1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


Skepticism and astrology/astronomy

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4. Skepticism and astrology/astronomy. Augustine’s anterior attitude is a complex mixture of credulousness with respect to superstition and of incredulousness with respect to science. He understands that the physical sciences founded on and grounded in the mathematical disciplines are far better able to articulate the truth of things than Manichean mythology could ever be. Yet he does not think that one who possesses both knowledge of God and knowledge of nature is better off than one who has knowledge of God but no knowledge of nature. Thus there is an ambiguous attitude toward science here. For science seems to have extrinsic value as a powerful instrument against superstition, but it does not appear to possess intrinsic value as a field of inquiry capable of explaining the world. Hence, before the encounter with Academic skepticism, Augustine is susceptible to superstition but skeptical of science, while, after the encounter, he is suspicious of superstition and still skeptical of science.

5. Skepticism and skepticism. Augustine is attracted to, but does not adopt, Academic skepticism, understood as the position that all things are to be doubted and that no truth can be apprehended by the human being. At the same time, he appreciates the usefulness of skepticism, playing off skepticism against gnosticism generally and Academicism against Manicheism specifically. By the same token, however, the influence of Academicism makes it more difficult for Augustine to convert to Catholicism. This is what he then shows when he says that “the Academicians … determined my directions for a long time” (b. vita 1.4). To be sure, he justifies his decision to switch from being a hearer in the Manichean sect to being a catechumen in the Catholic Church with a preference for Academic skepticism over Manichean dogmatism. None the less, while he uses Academic epistemology against Manichean mythology, he is hardly an Academician in any sense other than an occasional and opportunistic one. For at the same time Augustine also understands that Academicians, while they may not be rigorously anti-religious, can hardly be Christians.


6. Skepticism and epistemology. Without driving out Satan with Beelzebub, Augustine counters one kind of skepticism with another kind of skepticism. In doing so, he develops Augustinian skepticism in part as a reaction, negative and positive, against Academic skepticism. In principle, the new skepticism is open to Christianity in a way in which the old skepticism was not. A distinguishing feature of Augustinian skepticism is the trenchant rehabilitation of belief in testimony and of trust in authority, whose reliability and indispensability, respectively, would have inevitably succumbed to Academic critique. In addition, Augustine argues that it is impossible for Academic skepticism to do justice to the theory of knowledge in any systematic sense. For there are manifestations of evidence, knowledge, truth that Academic skepticism cannot discredit. As the Stoics had to learn the hard way, there is always the danger that the criterion of knowledge be set so high that it cannot be met. But the insight that mathematical knowledge cannot serve as a model for all knowledge is also pivotal. So absolute, adequate, and apodictic knowledge, truth, and evidence are not paradigmatic for all cases whatsoever. On the contrary, most vital things that are known are not at all known in this fashion. Thus the gates have been opened to relative, imperfect, and probable knowledge.

7. Skepticism and ontology. Overcoming ‘conversion hesitation’ in the form of a dubitation of the intellect, Augustine comes to understand that how one knows is a direct function of what one knows. In doing so, he also learns that being, in order to be, need not be corporeal, material, physical. As it turns out, faith, love, and truth constitute examples of “things” (sit venia verbo) that exist in an intelligible rather than in a sensible mode. And such realities are indeed knowable. Curiously, Academic skepticism seems to raise relatively few strong objections against knowledge of intelligible reality; rather, it concentrates on the problem of the criteria of infallible knowledge of sensible reality through sense-perception. Avoiding this methodological unilateralism, Augustine is also able to explain the nature and function of evil by clarifying the nature and function of good. Along the way, he provides one of the first formulations of the view that being, good, and truth are distinct but linked.


