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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Jeffrey Lehman Of Hillsdale On St. Augustine’s Confessions

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HH: It is that hour of the week, the last hour of my radio week in which I am joined by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of his colleagues who happens to be Dr. Jeffrey Lehman today, when we do the Hillsdale Dialogues. And every one of the dialogues we’ve done for the past two years is available at or at There is also link at Dr. Arnn, Dr. Lehman, welcome. Larry let me begin with you. It’s an appropriate day to talk about Augustine, I say it always wrong, I chop it up, because today, the Supreme Court gave the Little Sisters of the Poor some relief from Obamacare. So interestingly enough, we were talking about religious liberty in the Supreme Court case today, and we’re talking about, really, one of the great doctors of the Church who even made us understand why religious liberty would be important. Do you expect the Little Sisters of the Poor to beat back the state?

LA: I pray so, and I don’t know whether I expect so or not. It’s a big question, and we talked about this before. In some ways, it’s the big question, because the government, the administrative state is so comprehensive and so intrusive that the question is what is the scope that remains for the exercise of private conscience, especially freedom of religion? And you know, there was a conference at the Center For American Progress, which was founded by the new White House Counsel, John Podesta, back in November. And the claims were made by many of the speakers, according to a report by a Hillsdale graduate who works for the Washington Examiner, that they think that the claims of religious freedom should give way before many of these things that are in Obamacare, that are a cloak for bigotry, and they interfere with people’s fundamental rights. In other words, religious freedom is interfering with fundamental rights. So I think that’s the argument, and one watched with baited breath what they’re going to do.

HH: Dr. Lehman, before we dive into the biography and background of the great doctor, tell me a little bit about what you think of the proposition I heard put this morning by a Biola professor, Dr. Scott Waller, that the reason religion is under assault in America is because belief has been downgraded. It’s no longer considered to be knowledge, and religion is now considered to be an impediment to knowledge, and indeed, a divisive, coercive force in America. Does that resonate with you?

JL: It really does. I think, though, especially the note that belief is downgraded, it’s no longer considered something that one can know, but something that one does with one’s private time, and separated from the real business of learning, and of knowledge. And I think that’s crucial, and I think that’s definitely a good way of putting it.

HH: Now I want to give people your background. You’re an assistant professor of education at Hillsdale College. You teach classes on logic and rhetoric. You received your undergraduate degree from Taylor University in Indiana, your doctorate from the University of Dallas, your Masters from the aforementioned Biola. You’ve been teaching in the Biola Honors Institute, at Thomas Aquinas College, and you are the director of the Arts and Liberty Project. What is that?

JL: Well, the Arts and Liberty Project, it’s primarily an online resource. It’s a huge toolbox for those who study the liberal arts and are engage in liberal education. Really, it’s aimed principally at teachers, but anyone who is interested can go on there and find all kinds of materials ranging from things on the basic liberal arts, grammar, logic, rhetoric and the quadrivial arts as well – arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, right on through the development of the disciplines, through the great books, and philosophy and theology being at the center of the whole thing. So it’s intended for anyone who wants to develop their knowledge. And feel free to have a look.

HH: Now are you telling me both, or I’ll ask Dr. Arnn this, I’m going to have one of your numbers as my summer intern, Jack Butler. Is he going to come equipped with astronomy in his backpack? I mean, will he know something of the stars?

JL: Yeah, well, two things. Online, we do have a complete course in astronomy that takes one through Ptolemy, and then on into the developments in modern astronomy, in Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. And we have an advanced astronomy course in the works that will take everyone through Newton, basically, the basic, central argument in Newton’s Principia, and looking at the developments in not only astronomy, but physics as well.

HH: Well then, I’m going to hold you both to that. Butler had been be able to talk to me through…I can’t ever do any of that stuff. I can’t find the Big Dipper. All right, Now let’s get to the center attraction here. St. Augustine is a great doctor of the Church, and Professor Lehman, let’s start with you. Let’s put him in his place specifically in time and space. Where is he from? What years? What was his life like before he became a disembodied couple of the books that everyone ought to read?

JL: Sure, sure. Well, he was born in 354, died in 430, so that puts him right at the transition when the Roman Empire is falling and the Roman civilization that had been built up for centuries is disintegrating. It’s also the time of the rise of Christianity in the West. You have Constantine at that time, and so Augustine rally witnesses that transition, and not only does he witness it, but he provides a kind of a definitive answer to how you reconcile the claims of the classical and pagan world with the coming of this religion, Christianity, how to think about faith and reason, how to think about where Christians should stand with respect to both private and public matters of morality and politics.

