“Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” –T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”
To be modern is to have many appetites with few or no ultimate aims. The modern “will” then turns into a mass of incoherent desires all competing for priority in our lives and on our phones. For classical authors such as Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), however, every human appetite necessarily corresponds to some virtuous aim for human nature. Our natural desire to know—especially relevant for education—needs thoroughgoing training and ongoing rehabilitation if it is to move from natural curiosity (inquisitio) into what Augustine calls the virtue of love for learning (amor studentium). For Augustine, the human psyche is a complex force of intellect, memory, and will, and he is unique among classical authors in putting the will in the driver’s seat—the place where reason and desire combine in shaping one’s choices and, ultimately, life.
The work of education then, in Augustine’s mind, is the work of first inciting our innate appetite for finding things out (inquisitio), building on what is there, and generating new desire where there is dullness. Next, the central habits that inculcate the virtue of love for study are patience, attention, perseverance, ability to delay gratification, and, most importantly, new delight in discovering some aspect of the truth of the subject under consideration. As the appetite is refined, its motivations for learning are too: from baser motives of fear, approval, shame, dominance, reputation, etc. to delight in seeking and finding truth for its own sake. This kind of joy sets one on a new trajectory, freeing one inwardly from addiction to the low-hanging fruits of consumptive curiosity (infotainment). A life that is trained to enjoy discovering truth is a life with a new form of contentment.
Cultivation of our natural appetite for knowing results in new striving, or “willing” that stretches the learner’s affections to embrace the knowledge received about the subject. Humans never learn in a vacuum. Our discovery of facts is never divorced from appreciation of their value. To learn about something requires that we love it first in this basic sense: we give our attention long enough, and stretch our minds and memories diligently enough, to be impressed by it. Even as we learn to make intellectual judgments about the truth of things, we are making moral judgments about their value in the grand scheme of things and in the architecture of our own lives. Even in elementary biology, a child is simultaneously impressed by the wonder of frogs, their value in the great web of things, and an appreciation of frogs in relation to one’s own sense of the world. For some, this affection will play a much more constitutive role than for others, as in the case of the budding wildlife biologist.
Augustine’s view of the interwovenness of affection and intellect in the will has consequences for the way we organize our classes—understanding a subject has as much to do with content as it does with atmosphere (the material conditions, relationships, and virtues enacted). For Augustine, the difficult work of learning is as much knowledge (scientia) as love (caritas): getting students to pay attention to and care about the right things at the right time and in the right order.
The virtue of love for learning (amor studentium) has consequences for the community of learners and society more broadly. The natural appetite for finding things out (inquisitio) is too easily satisfied with sound-bytes, search engines, social media, snap judgments, and either-ors. Cultivating the virtue of love for study shapes the way students approach other challenging, unyielding subjects in life, including the complex cultural and political views of their neighbors. Love of study, finally, is a species of the virtue of intellectual humility: a combination of firm commitment to the existence of an independent truth and critical awareness of one’s own intellectual limits and charitable predisposition to the views of others.
Without a guiding vision of the human person—and the way that our natural appetites for knowing can be refined and reframed in the formation of a whole life—education will perish. Education’s first and last questions ought to be: What is the end of our natural appetite for knowing? And what does this desire say about us and the world we find ourselves in?
Dr. Joseph Clair serves as the executive dean of the Cultural Enterprise and an associate professor of theology and culture at George Fox University ( Newberg, OR ). His research and teaching interests include Christian thought and ethics and the role of religion in public life. He is the author of Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine (Oxford UP, 2016) and Reading Augustine: On Education, Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning (Bloomsbury, 2018).