1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


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1.6. Achievement. In On the Trinity (399/426) Augustine first provides numerous examples that militate against skepticism and then states that he regards his arguments against the Academicians as yielding closure in the dispute (Trin. 15.12.21):
And there are found other things that are effective against the Academicians, who contend that nothing can be known by the human being. But there must be a limit, especially since we have not undertaken this task in this work. There are three books of ours [Against the Academicians], written at an early time of our conversion [primo nostrae conversionis tempore], and the many arguments that have been devised by the Academicians against the perception of the truth will not at all sway anyone who is able and willing to read these books and who understands them once he has read them.
The lax designator “at an early time of our conversion” indicates that Augustine views his conversion both as a temporal event and as a temporalizing process. But from this one cannot determine the temporality of his skepticism with any particular precision.

1.7. Motivation. In the Enchiridion (421/422) Augustine says that he wrote Against the Academicians to demonstrate that it is unwise not to give approval to anything, including to a conversion to the Christian way of life (ench. 7.20):

And I do not now have to take up the very knotty question that tormented the most clever human beings, the Academicians, namely, whether the wise man ought to give his approval to anything, lest he then fall into error if he were to give his approval to false things as true things, since all things, the Academicians affirm, are either hidden or uncertain. For this reason, I composed three books [Against the Academicians] at the beginning of my conversion [in initio conversionis meae], so that the things that they said in opposition [to the view that the wise man ought to give his approval to anything] would not be a hindrance to us, as it were, at the entrance [in ostio] [to the Christian life]. And the despair of finding the truth, a despair that seemed to be strengthened by their arguments, had to be eliminated in any case. With the Academicians, therefore, every error is thought to be a sin, a sin that can only then be avoided, they contend, if all assent be suspended. Indeed, they say that anyone who assents to uncertain things is in error, and they argue in very clever but very shameless disputations that there is nothing certain in the impressions of human beings, because of the indistinguishable likeness to the false, even if what seems to be so were then perhaps true. With us, however, the just man lives by faith. But, if assent be taken away, then faith is taken away, because without assent nothing is believed. And there are true things such that, although they may not seem to be so, unless one believes them, one cannot reach the happy life ….

Thus Augustine was thinking about the arguments of the Academicians until Against the Academicians. But this does not mean that Augustine was an Academician until then. For Augustine was clearly skeptical of Academicism distinctly before that. Also, his dubitations about the Academic philosophy and his reservations about the Christian religion were not mutually exclusive but unquietly compossible.

1.8. Evidence. In On the City of God (413/427) Augustine sharply juxtaposes the wavering ambiguity of the New Academy and the resolute constancy of the Christian city as two vastly divergent forces in human theory and practice (civ. Dei 19.18):

But, as to that peculiarity which Varro alleges to be a characteristic of the New Academicians, for whom all things are uncertain, the city of God thoroughly detests such doubtfulness as madness, and, regarding matters which it apprehends by mind and by reason, it has indeed most certain knowledge, although its knowledge of them is slight because the corruptible body weighs down the soul (for, as the Apostle says, “we know in part”); and it trusts, in the evidentness of each thing [in rei cuiusque evidentia], the senses that the spirit uses by means of the body, since one who thinks that the senses should never be trusted is more wretchedly deceived [than one who thinks that the senses should be trusted and is sometimes deceived]. The city of God also believes in the Sacred Scriptures, both old and new, which we call “canonical”, whence has come that faith by which the just man lives and by which we walk without doubtfulness so long as we are absent from the Lord on our pilgrimage. And, so long as this faith is sound and certain, we may without just blame doubt some things which we have perceived neither by sense nor by reason, and which have neither been revealed to us by the canonical Scriptures nor come to our knowledge through witnesses whom it is absurd not to believe.

Accordingly, evidence is not peculiar to the knowledge that reason yields. For revelation involves evidence proper to the truths that faith accesses. Nor do faith and reason together preclude all conceivable doubt. Hence there is a kind of skepticism that transcends conversion. But the radical doubtfulness of Academic skepticism is “madness”, since it destroys both trust in reason and trust in faith.

