1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract



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2.1.5. Phase Five. Finally, Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130–68), a student of Philo who is sometimes considered the founder of the Fifth (“New Old”) Academy (whether he became “scholarch” is uncertain), challenges his teacher’s attempt at reconciliation (c. Acad. 2.6.15).71 The big difference between them is that, whereas Philo attacks the Stoic definition of knowledge, Antiochus defends it.72 The rift begins in the decade 100–90 and the break or “Academic Schism” occurs in the year 88–87, after which date the Athenian schools of philosophy generally also never fully recover their cultural hegemony. Regarding the skepticism of the Academy from Arcesilaus to Philo as a genuine aberration, Antiochus seeks to return the school to its original, orthodox, and allegedly legitimate Platonism.73 In doing so, however, Antiochus also makes consequential concessions to the Stoics, especially with respect to the existence and function of “cognitive impressions”, which are considered to be sensuous perceptions derived from and relating to material realities.74 Accordingly, in Against the Academicians Augustine, who regards Stoic materialism and Skeptic empiricism as antithetical to Christian metaphysics and epistemology, also rejects the materialism and empiricism of Antiochus as incompatible with the idealism of Plato; he even characterizes his opponent as “that Platonic straw man” who “infiltrated” the “sanctuary” of Platonism and infected it with the “evil” of Stoicism (ibid., 3.18.41). Given Augustine’s pronounced preference for the Old Academy over the New Academy (ibid., 3.18.41–3.20.43), it is no wonder that he has little sympathy for Antiochus’s revisionist agenda of Stoicizing Platonism or of “materializing idealism”.


2.1.6. The Ciceronian connection. Within this horizon, Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), a student of both Philo at Rome (88–86) and of Antiochus in Greece (79–77),75 depicts, in his dialogue Academica (45),76 the debate between the skepticism of the New Academy and the dogmatism of the (New) “Old” Academy, whereby his own sympathies lie not with the latter but with the former.77 This work constitutes the prime source of Augustine’s knowledge of the skeptical philosophy of the Academicians.78 But agnosticism is appropriate on the question of which version of Cicero’s work Augustine relied on.79 In any case, there is no sound evidence for the sanguine statement: “In this hesitant state of mind [at Milan in 384] Augustine devoured books by sceptical philosophers, dogmatically assertive about the uncertainty and inconclusiveness of all received opinions, of sense-perception, and of the power of words to tell one anything important that one does not really know already.”80 Ironically, Augustine regards Cicero not only as someone who exhorts others to the pursuit of wisdom (c. Acad. 1.1.4, 3.4.7, 3.14.31) but also as someone who, as an Academic skeptic, does not believe in the possibility of its achievement (ibid., 1.3.7–1.3.8, 2.1.1, 3.7.15, 3.20.45; cf. civ. Dei 4.30, 6.2).

2.2. Augustine on the agenda of the Academicians. According to Against the Academicians, the history of the Academy is an epic story of the triumph of confidence in knowledge over diffidence about knowledge. But Augustine also includes an intriguing interpretive twist of his own design. It consists of the counterintuitive and controversial claim—based on the distinction between an esoteric teaching and an exoteric teaching—that the Academicians were not genuine but apparent skeptics, since they really did know the truth and actually did admit it (c. Acad. 2.1.1, 2.10.24, 2.13.29–2.13.30, 3.17.37, 3.18.40, 3.20.43; ep. 1.1). The real plan of the Academicians, according to Augustine, was to use Skeptic empiricism, which they had never accepted, to protect Platonic idealism, which they had never rejected, from Stoic materialism.81 On this interpretation, Antiochus’s arguments had not strengthened but weakened the Academic agenda. Thus Augustine would question whether Antiochus could account for those intellectual perceptions whose validity would necessarily be presupposed by knowledge of ideal forms and of spiritual realities (God, angels, souls, et cetera).

