1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


The indispensability of authority

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3.6.6. The indispensability of authority. Augustine’s argument is, rather, that human authority is not the primary and ultimate legitimating factor in the formation and fixation of human beliefs. This is how, Augustine thinks, divine authority enables human reason to believe in orthodox Christianity (6.5.8): “To be sure, I believed this sometimes more strongly, sometimes more weakly; none the less, I have always believed both that you [Lord] are and that you take care of us, even if I did not know what to think of your substantial nature or I did not know what way would lead me, or lead me back, to you. And on that account, since we were too weak to discover the truth by means of pure reason and therefore needed the authority of the sacred writings, I now began to believe that you would never have conferred such preeminent authority on that scripture, an authority now recognized throughout all lands, unless you had also willed that through it one would come to believe in you and through it one would seek to know you. For the absurdity that used to offend me in those writings, after I had heard many things from them being given probabilistic expositions, I now explained in reference to the profundity of their mysteries, and the authority of the scripture appeared to me to be the more venerable and the more worthy of a holy faith, the more that scripture both presented itself to everyone to read with ease and preserved the dignity of its secret meaning for a profounder understanding, in that it offered itself to all in very accessible words and in the most humble style of diction, while also holding and exercising the attention of those who are not ‘light of heart’, so that it might welcome all to its generous embrace and also bring a few to you through narrow openings—though the latter are few, they are many more than would then be the case if the scripture did not stand out by its high authority and if it had not drawn crowds to the bosom of its holy humility.” Augustine is providing neither a proof for the existence of God nor an argument for the efficacy of divine providence. He is proposing that the divine being bestows authority on the scripture in order to enable human beings to grant it their acceptance, as well as that the authority of scripture is a sign of its veracity. His hypothesis is that human beings cannot access the most vital truths by means of pure reason alone; they need to believe in and to have trust in a supernatural authority. Such faith he considers not blind but insightful.

3.6.7. Third mention of the Academicians: negative. The account of the encounter with the drunken, cheerful Milanese beggar shows that Augustine is longing for but not striving for the happy life (6.6.9–6.6.10). He has not yet found what he is looking for (6.10.17): “… because there did not light up something certain ….” Rather, he has landed in a state of indecision (6.11.18): “And I myself was most astonished as I anxiously reflected on how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that, when I had found it, I would then abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow desires. And, behold, here I was already thirty years of age and still stuck in the same mire of hesitation, avid to enjoy the things of the present, which were fugitive themselves and dissipating me, while I was saying: ‘Tomorrow I shall find it; behold, it will become clear, and I shall grasp and hold it; behold, Faustus will come and explain everything.” Academic skepticism is impracticable (ibid.): “What great men—the Academicians! Nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty.’” Augustine makes a resolute decision against irresolute indecision (ibid.): “‘Yet let us seek more diligently and not lose hope. … behold, there are not the absurd things in the books of the Church that there seemed to be, and these merely apparent absurdities can also be understood in another way, one which is respectable. Let me fix my feet on that step on which as a boy I was placed by my parents, until the clear truth may be found. But where may it be sought?’” But Augustine’s chief concern is not “where” but “when” to find “the clear truth” (ibid.): “‘When can it be sought? … Why do we not do it?’” To construe the fact that Augustine criticizes the Academicians as evidence that he was once one of them is to beg the question.


3.6.8. From hesitation to determination. Augustine understands that resoluteness is the only effective remedy against indecision (6.11.19): “‘Let us concentrate ourselves exclusively on the investigation of the truth.’” But he also appreciates that there is a vast gap between knowing the true and doing the good (6.11.20): “As I used to say these things, and these winds blew first one way, and then the other, pushing my heart to and fro, time passed by, and I ‘delayed turning to the Lord’ and postponed ‘from day to day’ finding life in you [Lord], though I did not postpone the fact that every day I was dying within myself: I longed for the happy life, but I was afraid of the place where it has its seat, and I fled from it at the same time as I was seeking after it.” The debilitating doubtfulness of Academic skepticism will not be a live option for Augustine, nor had it ever been.