8. Skepticism and axiology. Overcoming ‘conversion hesitation’ in the form of a vacillation of the will, Augustine comes to appreciate the impotence of human effort without the power of divine grace. His own conversion is a case in which divine grace comes to the rescue of a chronically conflicted and crippled human will. According to Augustine, moral weakness involves both willing and not willing the good that one wants to do (conf. 8.8.19–8.12.30). According to Paul, it means not doing the good that one wills and doing the evil that one does not will (Rom. 7:15, 7:19). According to Aristotle, it is a matter of knowingly and willingly doing what is wrong (Nicomachean Ethics, bks. 3 and 7). According to Socrates, on the other hand, no one knowingly commits error or willingly does evil (Gorgias, 467a–468e; Hippias Minor, 371c–376c; Protagoras, 351c–358e). For Augustine, moreover, human conversion requires divine conservation. But to know that his own conversion lacks closure is not to doubt its constancy. In Augustine’s narrative both conversion as process and conversion as event involve a gradual transformation and an abrupt change. On the intellectual level, certitude replaces but does not displace doubtfulness, and, on the moral level, stability replaces but does not displace fragility. Long after Augustine has converted to Catholicism, he struggles with the carnal corpse of his old self, and, long after he has overcome the enervation of Academic skepticism, he maintains the energy of Augustinian skepticism about many Catholic doctrines.

9. Skepticism and thanatology. Together Augustine and Monnica experience the ecstasy of a mystical vision of the extraordinary quality of the eternal life of the saints. As a result, they form the firm belief that the delight of temporal happiness in this life, however intense and however satisfying its carnal aspects may be, is unworthy not only of comparison but also of remembrance beside the enjoyment of eternal blessedness in the next life. They reach this conclusion by way of the revelation of faith rather than by way of the evidence of reason. Their ecstatic experience is connected with a radical skepticism in regard to the pleasures of the senses, the delights of the physical world, and the significance of this earthly life. In an important sense, then, Augustinian skepticism is not only Christian skepticism but also ascetic skepticism. For it takes a very high degree of such skepticism for the human being to prefer the evidence of a mystical vision to the evidence of the physical senses, especially then when the highest good of a human life is at stake.


10. Skepticism and theology. Augustine lives in an interpersonal universe in which the primary and ultimate relationship is not a horizontal one between one human being and another human being but the vertical one between the divine being and the human being. It is a world in which it is possible for human beings to tell the truth only with the help of the divine being, in which no one human ever really knows anyone human or divine, and in which human beings can never know the divine being as the divine being knows human beings. It is also a world in which human beings can know themselves or others only by knowing the divine being, whom they cannot ever really know, with all the skeptical consequences for self-knowledge and interpersonal knowledge that this entails. But Greek philosophy is based on the premiss that for a human being the unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, Apology, 38a). Yet Christian theology is rooted in the conviction that for a human being the unjustified life is not worth living. Accordingly, Augustine defines human happiness as that delight which is found in the right relationship with God: “the joy that is derived from the truth”.

11. Skepticism and temporality. Augustine gives an account of temporality according to which the divine being knows eternity, whereas the human being cannot even know time. Indeed, God knows past, present, and future, whereas human beings are constantly forgetting the past, woefully misperceiving the present, and seriously miscalculating the future. According to Augustine, there are, properly speaking, three “times”, namely, a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future, whereby the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is attention, and the present of things future is expectation. Thus the formal structure of time is a certain distention, both of the mind and of life itself. But it is an inseparable part of the human condition that the human being cannot at any given time know very much about the material content that fills out a lifetime. For both the quantitative extent and the qualitative extension of life remain a mystery to the one whose life is at stake. Already seriously challenged by the question, “what is time?”, the human being is hopelessly overchallenged by the question, “what will be in time?”.


12. Skepticism and hermeneutics. Augustine applies the distinction between literal interpretation and allegorical interpretation to Sacred Scripture in such a way that the reader’s response becomes much more determinative of the text’s meaning than the author’s intent. Hence his skeptical hermeneutics recognizes the brute fact that most of the texts that human beings seek to understand must be read without the benefit of any direct, immediate, and personal retrieval of an author’s intentionality. Yet original, significant, and tenable interpretation does take place, though it may be fallible, limited, and provisional. Augustine’s insight, as basic as it is brilliant, is that understanding Sacred Scripture does not essentially or necessarily require that readers understand what human authors were then thinking when they were writing. His distinction between a skeptical hermeneutics and a dogmatic hermeneutics is a pivotal point in the development of his scriptural hermeneutics in that it goes a long way toward securing charity, diversity, and plurality of interpretation.

