Abstract. The generally accepted account of the problem of skepticism in Augustine is inadequate and an alternative approach is necessary. According to the accepted account, Augustine temporarily embraces the Academic philosophers, resolutely overcomes their skepticism, and irrevocably receives a grace that enables and accepts a faith that requires him to believe many things that skeptics do not and cannot. Thus faith has nothing to do with doubt; it is in no way based on it; it is diametrically opposed to it. In brief: Conversion negates skepticism. But this interpretation of the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians is not legitimate because it posits a categorical disjunction between Augustinianism and skepticism that is not valid. An alternative approach, whose pivotal point is not the crass dichotomy between Augustinian dogmatism and Academic relativism but the fine distinction between Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism, is appropriate. The alternative approach yields not only a novel interpretation of the relationship between Augustine and the skeptics but also a new understanding of the relation between faith and reason from an Augustinian perspective.
“O magni viri Academici!” (conf. 6.11.18) “Isti homines … caducarii sunt ….” (b. vita 2.16)
1. Protreptic: The question of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion
Skepticism about Augustine’s skepticism. A salient but seldom raised issue in regard to Augustine’s conversion is the striking divergence of scholarly opinion about his involvement with skepticism. If one restricts the scope of the inquiry mainly and mostly to recent literature in English, then several pivotal patterns emerge.
Some scholars dogmatically claim that Augustine was a skeptic. For example, speaking about the “radical scepticism” of Augustine’s “sceptical period”, Chadwick says: “At Milan [in 384] his lost belief in Mani was replaced by a scepticism about the possibility of any certainty. He devoured the writings of sceptical philosophers of the Academic school telling him that certainty is not available except in questions of pure mathematics.”2 According to Cary, Augustine informs the reader that he “adopted the skeptical attitude”: “Augustine tells us that in the interval between his disenchantment with Manicheism and his discovery of Platonism he adopted the skeptical attitude of withholding assent from all truth claims ….”3 Wills, too, employs the language of “adoption” to describe Augustine’s attitude toward the Academicians: “It [the summer of 384] was also the time when Augustine, having read himself away from Manicheism with Cicero’s help, adopted Cicero’s own skepticism of the new Academy.”4 According to O’Daly, Augustine was indeed “a temporary skeptic”: “Yet [Augustine’s] growing dissatisfaction with Manichaeism, whose dogmatic dualism he had embraced as an eighteen-year-old in 372, made him a temporary skeptic in about 383 or 384, at a particularly insecure and unstable period of his life.”5 These are, of course, not the only people who hold this position. The point, however, has been made.
Other scholars are skeptical about whether Augustine was a skeptic. For example, Kavanagh describes the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians thus: “After [Augustine] had discovered that the doctrine of the Manicheans, who had attracted him by their clamorous claim of truth, was confused and pernicious materialism, he became acquainted with the skepticism of the New Academy. Like many others before and after, this young seeker after truth may well have been occasionally tempted to despair of the existence of truth and a rational meaning of the world. He himself confessed that skepticism had threatened to rob him of his interest and energy.”6 So Augustine was “acquainted” with but did not “adopt” Academic skepticism, while skepticism itself amounted to nothing more than an ‘occasional temptation and threat’ for him. To be sure, O’Meara does not dispute the attraction: “[Augustine] naturally gravitated towards the scepticism of the New Academy.”7 None the less, he does deny an adoption: “… [Augustine] was never a convinced Academic: his own temperament did not take easily to scepticism; and it was the nature of this scepticism to be sceptical of itself as well as everything else.”8 Boulding goes so far as to make no mention at all of the Academicians or of skepticism in the otherwise detailed introduction to her translation of the Confessions.9
Still other scholars take an ephectic approach to Augustine’s supposed skepticism. For example, O’Connell doubts whether Augustine fully commits to “Academicism”: “[Augustine] realized he could no longer continue as a Manichee; the skepticism of Academic philosophy now made a strong appeal to him, but since the name of Christ was missing from it … he could not fully commit himself to Academicism.”10 Matthews prefers the language of ‘attraction’ to that of ‘adoption’: “In Rome at the beginning of his stay in Italy Augustine grew increasingly dissatisfied with Manicheism, to which he had provisionally given his allegiance in Carthage. He found himself attracted to the sceptical viewpoint of the Academics, the followers of Arcesilaus and the New Academy, who ‘held that everything was a matter of doubt and asserted that we can know nothing for certain’ (Confessiones V.10.19).”11 Harrison cautiously finds that Augustine alludes to “a period of scepticism in the Confessions”: “On finally breaking with [the Manicheans] Augustine despaired of ever finding the truth, and hints at a period of scepticism in the Confessions.”12 So some scholars find an irreducible indeterminacy in the matter of Augustine’s alleged skepticism.