HH: And his family background?

JL: His family background, his mother was, she was a devout Christian. His father was a pagan until basically on the deathbed, and he converted as well. So he came from a family that wasn’t exactly well to do, by any means, but they were Roman citizens, and they had been so for, I think, several generations, about a hundred years prior to Augustine, his birth. So he’s Roman, but he’s living in North Africa, and he basically was involved in the area near where Carthage is, which is in contemporary Tunisia, but he was over into the part of, called Africa, but it was in the Algeria area.

HH: Now he was educated for success. He was educated to be a Roman citizen-statesman. Dr. Larry Arnn, what would that entail?

LA: Well, he studied the classic authors. Especially, he studied Cicero. Also, it’s worth commenting, he was kind of a wastrel and a party boy, and had an illegitimate child, and his mother grieved over that. But also, as you say, he was educated for success, and he was very bright, and he read deeply the main writers of Rome, and mostly through them came to know the Greeks, Plato, especially, he admired very deeply, although not a lot of Plato was available to him. And so he, if you want to look at the main figure in his life that gave him information about the structure of great thought up to his time, that would be Cicero.

HH: And then he falls in with the Manicheans, Jeffrey Lehman. And would you tell people who they are and what they taught?

JL: Sure. The Manicheans were really a dualistic sect. That is they believed in an ongoing dualism between good and evil where neither the one nor the other could ultimately overcome its opponent. And it had a distinctively Christian kind of form, so they viewed themselves as a kind of gnostic superior version of Christianity that basically led people into a hidden knowledge of what really was the case, a way of reconciling what they took to be the low things, of things revealed in Scripture, in the Bible, and then reconciling them with their own philosophical and theological conceptions of things.

HH: And do you find that Manichaeist impulse still in society often popping up?

JL: It comes back again and again. Throughout the history of the West, there is a decision that, there’s a way of thinking about things that are higher and more removed from our contemporary everyday experience, and yeah, so it’s had several different forms throughout the Middle Ages, and then on into our own time as well.

HH: And remains dangerous every time?

JL: Undoubtedly.

LA: I want to add something there. People should see that this doctrine, which is very powerful and is recurrent, is also contradictory and stupid, and here’s why. If you identify two great equal original powers, and you call one of them good and one of them evil, the question arises how do you know one of them is good and one of them is evil? It implies some standard outside them by which you identify good or evil.

HH: Yes.

LA: In other words, why do you call the equally, originally equally strong one evil? And the answer is whatever that thing is outside them would have to be superior to at least one of them.

HH: Now that sounds so compelling and obvious. How did it trap Augustine and many others for centuries, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, because plausibility comes from another problem, and that is we human beings know the good, but we don’t always do it. And nature is a standard of good, and it’s full, not full, but it is replete with tragedy and crime and evil. And so how do you account for that? And Augustine writes a lot about that, and reaches a much higher understanding of that, something closer, though different to, the great philosophers who preceded him.

— – – – –

HH: Jeffrey, how do you learn to say it the right way? So many people say it the wrong way. How do you rhyme it in your mind?

JL: Well, I can’t think of a rhyme, but Augustine is the way that I would say that it is most common.

HH: It is Augustine, and I…

LA: Is there a month of the year?

HH: August…tine.

LA: There you go.

HH: See, then I’ll end up saying August-tin. That’s what I get trapped in. So I must tell you that I first encountered Confessions in my first week as an undergraduate handed out in a course in the Humanities Department at Harvard on autobiography, and lectured on for three or four weeks. And I had never seen Confessions before. They kept it from me in my Catholic high school. Why do you suppose they might have done that, Professor Lehman?

JL: Now that’s a good question. It’s actually one of the great masterpieces of that tradition of Catholic thought throughout the centuries. So why they would have kept it from you, I can’t even imagine.

HH: I think it’s because he was a wastrel. I think that it was sort of a license to go out and party. Tell us a little bit more of his life and how he came to faith before he writes the Confessions.

JL: Well, Augustine was one of those brave and courageous souls that was willing to really try to embrace life in every way he possibly could. He grew up in a family where of course, as I said before, his mother was a Christian, his father was a pagan. And a lot of the things that would have been expected for, I don’t know, a straight-laced religious household wouldn’t have been operative in his own case. I think that one of the things that he did was he basically sought truth wherever it could be found, and didn’t shy away from pleasure in any way, either, in his early years. So he involved himself in relationships, he had an ongoing relationship with a concubine, for instance, that lasted over a decade, I believe. But at any rate, he was a man that was constantly seeking. He was constantly looking out, and he wasn’t really afraid to check anywhere. So that led him down some very wrong paths.