13. Skepticism and eschatology. Augustine concludes with a strong statement that one cannot and should not question the judgments that the divine being makes about human beings and about their eternal rewards or eternal punishments. On the pilgrimage that is this life, no human being can know whether they are saved or not; at best they can merely believe in or have faith in a positive outcome of their life. Gnosticism preaches salvation through knowledge; Christianity teaches justification through faith. Gnosticism is a form of religious rationalism; Christianity is a form of religious skepticism. Academic skepticism would deny reason in order to make room for repose; Augustinian skepticism would deny reason in order to make room for faith.

To conclude, in the Confessions Augustine is motivated by a double search for truth. For there are two distinct but inseparable senses of “truth” operative here, namely, truth in the epistemological sense and the Truth in the theological sense, and both need to be thematized. Accordingly, there are also two senses of skepticism here, namely, Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism. To be sure, there is much overlapping and much underlapping. None the less, there is a legitimate sense in which Augustine was a skeptic before, during, and after his encounter with the Academicians. Only when one understands this can one then begin to recognize what is peculiar to Augustinian skepticism vis-à-vis what is specific to Academic skepticism. According to Augustine, the quest for the Truth has primacy and ultimacy over a quest for truth, and the same holds for the relation between the claims of faith and the demands of reason. According to the Academicians, a quest for truth makes as little sense as the quest for the Truth, and the same holds for the relation between the demands of reason and the claims of faith. Hence there is indeed a significant distinction between Academic skepticism and Augustinian skepticism here. Academic skepticism is hardly global.107 Augustinian skepticism is surely galactic. There is no question which kind of skepticism plays a main role, and which, a supporting role, in the life and thought of Augustine. Given what Augustine says about the Academicians, then, it is unwise to think of him as ever having been one of them. Also, to infer from his skepticism to their skepticism or vice versa is to beg the question. Finally, to describe the skeptical dimension in Augustine’s thinking is not to characterize his thought as a form of skepticism.

4. Augustine on Academic skepticism: Contra Academicos
Preliminary remarks. Although Augustine’s detailed account of his personal and philosophical involvement with skepticism is found in the Confessions, his systematic arguments against Academic skepticism are located in Against the Academicians. Thus the latter work is the best source of information from Augustine on Academic skepticism, while the former is the best source of information from him on Augustinian skepticism.108 Hence the Confessions and Against the Academicians are mutually related as text and context, yielding a circle of hermeneutical proportions. For the Confessions (397/401) postdate Against the Academicians (386/387), but the experiences with skepticism recounted in the Confessions predate the arguments against Academicism presented in Against the Academicians. So there is a reversal between the order of experience and the order of reflection here that needs to be taken into account. Accordingly, one cannot understand Against the Academicians without understanding the Confessions, and one cannot understand the Confessions without understanding Against the Academicians. Yet one must begin with something, and one should begin with what is most accessible under the circumstances.

Overview. Augustine divides Against the Academicians into three parts. Book One is a dialogue on the relation between happiness and philosophy in which he argues that it is not enough to seek the truth but that one must also find it. Book Two is a discussion of Academic skepticism in which he posits that the “truth-like” makes no sense without the true. Book Three is a disputation on the foundations of knowledge in which he shows that skepticism cannot vitiate certain species and instances of human cognition. But now is not the time and here is not the place to analyze the arguments that Augustine adduces against skepticism in Against the Academicians. In lieu thereof, a basic outline of the structure and content of the work would look like this:109