1.9. Purpose. In the Retractations (426/427) Augustine confirms that his philosophical purpose in writing “Against the Academicians or About the Academicians” (a distinction that makes a difference) was both personal and public (retr. 1.1.1):
Therefore, when I had relinquished the desirable things of this world, those which I had achieved or those which I had wanted to achieve, and I had devoted myself to the leisure of a Christian life, I then, before I was baptized, wrote, first [primum], Against the Academicians or About the Academicians [contra Academicos vel de Academicis], in order that, with the most cogent reasons that I could give, I might remove the arguments of the Academicians from my mind because they were disturbing me, arguments which generate in many people a despair of finding the true and prohibit the wise man from assenting to anything and from approving anything at all as if it were clear and certain, since to the Academicians all things would seem obscure and uncertain. With the mercy as well as the help of the Lord, this has been accomplished.

Augustine is saying that he wrote Against the Academicians in order to take care of the skeptical arguments that were disturbing him at the time. He is not saying that at the time of writing Against the Academicians he was a skeptic in the Academic sense. Whether he was a skeptic in some other sense, is another matter. Whether he was a skeptic, and in what other sense, at the time of the Retractations, is also a fair question.

Observations. A careful review of the sources reveals several crucial things about the role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion:29 To begin with, Augustine’s philosophical and theological project is not only to seek truths but also to find the Truth. Hence his pursuit of wisdom is saturated from start to finish with what common sense30 would not hesitate to call “skepticism”. For the evidence will show that Augustine was a skeptic not by nurture but by nature. Under the historical circumstances, Augustine speaks not of “skeptics” (the word and its variants are not found in his vocabulary) but of “Academicians” (Latin: Academici); under the present circumstances, scholars of his life and thought talk of “skepticism” and of “Academicism”. In fact, analytic Academic critique is one of three prominent philosophical orientations that exercise a continuous influence on Augustine; humanistic Ciceronian cultivation and ecstatic Platonic-Neoplatonic speculation are the other two. Yet Augustine argues that Academicism, understood as the philosophy of the Academicians, is antithetical to the human pursuit of the truth because it denies that the human being can reach the truth. True to his own self, Augustine, even as he “at the time of [his] doubtfulness” (conf. 5.14.25) is attracted to but does not adopt the approach of the Academicians, performs a critical zigzag between skeptical diffidence and dogmatic confidence with respect to human knowledge. Thus, if Augustine is “doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians” (ibid.), then he also doubts and wavers on (Latin dubitare: “to waver”) what they themselves say. Accordingly, the Academic philosophers are instrumental in helping Augustine to make a clean break with the Manicheans; mutatis mutandis, they will also make it more difficult for him to commit himself to Catholicism. So Augustine says that “the Academicians … determined my directions for a long time” (b. vita 1.4). In the narrow sense, Augustine’s doubtfulness perturbs him from 383/384 to 385/386, at which time he experiences conversion (July/August 386); in a broad sense, the arguments of the Academicians continue to disturb him until 386/387, at which time he writes Against the Academicians (fall/winter 386/387). One cannot say that Augustine writes Against the Academicians as an Academician overcoming skepticism; one can say that he does it not only for himself but also for others. On balance, Augustine attempts to counter Academic skepticism not only with knowledge but also with faith, indeed, first and foremost with faith. Evidently, Augustine does not argue that an end result of the full cooperation of faith and reason will be the total cancellation of any and all doubt. For faith seeks but does not always find understanding; the same holds for firm faith and adequate understanding. Hence there is a significant distinction between Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism here. Also, the continued existence of Augustinian skepticism is compatible with the complete elimination of Academic skepticism. Therefore it would be a serious misunderstanding to reduce the question about Augustine’s skepticism to a query about his relationship to the Academicians and to their skepticism. The dominant sense of “skepticism” in Augustine is not generically Academic but specifically Augustinian.