There is more than merely prima facie evidence here, then, that the question about the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians is still an open one. In spite of this, a few scholars take a very firm view of the matter. For example, King writes with remarkable assurance: “When Augustine became disillusioned with Manichaeanism in 383, he despaired of finding the truth and went through a period of being a skeptic. Consequently, he had an insider’s knowledge of skepticism, though he never apprenticed himself to any skeptical school. Eventually his reading of ‘platonist books’ convinced him that skepticism was mistaken. … Against the Academicians is … a manifesto written by a former skeptic presenting himself for the first time as a platonist and a Christian.”13 Of those who would be skeptical of Augustine’s skepticism, King says pointedly: “Some scholars have questioned this claim [that Augustine despaired of finding the truth and went through a period of being a skeptic] ….”14 On the contrary, King continues forcefully: “Yet Augustine was more than sympathetic to [the Academicians].”15 Then he adds for good measure: “Augustine … defended the view of the Academicians, and did so publicly.”16 Finally, King concludes with what is intended as an admonishment: “It is understandable that Augustine should later want to minimize his attachment to the Academicians … but we need not follow his example.”17 Such strong statements should be received, however, not as dispositive but as hortatory. As such, they could serve not to finish off but to start up the discussion about the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians.
The devil does indeed lurk in the details. Several scholars have indicated how extraordinarily difficult it is to achieve clarity and certainty about the specific details of the role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion experience or in his conversion narrative.18 Also, a cursory comparison of the view of King with the interpretation of O’Donnell yields a sharp contrast: “A. does not say that he gave his head to the Academics, only that he began to think that they might be right.”19 Moreover, as Fox keenly notes: “… in 383/4, [Augustine’s] Manichean faith collapses. It is badly damaged by reading pagan Academic, or ‘Sceptical’, philosophy which exhorts him to doubt. Even so, he refuses to doubt his inherited allegiance to Christianity. Once again, he tells us, he fights shy of pagan philosophy because it does not base itself on Christ. So he decides, despite his scepticism, to put himself down as a catechumen again in Milan’s church.”20 As it turns out, Augustine’s basic stance is to be skeptical, and to be especially so of Academic skepticism. But Augustine never doubts everything.21
Yet the difficulties surrounding Augustine’s skepticism cannot be disposed of with any facility, even by those who know Augustine best. For example, the judicious Brown first says: “The Academics had seemed to [Augustine] to deny that the human mind could ever reach truth. Augustine never adopted this radical view wholeheartedly.”22 But further on he also writes: “One thing was certain [in the fall of 386]: Augustine could renounce the sceptical position of the New Academy. The first work that he wrote from his philosophical ‘retreat’ in Cassiciacum, was directed against such scepticism.”23 Now one has to wonder whether it not be odd that someone is supposed to have merely renounced—and not ‘completely’ renounced—something that they had never “wholeheartedly” held in the first place. Justifiably, then, Bonner warns how easy it is then to be misled when one is talking about the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians or their skepticism: “How long [Augustine] remained under the influence of the Academics, we do not know. … Altogether, it is misleading to talk, in any but the widest sense, of a period of Academic scepticism in Augustine’s life.”24 Finally, Stock remarks perceptively: “The Academics, to whom [Augustine] was attracted on arriving in Rome [in 383], questioned his assumptions but offered no positive direction.”25 These highly nuanced views must also be taken into account.
Quot interpretatores, tot interpretationes.26 What, then, is one to do? Clearly, not to craft another essay on how to discern difficulties but rather to create some prospect of progress toward a solution to the problem of skepticism in Augustine.