3.6.9. Book Six: On balance. Hence there is inadequate evidence that Augustine systematically went through a clearly discernible period of specifically Academic skepticism. There is, of course, a point at which he is eager to use such Academic assertions as “all things are to be doubted” and “nothing of the true can be apprehended by the human being” against the Manicheans. There is, moreover, a point at which he is “doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians”, though this includes what they say but excludes mathematical truths, divine existence, and divine providence, thus hardly qualifying Augustine as an Academic. There is, finally, a point at which he critically observes that their view that “nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty” reduces their own philosophy to the absurd. In fact, a reversal has occurred. At the end of Book Five, Augustine finds himself attracted to Academicism. By the end of Book Six, Academicism finds itself attacked by Augustine. Throughout, Augustine’s skepticism is uniquely his own. Above all, the skepticism that he seeks to overcome in order to convert is not so much that of the Academicians as much rather that of common sense and critical thinking. It is crucial, then, not to conflate the question of Augustine’s skepticism with the question of his Academicism. There is a real distinction here. Finally, nothing of what has been said in this regard may be legitimately interpreted as meaning that Academic skepticism did not for some time pose a very real problem for Augustine. It certainly did. But Augustine’s solution was not first to fall into Academic skepticism and then to struggle to get out of it. His approach was, rather, assiduously to avoid accepting it in the first place and then skillfully to work with and around it as a useful tool. He does precisely this during a period of personal skepticism in the transition between Manichean dogmatism and Catholic dogmatism.


3.7. Book Seven: The illuminated intellect and the wavering will. According to the narrative, the next phase of Augustine’s conversion involves an insightful intellect and a weak will. The growing perspicacity of the intellect is the focus of the present book; the recovering constancy of the will is that of the next. The struggle for conversion becomes a matter of intellectual certainty versus moral doubt. Now Augustine recounts how he took out, in systematic succession, the three pillars of Manicheism, namely, dualism, determinism, and materialism, thereby bringing down the entire gnostic edifice. The dramatic place and time of the book is Milan, 385/386.

3.7.1. A theological foundation. Thinking of God no longer in human form but not yet in immaterial terms, Augustine claims to be “certain” of at least one thing, namely, that what is incorruptible, inviolable, and immutable is more perfect than what is corruptible, violable, and mutable (7.1.1–7.1.2).

3.7.2. The refutation of dualism. In the operative sense, “dualism” is the position that what is, is divided into “good” (bonum) and “evil” (or “bad”: malum refers both to what is morally evil and to what is naturally bad), and that thus good and evil have equal or comparable ontological status. Augustine’s destruction of dualism depends on the consistency of logic. For the Manicheans, too, are committed to the incorruptibility of God. Hence the dilemma posed by a penetrating question of Nebridius (7.2.3): “What could the forces of evil have then done to God if he had refused to resist them?” No matter how they respond, the Manicheans are condemned to incoherence. For, if they say that the forces of evil could have harmed God, then they are giving up divine incorruptibility, and, if they say that the forces of evil could not have harmed God, then they are giving up serious dualism. Where there is no possibility of injury, there is no necessity of struggle.


3.7.3. The question of evil. Augustine still has no clear grasp of the cause of evil (7.3.4). But he is trying to understand what he is hearing, namely, that ‘the free choice of the perverse human will is the cause of evil’ (7.3.5). He also continues to believe it to be “most true and most certain” that what is incorruptible is better than what is corruptible. Hence he thinks that God is not the latter but the former (7.4.6). It is materialism, however, that again prevents Augustine from finding the origin of evil, and the question just will not go away (7.5.7): “Unde est malum?”