In Against the Academicians, then, Augustine considers himself to be attacking not the philosophy of the Academicians properly understood but rather a commonly accepted yet inadequate interpretation of it. It is noteworthy that he appeals to Cicero (cf. Academica, frag. 21; cf. also ibid., 2.18.60) to substantiate his own interpretation of the hidden agenda of the Academicians (c. Acad. 3.20.43). To be sure, historians of philosophy are justifiably skeptical of Augustine’s account of the actual agenda of the Academicians. None the less, this account cannot be dismissed without further ado. For the Academicians do aim their arguments primarily and ultimately not at the possibility of intellectual knowledge in the Platonic sense but at the impossibility of sensual certainty in the Stoic sense. Thus, as Augustine understands the “skeptical” Academicians, they are at least not irrevocably precluding the possibility that some “knowledge” of “truth” be achievable not in the sensible but in the intelligible realm (ep. 118.16–118.21, esp. 118.20 [date: 410/411]).

It is also noteworthy that in Against the Academicians Augustine gives not one account but two accounts of the history of the Academy. In the first, succinct account, provided by the character Alypius, Augustine prefers to work with the simple two-fold distinction between the “Old Academy” and the “New Academy”, whereby the former refers to the dogmatic school of Plato and the latter relates to the skeptical school of Arcesilaus, Carneades, et al. (c. Acad. 2.5.13–2.6.15). In the second, detailed account, presented by the character Augustine (3.17.37–3.19.42), Augustine elaborates on the original primitive juxtaposition in such a way as to acknowledge that “Carneades is also said to have been the leader as well as the founder of a Third Academy” (3.18.40).

2.3. Limitations of Augustine’s reflections on skepticism. Throughout one must recognize that, however intense his experience of skepticism as an intellectual challenge and as a moral concern may have been, Augustine displays limited knowledge of the theory and practice of it as a philosophical phenomenon.82

First and foremost, for example, the author of Against the Academicians displays no awareness of the most radical variety of ancient skepticism, namely, Pyrrhonism.83 Yet it is Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365–c. 275), in fact, who must be regarded as the founder of Greek skepticism.84 For Pyrrho claims that knowledge is impossible, not because of the contingent inadequacy of the human cognitive capacities, but because of the necessary indeterminacy in the nature of things.85 His position is that, given that nothing at all really “is” in truth and that nothing in particular is any “more” “this” than “that” (Greek: ou mallon), human beings inevitably experience things in such a way as to generate an ineradicable lack of comprehension (akatalepsia) (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Views of Eminent Philosophers, 9.11.61 ff.); his argument is that, given the equipollence (isosthenia) yielded by the opposition (antithesis) between appearances (phainomena) or the objects of sense perception (aistheta), on the one hand, and judgments (noumena) or the objects of mental apprehension (noeta), on the other hand, the only reasonable reaction is a rigorous suspension of judgment (epoché) (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.4.8–10).86 This move is supposed to lead to happiness (eudaimonia) understood as tranquility (ataraxia), that is, the end or goal (telos) of skepticism (ibid.).87 The decisive evidentiary consideration is this: “Pyrrhonists do not assent to anything unclear.”88 The point is that, according to the Pyrrhonists, there is nothing that is not in some prohibitive sense unclear. Remarkably, neither Pyrrho nor Pyrrhonism are mentioned in any of Augustine’s accounts of skepticism.

The same holds for Sextus Empiricus (fl. c. 200 C.E.) and for his brand of “Empiricism”,89 which is also concerned with the problem of the epistemic criterion.90 The same holds again for those key figures who perform the essential function of linking the original Pyrrhonism of Pyrrho and the revived Pyrrhonism of Sextus, for example, Aenesidemus (First Century B.C.E.), who describes the dispute between Philo and Antiochus as “Stoics fighting with Stoics” (cf. frag. 71 C9 [Long and Sedley]).91 Another such figure would be Agrippa (First-Second Century C.E.).92 And so on. The intimate relations and fine distinctions between Academic skepticism and Pyrrhonian skepticism, though they play no thematic roles in Augustine’s Against the Academicians, continue to pose perplexing problems for contemporary philosophers.93