Sources. To accomplish this task, one has no alternative but to begin with the testimony of Augustine himself. In doing so, one should heed what Rist says about Augustine and “radical skepticism”: “Unlike almost every other thinker of late antiquity, Augustine took radical skepticism seriously and was driven by his own experiences to attempt to find answers to it.”27 Hence it is advisable to take the relation between Augustinianism and skepticism, Academic or other, as seriously as Augustine takes skepticism, Academic or other. Doing so allows certain themes in Augustine’s dealings with Academic skepticism to emerge as foundational:
1.1. Project. In Against the Academicians (386/387)28 Augustine reveals how he views the final result of the formal disputation with the Academicians (c. Acad. 3.20.43):
“Meanwhile, I have convinced myself, as far as I have been able to do so, that what I have said here about the Academicians is ‘plausible’. Yet, if it is false, then it does not matter to me; for me it is enough that I no longer [iam non] think that the truth cannot be found by the human being. On the other hand, whoever thinks that the Academicians felt this way should listen to Cicero himself. He says, namely, that it was their custom to conceal their view and that they were not accustomed to reveal it to anyone who had not lived among them up to old age. To be sure, God knows what that view was; none the less, I think that it was the view of Plato. Yet, so that you may receive my entire intention in brief: however human wisdom may handle itself, I see that I have not yet [nondum] perceived it. But, although I am in the thirty-third year of my life, I do not think that I should despair of reaching it someday [quandoque]. Still, after having contemned all the other things that mortals think to be good, I did intend to devote myself to investigating wisdom. Given the fact that the arguments of the Academicians used seriously to deter me from this business, I think that I am sufficiently protected against these arguments by this disputation. Moreover, no one doubts that we are impelled to learn by the two-fold weight of authority as well as of reason. I am resolved, therefore, to depart from the authority of Christ in absolutely nothing. For I do not find any more powerful authority. However, as for what is to be pursued by the most subtle reasoning––my present state is [iam sum affectus] such, namely, that I am impatient in my desire to apprehend what is true not only by believing but also by understanding––I am confident that in the meantime [interim] I shall find it in the Platonists, and that it will not be inconsistent with our religion.”
Thus Augustine states that, although he has “not yet” perceived human wisdom, he “no longer” thinks that the human being cannot find the truth. For Augustine does not despair of reaching this wisdom “someday”, and thus he will continue to strive for it. By implication, Augustine is admitting that he did once think, as he also understood the Academicians to think, that the human being cannot reach human wisdom.
1.2. Duration. In On the Happy Life (386/387) Augustine recounts the main philosophical stations on the long way of his intellectual, moral, and spiritual odyssey from Manicheism via skepticism to Catholicism (b. vita 1.4):
“From the nineteenth year of my life, after I had encountered in the school of rhetoric that book of Cicero which is called ‘Hortensius’, I was inflamed by such a great love of philosophy that I considered devoting myself to it at once. But there were clouds to confound my course, and for a long time, I admit, to lead me into error; I looked up to stars that were setting in the ocean. For a certain childish superstition used to frighten me away from investigation itself—when I became more resolute, I then dispelled that darkness, and I persuaded myself to trust those who taught me rather than those who commanded me—and I fell in with human beings [the Manicheans] to whom the very light that is discerned by our eyes was seen to be among supremely divine things to be revered. I did not agree, but I thought that they were concealing something important in those wrappings which they were someday going to reveal. Yet, at that point at which I had examined and escaped them, and especially after I had crossed this sea, the Academicians then determined my directions for a long time [diu gubernacula mea … Academici tenuerunt], resisting all the winds in the midst of the waves. And now I have come to this part of the world; here I have learned of the North Star to which I entrusted myself. For I have noted, many times in the sermons of our bishop [Ambrose of Milan], and sometimes in discussions with you, [Manlius Theodorus], that one should not then think about anything corporeal at all when one is thinking about God, or about the soul—for of all things this is the one nearest to God. But the allures of a wife and the attractions of a reputation held me back, I admit, from flying swiftly to the bosom of philosophy, and not until I had pursued these things did I at last speed away with full sails and with all oars for that refuge—this is granted only to the happiest few—and there find repose. But, after I had read only a very few books of Plotinus—of whom, I have learned, you are most fond—and also having compared with these books, as far as I was able to do so, the authority of those who have passed along the divine mysteries, I was so inflamed that I would have broken away from all my anchors, had not the judgment of some human beings made an impression on me. What else was left, therefore, but that a storm, which is thought to be unfavorable, would rescue me as I was lingering over trivialities? And thus so great a pain in my chest seized me that, unable to sustain the burden of that profession by which I was perhaps making sail for the Sirens, I threw everything overboard and I steered my leaky and weary vessel to the tranquility that I desired.”
The philosophy of the Academicians, along with that of Cicero and that of Plotinus, appears to have made a lasting impression on Augustine. The remark that “the Academicians … determined my directions for a long time” is especially noteworthy. The question is: For how long a time did they “determine” his “directions”? More precisely: What is the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of this diu?
1.3. Effect. In the Letter to Hermogenianus (late 386/early 387) Augustine seeks to correct a wrong impression, namely, that it was more satisfying for him to subjugate the Academicians than to liberate himself from their skepticism (ep. 1.3):
For this reason, because I hold your sincere judgment about my writings to be most pleasing, and because I hold you [Hermogenianus] in such high esteem that, in my opinion, error cannot be found in your prudence, nor pretense in your friendship, I ask that you consider that point more carefully and that you write back to me whether you give your approval to what at the end of the third book [of Against the Academicians] I thought should be believed, perhaps more as a suspicion than as a certainty, but as something more useful, I think, than incredible. But, whatever may be the case with those writings, I am not as pleased that, as you write, I have “conquered” the Academicians—for you write this perhaps more out of love than out of sincerity—as that I have broken for myself that most odious snare [odiosissimum retinaculum] by which I was being held back from the breast of philosophy out of a despair about the true [desperatio veri], which is the food of the soul.