HH: Dr. Arnn, I’m wondering if any of your young chargers, particularly any of your fraternity young men, have ever attempted a defense of bringing along a copy of the Confessions and laying it on your desk?

LA: (laughing) Well, they get stuck when they use the title of the book.

HH: (laughing) Okay, well, but nevertheless, it was quite a squalid life, and in fact, it began early on. And I’d actually like to start with the pears, Dr. Lehman, if you would tell that story, because I once wanted to title a book, Augustine’s Pears, and my publisher at the time, and my publisher now, Thomas Nelson, said no one will ever understand that, no. And they stopped me. But would you explain that episode?

JL: I sure would. Well, what Augustine does in the pear episode, and he goes into detail in describing it, he gives an account of what it’s like not only for him to fall into sin, but what it’s like for any human being to fall into sin. Now it should come fairly quickly to mind, he’s stealing fruit from a tree. This should resonate with a reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. So in a way, what he’s doing is representing in his biography, autobiography, that is, he’s representing in a way the fall of every man. And bound up in that account, which I think it’s beautiful, it’s one of the most beautiful elements in the whole of the Confessions, is his struggle with the nature of evil and how it first gains a foothold in one’s life, because you’re really choosing anything for the sake of a good. And there’s something deeply mysterious about evil, and he lets it remain mysterious as he gives an account of it. Now one of the things that’s interesting about that account is the kind of, well, he doesn’t name those people that are involved in this sin with him. And that follows a trend that is traced throughout the Confessions. In a way, if someone is leading him away from a truth, leading him away from goodness, they’re in a way leading him toward nothing. And so it has a very bare, Spartan way of expressing this whole experience. And he basically, in other words, he writes it in such a way to give that same kind of literary impression as he’s giving the theological impression.

HH: And Larry Arnn, how would you summarize this, if you would? I’m not sure that you want to.

LA: Well, the Confessions?

HH: No, the pears.

LA: Well, it is a story of temptation, right? And it’s a story, like the Genesis story, and it’s a story that concludes that the fruits are bitter.

HH: And that he did not want them, am I right, Professor Lehman, he did not want them because he was hungry?

JL: They didn’t even eat them. They threw them to pigs, it says, yes. So it was kind of a, just a delight in the doing of evil.

HH: That’s what I remember being taught, and it’s always stuck with me that the book is powerful because it begins with this account. He’s, how old is he when he does this?

JL: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t recall. I’d have to look that up.

LA: See, by the way, that part of it, that it’s the delight in the doing of evil, that’s connected to the longing for power, right? Wouldn’t it be great, I mean, everybody can think of this, wouldn’t it be great if you could just do whatever you wanted and it would work, and you would take nothing but pleasure in it, and your will was the measure of everything?

HH: Yes, actually.

LA: Yeah, you know, don’t you like the idea of that? And that’s, you know, as Augustine would say, yeah, and that means you’re fallen.

JL: Yes.

HH: Now up until this point, Jeffrey Lehman, has anyone written a book like this?

JL: Well, there have been many that have been imitators of Augustine, and they do so in different ways. Different majors writers in the tradition have in a way picked up on not only the autobiographical kind of tenor of Augustine’s Confessions, but a lot of its theological and philosophical content as well. And these range quite a bit. You can see the influence of Augustine in Boethius, for instance, his Constellation Of Philosophy. You also see it in Dante’s Divine Comedy. There are a couple of very clear kind of nuanced references to the Confessions there. And then you see it in something like Brideshead Revisited as well.

HH: How about Rousseau?

JL: Rousseau, yes, definitely. That, in some ways, a kind of an anti-Confessions, if you will.

HH: And so, but he’s the first, right, the saint who is the first to attempt it?

JL: Really, yeah. Yeah, he’s doing something that’s really brand new.

HH: And so Larry Arnn, when do the Hillsdale undergraduates get this book?

LA: Well, it’s in the great books core course. You encounter the Confessions in the first term, so we don’t, we’ve changed the core a little bit so it’s not so rigid, the order of it. But typically, by the end of the sophomore year, you will have taken the history and great books core courses, all four of them, and so you will have come, you will have done it before then, and most of them in the freshman year, and most of them in the first term.

HH: And so the question to you, Dr. Lehman, why teach the Confessions?

JL: Well, the nice thing about being in a place like Hillsdale, every student gets some exposure to the Confessions. But you can read the Confessions again and again and again, and each time, you see things you missed before. He speaks to the perennial issues of human nature. He speaks to the nature of God, of His relationship to human beings, of what it means to be a human being, of how we relate things like our pleasures and our desires to higher things. So he speaks to us as humans in a way that transcends time.

