Augustine, Patron of Quitting Academia

It’s Augustine’s feast day! I sometimes joke that I’m the only Catholic feminist in the world who likes Paul, but I think there are at least a few more of us out there — possibly? But I really may be the only Catholic feminist who likes Augustine. [1] I appreciate his drama-queen intensity, his radical curiosity about why human beings are the way we are, the intimate generosity and intelligence of the sermons he spent much of his life giving to a bunch of extremely ordinary Christians in a podunk town. Since he’s safely dead and not actually staying up all night arguing on friends of friends’ facebook pages, I can even find it kind of charming and relatable how he absolutely could not deal with people being wrong on the internet.

I have to say, though, that despite having read a fair amount of Augustine in graduate school, I didn’t really find all that much personal resonance with him until I spent a lot of my last year in a full-time academic position going over Confessions with a fine-toothed comb with a bunch of college students. I chose this as a central course text not really for itself, but because I wanted to spend the last part of this particular class reading Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness, and I thought it would be interesting also to take a page from others’ syllabi and add Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.a.a.d. city to the mix. It was! But when you teach texts unexpected things happen, and one big thing that happened to me in that class was that I discovered, during a year when I was wrestling with my own career and life decisions, that while Confessions is a lot of things, it’s also–and maybe even primarily–a book-length explanation for why Augustine left his academic career.

Reading Confessions as quit lit helped me work through my own feelings, but it also, I think, illuminates Augustine’s own understanding of his conversion in a way that seems surprisingly underplayed in the absolutely vast popular and scholarly literature on this book, relative to its importance in the text. There’s been, of course, a lot of focus on what he says about his own sexuality as a barrier to his conversion, and lately considerable attention given to Confessions’s Manichaean audience. Augustine leaves no doubt that the former was a Big Deal, and clearly the text does also operate as an extended anti-Manichaean polemic. But the spine of the nine “autobiographical” books is Augustine’s journey through the elite education system of his day, from his introduction into it as a young boy to his exit from it on the eve of his baptism, when he resigns from his teaching post in Milan.

Since Confessions was written around the time of Augustine’s re-introduction to the wider world of letters after a decade’s absence, and clearly in large part to justify what he had been up to that whole time, it’s possible to read it as the first entry in a long line of what Megan Garber calls “humblebrag quit lit.” And that’s reasonable: Augustine is at great pains to point out that he definitely did not have any issues with his CV; he “gave notice to the citizens of Milan that they would need to get another peddler of palaver for their students” (9.13). [2]

But to me, it’s more useful to focus on the very real pain Augustine expresses about his life in academia. Let me drop a few quotes on you. The first few books are devoted to how he got onto the path he was on in the first place:

“I testify to you, my God, about the things I was praised for by people whose approval meant a respectable life for me” (1.30).

What he’s praised for, of course, is being good at school. In fact he’s so good that eventually his aspirational provincial dad sends him to college in the big city, and he (follow me here) gets a PhD in comp-rhet and one of those term contract gigs where you’re technically employed full time but constantly applying for the next year’s work, which is probably going to be in another city a lengthy sea voyage away.

What do you have to do to achieve a respectable life?

“During those years,” Augustine tells us, “I taught the science of rhetoric and, subjugated by my own greed, I kept my garrulity–though it was designed to subjugate others–on the auction block…” (4.2). And that’s pretty famililar, right? Postdocs, VAPs…. At each new institution you construct new classes, a time consuming process even if you have taught the subjects before, let alone if you haven’t. Simultaneously, you work on publishing (not for money, but for “glory”). And finally, at just about the time you’re unpacking books in your new office in August, you have to start working on job applications for the following year, a process that is unlikely to let up until late spring, perhaps just in time for you to pack up and send on the same books. What if you’re a little more successful and land a tenure-track job at a school that doesn’t have enough money to really get by and students that aren’t very good? Then you also start applying again pretty quickly, trying to move to a better job within a few years before you get stuck permanently where you are.

To continue to succeed, in other words, you have to be constantly trying to leave the place and the people you are supposedly serving. This is a process that may or may not leave you with “a respectable life,” but certainly leaves you with other things: grief for all the things you leave behind and leave undone, for example. Fear that you will be judged unworthy.

