This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.
City of God 4.21–34.
4.21–22. Augustine continues his argument that one god would have sufficed for all the many things that the Romans expected their divine host to accomplish.
At one point he says, “Men of old defined virtue as ‘the art of good and right living.’” This is probably a pretty good definition of how the ancients looked at wisdom. We say that Minerva/Athena was the goddess of wisdom. For the Greeks, it’s probably better to say that she was the goddess of “skill.” This skill extended to all aspects of life—skill in craft, such as weaving, skill in warfare, especially tactics (not bloodlust, that was for Ares), and skill in living, which we’d call wisdom. Wisdom meant that one knows how to live well.
Augustine loves etymology. Here he claims that the Latin word “ars” comes from the Greek word “arête.” (The two words are actually brothers rather than parent child.) “Ars” means “art” and “arête” means “excellence.” By Augustine’s day when “arête” was applied to people, it carried the connotation of moral excellence. This idea pairs well with the idea of wisdom as skill. The skilled artist produces excellent art. The wise person produces a good life characterized by moral excellence.