Thus Augustine describes Academic skepticism as “that most odious snare” involving “a despair about the true” that temporarily ‘prevented him from doing philosophy’. But he does not say that he was ever an Academic skeptic. To endorse the philosophy of the Academicians and to be ensnared by it are two substantially different things.
1.4. Involvement. In On the Usefulness of Believing (391/392) Augustine indicates how the Manicheans led him into error, how the Academicians kept him from truth, and how he as a skeptic was also skeptical of Academic skepticism (util. cred. 8.20):
For, as I left you [Honoratus] to cross the sea, already delaying and hesitating as to what I should hold on to and as to what I should let go of—my vacillation kept increasing from day to day since I heard that human being [Faustus], as you know, whose coming to us had been promised from heaven, as it were, to explain all the things that concerned us, and I recognized that, except for a certain eloquence, he was just like the rest of them—once established in Italy, I took counsel with myself and I held a great deliberation, not about whether I would remain in that sect into which I regretted having fallen [Manicheism], but about how the true should be found, the true for which I longed with sighs better known to no one than to you. Often [Saepe] it seemed to me that the true could not be found, and the great waves of my thoughts were carried off in the direction of the Academicians [magnique fluctus cogitationum mearum in Academicorum suffragium ferebantur]. Then again, often [Saepe rursus] I sensed, as far as I was able to do so, the human mind to be so vivacious, so sagacious, and so perspicacious, and I thought that, if the truth were concealed from it, then it could only be because the mode of inquiry concealed it from the mind, and that this very mode itself had to be taken up by some divine authority. It remained to find out what that authority was, since in such great dissensions every one promised that he would be the one to deliver it. Accordingly, there loomed before me an impenetrable forest which I was very loath indeed to enter, and in the midst of these things my mind was disturbed without any repose with the desire of finding the true. More and more, however, I was dissuading myself from those whom I had already determined to abandon. Yet in such perils there remained no other alternative than for me, with tears and pleas, to implore divine providence to help me, and this I did unremittingly. And now some disputations of the Bishop of Milan had almost moved me to wish to inquire, not without some hope, into many things concerning the Old Testament itself, which things, as you know, we used to execrate, since they had been ill commended to us, and I had determined to be a catechumen in the Church, to which I had been committed by my parents, until I should either find what I wanted or convince myself that the search need not be made.
With an ambivalent attitude toward Academic skepticism (“often … often”), Augustine was zigzagging between diffidence and confidence about the power of the human mind to know the truth (ibid.): “Therefore, had there been someone who could have taught me at that time [tunc], he would have found me most ready and very docile.”
1.5. Occasion. In the Confessions (397/401) Augustine clarifies not so much his intimate personal association with, as rather his opportunistic philosophical attraction to, the Academicians in 383/384 (conf. 5.10.19):
And indeed there arose in me too the thought that those philosophers whom they call “Academicians” were more prudent than the rest, since they maintained that all things are to be doubted, and they claimed that nothing of the true can be apprehended by the human being. For thus did they seem to me, too, clearly to have thought so, as they are popularly held to do, especially to one who did not yet understand their intention.
Augustine is describing not ‘a period of skepticism’ but “that time of [his] doubtfulness”, during which he philosophized “in the manner of the Academicians”, to whom, among others, he refused to commit himself for a definite reason (5.14.25):
And thus, doubting all things and wavering on all things [dubitans de omnibus atque inter omnia fluctuans] in the manner of the Academicians [Academicorum more], as they are held to do, I resolved at least that the Manicheans should be abandoned, thinking at that time of my doubtfulness [eo ipso tempore dubitationis meae] that I should not remain in that sect, to which I was now preferring some philosophers, to which philosophers, however, I altogether refused to commit the healing of my feeble soul, since they were without the saving name of Christ.
Augustine also reports the essential sense of what he was thinking at the time of his transition from hearing Academicism to reading Neoplatonism (385/386) (6.11.18):
“What great men—the Academicians! Nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty. Yet let us seek more diligently and not lose hope.”
Augustine found the Academicians then most attractive when he was no longer a Manichean and not yet a Catholic. But whether he was, at that point, an Academic skeptic, is another matter. Actually, Augustine seems to say that, even during the “time of [his] doubtfulness”, he advocated skepticism about Academicism.