Augustine’s own position apparently gets significantly more secure as he becomes better known. But he still makes multiple moves in pursuit of better gigs, defined as more prestigious, better paid, and with better students: “My reason for going to Rome wasn’t the greater earning power or the greater prestige promised me by the friends who were recommending the move–though that sort of thing, at the time, also had a hold on my mind. Rather, the biggest reason, and almost the only one, was that I kept hearing that there the young men pursued their education more peacefully….” (5.14).

As Augustine tells it, he pursued his academic career as a person made by God but twisted by unredeemed original sin. All of his gifts–“speed in understanding and sharpness in discernment” (4.29)–and good desires–to seek truth and educate others–end up worse than useless because he’s not using them in the right way.

But–and this is critical–the sinfulness he’s talking about here is not just a matter of him personally being messed up. It’s about how the entire academic system warps and bends the situation so that it becomes a heroic act of virtue to use what should be easily and rightly ordered towards God in any kind of good way.

Nowadays we call this kind of situation a “structure of sin,” and one of Augustine’s most famous passages encapsulates how it works.

I had an openmouthed fixation on professional distinctions, moneymaking, and marriage, and you were laughing at me the whole time. I experienced very bitter difficulties in the pursuit of what I desired–and you were more provident the less you let what wasn’t you grow sweet to me…. And how you drove me to feel my misery on the actual day when I was preparing to deliver an encomium to the emperor, to include any number of lies, so that in the act of lying I could win the approval of those well aware of what I was doing. My heart was issuing furnace-blasts of anxiety over this assignment, and seething with the fever of the obsessive thoughts disintegrating me from within, as I passed down a street in Milan and noticed a destitute beggar. It wasn’t late in the day, but he’d had quite a few, it looked to me, and he was humorous and enjoying himself.

To the friends who were with me, I moaned in speaking of the many sufferings of our own insanity. In all our kinds of effort, like the effort straining me so badly now–when my longings sharply prodded me to drag along a load of my own unhappiness that was heaped up higher with the exhaustion of dragging it–we didn’t want anything but to reach a state of carefree enjoyment. That beggar had beaten us to it, and perhaps we were never going to arrive. Toward what he’d achieved already–which was evidently the enjoyment of a strictly time-bound happiness–with just a handful of small change he’d panhandled, I was taking a woefully winding course, advancing myself by paths that circled back on themselves. He didn’t have true joy, but I with all my bids for advancement was in quest of something much less real. He was enjoying himself, no doubt about it, while I was in distress; he was carefree, while I was shaking in my shoes.

And if anyone had asked me whether I preferred dancing for joy or feeling terrified, I would have answered “Dancing for joy.” If, on the other hand, someone had asked me whether I preferred to be a person like him, or a person such as I was then, I would have chosen to be myself, with all the worries and fears that overwhelmed me…. [My education] wasn’t a source of joy to me. I was seeking to use my education to please other people–not to teach them, but just to please them (6.9).

Augustine’s point here is that his academic success leads not to joy, as one might expect, but to anxiety and fear. This is not because the work as such creates anxiety and fear; rather, these are effects of the sinful social/economic system which those who hope for success must navigate. Augustine is drowning under the weight of this system’s expectations, as expressed and reinforced by his friends, his superiors, and his own (thoroughly inculcated) self. And they are not, crucially, expectations that can ever be met in any final way. Anxiety and fear arise in systems that require one, in order to stay employed, to tell a constant stream of lies to administrators, to your fellow faculty, to donors, and to students. And in our situtation of permanent precarity and shortages, that’s how the academic system is today. We lie all the time: about where we are with our research agendas, about what/whether/how our work creates change, about what we are individually and collectively teaching students, and on and on. And there are a lot of good reasons to lie. To be thoroughgoingly honest about the limits of what you are doing, about the shortcomings of the system, about the toll it exacts on your relationships and ability to commit to your community, is to admit that you have failed to meet a series of increasingly untenable demands, and thus to disqualify yourself from making a living. And to somehow succeed in meeting this list of demands results not in rest and joy, but in another series of demands—not just to reach higher heights, but to stay employed at all. To face how anxious we really are as a result of this series of demands, which when we meet them result in yet more demands, is to face just how much our decisions are not fully free. [3]

Pretty much anyone who’s had an academic job (or maybe any job) ought to recognize this set of sentiments, and indeed, when Augustine spent a bunch of time complaining about this all his academic friends agreed with him about how lousy their lives were (“At this period I said a lot in accordance with this sentiment to those close to me, and I often noticed it was the same for them as for me,” 6.10).

