Augustine’s Worldy Goods

My working thesis in this post is roughly this: while Augustine was indebted to Platonism (or neoplatonism, to be a bit more precise), to regard him as a ‘dualist’ in any simple sense of the word is wrong. Augustine certainly makes use of neoplatonic thinking and definitely makes a distinction between the sensible and the intelligible – but he also is quite willing to attack the (as he calls them) the platonists. But what clinches it for me is his ethical thinking, in which he affirms worldly, mutable things as good and worthy of of being objects of our love and emotion.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, notes that for the early Augustine, charges of dualism just might stick. Quoting a section from ‘Of True Religion’, where Augustine says that we are to love the souls of our neighbors, he says:

‘It is a curious argument. We are to love the souls of our neighbors because their souls are what is eternal in them.’ ( p.196)

This is a precursor to a dramatic alteration in Augustine’s thinking. By the time Augustine wrote ‘City of God’, Augustine is willing to affirm that, yes, the souls of our neighbor are to be loved, but that we should also be anxious over our friends who are afflicted by famine, war, disease, etc. Wolterstorff calls this a sea-change in Augustine:

‘There has been a sea-change in his thinking…that which is disturbance-worthy for me is not just the moral and religious condition of my own soul; neither is it the moral and religious condition of your soul along with mine and everybody’s else as well. Famine, war, pestilence, captivity, the rupture of friendship – all these and more are worthy of getting upset over.’ (p. 198 – Wolterstorff quotes Augustine’s ‘City of God’, XIX, ch. 8, just before this passage to make this point)

This is in clear opposition to other classical ways of thinking about ethics – the Stoics, for example, would have a difficult time accepting such a sea-change, which replaces the self and virtue as the necessary and sufficient conditions for happiness – Augustine effectively replaces the intellect with the affections as his fundamental anthropological starting point:

‘To be human is to love, on Augustine’s view. We are cast into love. We are born and destined to love. It is our nature to love. We can choose what to love; we cannot choose whether to love. It is an anthropology close to the Platonists and the neo-Platonists, very different from the Stoics. The emphasis of the Stoics was on the intellectual side of the self; Augustine’s emphasis was on the affective side of the self…what ails us, at bottom is not false judgement of worth but misplaced loves. Our loves must be reoriented. If tranquility is  what we are after, we must so love that our loves will not be disappointed.’ (p. 191)

It is important to note that Augustine doesn’t negate the value of the intellectual, but rather questions its place as a necessary and sufficient condition for happiness:

‘Stoicism rates higher in Augustine judgment than Epicureanism, for the Stoics taught that happiness comes not from the pleasure of the body but from the virtue of the mind. Agreeing that the virtue of the mind is a necessary condition for happiness, Augustine concentrates on arguing that it cannot be a sufficient condition. One objection already made by his philosophical predecessors says that the Stoic view flies in the face of common sense. Anybody who insists that “a man can be happy on the rack” must be so much in the grip of the theory that he can no longer recognize the obvious; that human beings are not really mind of a composite of bodies and minds, so that we cannot be happy when suffering intense physical pain, regardless of how about us we might be. Augustine adds to this standard objection that Stoics err in the direction of arrogance just as Epicureans err in the direction of sordidness; as Epicureans overweight pleasure, so Stoics overweight glory. In praising virtue as the highest human good, says Augustine, the Stoics try to make other people feel ashamed. They themselves should feel ashamed of whittling down the supreme good to such a point that they can claim to be the sole cause of their own happiness, instead of acknowledging that mere human beings cannot make themselves happy. Even if the Stoics were correct in teaching that a virtuous mind suffices to make a person happy there was still be mistaken and failing to recognize that the minds virtue is itself a gift of God not a triumph of human.’ (Bonnie Kent, ‘Augustine’s Ethics’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’, p. 211)

What is important here is that Augustine’s thinking here is theological and biblical (though we also see Augustine’s insistence on the embodied nature of human beings as well):

