1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


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3.3.2. Aversion to revealed truth. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament caution against pseudosophia (Col. 2:8–9, Prov. 9:1–18). But Augustine fails to heed Cicero’s advice “not to study one particular sect but to love and to seek and to pursue and to grasp and to embrace wisdom itself, wherever it is found” (3.4.8). So not on substantive but on stylistic grounds does he precipitately and indiscriminately contemn the Bible, which in any case he cannot even begin to understand (3.5.9).

3.3.3. To the preachers of truth in search of truth. Augustine falls in with those who preach but do not practice “truth”, the Manicheans (3.6.10): “They used to say, ‘Truth, truth’, and they had a lot to tell me about it; but there was never any truth in them.” Yet, if there is tension between philosophy and skepticism, there is also tension between philosophy and Manicheism, for “philosophers have said many things that are true”, whereas most of what the Manicheans say is false (ibid.). On the one hand, having read Cicero’s Hortensius, Augustine has become a seeker of the truth (ibid.): “Truth, truth: How in my inmost being the very marrow of my mind sighed for you!” On the other hand, his initial mistake is to pursue the truth along the path of Mani (3.6.11): “By what steps was I led down into the ‘depths of hell’, where … I was toiling and sweating from a lack of the true, since I was seeking you, my God … not according to the intellection of the mind … but according to the sensation of the flesh.” The search for the cause of evil leads Augustine to Manicheism, and the Manichean “solution” to the problem of evil misleads him for a long time (3.7.12): “… I thought that I was going toward the truth while I was going away from it.”

3.3.4. Book Three: On balance. Emotional exuberance aside, one should not overestimate the significance of Augustine’s “conversion to philosophy” by Cicero’s protreptic. For Augustine later emphasizes that he did not really convert to genuine philosophy by reading Cicero, and he does so more than once (6.11.18; 8.7.17).

3.4. Book Four: Between superstition and religion. Augustine leads a life of dualism. Publicly, he is a professor of the liberal arts; privately, he is a professor of a superstitious sect (4.1.1). The dramatic place and time of the book is Thagaste/Carthage, 373/374–381/382.

3.4.1. No doubt about the truth of astrology. Augustine’s involvement with astrology is a case study in the uncritical formation of his unexamined beliefs; it shows that he is not a skeptic in regard to those beliefs which he finds credible. For example, taking a critical but selective approach to the different forms of divination, Augustine rejects divination by those soothsayers who perform animal sacrifice but accepts divination by those astrologers who cast horoscopes. Adhering to a worldview according to which the future is predetermined and thus predictable (a certain kind of determinism is a central tenet of Manicheism), Augustine listens neither to the prudent physician Vindicianus, who denies the claims both of divination and of astrology, nor to his friend of keen wit, Nebridius (4.2.3–4.3.6). Characteristically, Augustine shifts the burden of proof on to others. For he does not attempt to prove to them why they should believe in astrology; rather, he demands of them that they try to demonstrate to him why he should not. The point is that there is a negative analogy between Augustine’s thinking on astrology and his thinking on Christianity. For he does not first believe in the Christian religion and then wait for proof of why he should not do so; rather, he requires proof of belief before believing. Nor is Augustine skeptical of his own reasons for believing in astrology; rather, he is skeptical of the reasons of those who would get him to stop believing in it. There is a real difference between belief in religion and belief in superstition here. But Augustine applies a double standard.

3.4.2. The death of truth and the truth of death. The main event of the book, the inexplicable death of the dear friend, causes Augustine to realize the enigmatic nature of his own existence (4.4.7–4.12.19, esp. 4.4.9 [cf. 10.33.50]): “I had become a big question to myself, and I asked my soul why it was sad and why it was disturbing me so, and it had nothing to say to me in response.” The central message of the book, framed by the main event, has to do with trust and truth, and it provides an anticipatory answer to the big question (4.11.16): “Entrust to the truth whatever is yours from the truth and you will not lose anything ….” But this will take some time.

