Some Questions on Augustine’s Epistemology

These are intended to help you work through the assigned excerpts from Augustine’s Free Choice of the Will, Confessions, and City of God, and Hans Jonas’s account of the Gnostic concept of gnosis.

On Free Choice of the Will

1. Augustine relates “belief” to “understanding” and “knowledge.” What do you think Augustine means by “belief” in this passage (and, I might add, in this translation)?

2. According to Augustine, what is the proper relationship between belief and understanding or knowledge?

3. Do you think this relationship applies to all knowledge and understanding?

City of God

4. According to Augustine, how is God ultimately responsible for all human knowledge?

5. According to Augustine, is it necessary to believe in God in order to acquire knowledge about weaving, building, agriculture, navigation, music, cooking, and arithmetic?

 6. How does man acquire knowledge of these arts and sciences?

7. According to Augustine, did the early philosophers come to accept a fairly accurate understanding of God? What qualities did the philosophers’ conception of God include? Any parallels to Plato’s divided-line here?

8. Did the early philosophers acquire their understanding of God through prior faith or belief in God?

9. How does God communicate with man? Always this way?

10. What rôles do “The Mediator” and Scripture play in the acquisition of knowledge?


The purpose of assigning these excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions is to give you an autographical account of how an intelligent Platonist and Manichaean-Gnostic—Augustine!—who was a restless, intellectual spirit, evaluated and compared the different bodies of religious belief that were present to him during his life. He wrote this as a Christian, but he is reflecting on his pre-Christian days.


Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, “The Meaning of Gnosis and the Extent of the Gnostic Movement”

1. According to Jonas, what kind of religious ideas were plentiful in the early Christian era (first and second centuries, A.D.? How does Jonas characterize “the general religion of the period”?

2. What was the distinctive characteristic of the gnostic (note: small “g”) sects of that time?

3. According to Jonas, did Gnosticism originate as a reaction to, and perversion of, Christianity?

4. According to Jonas, what did the Gnostics mean by gnosis, a Greek word commonly translated as “knowledge”? What was gnosis the knowledge of?

5. Why, according to Jonas, might gnosis be considered the means to salvation as well as salvation itself? What effect did gnosis have on the Gnostics?