‘Augustine’s ever deeper immersion in Scripture, from the time of his conversion onward, has brought him to the conclusion that our tendency to worry over the physical and mental well-being of family and friends, to weep at funerals for the loss of companionship, and the like is not to be ascribed to our fallenness but to our created human nature. God made us thus. To try and undo this dimension of ourselves is, “with ruthless disregard,” to try and undo the work of the Creator.’ (p. 199)

While Wolterstorff sees Augustine in firm opposition to various ancient ethics that placed the acquisition of tranquility in the present life as one of the ultimate ethical ends, he doesn’t see Augustine as discarding the idea of achieving tranquility full stop. A second theological sea-change has occurred: Augustine has replaced the typically platonic metaphor of ascent with the eschatological concept of the life of the world to come. Augustine’s ethics have undergone eschatological revision:

‘I may have given the impression that Augustine discarded tranquility as a desideratum, that he began there but moved away. Not so; he never gave up his conviction that tranquility is a condition of happiness, nor his conviction that we all yearn for happiness. What happened, rather, is that over the course of his career his thought acquired an ever more eschatological cast. The spatial metaphors change. Instead of looking up, we look ahead. Instead of ascending to the eternal, we journey to a new age.’ (p. 200)

This eschatological vision is grounded further in hope:

‘When speaking with precision, Augustine says that nobody can attain happiness in the present life, and yet anyone who accepts the present life with firm hope in the afterlife “may without absurdity be called ‘happy’ even now, though rather by future hope rather than in present reality…despite his attacks on philosophers’ pretensions that genuine happiness can be attained here and now, Augustine never reduces the present life to some miserable waystation on the train route to heaven. De Civitate Dei’s  notorious, often reprinted catalogue of all the troubles of mortal life…comes followed by a much less noticed catalogue of all the goods of the present life.’ (Bonnie Kent, ‘Augustine’s Ethics’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’, p. 211)

Happiness, for Augustine, while not ultimately attainable in the present life, is attainable in some measure – if we have hope for the world to come. Augustine’s happiness is, then, thoroughly theological and thoroughly eschatalogical. Augustine’s insistence, against pagan ethics where virtue and the self are the necessary and sufficient conditions for happiness, allows the love of mutable human beings – and indeed, he places the mutability of the present life firmly within the goodness of the created order, thus affirming the goodness of the body:

‘Moreover, even in the body, though it dies like that of the beasts, and is in many ways weaker than theirs, what goodness of God, what providence of the great Creator, is apparent! The organs of sense and the rest of the members, are not they so placed, the appearance, and form, and stature of the body as a whole, is it not so fashioned, as to indicate that it was made for the service of a reasonable soul? Man has not been created stooping towards the earth, like the irrational animals; but his bodily form, erect and looking heavenwards, admonishes him to mind the things that are above. Then the marvellous nimbleness which has been given to the tongue and the hands, fitting them to speak, and write, and execute so many duties, and practise so many arts, does it not prove the excellence of the soul for which such an assistant was provided? And even apart from its adaptation to the work required of it, there is such a symmetry in its various parts, and so beautiful a proportion maintained, that one is at a loss to decide whether, in creating the body, greater regard was paid to utility or to beauty. Assuredly no part of the body has been created for the sake of utility which does not also contribute something to its beauty. And this would be all the more apparent, if we knew more precisely how all its parts are connected and adapted to one another, and were not limited in our observations to what appears on the surface; for as to what is covered up and hidden from our view, the intricate web of veins and nerves, the vital parts of all that lies under the skin, no one can discover it. For although, with a cruel zeal for science, some medical men, who are called anatomists, have dissected the bodies of the dead, and sometimes even of sick persons who died under their knives, and have inhumanly pried into the secrets of the human body to learn the nature of the disease and its exact seat, and how it might be cured, yet those relations of which I speak, and which form the concord, or, as the Greeks call it, harmony, of the whole body outside and in, as of some instrument, no one has been able to discover, because no one has been audacious enough to seek for them. But if these could be known, then even the inward parts, which seem to have no beauty, would so delight us with their exquisite fitness, as to afford a profounder satisfaction to the mind— and the eyes are but its ministers— than the obvious beauty which gratifies the eye. There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty, as e.g. the teats on a man’s breast, or the beard on his face; for that this is for ornament, and not for protection, is proved by the bare faces of women, who ought rather, as the weaker sex, to enjoy such a defence. If, therefore, of all those members which are exposed to our view, there is certainly not one in which beauty is sacrificed to utility, while there are some which serve no purpose but only beauty, I think it can readily be concluded that in the creation of the human body comeliness was more regarded than necessity. In truth, necessity is a transitory thing; and the time is coming when we shall enjoy one another’s beauty without any lust—a condition which will specially redound to the praise of the Creator, who, as it is said in the psalm, has put on praise and comeliness.’