— – – – –

HH: So Dr. Lehman, I’m going to go back to you. You could just throw The City Of God at them, hit them in the head, and they’ll be out for a couple of weeks. But you start them on the Confessions. What do you hope your student walks away from, at a minimum, having read this book?

JL: At a minimum, for them to reflect on their own life, to think about what it means to be a human being, to consider the powers that human beings have, what does it means to have an intellect, and to have an informed intellect. What does it mean to have a will, and to exercise one’s choice freely? These are fundamental questions for us all, and I think it puts us on a good footing to get the most out of the Western tradition and our exposure to it that you get at Hillsdale College.

HH: How do you get that out of this book, though? This is a book of a wasted life redeemed. It’s a book of Monica’s faithfulness and Ambrose…

JL: Yeah.

HH: I mean, there’s a lot of interesting episodes. We mentioned the pears. But how do you get all of that stuff out of this book?

LA: Well, it redeemed, right? And the other thing is young people are passionate, you know? They like their bodies, and their bodies are in really good shape. And so the life of the passions is shown in the book to be inadequate or worse. And so, and it’s shown somebody who lived that life. And so you know, to read the book seriously, first of all, you can’t really read the book seriously if you’ve given yourself over to the life of passion. You’ve got to have some doubts about it, or you’re not going to have the discipline to read it.

HH: Ah.

LA: So it is an instruction, of course, and remember the title, right? This is not stories of my good time.

HH: You know, this week, I interviewed Robert Gates, yesterday, as a matter of fact, for two hours.

LA: Oh.

HH: And his book, Duty, is a series of confessions, including his, I can’t think of another word, contempt for Vice President Joe Biden. But he didn’t tell us before the election. And I asked him why he hadn’t, because the confession of Biden’s inadequacy might have been assistance to us. Are confessions, Dr. Lehman, good things generally in public? Or ought they best be reserved for, in the Roman Catholic tradition, the confessional, or other traditions, the inner self?

JL: Oh, good question. Well, I think it depends on the nature of the confessions that you’re talking about. One of the things that we find in Augustine’s Confessions is that he employs that word in many different meanings. There are two principal meanings that he is drawing on from the Book of Psalms. He wrote extensively on the Psalms, hundreds and hundreds of pages. It’s his longest work of all of his works. And there are two principal uses of confession there. One is a confession of praise. In fact, that’s the way the Confessions itself begins. Great are you, Lord, and greatly to be praised. The other, of course, is the notion of confession of sin, and it seems that if you read the Confessions itself carefully, you find that on the one hand, first of all, he’s engaged in both those kinds of confessions. He’s very transparent, and he’s very open about sharing things that happened in his own life in terms of things that need to be confessed. But also, I think it helps one to see how one can then move into knowing what to do in terms of confession in, say, maybe a sacramental context of confession for a Catholic, for instance. He is a bishop, right? He’s writing as a bishop. And so in a certain way, he’s even teaching the faithful when he’s confessing his own sins how they can confess theirs.

HH: Now it’s a tricky thing, memoir, Dr. Larry Arnn. You can’t really trust them on the face, can you?

LA: Well, the answer is no, but that’s just a form of the same problem how do you believe what people say? And you do it by knowing them, and estimating the quality and consistency of what they say, and sensibleness of what they say. And so you know, Augustine is an incredibly important man, and for things that we’re probably not going to get to very much today, but what do you make of free will and predestination? Augustine breaks ground on that question. How can there be an omnipotent and omniscient God who knows what we’re going to do before we do it, and yet us be free to do it? How do you solve that problem in a world in which a Savior has been born that is understood to be the proper God for every human being, and yet on the other hand, does not set up a polity? How’s that going to work? Another thing, how can we justify the condition we have here on Earth in light of the promise of Heaven, where all, everything, including all relationships, are perfect? That’s what Augustine writes hugely about that in the context of the fall of Rome.

— – – – –

HH: Gentlemen, I’m going to go back to the question I asked Dr. Arnn before we went to break. I’ll ask it at Dr. Lehman. You know, Augustine’s obviously a pretty smart guy, and he’s very ambitious by his own confession in Confessions, and he’s very smart, and he’s got to figure out that this Manichaeas business is a dead end, the Church is rising, if he wants to get ahead in the Church, he’s got to…how do we believe that it’s all sincere and he really believes this as opposed to that he’s just working the angles?