Moreover, the incipient inspiration for Greek skepticism may have come from none other than Plato’s own illustrious mentor. For example, in response to the Delphic oracle’s assertion that no one were wiser than himself, Socrates (469–399) says that genuine wisdom is nothing other than the realization that human wisdom is relatively worthless. For the “critical” Socrates is understood to be saying that he does not believe that he knows what he does not know, whereas the “skeptical” Socrates is understood to be saying that he believes that he does not know anything (Plato, Apology, 20c–23b).94 Given this ambiguity, Augustine would probably not have found the affinity between Platonism and skepticism appealing, though the Academicians certainly would have appreciated it.95

Furthermore, there is the seminal skepticism of the Pre-Socratic Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 580/577–485/480), who may be the first significant Greek thinker on record to express systematic skepticism (cf. frag. 34 [Diels-Kranz]):96 “And no man knows, or ever will know, the truth about the gods and about everything of which I speak; for, even if one did chance to say the complete truth, yet one knows it not oneself; but seeming is wrought over all things [or fancy is wrought in the case of all men].”97 Again, the linkage between philosophy and skepticism seems unbreakable.

Finally, there is the strikingly premodern postmodernism of that sophistic deconstructionist, Gorgias of Leontini (late fifth century B.C.E.), who in his treatise On Not-Being or On the Nature of Things argues for his own kind of skepticism against Parmenides’ perceived dogmatic realism:98 “Nothing exists. If anything exists, it is unintelligible. If anything is intelligible, it is incommunicable.”99 It would be hard to find a more concise and precise statement of skepticism in the history of philosophy.

Thus there is evidence here, too, that skepticism is about as old as philosophy itself.100 Yet absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and in Against the Academicians Augustine hardly attempts to distinguish himself as a historian of philosophy or of the Academy or of skepticism.101 Hence Against the Academicians does not represent “an answer to the skeptics” without further ado on the part of Augustine. For him, but not for others, skepticism is Academicism (to bracket out, for the moment, his own unique interpretation of the actual agenda of the Academicians).

Provisional results. This all too brief history of ancient skepticism shows several things. For instance: Not all Academicians were skeptics and not all skeptics were Academicians. Not all Platonists were Academicians and not all Academicians were Platonists. Not all academics were Academicians and not all Academicians were academics. In any case, there are several different legitimate perspectives on these developments. For example, Philo implausibly claims that there has only ever been one Academy; Antiochus unconvincingly refers to his school as the “Old Academy” in juxtaposition to the “New Academy” of Arcesilaus, Carneades, and Philo; and Cicero simply distinguishes between the Old Academy of the Platonists and the New Academy of the Skeptics—an approach that Augustine mainly and mostly takes as well.

By means of this Entstehungs- und Entwicklungsgeschichte of Academic skepticism, a small but solid foundation has been laid for the reconstruction of Augustinian skepticism. It is crucial to remember that in retrospect Augustine does not want to be viewed as attacking “the Academicians” in any sweeping sense (c. Acad. 1.9.24–1.9.25, 2.1.1, 2.9.22–2.10.24, 3.15.34, 3.17.37–3.20.43, 3.20.45). On the contrary, he emphasizes that, when he first became aware of their arguments (383/384), he had not yet understood their agenda, and that, once he did understand it (386/387), he then sought to distinguish between the Academicians and the skeptics (conf. 5.10.19, 5.14.25). In so far as he thinks that the agenda of Academicism can be made to serve the purposes of Platonism, Augustine is eager to defend the Academic “skeptics” against others as well as against themselves. Indeed, Augustine may have been thinking (c. Acad. 3.17.37, 3.18.41): ‘Amici Academici, sed magis amica veritas.’ He might also prefer to refer to his work about the Academicians not as “Against (contra) the Academicians” but as “On (de) the Academicians” (retr. 1.1.1, 1.2, 1.3.1).

