More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s 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.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

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3 thoughts on “More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

  1. Michelle Joelle January 10, 2015 / 3:19 pm

    Excellent thoughts. I think the big difference here is that Augustine introduces a necessarily personal element to the Platonic structure that undoes its utter asceticism and pure conceptuality – both in his understanding of a “Good” that is revelatory and loving, and in his understanding of how we are to act in accordance with such a Good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen January 10, 2015 / 3:23 pm

      Bingo. The Stoic god = something to align yourself with. Augustine’s God = someone to be loved.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate January 11, 2015 / 2:44 pm

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

    Like

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