3.4.3. In the presence and absence of the truth. The problem is that one can be in the presence of the truth without perceiving it (4.14.23): “See how the soul lies weak so long as it is not yet attached to the solidity of the truth. The winds of speeches blow from the chests of those who opine, so that the soul is churned and turned, twisted and twisted back again, and the light is obscured from it by a cloud, and the truth is not perceived. Yet look, it is right in front of us.” Augustine confuses mind and matter (4.15.24): “And I turned to the nature of the mind, but the false opinion that I held about spiritual entities did not allow me to perceive the truth. And the force of the true leapt into my eyes, but I used to turn away my agitated mind from incorporeal reality to … physical magnitudes, and, because I could not see such things in the mind, I thought that I could not see my mind.” He has not yet arrived at the view that it is God who provides the illumination that enables the human soul to exercise its rational capacity for avoiding error and achieving truth (4.15.25): “The rational mind in me was then such that I did not know that it needs to be illuminated by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth, for you will light my lamp, Lord, you, my God, will lighten my darkness, and of your fullness we have all received. For you are the true light who illuminates every human being coming into this world, because in you there is no change or shadow of a moment.” He thinks that both he and God are of the same material, mutable substance (4.15.26). He does not appreciate the connection between truths and Truth (4.16.30): “And I enjoyed reading the books of the liberal arts, and I did not know the source of what was true and certain in them. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things that are illuminated. So my face, by which I perceived the things illuminated, was not itself illuminated.” Augustine does not see the light; he only sees the things lit by it.

3.4.4. Book Four: On balance. In a glance back at the distinction between religion and superstition, Augustine admits that at this time “[his] understanding of religion” was “erroneous, distorted, and shamefully sacrilegious” (4.16.31).

3.5. Book Five: From gnosticism to skepticism. Augustine refers to the Academicians and describes the role of their skepticism in his struggle against superstition. His attitude toward them is not ambiguous but ambivalent. The dramatic place and time of the book is Carthage/Rome/Milan, 382/383–383/384.

3.5.1. First doubts about the truth of Manicheism. Augustine sets the scene for the decisive action of the book (5.1.1–5.2.2). Anticipating the account of the encounter with Faustus the Manichean, he remarks (5.3.3): “And, since I had read many things of the philosophers … I compared some of them with the lengthy fables of the Manicheans, and the things that the philosophers had said seemed to me more probable.” The “philosophers” are the “natural philosophers”, that is, those who engage in the scientific study of the celestial bodies and their activities (5.3.3–5.4.7). On the one hand, the author of the Confessions finds that these philosophers go wrong in that they miss the creator for the creatures (‘those who know both God and nature are no better off than those who know God but not nature’) (5.3.3–5.3.5, 5.4.7). On the other hand, the subject of the Confessions sees that they make many true observations about the natural world (5.3.4–5.3.6). In a case of mathematics versus mythology, Augustine realizes that, compared with what the philosophers have said about natural phenomena, what the Manicheans say is fanciful foolishness (5.3.6–5.5.9).

3.5.2. The indeterminacy of science and the uncertainty of superstition. The encounter between Augustine and Faustus, who is unable to explain the story about the world told by Mani and the Manicheans, brings to a climax the development that has been long running (5.3.3, 5.6.10–5.7.13). According to Augustine, Mani is unwise, impious, and vain, for he claims to know recondite things that he does not know (5.3.6, 5.5.8–5.5.9). In a last attempt to save the phenomena, however, it occurs to Augustine that the mythology of the Manicheans may at least be consistent with the mathematics of the philosophers (5.5.9): “But I had still not yet clearly ascertained whether [the natural phenomena] about which I had read in other books could not also be explained in accordance with the words of Mani, so that, if perhaps this were possible, then it would … become a matter of uncertainty to me whether these things were this way or that, but I could advance his authority, based on the belief in his sanctity, to support my faith in him.” What appeals to Augustine is the prospect of exploiting uncertainty to salvage the authority of Mani and thus his own belief in Manicheism. Hence he also entertains the possibility of using skepticism to support Manicheism in an indirect way.

