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

Note on Ancient Greek Philosophy

Oldschool Greek philosophy was practical. The Stoics, Cynics, etc didn’t just put out big theories on metaphysics (which they did quite well, at least the Stoics), they developed actual, practical ways to live the good life, ethical life, whatever you want to call it. Stoic philosophy was pretty much about living as well as you could, and it was an actual ideal that actual people actually (at the very least) attempted to live by. One thinks of Roman Stoicism – somewhat different than Greek, but still, the point remains. No doubt society is shaped by deep metaphysical issues, even if its unconscious. That’s the thing, though. The ancients consciously (for the most part) really adopted various ethical philosophies. The same can’t be said for most of modern society. Or perhaps I’m just being overly romantic.