In the end, Augustine will do almost anything to save the Academy, Plato’s Academy, from skepticism, even going so far as to try to convince posterity that the Academicians were not really skeptics after all. (If one cannot take the Academy away from the skeptics, then one must take the skeptics out of the Academy!) Throughout, his constant concern is to overcome the false dilemma of being forced to choose either the conviction of the cognitive impression recommended by the Stoics or the hesitation of the judgmental suspension advocated by the Skeptics. Attempting to eat his cake and to have it too, Augustine aims to accomplish this task by proposing an acceptable epistemological alternative that is also completely compatible with a profound commitment to orthodox Judaeo-Christianity. Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism eventually emerge as distinct approaches to inseparable issues.
3. In his own words: The role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion narrative
Preliminary remarks. According to the standard interpretation, there was a period of his life during which Augustine adopted the epistemology of the Academicians, and it was this Academic skepticism that at the same time prevented him from converting to orthodox Christianity.102 Given the demonstrable limitations of this interpretation, two questions suggest themselves. The first pertains to skepticism in regard to reason, and the second, to skepticism in regard to faith: Was Augustine an “epistemological skeptic”, that is, did he doubt the attainability of evidence, knowledge, and truth by the human being? And was Augustine a “religious skeptic”, that is, did he doubt the validity of faith in religion generally or in Christianity specifically? (The natural follow-up question in each case is: If he did doubt, then when and for how long?) Evidently, even if the answer to the second question were to be positive, it would not preclude a negative answer to the first question. If the order is reversed, then the situation is again altered, since, although the Academicians generally were not noted for being hostile to religious convictions, their brand of skepticism was much more radical than that which a human being of common sense would usually bring to issues of religious belief.

But now one must talk cases. When one does so, then the Confessions, by virtue of their length, breadth, and depth, assume primacy and ultimacy in the interpretation of the role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion experience and conversion narrative. Since so much is known about Augustine’s life and conversion, one might be tempted to assume that what is known outweighs what is not known and to presume that much more is known than is known. On the other hand, in the Confessions Augustine admits that there are many things that he is not mentioning and that there are many things that he does not remember (3.12.21), as well as that no human being can know whether what he writes is true and that he cannot prove to anyone that what he says is true (10.3.3). Therefore, one should not suppose that everything happened exactly as Augustine says (retr. 2.6.1). Accordingly, in the Confessions Augustine also concedes that his credibility depends on others’ charity (10.3.3).


So what can one know about Augustine’s skepticism on a skeptical approach to the phenomenon? The purpose of the following elucidations is not to say something about skepticism in every book of the Confessions but to pick up on and to go beyond certain previous essays that have touched on the role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion,103 and to do so by showing that Augustine’s conversion narrative, read “sub specie dubitationis”, yields a philosophically valuable argument about the kind of skepticism that transcends Academicism. The core thesis of this argument is that what the human being can and does know only becomes thematic within a horizon of what the human being does not and cannot know, and that therefore faith plays a more primary and ultimate role than reason in the quest for answers to life’s questions. Hence there is the question of Academic skepticism, but there is also the question of Augustinian skepticism. These kinds of skepticism are two distinct but inseparable parts of one whole. It turns out that Augustine beats the Academicians at their own game, which is not a zero-sum game after all.

3.1. Book One: A quest for truth and the quest for the Truth. Covering his life in Thagaste and Madaura from 354 to 369, Augustine begins by wondering whether faith or understanding is primary and ultimate (1.1.1). From the start, he articulates a skeptical anthropology, pleading ignorance of his own origin (1.6.7; cf. 9.11.37): “I do not know whence I have come here.” Nor can he find this knowledge within himself (1.6.7, 1.6.10, 1.7.12): “For I do not remember.” He can only gather bits and pieces of his earliest life, not from recollection but from report, drawing speculative analogies between self and others by employing indirect inference based on empirical observation (1.6.8, 1.6.10, 1.7.12). He also does not know who or what or even whether he was before he became who he is (1.6.9). As for that period of this life which he does not remember, Augustine is reluctant to assume responsibility for that of which he does not recall a single trace because it is “lost in the darkness of [his] forgetfulness”; he brackets it out of the inquiry (1.7.12). The first major thing that he claims to retain is the big difference between being a speechless baby and being a speaking boy (1.8.13): “This I do remember.” Yet, when he is sent to school, Augustine does not then understand for what knowledge is supposed to be useful (1.9.14). Sanctified as an infant but not baptized as a boy, he is a believer, though not one of the faithful (1.11.17). His early attitude toward education is not skeptical but cynical (1.12.19): “I learned nothing unless compelled.” Augustine notes that the seeds of the Catholic religion were implanted in his heart as a boy (c. Acad. 2.2.5). Hence his spiritual transformation is not only a conversion but also a reversion. Throughout the Confessions Augustine maintains that ‘Deus est veritas’.104 The idea is that, as truth makes no sense without the Truth, so does a search for truth also make no sense without a search for the Truth.

