Augustine on Receiving Criticism and Being a Good Critic

Discourse right now is a mess. It’s not hard to spot critics driven by spite or those criticized driven by a certain woundedness. St. Augustine wrote in one of his most acclaimed works, de Trinitate, about his desire for certain types of readers and critics, and we’d do well to consider his words as we read those with whom we disagree or as we engage with those who sharply disagree with us. What Augustine is of course more concerned with is a clarity of truth that comes as a result of charitable criticism and response rather than one’s own ‘rightness.’

“[I will not] be diffident about expressing my sentiments, since my eagerness to have them scrutinized by the fairminded outweighs my fear of their being chewed to pieces by the spiteful. The keen eyes of the dove are most acceptable to Charity’s modest beauty, while the teeth of the snarling dog are neither dodged by Humility’s caution or broken on the solid hardness of Truth.” Augustine, de Trinitate II.i

St. Augustine, de Trinitate II.i

What I desire for all my works, of course, is not merely a kind reader but also a frank critic. This is peculiarly my desire for this work, treating as it does of so tremendous a subject, in which one wishes as many discoverers of truth could be found as it certainly has contradictors. But the last thing I want is a reader who is my doting partisan, or a critic who is his own. The reader will not, I trust, be fonder of me than of Catholic faith, nor the critic of himself than of Catholic truth. To the first I say: “Do not show my works the same deference as the canonical scriptures. Whatever you find in scripture that you used not to believe, why, believe it instantly. But whatever you find in my works that you did not hitherto regard as certain, then unless I have really convinced you that it is certain, continue to have your doubts about it.” To the second I say: “Do not criticize what I write by the standard of your own prejudices or contrariness, but by the divine text or incontrovertible reason. If you find any truth in it, then it does not belong to me just by being there, but rather to both of us by being understood and loved by both of us. If you catch me out in anything that is not true, then I must own it for making the mistake; but from now on by being more careful, we can both repudiate its ownership.”

Ibid., III.i.

Let us embrace the fact that we are all fallible, and let us be charitable and honest in the giving and receiving of criticism for the sake of truth.

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