Skepticism about skepticism. From a philosophical perspective, the skeptics are relatives in an extended family with a perplexing plethora of overlapping and underlapping resemblances. The original and dominant leitmotif of skepticism (Greek skeptesthai: “to consider”, “to examine”, “to observe”) is not doubt but quest, not dubitation but investigation, not theory but query.31 Etymologically, one finds in the English word skepticism the Indo-European root spek- (to observe), which also combines to yield such common modern words as perspective, inspection, and speculation, as well as aspect, circumspect, and suspect.32 As an applied approach to philosophical problems, skepticism is both as old and as new as philosophy itself.33 Indeed, philosophy could not be what it is or do what it does without a strong streak of skepticism in it.34 Hence the skeptical imperative: Ask not what questions you can answer; ask rather what answers you can question! What has been achieved by way of demonstrating the relevance of skepticism for the history of modern philosophy35 could also easily be accomplished for the significance of skepticism in the history of ancient philosophy.36 It is, moreover, hard to name a topic of postmodernism that is not addressed by the tropes of ancient skepticism. Philosophy is perennial, and so is skepticism.37 Yet ancient skepticism involves not so much an abstract epistemological position as much rather a practical philosophical attitude—a way of life.38 In the case of Augustine, for example, the search is not so much for truths, that is, true things (vera), as much rather for the Truth (veritas), that is, God (e.g., conf. 1.5.6). Thus the protagonist of the Confessions and the antagonist of the Academicians is looking for “the path of life” (conf. 6.2.2 [Ps. 15:11, Jn. 14:6]) or “the right way of life” (c. Acad. 1.5.13–1.5.14, 3.15.34). In fact, Augustine’s chief criticism of Academic skepticism may be that, whereas the Academician is ever seeking but never finding, the Christian seeks and finds (ibid., 1.2.5–1.5.14, 2.3.9).

At some point, skepticism about skepticism in the history of philosophy and skepticism about skepticism in the life of Augustine inevitably intersect. As Matthews indicates, one must question the motives that Augustine and other converts give for their actions.39 The pioneering work of MacMullen, as well, shows the complexity of conversion movements from a historical perspective.40 Also, Wilken provides balanced accounts of pagan perceptions of Christian conversion experiences and narratives that illustrate the need for judicious assessments of both sides.41 Furthermore, a study by Salzman, unrivaled both in scope and in depth, focuses on the connection between the macrocosmic level and the microcosmic level and performs an insightful induction: “Perhaps the most influential conversion account is Augustine’s narrative in … the Confessions, written around 400 C.E. … Over time, Augustine’s theological opinions changed, as did … his view of himself and his own conversion. Augustine’s text underscores the simple fact that conversion narratives are never disinterested; they are shaped by the concerns at the time they are told as the convert, in the present, tries to explain his past self to himself and to his or her audience.”42 Indeed, the conversion narrative of Augustine, that is, first and foremost the Confessions, is as interested as it is interesting. This fact is most evident at the start of Book Ten of the Confessions, where the author invites the readers to eavesdrop on those (Donatists?) who would eavesdrop on him (10.1.1–10.5.7). To be skeptical of Augustine’s conversion narrative means to be extra skeptical of that part of it which involves skepticism.

The general question emerges: What is the nature and function of Augustine’s own skepticism and what is the relation between Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism? The whole problem has three parts. The first has to do with the nature of Augustine’s skepticism, synchronic or diachronic, and with its function in his conversion. The second has to do with the relation between the skepticism of the agonizing Augustine and the skepticism of the doubting Academy. The third has to do with the deeper issue of the relation between faith and reason as well as with the broader role that skepticism plays in the formation of evidentiary belief in all areas of human knowledge. Section 1 of this essay has addressed the problem as a whole. Section 3 will analyze aspect 1; section 4, aspect 2; and section 5, aspect 3. Section 2 provides indispensable historical background information. The essay is followed by an appendix on the legitimacy of the use of the expression “Augustinian skepticism”.
2. A brief history of ancient skepticism from Plato to Cicero
Preliminary remarks. To be sure, in Against the Academicians Augustine provides his own idiosyncratic but not idiotic interpretation of the history of ancient skepticism (c. Acad. 2.5.13–2.6.15, 3.17.37–3.19.42). None the less, an independent understanding of the origin and evolution of ancient skepticism is indispensable for a sound evaluation of Augustine’s attitude toward the philosophy of the Academicians.43 For Academicism does not exhaust skepticism. To recognize this, one need only zigzag methodically between Augustine’s account and others’ accounts of Academic skepticism.

