Quick Notes on Augustine’s Critique of Pagan Ethics

– Reading on Augustine’s ethics in the ‘Cambridge Companion to Augustine’ has been very enjoyable – it certainly has put to rest any idea that Augustine was a dualist of any stripe. Augustine firmly believes that this-worldly goods are, in fact, good – and that sometimes, the delight we get from them exceed any kind of practical or instrumental value. Some things, for Augustine, are just delightful because they’re delightful.

– His engagement with Epicurean/Stoic ethics is interesting. He essentially takes the view of the Stoics to be absurd – he simply cannot see how anyone can truly be happy while, say, being tortured on the rack. If anyone says or thinks they are, Augustine simply declares that they are simply wrong or in thrall to an ideology. When it comes to Epicurean ethics, it’s a bit more detailed – he argues that on the Epicurean conception of happiness (as he understands it) that immortality is required to be ultimately happy, on the grounds that, since we have to be alive to be happy, more life = more happiness. But, as Martha Nussbaum notes, true pleasure for the Epicureans is not additive – i.e. having it for longer or having more of it does not make it better.

‘Epicurus insists on this: when once ataraxia (tranquility) and aponia (absence of pain, trouble, etc) are attained, the agent is at the top of his life, and nothing – not even prolongnation or repition of the same – can add to the sum of her pleasures.’ (Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 212)

– So it seems that he somewhat misunderstands the Epicurean conception of happiness

4 thoughts on “Quick Notes on Augustine’s Critique of Pagan Ethics

  1. Michelle Joelle January 9, 2015 / 11:24 pm

    I think he doesn’t have an ideological space for epicureanism – his view is ultimately Platonic (i.e., Good = Real = Knowable, yet all are one) which doesn’t allow for valuation outside of that which is “most real” (more real is better, more knowable, real for longer, knowable by more with fewer limits, etc) – but I do think he /understands/ it. He just rejects the Epicurean notion of value as meaningless. He see /aponia/ as nothingness, and his understanding of goodness and happiness is productive, substantive, necessarily additive.


    • whitefrozen January 10, 2015 / 9:26 am

      Good thoughts. I suspect that, in cruder terms, he thinks his position is so correct, even self-evidently so, that other positions seem incoherent.

      Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen January 10, 2015 / 9:59 am

      Reading Nicholas Wolterstorffs treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew January 10, 2015 / 5:43 am

    I’m working my through Finding and Seeking by Oliver O’Donovan this weekend. There’s an interesting section on how Augustine deals with self-knowledge, where, in the Confessions, O’Donovan claims, that he moves the question inward beginning from the ‘certainty of his love for God.’ O’Donovan then goes on to suggest;

    ‘By identifying the initial vis-a-vis with God as love rather than faith, Augustine saw it as a motivation driving a path through all his subsequent dealings with the world. It contained the power to draw him out of himself into his search. There are, as we have said, dangers in letting love move over into the role of faith, presenting it from the beginning with God as its object. It can encourage an aspiration to worldless transcendence, of which some critics have thought Augustine guilty. Yet against the temptation of worldlessness he had a strong defense in the conviction that love was inseparable from knowledge.’ p.49

    The argument he then gives for why this matters is fair enough – knowledge presses a move from the inward self to the ‘complex realities of world and time’ – but where I think this might be inadequate is that it does not consider what ‘knowledge’ is for Augustine. Not just how knowledge relates to the whole issue of degrees of reality but the equating of the ‘eternal forms’ with the mind of God. If this is the case, then the ‘this-worldy’ anchoring that knowledge gives to love of God might not hold.

    Liked by 1 person

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