3.5.3. A first allusion to the skeptics. Yet the encounter with the eloquent but inept Faustus proves disappointing for an Augustine who has waited far too long for a gnostic to deliver the gnosis of gnosticism (5.3.3). He observes that it is possible to speak persuasively but not veraciously and vice versa (5.6.10): “But I realized that there were human beings of a different kind, who held even the truth for suspect, and who were even then unwilling to acquiesce in it when it was presented in an elegant and fluent speech.” It is not only possible but also plausible that this is a first reference, an oblique one, to a dawning awareness of the existence of the skeptics.105

3.5.4. Disillusionment with Manicheism. Augustine, unable to confront Faustus in public debate (5.6.11), ascertains in private discussion that the Manichean is uncultivated in the liberal arts (5.7.12). Augustine recalls the net result of his encounter with Faustus (5.7.13): “And thus the enthusiasm that I had directed at the writings of Mani was diminished, and I felt even greater despair of learning from the other Manichean teachers after having consulted, on the many points that disturbed me, the man who was particularly distinguished ….” The crisis is resolved in a makeshift fashion (ibid.): “… my entire effort, on which I had resolved, to make progress in that sect was totally abandoned, once I had come to know that human being [Faustus]—not that I would completely separate from the Manicheans, but rather that, since, as it were, I had not found anything more satisfactory than that into which I had already somehow fallen, I decided to be content for the time being unless perhaps something that were preferable should come to light.” Embarrassed, Augustine continues to associate with the Manicheans, though he no longer defends Manicheism with his previous zeal (5.9.16–5.10.19).

3.5.5. First mention of the Academicians: positive. Augustine notes his initial impression of the “Academicians” (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.” At this point, Augustine has no hope that the truth can be found in the Catholic Church; it is not the Academicians but the Manicheans who have dispossessed him of that notion (ibid.; cf. 5.13.23). But he has become convinced of the usefulness of skepticism, and thus he takes the extraordinary step of challenging the excessive trust that his Manichean host puts in the Manichean fables (5.10.19). At this point, too, Augustine also does not believe that anything exists that is not material, and this is the principal, if not exclusive, cause of his error (ibid.).

3.5.6. Suspension of judgment. Augustine is motivated to rethink Catholicism (5.10.20): “For, when my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was then rebuffed, because the Catholic faith was not what I thought it to be.” In fact, Augustine had grown accustomed to believing what Manicheism said about Catholicism (5.11.21). Yet under the influence of Ambrose (5.12.22–5.13.23) Augustine changes his view of the Catholic faith (5.14.24): “For … the things that he [Ambrose] said also began … to seem to me to be defensible, and I did not any longer think it impudent to assert the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said against the Manicheans attacking it ….” Despite the fact that Augustine is impressed with Ambrose’s application of the distinction between the spirit and the letter to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, he still does not find any sufficient reason for converting from Manicheism to Catholicism (ibid.): “However, I did not think that I would therefore have to hold to the Catholic path just because it too had learned people who asserted its claims and refuted its objections with abundance and without absurdity, nor did I think that I would therefore have to condemn what I was holding just because the defenses for both sides were equally balanced. For, the way it looked to me, the Catholic side did not seem to have been vanquished, but it also did not yet appear to have been victorious.” There is an unmistakable skeptical motif here. For the scales of evidence seem to be so equally balanced that any decision has been made impossible and any action has been rendered unfeasible. Hence judgment is to be suspended.

3.5.7. Second mention of the Academicians: neutral. But Augustine does take a major step away from Manicheism and toward Catholicism (5.14.25): “Then, in fact, I energetically applied my mind to see whether I could somehow convict the Manicheans of error by means of any certain proofs. If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, then all their contrivances would have immediately collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not do this. However, considering and comparing more and more, I judged that, in regard to the physical world and all the nature that is accessible to the bodily senses, most philosophers held views much more probable than theirs. And thus, doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians, as they are held to do, I resolved at least that the Manicheans should be abandoned, thinking at that time of my doubtfulness 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. I therefore decided, for the time being, to be a catechumen in the Catholic Church, which had been commended to me by my parents, until there would shine the light of something certain by which I could direct my course.” Thus Augustine goes from being a hearer in the Manichean sect to being a catechumen in the Catholic Church, and he does this while “doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians”. To be sure, he justifies his decision with a preference for Academic skepticism over Manichean dogmatism. None the less, while he uses Academic epistemology against Manichean mythology, he is not an Academician in any other sense than an opportunistic one. For Augustine appreciates that Academicians are not and cannot be Christians.