2.1. Several schools, one academy. The “Academicians” (Latin: Academici) are named after the Academy of Plato (427–347 B.C.E.) and the Platonists,44 arguably the most renowned of the famous ancient Greek schools of philosophy, the others being the Lyceum of Aristotle (384–322) and the Peripatetics,45 the Garden of Epicurus (341–271) and the Epicureans,46 and the Porch of Zeno (334–262) and the Stoics.47 Since the significant distinction between Platonism and Neoplatonism is hardly ancient and certainly not Augustinian, it would be an anachronistic distortion to project back into this “scholastic” picture a “new school” of Plotinus (204/205–270 C.E.) as well, including, for example, Porphyry (c. 233–309 C.E.) and Iamblichus (c. 242–327 C.E.) (c. Acad. 3.18.41; b. vita 1.4; conf. 7.9.13, 7.20.26, 8.2.3; civ. Dei 8.12, 10.2, 10.14, 10.30).48 Neoplatonic philosophers may represent Hellenic culture, but Neoplatonism is not representative of Hellenistic philosophy; Epicureanism, Stoicism, and, especially, Skepticism are. In addition, only at one’s own peril does one neglect Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412/403–c. 324/321) and the Cynics (c. Acad. 3.19.42).49 Bracketing out the usual problems that then arise when one tries to date gradual processes as though they were discrete events, Hellenistic philosophy may be understood, not in the political sense, as dating from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.) to the inauguration of the Emperor Augustus (29–27 B.C.E.), but in the intellectual sense, as extending from the founding of the school of Epicurus (306 B.C.E.) in Athens to the “Academic Schism” in the same city (88/87 B.C.E.). Viewed thus, Hellenistic philosophy presents a robust and vivid picture, as it did to Augustine too (ibid., 3.7.15–3.8.17).50 In brief, it is possible, though not universally conventional, to distinguish five—rather than three—stages in the evolution of the Academy from its founding by the philosopher Plato (soon after 388/387 B.C.E.) to its closing by the Emperor Justinian (529 C.E.).51

2.1.1. Phase One. The First (“Old” or “Early”) Academy, whose first and foremost figure is Plato, continues under his faithful successors, namely, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, and Crates, until the decade 270–260 (c. Acad. 2.6.14–2.6.15). As emerges from commonly accepted interpretations of pertinent dialogues such as the Meno, the Republic, and the Theaetetus, the epistemological orientation of this school is dogmatic, since it is unconditionally committed to the existence both of real knowledge and of ideal objects.52 Understandably, the post-Manichean and pre-Catholic Augustine already senses an elective and selective affinity with this brand of Platonism because, all things considered, it would seem to yield metaphysically, ethically, and epistemologically favorable foundations on which to rest certain basic tenets of orthodox Judaeo-Christianity (c. Acad. 3.17.37, 3.18.41–3.20.43).