JL: Sure, yeah, good question. Well, that is one thing that’s been charged of Augustine, and I think really, the only answer to that is to read the Confessions carefully and see what we think on that score. It seems to me that the reasons that he gives for the different transitions in his life, they ring true. He doesn’t seem to be hiding anything. He doesn’t seem to be covering anything over. So for instance, why is he drawn to Manichean thought for so long? He says himself that it’s one thing to be seeking what is true, and to try to understand what is good and right. It’s another to live that way. It’s another to embrace with your will the right thing to do. And one of the things that he says of himself, confessing in the book, is that one of the lures of Manichean thought is that it takes you off the hook. If you have within you these principles of good and evil that are constantly at war, then it’s really not you that is responsible for your own actions, for your own sin. And that was a very tempting and alluring kind of way of looking at reality. And he played with that for quite some time. And there are other reasons, too, why he thought the Manicheans were a kind of, well, an intellectually more sophisticated version of what the Christian faith had to offer, because they weren’t willing to countenance things like anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament, God having a hand and so forth. And they also were willing to kind of expunge elements from both the Old and the New Testament that didn’t seem to square immediately with their philosophical presuppositions. So in a way, it was kind of a highbrow version, if you will, and intellectually sophisticated version of Christianity. And I think that principally, that, both in terms of its appeal to his pride, and also its letting him off the hook in terms of his will, those are the kind of the two principal reasons why he was duped by it for such a long time.

HH: Now Dr. Larry Arnn, if we believe Augustine’s account, he heard a voice as he struggled with the deficiencies of Manichaeism, say to him take and read, take and read, and he picked up Scripture and he read a verse, and he’d been previously instructed by some pretty great theologians, and it changed his life, and of course, St. Monica is the background praying for him every single day. Do you believe that account?

LA: Well, this whole question of, yes, I do, and this whole question of believing Augustine, as I say, how do you believe anybody? First of all, if he was working some trick to serve his ambition to become a bishop, wow, what a trick. And people have become bishops a lot easier than that.

JL: Yeah.

LA: All he did was write these great books. And so you know, I have others I prefer after Augustine about this subject of Christianity and the relation between the temporal world and the relationship between the great thought, pre-Christian, than Augustine. But that’s a huge thing for me to say, because Augustine is incredible. I mean, what an achievement these things are.

HH: Yeah.

LA: I mean, he, you know, one of the things he did was for centuries after him, his criticism of Rome as a polity and its functioning, replaced the great Roman authors, you know, Livy and especially Virgil, as Rome being this great achievement. And he replaced the Christian apologist who had said that Rome prepared the way for Christianity by uniting the world. And he’s an extremely powerful influence in our thinking up to this day, especially on some questions I mentioned a minute ago. So you know, he was this wastrel who was very ambitious, and he just, and so all he really did when he wrote The City Of God was work a trick to become a bishop? That’s like killing a gnat with a cannon.

HH: Dr. Lehman, next week, we’re going to get to The City Of God. I’m just curious, though, if you agree, there’s that famous ad campaign, Tom Bodett, I’ll leave the light on for you. Did St. Augustine leave the light on for the West with the Confessions and all that he wrote for the world that is collapsing around for him?

JL: Could you be more specific in terms of what you mean exactly?

HH: That the Dark Ages, the barbarians were literally at the gate, right?

JL: Yes.

HH: They crashed in, and the West goes out for a long, long time after he writes.

JL: Yes. Well, he laid the groundwork for developments not only in theology, but in history and in philosophy that will sustain the West for centuries. The City Of God was considered the work on what has been called the theology of history, the philosophy of history, political philosophy, for a thousand years.

HH: And can you understand those ideas and that work and his other works without reading the Confessions first?

JL: Well, you’re going to obviously get some, but I think that The City Of God and Confessions are really in a certain way meant to be read together. They follow a similar kind of trajectory. Augustine begins the Confessions with an account of his own life, but by the end of it, he’s taken up into the whole body of Christ, and he looks forward into eternity from there. That, in a way, traces the personal trajectory, putting Augustine within the context of salvation history, and then on a parallel track, examines carefully what the city of man is, what the city of God is, and how they relate to one another on a more global and political level in City Of God.

HH: And we’ll get there next week. A 30 second closing comment, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, you know, the people who hear this should think there’s some real wisdom here. And these books are actually, they’re complicated, but they’re fun to read. And there’s some passage in them that’ll make you giggle, and also make you think about yourself.

HH: Confessions is that book. Next week, into The City Of God with Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Jeffrey Lehman of Hillsdale College. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues available at, or at There’s also a link at

End of interview.


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