3.2. Book Two: The search for knowledge of motives. With the elliptical treatment of the ambiguous bathhouse incident (2.3.6–2.3.8) and with the detailed investigation into the allusive pear tree incident (2.4.9–2.10.18)—the transition between the two accounts is strikingly seamless—Augustine mounts a sustained meditation on the impenetrable opaqueness of human moral motivation: Why do human beings sin (2.5.11)? The pear tree incident prompts Augustine also to ask why he himself does evil (2.4.9, 2.6.12, 2.9.17). He answers with a long list of causes and conditions, including the aesthetic attraction of physical things (2.5.10), the seductive pleasures of human friendship (2.5.10, 2.8.16–2.9.17), and the prodigious prodigality of a human being determined to turn away from the divine being (2.5.10, 2.6.13–2.6.14, 2.10.18). The analogy to the forbidden fruit incident in Genesis is not valid without further ado, since allegedly the first human beings, unlike subsequent human beings, were born without original sin. While the motives of sin are as numerous as the vices (2.6.13), the cause in Augustine’s own case is said to be clear (2.4.9; cf. 2.6.12, 2.8.16): “… there was no cause of my malice other than malice. It was loathsome, and I loved it ….” Augustine posits that his nature is so naturally corrupt that he does not need a specific motive for the sins that he commits, and that the same holds for human beings generally (1.7.11–1.7.12). Hence the bathhouse incident and the pear tree incident mutually elucidate each other; the dramatic place and time of both is Thagaste, 369/370 (2.3.5, 2.6.12). The problem is the overdetermination of the actions of a human being who is so full of disordered desires that they do not need a determinate motivation to sin—peccare humanum est. The inquiry into motives ends not with an answer but with a question (2.10.18): “Who can untie this extremely twisted and tangled bundle of knots?” This skeptical motif defines a work that consists to a large extent of an introspective conversion narrative. Thus Augustine responds to the Delphic Imperative (“Know thyself!”) both with confidence and with diffidence. But the opaqueness of moral motivation does not compromise the transparence of moral action. For it is easy to know that what one is doing is wrong, even then when it is hard to understand why one is doing it.


3.3. Book Three: From philosophy to gnosticism. Augustine is in love with love (3.1.1), but this does not prevent him from going to the top of his class in a school of rhetoric (3.3.6). Thus his life, intimate and academic, is defined by a dichotomy, passionate and intellectual. If one distinguishes between two senses of “conversion”, namely, conversion as process and conversion as event, then Augustine’s conversion from rhetoric to philosophy is foundational for his conversion from Manicheism to Christianity. The dramatic place and time of the book is Carthage/Thagaste, 370–373.

3.3.1. Conversion to philosophy. It is a book by a pagan skeptic, ironically, that enthuses Augustine for philosophy (3.4.7): “… and in the customary course of study I had … gotten to a book by a certain Cicero, whose tongue, though not his heart, almost all admire. But this book of his is called ‘Hortensius’ and it contains an exhortation to philosophy. Indeed, the book changed my feelings, it altered my prayers to you, O Lord, and it rendered my petitions and my desires different. Every vain hope suddenly became valueless for me, with unbelievable intensity in my heart I longed for the immortality of wisdom, and I began to rise up, in order that I might return to you. For it was not for a sharpening of my language … and of my locution that I read and reread that book; rather, it was what it said that persuaded me.” Augustine understands philosophy as the “love of wisdom”, a notion which would then seem to make no sense if there were no wisdom to attain (3.4.8). Hence there is early evidence of tangible tension between philosophy and skepticism.



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