As well as affirming the beauty and goodness of the various tasks that man sets himself to, from food to art to construction to man’s rational nature itself:

‘It is He, then, who has given to the human soul a mind, in which reason and understanding lie as it were asleep during infancy, and as if they were not, destined, however, to be awakened and exercised as years increase, so as to become capable of knowledge and of receiving instruction, fit to understand what is true and to love what is good. It is by this capacity the soul drinks in wisdom, and becomes endowed with those virtues by which, in prudence, fortitude, temperance, and righteousness, it makes war upon error and the other inborn vices, and conquers them by fixing its desires upon no other object than the supreme and unchangeable Good. And even though this be not uniformly the result, yet who can competently utter or even conceive the grandeur of this work of the Almighty, and the unspeakable boon He has conferred upon our rational nature, by giving us even the capacity of such attainment? For over and above those arts which are called virtues, and which teach us how we may spend our life well, and attain to endless happiness—arts which are given to the children of the promise and the kingdom by the sole grace of God which is in Christ—has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigor of mind, which is so active in the discovery not merely of superfluous but even of dangerous and destructive things, betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts? What wonderful— one might say stupefying— advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation! With what endless variety are designs in pottery, painting, and sculpture produced, and with what skill executed! What wonderful spectacles are exhibited in the theatres, which those who have not seen them cannot credit! How skillful the contrivances for catching, killing, or taming wild beasts! And for the injury of men, also, how many kinds of poisons, weapons, engines of destruction, have been invented, while for the preservation or restoration of health the appliances and remedies are infinite! To provoke appetite and please the palate, what a variety of seasonings have been concocted! To express and gain entrance for thoughts, what a multitude and variety of signs there are, among which speaking and writing hold the first place! What ornaments has eloquence at command to delight the mind! What wealth of song is there to captivate the ear! How many musical instruments and strains of harmony have been devised! What skill has been attained in measures and numbers! With what sagacity have the movements and connections of the stars been discovered! Who could tell the thought that has been spent upon nature, even though, despairing of recounting it in detail, he endeavored only to give a general view of it? In fine, even the defence of errors and misapprehensions, which has illustrated the genius of heretics and philosophers, cannot be sufficiently declared. For at present it is the nature of the human mind which adorns this mortal life which we are extolling, and not the faith and the way of truth which lead to immortality. And since this great nature has certainly been created by the true and supreme God, who administers all things He has made with absolute power and justice, it could never have fallen into these miseries, nor have gone out of them to miseries eternal, — saving only those who are redeemed,— had not an exceeding great sin been found in the first man from whom the rest have sprung.’

Perhaps most profound, however, is the simple replacement of the metaphor of ascent with the metaphor of the eschatological journey. Instead of breaking free from our physical prison and beholding the goodness, truth and beauty of the eternal, our true happiness lies in the life of the world to come, for which we wait, and anticipate, in hope.


3 thoughts on “Augustine’s Worldy Goods

  1. theoplankton April 17, 2016 / 10:39 am

    Do you think Augustine is influenced by Cicero in the texts you quoted? Cicero’s litanies about the beauty and goodness of creation from De Natura Deorum have essentially the same structure as Augustine’s, as well some of the arguments in common (especially the one about the harmony and cooperation between human organs).

    Liked by 1 person

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