3.7.4. The refutation of determinism. In the operative sense, “determinism” is the position that there is no free human will or choice and that thus cosmic forces control human lives and destinies. Augustine’s destruction of the assertions of astrology takes the shape of a rudimentary but effective empirical experiment (7.6.8–7.6.10). By adducing empirical evidence gathered by means of systematic observations, though hardly by means of scientific experiments, his friend Firminus is able to convince Augustine that there is no coherent connection between horoscopes and forecasts. As a result, they form the firm belief that true predictions on the basis of observed constellations are due not to fine skill but to good luck, while false predictions on the same basis are due not to poor skill but to chance error. Thus Augustine learns that experience can enlighten reason in a matter of decisive importance.

3.7.5. The refutation of materialism. In the operative sense, “materialism” is the position that everything that is, is bodily, corporeal, or physical. Augustine’s destruction of materialism occurs through reflection on readings from the Platonists. Throughout, Augustine does not waver in his faith that God exists and that he loves humanity (7.7.11): “And thus these things were secure and unshakable in my mind while I was feverishly seeking for the origin of evil.” But Augustine is also about to achieve a degree of certainty in regard to God (7.8.12): “By internal stimuli you agitated me to find it unendurable until, through my inward perception, you were a certainty to me.” Augustine is brought to read some “books of the Platonists” (7.9.13, 7.20.26, 8.2.3); he finds their missing Christian message disappointing but their idealistic theism illuminating (7.9.13–7.10.16). For only now does he see the transcendent light that enables him to recognize the immateriality of reality (7.10.16): “And from there [through a reading of the books of the Platonists] I was admonished to return to my own self. … O eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity! You are my God ….” Only now does he recognize the genuine nature of reality (7.11.17): “For that truly is which immutably remains.” Only now does he achieve certainty in regard to reality. Again, what Augustine misses in the Platonic books is the Christian message, above all, the incarnation (7.18.24–7.20.26).


3.7.6. An alternative account of evil. Augustine also recognizes that evil is not an essence or a nature or substance but an absence or a negation or privation (7.12.18): “That which is, is good.” Thus moral evil is real, but natural evil does not exist, at least not from the divine perspective (7.13.19). At this point, Augustine can cease to posit a good substance and an evil substance as the contrary cosmic sources of good and of evil (7.14.20): “… I relaxed a little bit and my insanity was put to sleep ….” The distinction between truth and falsehood emerges as well (7.15.21): “… [truth consists therein that] all things are true in so far as they are, and falsehood is given only then when something is thought to be that is not.” As being may be not material but ideal, so truth may be not sensible but intelligible. Wickedness is described thus (7.16.22): “And I inquired what wickedness is, and I found not a substance but a perversity of the will twisted away from the highest substance, you, God, and toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life and swelling with external matter.” Augustine has finally found a solution to the problem that drove him to the Manicheans in the first place.

3.7.7. The absence of doubt does not necessarily mean the presence of certainty. The dualism of body and soul, of flesh and spirit, means that the elimination of intellectual doubt is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for spiritual conversion. A fleeting glimpse of eternal truth is followed by a lapse back into temporal falsehood (7.17.23): “I did not in any way doubt to whom I should attach myself, but it was I who could not attach himself … and I was most certain that your invisible nature [Lord] … is understood from the things that are made …. For, inquiring, I found the immutable and authentic eternity of truth above my mutable mind. … [I] declared without any doubt that the immutable is preferable to the mutable, and from thence [I] knew the immutable itself—for, unless [I] could in some way know the immutable, there would be no way of preferring it with certainty to the mutable—and [I] could attain, in the flash of a trembling glance, to that which is.” Manichean dualism was one thing; Pauline dualism is another. Augustine is going to have a very hard time doing the good that he wills and not doing the evil that he does not will.