3.5.8. Book Five: On balance. The skeptical reservations that motivate Augustine to move slowly away from Manicheism also prevent him from moving quickly toward Catholicism. “Doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians”, Augustine resolves to abandon the Manicheans, refuses to commit himself to the Academicians (or to any philosophers who are not Christians), and decides to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church. During the ‘time of his dubitation’, then, Augustine becomes not an Academic skeptic but a Catholic catechumen. All this contradicts the standard interpretation according to which Augustine became an Academic skeptic upon becoming acquainted with the Academic philosophy. Therefore the standard interpretation is wrong. Right is that without becoming an Academic skeptic Augustine used the Academic philosophy to move from Manichean superstition to Christian religion. Augustinian skepticism does not discriminate, being critical of Manicheans, Academicians, and Christians.

3.6. Book Six: From skepticism to Catholicism. In Book Five Augustine has moved from Manicheism to skepticism; in Book Six he will move from skepticism to Catholicism. The point is that skepticism and Academicism are not the same thing. In fact, one is about to witness the genesis of Augustinian skepticism out of the altercation with Academic skepticism. The dramatic place and time of the book is Milan, 384/385.

3.6.1. The skeptic between falsehood and truth. Augustine has landed in diffidence and desperation (6.1.1): “I both lacked faith in and despaired of the discovery of the true.” But the state in which Monnica has found him is not utterly lacking in confidence and hope (ibid.): “… she found me in the grave danger of someone who has lost all hope of discovering the truth, yet still, when I indicated to her that at least I was not now a Manichean, but also not a Catholic Christian, she did not then leap for joy as if she had heard some unexpected news ….” Augustine is in a kind of limbo for skeptics (ibid.): “… I had not yet attained the truth, but I had now been rescued from falsehood ….” Ambrose congratulates Augustine on having such a mother as Monnica, not realizing what kind of son she has, namely, “someone who doubted all these [Catholic Christian] things and who thought it hardly possible to find ‘the way of life’” (6.2.2). In the face of an abysmal chasm, Augustine has let the search process become the matter sought (6.3.3): “I had not yet sighed in prayer that you [Lord] might come to my aid; rather, my mind was intent on inquiry and restless for debate ….” He risks becoming one who ever seeks but never finds.

3.6.2. The certainty of the uncertainty of “the certain”. Listening to the sermons of Ambrose, Augustine begins to understand how the distinction between the spirit and the letter (2 Cor. 3:6) enables Sacred Scripture to make sense (6.3.4): “… more and more it was confirmed for me that all the knots of clever calumnies, which those deceivers of ours [the Manicheans] had devised against the divine books, could be dissolved.” Although he cannot yet conceive of spiritual substance, Augustine does realize that he has long been attacking not the Catholic faith but mental figments of physical images. He who thought that he knew what he did not know about the doxic content of the Catholic faith describes the gradual realization that what he thought was certain is uncertain (6.4.5): “… the more the concern about what I could hold on to as certain gnawed at my vitals, the more I was ashamed that I, having for such a long time been deluded by and deceived with the promise of things certain, had, with childish error and enthusiasm, spouted so many uncertain things as certain. For, that these things were false, later became clear to me. It was certain [at the time], however, that they were uncertain, and that they had once been treated by me as certain, namely, then when I contended against [the] Catholic Church with blind accusations—and, if I did not yet know that the Church taught true things, yet I did now know that she did not teach the things of which I harshly accused her. And thus I was confounded, and I was being converted, and I was glad … that the one Church … did not entertain infantile follies ….” This conversion experience involves a transition from apparent certainty to genuine uncertainty and back again to real certainty. For it is not the things that Augustine does not know that get him into trouble; it is the things that he “knows” that are not so. Like Socrates, he has achieved “learned ignorance”, in that he no longer believes that he knows what he does not know (Plato, Apology, 20c–23b).