4.1. Book One: A dialogue on happiness and philosophy. The protreptic: Romanianus receives an exhortation to philosophy (1.1.1). The crucial distinction between real happiness and apparent happiness (1.1.2). The diagnosis and a remedy: from desire for wealth to love of wisdom (1.1.3). The occasion of the dialogue: Romanianus’s son Licentius as a role model (1.1.4). A definition of “happiness” in terms of seeking and finding the truth (1.2.5). Licentius versus Trygetius: a tension between seeking and finding the truth (1.2.6). Licentius appeals to the skeptical authority of Carneades and Cicero (1.3.7). Trygetius attacks and Licentius defends the wisdom of Cicero (1.3.8). Does happiness involve the quest for or the possession of the truth (1.3.9)? Trygetius’s definition of “error”: “forever to search and never to find” (1.4.10). Licentius’s definition of “error”: “the approval of the false as the true” (1.4.11). Why Licentius’s definition of “error” proves superior to Trygetius’s (1.4.12). From error to knowledge: What is “wisdom” (1.5.13)? Licentius versus Trygetius again: Is wisdom the truth or the path to it (1.5.14)? The difficulty of defining “wisdom” leads to a delay in the disputation (1.5.15). Cicero’s notion of “wisdom”: “knowledge of human and divine matters” (1.6.16). A reversal: Licentius finds fault with Cicero’s definition of “wisdom” (1.6.17). Licentius continues his critique of Cicero: more cases and greater detail (1.6.18). Clarifications and connections: knowledge, wisdom, and the wise man (1.7.19). Why divination does not yield knowledge of human matters (1.7.20). The point: Divination may encourage ignorance of human learning (1.7.21). Why divination does not yield knowledge of divine matters (1.8.22). “Wisdom” as (the diligent search for) knowledge relevant to happiness (1.8.23). Conclusion I: The Academicians are formally introduced (1.9.24). Conclusion II: The prosecution of the Academicians is announced (1.9.25).

4.2. Book Two: A discussion of Academic skepticism. An admonishment: Romanianus is to beware of the Academic philosophy (2.1.1). A laudatio: very high praise for Romanianus’s potential for philosophy (2.1.2). Why Romanianus deserves this work: a list of his good deeds for the author (2.2.3). Good philosophy is a necessary condition for happiness (2.2.4). True religion is a sufficient condition for happiness (2.2.5). Romanianus has not only an advocate but also an adversary (2.2.6). Tension between the love of wisdom and the love of beauty (2.3.7). Two major obstacles to finding the truth: skepticism and superstition (2.3.8). The chief counsel to Romanianus: “Seek and you shall find” (2.3.9). The topic revisited: Licentius requests an account of the Academic view (2.4.10). The Academicians I: Nothing can be known and assent must be withheld (2.5.11). The Academicians II: The wise man acts on the plausible or the truth-like (2.5.12). Alypius distinguishes between the New Academy and the Old Academy (2.5.13). A brief history of the Academy I: from dogmatism to skepticism (2.6.14). A brief history of the Academy II: from skepticism to dogmatism (2.6.15). Is the Academicians’ view of truth itself really true or merely truth-like (2.7.16)? Does one need to possess knowledge in order to discuss skepticism (2.7.17)? Hapless Licentius, with sympathy for skepticism, lapses and recovers (2.7.18). How can one follow the truth-like without knowing the truth (2.7.19)? Trygetius’s defense: It is not about “truth-like” but about “plausible” (2.8.20). Alypius renounces the role of judge in order to discuss the issues (2.8.21). The end of the preliminaries: the key arguments against the Academicians (2.9.22). A provisional difference between the Academicians and their chief critic (2.9.23). A preview of an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Academic position (2.10.24). Revisiting the distinction between the “truth-like” and the “plausible” (2.11.25). An acute point: The dispute is not about terminology but about reality (2.11.26). Licentius contra Carneades: There is no “truth-like” without the truth (2.12.27). Alypius pro Carneades: There can be the “plausible” without the truth (2.12.28). Did the Academicians have not one account but two accounts of truth (2.13.29)? The crucial question: Were the Academicians skeptics or dogmatists (2.13.30)?

