But why did I hate the Greek language so much, which I studied as a boy? I do not yet fully know the answer. For I loved the Latin; not what my first masters taught me, but what the so-called grammarians teach. For those first lessons, reading, writing, and arithmetic, I thought as great a burden and punishment as any Greek studies. And yet where did all this come from, too, but from the sin and vanity of this life, because I was but flesh and a breath that passes away and does not come again. For those primary lessons were better, certainly, because they were more certain. By them I obtained and still retain the ability to read what I find written, and the ability to write what I will. On the other hand, I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas, forgetful of my own, and to weep for Dido, dead because she killed herself for love; while at the same time with dry eyes, I brooked my wretched self dying among these things, far from You, O God of my life.
What is more wretched than a wretch who does not pity himself, weeping over the death of Dido for her love of Aeneas, but shedding no tears over his own death in not loving You, O God, Light of my heart, Bread of my inmost soul, Power that weds my mind with my inmost thought? I did not love you, and I committed fornication against You, and all those around me who were doing the same, echoed, “Well done! Well done!” for the friendship of this world is fornication against You, and, “Well done! Well done!” echoes on till one is ashamed not to be such a man. And for all this I did not weep, though I wept for Dido, slain as she sought death by the point of a sword, myself seeking the extremest and lowest level of Your creatures, having forsaken You, earth sinking to earth. And if I were forbidden to read all this, I grieved that I was not allowed to read what grieved me. Madness like this is considered more honorable and more fruitful learning than that by which I learned to read and write.
But now, my God, shout aloud in my soul and let Your truth tell me, “It is not so! Far better was that first study!” For I would rather forget the wanderings of Aeneas and all such things than how to read and write. Over the entrance of the Grammar School a veil is hung, it is true, but this is not so much a sign of honor of the mysteries taught in them as a covering for error. Let not those whom I no longer fear cry out against me while I confess whatever my soul desires to You, my God, and let them agree in the condemnation of my evil ways, that I may love Your good ways. Let neither buyers nor sellers of grammar education cry out against me. For if I question them as to whether Aeneas came once to Carthage, as the poet tells, the less learned will reply that they do not know; the more learned, that he never did. But if I ask with what letters the name “Aeneas” is written, everyone who has learned this will answer me rightly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have settled on as to these signs. If, again, I ask which might be forgotten with the least detriment to the concerns of life – reading and writing, or these poetic fictions, who does not foresee what all must answer who have not wholly forgotten themselves? I erred then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to the more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. “One and one are two; two and two are four.” This to me was a hateful sing-song; but such vanities as the wooden horse full of armed men and the burning of Troy and the “spectral image” Creusa were a most pleasant but vain spectacle.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve realized that I need to be very careful about what I watch and read. All too often I’d find myself engrossed in a book so much that I could barely put it down during the day – and then would dream about it at night besides. Or I’d get started on a TV show or two, and before I knew it, my whole weekly plan was made around being home to watch those shows. And at night, there I was again, laying in bed, thinking about the characters, reviewing the plot in my head, imagining what I’d do if I were them. Augustine too seems to have struggled with this as he tells of his weeping for Dido, the tragic character in the Aeneid, who falls in love with Aeneas but, upon his leaving for Italy, kills herself on his sword.
When this happened to me, I was generally reading good books and watching good tv shows. There was nothing immoral or “bad” about them, but they were taking up hours of my life, not to mention the emotional and psychological involvement. In the same way, the Aeneid is a great and classic piece of literature that is considered required reading in most schools (or at least, it used to be). The trouble, as Augustine so clearly tells us, is that he allowed himself to become emotionally vested in a fictional story while, at the same time, neglecting his spiritual growth.
See, the problem for me wasn’t the books or the tv shows, any more than, for Augustine, it was the Aeneid. Reading is a great thing to do, and there’s nothing wrong with watching a little tv, but when we find ourselves so involved with the characters that they start to live in our heads and we have emotional reactions to them, it might be time to re-evaluate their importance in our lives.
Also, when I talk to my kids about this, I tell them that it’s fine to watch a little tv or spend a little time on the computer, but how much is too much? They could be watching really good and wholesome, even educational, programs, or they could be playing good games that teach good decision making skills – all really good things – but what aren’t they doing? If they are spending 3, 4, or 5 hours in front of the tv or computer, or even engrossed in a book, they aren’t outside playing, they aren’t using their imagination to come up with their own stories, they aren’t being creative and building things.
In the same way, if I spend my day (and subsequently, my night) wrapped in the plot of some novel, or if I am so consumed by a character that I find myself rewriting the story in my mind and spending hours analyzing their motives, what am I not doing with that time? Would my time be better spent with a book about the Saints? At the very least, do I spend an equal amount of time in prayer or in contemplating God and His wonderful blessings in my life? What if, instead of planning my week around which tv shows I was going to watch, I would have planned it around times to volunteer with my church at a soup kitchen or around a devotional meeting?
Augustine hits on a common plight in the human condition. We are all wired with this empty spot inside of us. All or lives we seek to fill it. All too often, it gets filled with the wrong things. For most of us it’s tv shows, books, computer games, but for some it’s shopping, gambling, alcohol, or drugs. Augustine slipped into a life or promiscuity. All of these things seem like the answer, and all of them seem like they will fit, giving us a momentary thrill, a stirring in our heart, but none of them do, none of them last. Nothing will ever fill that hole except for the One it was designed for; nothing will bring us happiness until we look outside of the pleasures of this world and, instead, seek the God Who loves us and cares for us. Then, and only then, can we be completely happy.
Deo Juvante, Jen