3.6.3. An unrealistic demand for certainty as the cause of doubt. Augustine sees that Ambrose’s hermeneutics may remove negative reasons for not believing Sacred Scripture (again, 2 Cor. 3:6), but that it does not provide positive reasons for believing it (6.4.6): “… he did not say anything that would have offended me, though I still did not know whether the things that he said were true. Fearing a precipitate plunge, I withheld my heart from any assent, and due to the suspension I died all the more. For I wanted to become as certain of the things that I could not see as I was certain that seven and three are ten. Indeed, I was not so mad that I would have thought that not even this could be known; rather, as I knew this, so did I desire to know other things, whether physical things which were not present to my senses, or spiritual matters about which I knew no way of thinking except in physical terms.” This is as close as Augustine comes in the Confessions to establishing a criterion of certitude (cf. c. Acad. 2.3.9; lib. arb. 2.8.21, 2.12.34; ep. 162.2). He is caught in a vicious circle of skepticism: Only by believing can he enjoy believing what is true, and only by believing may he suffer believing what is false. The problem is that his fear of believing what is false outweighs his hope of believing what is true (6.4.6): “And by believing I could have been healed. … [I] would have been directed in some measure toward [the] truth …. But … while [I] could not be healed except by believing, [I] was refusing to be healed for fear of believing what is false.” It is the skeptic’s dilemma. How to overcome it?

3.6.4. The emergence of Augustinian skepticism. Recognizing that the truths of the Christian faith are not susceptible of mathematical demonstration, Augustine changes both his approach and his attitude (6.5.7): “From then on, however, and now preferring the Catholic teaching, I felt that it was more modest and not in the least misleading to be told, in that teaching, that that should be believed which could not be demonstrated—whether there be something of the sort, though perhaps not to everyone, or not be something of the sort—rather than, in another teaching [Manicheism], to have credulity be mocked with a rash promise of knowledge and then afterwards to be ordered to believe many most fabulous and absurd things because they could not be demonstrated.” Evidently, then, the skepticism that has been preventing Augustine from converting to orthodox Christianity is less Academic skepticism and more the ordinary skepticism of the thoughtful person of common sense who demands compelling reasons for assenting to the doxic content of an otherwise incredible religion. In this respect, Catholicism, which places faith before reason, proves incomparably superior to Manicheism, which put reason before faith.

3.6.5. The reliability of testimony. The credibility of testimony is foundational (6.5.7): “… I considered the innumerable things that I believed which I did not see, and the innumerable things that then occurred when I was not present, such as so many things in the history of the nations, so many things concerning countries and cities that I had not seen, so many things accepted from friends, so many from physicians, so many from other human beings, and so many other things, such that, unless we believed them, we would do nothing at all in this life, and, finally, with what unshakable faith I retained the conviction about the parents from whom I had originated, which I could not know unless I believed what I had heard ….” Augustine does not deny but rather affirms the key role of a higher power in the formation and fixation of his beliefs (ibid.): “… you [Lord] persuaded me that to be faulted are not those who would believe your books, which you have established with such great authority among almost all nations, but those who would not believe them, and that the latter are not then to be listened to if they would say to me: ‘How do you know that these books have been provided for the human race by the Spirit of the one true and most truthful God?’ For that very thing was to be believed most of all, since no pugnaciousness based on tricky questions of the kind about which I had read so much in the mutually contradictory philosophers could have ever forced me not to believe that you are—what you are, that I could not know—or that the administration of human affairs has to do with you.” Human life is, of course, full of things that human beings must believe but that they can believe only on the basis of hearsay, as it were. There is a leap of faith here, however, because the transition from belief in historical testimony to belief in religious testimony does not follow without further ado. For trust in human tradition and faith in divine revelation represent two different kinds of belief that entail two different ways of believing. Thus Augustine’s argument is obviously not that one should believe the word of the divine being because one believes the words of human beings.

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