3.7.8. The intellect is strong but the will is weak. Augustine embraces Christ, “the way and the truth and the life”, as the exclusive mediator between the divine being and the human being (7.18.24). But, while he no longer doubts what he understands of the Church’s teaching on Christ, Augustine is not yet clear about the details of the doctrine. For example, at this time he does not recognize Christ as “the personal embodiment of the Truth” (7.19.25). In fact, Augustine is still grappling with the orthodox Christological and Trinitarian doctrines of the Catholic Church. Eventually, he differs both with Photinus of Sirmium (fl. c. 350), who denies Christ’s full divinity (ibid.), and with Apollinaris of Laodicea (fl. c. 375), who denies Christ’s full humanity (ibid.). The point is that that Judaeo-Christianity with which Augustine becomes acquainted in 384/386 is significantly Neoplatonic in inspiration (7.9.13–7.10.16). Accordingly, Augustine is certain of God but unstable in Christ (7.20.26). Sorting things out, Augustine juxtaposes ‘Neoplatonic arrogance’ and ‘Judaeo-Christian humility’ (7.9.13–7.21.27). Hence he “seizes” on the writings of Paul and realizes, he thinks, that the books of the Apostle are far superior to the books of the Platonists (7.21.27). By reading Paul, Augustine discovers the indispensable function of grace (ibid.).106

3.7.9. Book Seven: On balance. Evidently, one does not need to be a skeptic in the Academic sense in order to entertain doubts about the veracity of the Christian religion. It suffices to be a reasonable human being. In this respect, to be reasonable is to be skeptical. Augustine is both. At this point, he has achieved a considerable intellectual certitude in regard to the nature of God, of the soul, and of evil. In the transition from Book Seven to Book Eight, his conversion gradually becomes less an intellectual issue of certainty versus uncertainty and more a moral matter of decision versus indecision. The question is whether and how Augustine will be able to obtain the moral stability necessary to sustain his perduring process of conversion.


3.8. Book Eight: From the darkness of dubitation to the light of stabilization. The next phase of Augustine’s conversion involves a fierce struggle between the new will that wills conversion and the old will that does not will conversion. The growing strength of the whole will, undivided into parts, is the focus of this book. The big difference between Book Seven and Book Eight is that, long after Augustine knows truths, he still hesitates to recognize the Truth. He doubts, he vacillates, and he wavers (dubitare), whereby it is not his intellect but his will that falters. Accordingly, there is a phase of the process during which his intellect is convinced but his will is not converted. The dramatic place and time of the book is Milan, late July/early August 386.

3.8.1. The concern: not intellectual certainty but moral stability. Attempting to clarify the problem before trying to solve it, Augustine says to God (8.1.1): “Your words stuck fast in my heart and on all sides I was besieged by you. Of your eternal life I was certain, though I ‘saw’ it ‘in an enigma’ and, as it were, ‘in a mirror’. Yet all doubt had been taken away from me concerning that incorruptible substance from which comes all substance, and my desire was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you. But in my temporal life all things were shaky, and my heart needed to be purified from the ‘old leaven’. I was both attracted to the way, the Savior himself, and I was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths.” A major part of the problem is that for Augustine the resurrection of the spirit involves a renunciation of the flesh (8.1.2). Thus moral resolution does not follow without further ado from intellectual conviction. The ensuing gap between intention and action is a characteristic feature of Augustinian skepticism. According to Augustine, human effort alone cannot bridge the gap.


3.8.2. The conflict between the old will and the new will. At this point, the main conversion narrative is enriched by other conversion narratives. For example, Simplicianus relates to Augustine the story of the conversion of the renowned African rhetorician Marius Victorinus (fl. c. 355) (8.2.3). Victorinus is long torn between his Christian convictions and his pagan connections, but finally he becomes “ashamed of vanity and shamed by truth” (8.2.4). He chooses a public profession of faith over a private acknowledgement of creed (8.2.5). One reason why the conversion of Victorinus is special is that he is a member of the aristocratic nobility with authority, cultivation, and tradition on his side (8.4.9). On the spot, Augustine is eager to emulate Victorinus, but the chain that binds the new will to the old will deprives the soul of all concentration (8.5.10): “For disordered desire springs from a perverted will; and, when disordered desire is served, then habit is formed; and, when habit is not resisted, then compulsion is generated.” Augustine is describing an acutely addictive and a devastatingly debilitating form of moral weakness.