4.3. Book Three: A disputation on the foundations of knowledge. A consensus: the task at hand is to search for the truth with all one’s power (3.1.1). Does a wise man need fortune, and does a man need fortune to become wise (3.2.2)? Life has need of fortune, and thus wisdom does too (3.2.3). Fortune affects life, life affects wisdom, fortune affects wisdom (3.2.4). What is the difference between the wise man and the philosopher (3.3.5)? “The wise man knows wisdom” versus “it seems to him that he knows it” (3.3.6). Licentius is urged to do philosophy instead of poetry (3.4.7). Does the wise man of the Academicians know wisdom or seem to know it (3.4.8)? It seems that the wise man knows wisdom—but to whom does it seem so (3.4.9)? The dilemma: Either wisdom is nothing or the wise man does not exist (3.4.10). A defense: Why the Academicians may still insist on suspension of assent (3.5.11). It is implausible that the wise man, who does exist, does not know wisdom (3.5.12). Only with divine assistance can the human being gain access to the truth (3.6.13). Alypius suggests a methodological shift from dialogue to monologue (3.7.14). A new start is made with Cicero’s observations on the Academicians (3.7.15). An explanation for the philosophical popularity of Academic skepticism (3.7.16). If the wise man knows nothing, then how does he differ from the fool (3.8.17)? Zeno’s definition of “truth” revisited: the paradox connected with it (3.9.18). Either man cannot be wise or the wise man does not know wisdom … (3.9.19)? Either the Academicians are shunned as insane or they make others so (3.9.20). Evaluation I: contra Arcesilaus and pro Zeno on perception (3.9.21). Evaluation II: contra Carneades and pro Chrysippus on assent (3.10.22). The first kind of knowledge: of apodictic truths in physics (3.10.23). The second kind of knowledge: of the existence of the sensible world (3.11.24). The third kind of knowledge: of apodictic truths in mathematics (3.11.25). The fourth kind of knowledge: of self-presenting states of awareness (3.11.26). The fifth kind of knowledge: of apodictic truths in ethics (3.12.27). There is knowledge not vitiated by dreams, madness, or sense-deception (3.12.28). The sixth kind of knowledge: of the logical laws of dialectic (3.13.29). Something may be apprehended and thus assent may be released (3.14.30). The wise man perceives wisdom and the wise man assents to wisdom (3.14.31). The wise man really does perceive wisdom—he does not merely think so (3.14.32). Does one who gives approval to nothing really also do nothing (3.15.33)? The absurdity of Academic skepticism: the case of the two travelers (3.15.34). Error does not entail sin but sin does imply error (3.16.35). The implausibility of “the plausible”: “I know how it seems to me” (3.16.36). A brief history of philosophy I: from the Pythagoreans to the Platonists (3.17.37). A brief history of philosophy II: from the Stoics to the Skeptics (3.17.38). A brief history of philosophy III: from Arcesilaus to Carneades (3.17.39). The point of the whole affair: The Academicians really did know the truth (3.18.40). The return of the Academy to its idealistic roots: Plato and Plotinus (3.18.41). Intelligible philosophy achieves nothing without divine intervention (3.19.42). On faith and reason: No authority is more powerful than that of Christ (3.20.43). Alypius approves the preceding monologue against the Academicians (3.20.44). Ironic open-endedness: an exhortation to read Cicero’s Academica (3.20.45).

Given these arguments, there is no doubt that the Augustine of Against the Academicians is a vigorous opponent of the views of the Academicians in so far as they are understood to be saying that no truth can be known and that all assent must be withheld. It is also generally accepted that the author of this dialogue is not a skeptic in this sense. But, if his distinction between an esoteric teaching and an exoteric teaching of the Academicians is valid, then neither are the Academicians skeptics in this sense. In any case, the question of whether Augustine is a skeptic in the Academic sense should not prejudice the issue of whether he is a skeptic in some other sense.

Crux. The distinction between Academic skepticism and Augustinian skepticism raises an issue that is foundational for understanding Against the Academicians. This is the question of Augustine’s own skepticism at the time of the conversation against the Academicians or of the dialogue Against the Academicians (386/387). Augustine poses the problem in a number of places. First he says in the work itself (c. Acad. 3.20.43):
Yet, so that you may receive my entire intention in brief: however human wisdom may handle itself, I see that I have not yet [nondum] perceived it. But, although I am in the thirty-third year of my life, I do not think that I should despair of reaching it someday [quandoque]. Still, after having contemned all the other things that mortals think to be good, I did intend to devote myself to investigating wisdom. Given the fact that the arguments of the Academicians used seriously to deter me from this business, I think that I am sufficiently protected against these arguments by this disputation.