2.1.2. Phase Two. The Second (“Middle”) Academy runs from c. 250 to c. 150, and its prominent personage is the innovative Arcesilaus of Pitane (c. 316–c. 240).53 This Academician delimits his theory of knowledge from that of Zeno of Citium (c. Acad. 3.17.38–3.17.39),54 the founding father of Stoicism who, in the face of the Epicurean epistemological position that sense-perception is basically veridical (Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus, passim; cf. c. Acad. 3.11.26),55 asserts that the wise man (the “sage”)56 either possesses knowledge in the form of infallible and incorrigible “cognitive impressions” (Greek singular: phantasia kataleptike) or withholds judgment (ibid., 2.5.11, 2.6.14).57 For his part, Arcesilaus claims that nothing can be known in this way and that all assent must therefore be withheld (ibid., 2.6.14, 3.9.21).58 According to Arcesilaus, in other words, the problem of the criterion,59 that is, the criterion of epistemic justification or knowledge, at least on the definition of Zeno, is that it represents a demand that cannot be fulfilled (ibid., 3.9.18–3.9.21). Under Arcesilaus as “scholarch” (c. 265 ff.) the Academy comes to embrace skepticism as its prominent position and suspension of judgment (epoché) as its prevailing posture.60 For a long time, the story of the Academy will involve a struggle between dogmatism and skepticism, and this will be the case not only intermurally (in relation to other schools)61 but also intramurally (within the school itself).62 Eventually, Augustine can accept neither the metaphysical materialism of the Stoics nor the epistemological skepticism of the Academicians, since the orthodox Christian faith requires belief in the existence of spiritual realities such as God, angels, and souls; he also says that Arcesilaus was already involved not in revealing but in concealing the true views of the Academy (ibid., 3.17.38).

2.1.3. Phase Three. The Third (“New” or “Late”) Academy is founded by Carneades of Cyrene (214–129), the most influential member of the skeptical Academy and a trenchant opponent of any and all doctrines or dogmas (c. Acad. 1.3.7, 2.1.1, 3.17.39–3.18.40).63 One of Carneades’s opponents is Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280–c. 206), a prolific systematizer of the Stoic teachings (ibid., 3.10.22, 3.17.39).64 Scholarch from 167 to 137, Carneades attempts to mitigate Academic skepticism with his nuanced notion of “the plausible” (Greek: to pithanon; Latin: probabile), suggesting that, while no one can know anything truthful about theoretical matters (ibid., 2.5.11), the wise man is he who understands how to conduct practical affairs under the guidance of “the truth-like” (Latin: veri simile) (ibid., 2.12.27–2.12.28).65 As a result, it is Carneades who goes down in the history of philosophy as “the father of probabilism”, though his position might be more accurately characterized as “plausibilism”.66 Significantly, it is also Carneades who, much more so than any other Academic skeptic, emerges as the principal antagonist of Augustine’s Against the Academicians, for “Carneades … was more penetrating and more vigilant than the others” (ibid., 3.17.39 [3.18.40]; cf. 3.10.22). Not insignificantly, the former professional rhetorician Augustine may well have also been aware of Carneades’ reputation as a skeptical rhetorician (cf. ibid., 3.17.39; civ. Dei 2.21; Cicero, Academica, 2.45.137; idem, De re publica, 3.5.8; Plutarch, Cato Major, 22).67

2.1.4. Phase Four. During the Fourth Academy, Philo of Larissa (c. 159–c. 83), the last undisputed head of the school (c. 110–c. 88) and the last indisputably skeptical Academic,68 argues—against the Zeitgeist of the Academicians—that the “plausible” or the “truth-like” does indeed constitute a reliable epistemic basis for both practical action and theoretical judgment.69 Observing that from the fact that the Stoic criterion of knowledge cannot be fulfilled it does not follow that knowledge cannot be achieved, Philo contends that all along the Academicians have been attacking not knowledge itself but a false conception of it. In other words, evidence, knowledge, and truth are improperly defined as universally and necessarily absolute, adequate, and apodictic, for they are mainly and mostly relative, imperfect, and questionable. Thus Philo seeks not only to revise the alleged “skepticism” of the New Academy but also to reconcile it with the accepted dogmatism of the Old Academy.70 Hence he is understandably critical of the Academicians for having allowed the Stoics to dictate the key terms of the entire debate by defining “knowledge” in accordance with untenably rigorist or unfulfillably perfectionist standards. In Against the Academicians Augustine, contemning the common-sense pragmatism that might lead to a mean between the extremes of Academic skepticism and Stoic dogmatism, lets Philo emerge only as an unrecognizably marginal figure in the development of the Academy (c. Acad. 3.18.41; cf. 2.6.15).

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