminology, see Ernest L. Fortin, “Translatio Studii,” in Ever Ancient, Ever New: Ruminations on the City, the Soul, and the Church: Collected Essays of Ernest L. Fortin, vol. 4, ed. Michael P. Foley (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), pp. 85–91.

Note: This essay was written prior to the publication of Joseph Pucci’s Augustine’s Virgilian Retreat (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2014). Pucci argues that the word poetica in the Cassiciacum dialogues signifies not poetry (as I have translated it) but poetics; that is, the study of poetry as part of a liberal arts education (see Pucci, p. 59). Although Pucci perhaps takes his thesis too far, his work is a helpful complement and in some respects corrective to what I offer here. Ultimately, I believe that our central conclusions are compatible. Augustine is not opposed to poetry per se, to Virgilian poetry, or to poetics as Pucci defines it. Rather, Augustine is seeking ways of making all of these “lower goods” useful to the soul’s higher quest, and he is desirous of teaching his pupils and his readers to do the same. [End Page 31]