Chapter XIV.—Why He Despised Greek Literature, and Easily Learned Latin.
23. But why, then, did I dislike Greek learnp. 52 ing which was full of like tales? 171 For Homer also was skilled in inventing similar stories, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he disagreeable to me as a boy. I believe Virgil, indeed, would be the same to Grecian children, if compelled to learn him, as I was Homer. The difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of learning a foreign language mingled as it were with gall all the sweetness of those fabulous Grecian stories. For not a single word of it did I understand, and to make me do so, they vehemently urged me with cruel threatenings and punishments. There was a time also when (as an infant) I knew no Latin; but this I acquired without any fear or tormenting, by merely taking notice, amid the blandishments of my nurses, the jests of those who smiled on me, and the sportiveness of those who toyed with me. I learnt all this, indeed, without being urged by any pressure of punishment, for my own heart urged me to bring forth its own conceptions, which I could not do unless by learning words, not of those who taught me, but of those who talked to me; into whose ears, also, I brought forth whatever I discerned. From this it is sufficiently clear that a free curiosity hath more influence in our learning these things than a necessity full of fear. But this last restrains the overflowings of that freedom, through Thy laws, O God,—Thy laws, from the ferule of the schoolmaster to the trials of the martyr, being effective to mingle for us a salutary bitter, calling us back to Thyself from the pernicious delights which allure us from Thee.
Exaggerated statements have been made as to Augustins deficiency in the knowledge of Greek. In this place it is clear that he simply alludes to a repugnance to learn a foreign language that has often been seen in boys since his day. It would seem equally clear from Bk. vii. sec. 13 (see also De Trin. iii. sec. 1), that when he could get a translation of a Greek book, he preferred it to one in the original language. Perhaps in this, again, he is not altogether singular. It is difficult to decide the exact extent of his knowledge, but those familiar with his writings can scarcely fail to be satisfied that he had a sufficient acquaintance with the language to correct his Italic version by the Greek Testament and the LXX., and that he was quite alive to the importance of such knowledge in an interpreter of Scripture. See also Con. Faust, xi. 2–4; and De Doctr. Christ. ii. 11–15.