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Teaching Physics in Late Antiquity

Stevie Hull

Brown University

It is well known that Augustine’s dialogue De ordine deals with questions of metaphysics. This text treats the problem of evil: how a good God can govern a world which is perfectly ordered and yet contains disorder. Augustine’s engagement with metaphysics is bolstered by references to Cicero’s De natura deorum. Moreover, at the end of this dialogue is a speech on reason’s ascent through the liberal arts which is replete with Plotinian language on ascent from the sensible to the intelligible. And yet, the scope of Augustine’s engagement with the “canonical” content of ancient physics and metaphysics has gone unnoticed. 

One reason for this is that Augustine makes little mention of the main subjects of this tradition, namely, the physical cosmos and its relation to God and the soul. But De ordine’s place in Augustine’s biographical narrative has also had an outsized influence on the way it is read. Augustine wrote De ordine as a record of the philosophical retreat he took in the fall of 386 CE, between his conversion to Christianity and his baptism at Milan. As such, many readers have approached the dialogue with a lens which privileges the notion that it is an exploratory attempt at reconciling his newfound faith with his philosophical education. Such readings often to downplay the extent to which Augustine locates himself within that philosophical tradition.

In this paper, I argue that De ordine is a sophisticated and methodical presentation of the major themes of treatises on physics in Hellenistic and Neoplatonic texts, and particularly those whose authors vie to be seen as Platonis aemuli, that is, the inheritors of Platonic authority. De ordine constitutes much more than a tentative exploration of Christian metaphysics. It is Augustine’s own program of an introductory education in physics: one in which he competes with his models for status as a Platonis aemulus, an inheritor of a tradition which includes what we might call a “curriculum” of topics in physics. As such, De ordine is worth reading both for our understanding of Augustine’s background in physics, and as evidence for the teaching of physics in late antiquity.

In the first part of the paper, I locate De ordine within the tradition of the Platonis aemuli. It belongs to a corpus which follows the “ascent narrative” evident in the orderings of Platonic dialogues developed by Plato’s successors. Augustine treats the major topics related to the physical cosmos--motion, time, and the stars--by associating characters and scenes of the dialogues with these features. He covertly makes the three arguments for the immortality of the soul which derive from Plato’s Phaedo. The hiddenness of this material enacts the topos of the cosmos' obscurity.

In the second part of the paper, I argue that Augustine’s incorporation of Christian elements into this physics represents a philosophical competition with Plotinus’ and Cicero’s models of the same. This paper is part of a larger project in which I argue that Augustine’s early dialogues in toto represent a systematic program of philosophical rhetoric.

Session/Panel Title

Education

Session/Paper Number

27.6

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