3.8.3. Knowing the truth versus willing the Truth. The force of undesirable habit has dire consequences for Augustine’s struggle for conversion (8.5.11): “And there no longer existed the excuse that I had used to explain to myself why I did not yet contemn the world and serve you, namely, because the perception of the truth was uncertain to me. For this was also now certain. Yet, as one who was still bound down to the earth, I was refusing to become your soldier, and I was as afraid of being rid of all my burdens as I ought to have been at the prospect of carrying them.” To be sure, the Academicians can no longer furnish Augustine with an alibi. None the less, he does not yet want to do what he thinks he ought to. For Augustine is convinced that God is showing him what the truth is, whereas he, though convinced of that truth, still hesitates to act on it (8.5.12): “For there was nothing that I would then respond to you when you said to me, ‘Arise, you who are asleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you’, and, although you showed at every point that the things that you were saying were true, there was nothing at all that I, convinced by the truth, would respond to you except merely slow and sleepy words ….” The hindrance to spiritual conversion is not intellectual reservation but moral hesitation.


3.8.4. Know thyself! In another narrative layer, Augustine’s compatriot Ponticianus tells the story of Antony of Egypt (c. 251–c. 356), the founder of anchoritic monasticism (8.6.14). He also relates the tale of the conversion of the imperial agents in the garden at Trier that climaxes with the pointed query (8.6.15): “Quid quaerimus?” Augustine takes the question to heart. Looking at himself, he does not like what he sees (8.7.16): “I had known it [my iniquity], but I had been deceiving myself, refusing to admit it, and pushing it out of my mind.” He does not yet want to know himself.

3.8.5. Conscience over consciousness. Recalling his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius about twelve years previously, Augustine judges that he has not lived up to the promise of philosophy (8.7.17): “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet.” He had gone “evil ways”, yet not because he had been “certain” of them, but rather because he had preferred them to the alternatives, which he had not properly investigated but only ignorantly opposed. Conscience shames Augustine (8.7.18): “‘Where is your tongue? For you were saying that, because the true is uncertain, you do not want to abandon the burden of vanity. But look, the true is certain now, and the burden still presses on you, yet wings are obtained by the freer shoulders of those who have not exhausted themselves in searching and who have not taken ten years or more to meditate on these matters.’” Again, Augustine denies that the problem plaguing him is theoretical skepticism, whether of the Academic or of some other sort.

3.8.6. Whence this monstrosity? There begins the agony in the garden of the house where Augustine and Alypius are staying (8.8.19): “What is happening to us? What is that which you have heard? The untaught are rising up and taking over heaven, and, look, here we are with our teachings without heart groveling in flesh and blood. Are we ashamed to follow because they are ahead of us, and are we not ashamed at not even making an attempt to follow them?” Perplexingly, the will commands the body differently from the will, which does not respond to itself (8.8.20). The crucial question is posed three times for maximal rhetorical effect (8.9.21): “Unde hoc monstrum? Et quare istuc?” There are two conflicted acts of the will here (ibid.): “Therefore, partly to will and partly not to will is not a monstrous thing but a sickness of the mind, because, when the mind is lifted up by the truth, it does not then as a whole rise to the truth since it is weighed down by habit.” Augustine argues that voluntaristic dualism, according to which two different wills struggle against each other in one and the same person, is untenable (8.10.22–8.10.24). But he himself still hesitates whether to die to death and to live to life (8.11.25). For he is plagued by secular and sexual fantasies (8.11.26). The will alone cannot move the will, and the will to power alone cannot empower the will.




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