What do you do when you can’t both seek God and success?

But just deciding that you’re going to reroute your goals is probably not going to make it happen, it turns out, because it’s really hard to both try to be successful at your job and also think seriously about what comes next. Augustine and his fellow would-be quitters find that, despite their announced longing to seek wisdom, they are “stuck in the mud.” They want to start prioritizing truth: “But where should I look for it? And when can I look for it? There’s no time to visit Ambrose, no time to read. Where do we find the books anyway? Where’s the time and money to buy them?… But students take up the morning hours. What are we doing with the rest of the day? Why don’t we get down to [the business of seeking truth]? But then when do I go pay my respects to powerful patrons, whose recommendations I need? When can I prepare the lessons for my students to buy from me? When can I simply take time off I need, and give my mind a break from the stress of its worries?” (6.18).

So Augustine now has his fundamental justification for quitting: he wants first and foremost to be a friend of God. But academia can only support that goal accidentally. As a vast capitalist structure, its concerns are quite different. It’s, in fact, impossible to imagine a hiring process where decisions (beyond the threshold of basic ability) were made on the basis of which candidate was the most realistic about his limitations, or who needed the job most, rather than who could bring more fame to the institution or enrollment to the department. It’s a little easier, but still unrealistic, to imagine a promotion process that centered service to students and community above individual publications. And in this situation we, from grad students to tenured professors, live day to day uncomfortably in the knowledge that we will never win this game – never arrive at the security we seek, when we have nothing left to prove.

It still takes him a while, of course. It’s hard to let go of something you’ve spent so long working at, even if what you have to do to pursue it is making you miserable and preventing you from doing the things you theoretically most value. It took me a lot longer than it took Augustine, and I hadn’t been after an academic career since I was a little kid. Given how much complaining I did to my own friends, I have a lot of sympathy with his desire to somehow just get fired instead of having to make a damn decision: “To me, [Victorinus, who’d had to quit his teaching job on account of anti-Christian laws] seemed not so much brave as lucky, because he’d found an opportunity of taking time off for you, which was the thing I myself was sighing to do.” It is hard to decide to just not do what you’re used to doing: getting up, teaching some kids some things, doing some grading, doing some research or writing, applying for the next (hopefully more stable) set of jobs. But in the end, Augustine had to make the decision for himself: “I was bound not by anyone else’s irons, but by my own iron will…. The new will that had started to exist in me, for worshipping you with no material reward, and wanting to enjoy you, God, the only sure pleasure, wasn’t yet adequate for overcoming my earlier will, which was reinforced by my longstanding way of life” (8.10).

And…what comes next? Augustine’s determined “not to return to the auction block” (9.2), but he really didn’t have any idea what he was going to be doing, either. Because we know that instead of becoming a garden-variety academic washout he turned into one of the most influential writers in Western history, it’s easy to forget the dislocation, along with the exhilaration, he must have felt at the time of his second infancy. But peeling back the years leaves us with a guy in his thirties who’s decided that continuing to pursue a conventional academic career is incompatible with his other life goals, but who has basically zero experience doing anything else.

But Quit lit is always a conversion story, a birth story. You can only really write it at a moment of flux, when you have no real idea what’s coming next.

Augustine is wise on this point too, because as he knows, if you’re going to survive that, you need the help of an entire community, visible and invisible. Ora pro nobis!

Catherine R. Osborne is a historian, theologian, editor, and writer. She lives in South Bend, IN, where for some reason a mob has not yet ordained her against her will.


[1] No, I don’t think he’s a secret feminist; I don’t really think he understands women on their own terms at all. I do give him a lot of credit for his surgical evisceration of boys’ induction into what we now call toxic masculinity, though.

[2] All the passages in this post are from Sarah Ruden, Confessions: A New Translation (New York: Modern Library, 2018).

[3] That question about whether we’re trying to teach our students or only to please them is also pretty uncomfortable.