When exactly was it that “the arguments of the Academicians used seriously to deter” Augustine from “investigating wisdom”? For how long and until when did the Academicians exert this influence on Augustine? Then Augustine says (ep. 1.3):

But, whatever may be the case with those writings [Against the Academicians], I am not as pleased that, as you [Hermogenianus] write, I have “conquered” the Academicians—for you write this perhaps more out of love than out of sincerity—as that I have broken for myself that most odious snare by which I was being held back from the breast of philosophy out of a despair about the true, which is the food of the soul.
When exactly was Augustine able to break that “most odious snare” by which he was being “held back from the breast of philosophy”? Next Augustine says (ench. 7.20):
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 [the Academicians] 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.
What exact time is Augustine referring to with “at the beginning of my conversion” and with “at the entrance [to the Christian life]”? Finally Augustine says (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.
When exactly were “the arguments of the Academicians” “disturbing” Augustine, so that he set out to “remove” them “from [his] mind”? According to the temporal specifications of the dialogue, the dramatic time of Against the Academicians is supposed to be c. November 10–22, 386 (1.1.4, 1.4.10–1.4.11, 1.5.15–1.6.16, 2.4.10, 2.10.24–2.11.25, 2.13.30–3.1.1). Although the relation between the narrativity and the historicity of the Cassiciacum Dialogues is a matter of considerable indeterminacy,110 it is necessary to make a temporal distinction between the conversation against the Academicians and the dialogue Against the Academicians.

The pivotal issue raised by the given passages is that they seem, at least at first glance, to leave open the possibility of understanding Augustine to be saying, not only that he went through a period of Academic skepticism, but also that this period lasted right up to the time at which he engaged in the conversation about which he writes in Against the Academicians, as well as that it is in this work that one witnesses him overcoming Academic skepticism. According to this interpretation, then, Augustine is supposed to have undergone the transformation from being an Academic skeptic to not being an Academic skeptic either immediately before, or even during, the time of engaging in the conversation against the Academicians or of writing the dialogue Against the Academicians. According to this interpretation, moreover, Augustine’s “time of doubtfulness” in the strict sense would not at all have been over by July/August 386 but would have extended at least as far as November 386 and perhaps even as far as the turn of the year 386/387. Thus Augustine would have remained an Academic skeptic until 386/387, and, in any case, he would have still been an Academic skeptic at the beginning of the time in Cassiciacum (end of October/beginning of November 386).

If this were the case, then it would have important implications both for understanding Augustine’s conversion experience and for interpreting his conversion narrative. But the question has been posed and an answer must be given. Was Augustine not only once a skeptic but also an Academic until Against the Academicians?

Again, the only sound strategy is to engage in an evaluation of the testimony of Augustine, especially in Against the Academicians. For the text is replete not only with philosophical arguments against Academic skepticism but also with personal statements about Augustine’s relationship to the Academicians. For example, upon introducing the Academicians (1.9.24), Augustine announces his intention to prosecute them (1.9.25):

“On the other hand, if––as I sense––the Academicians do meet with your approval, Licentius, then prepare more effective means to defend them. For I have resolved to arraign them myself.”
At one point, Alypius, who has reentered the argument to help Licentius and Trygetius defend the Academicians against the superior skills of Augustine (2.8.21), makes an oblique reference to Augustine’s attraction to Academic skepticism (2.9.22):
“Accordingly, I would like for you, my good accuser of the Academicians, to explain your office to me: That is, in whose defense might you be attacking them? In fact, I am afraid that, while refuting the Academicians, you may want to prove yourself an Academician.”
Augustine seems to respond to this in such a way as to indicate that during the dialogue itself he is still very much under the influence of Academic skepticism (2.9.23):
“Therefore, do you, Alypius, not know that there is still [adhuc] nothing that I sense to be certain, but that I am prevented from searching for anything certain by the arguments and disputations of the Academicians? Namely, they have produced in my mind––I do not know how––a certain ‘plausibility’ … that the human being cannot find the true. As a result, I had become lazy and utterly sluggish, and I did not dare to search for what the most discerning and most learned men were not permitted to find.”

The context shows, however, that Augustine is actually expressing the methodological skepticism that fits perfectly into the flow of the argument at this point. Thus “still” (adhuc) refers not to “real time” in the life of Augustine but to “dramatic time” in the course of Against the Academicians. Yet there is a passage in which Augustine does refer to his reflections on Academic skepticism beyond and before the dialogue (3.15.34):

“For, while I was pondering for a long time during my retirement here in the country [cum otiosus diu cogitassem in isto rure] how this ‘plausible’ or ‘what is like the true’ could defend our actions from error, at first [primo] the position seemed to me to be well-protected and well-fortified, as it used to seem to me back then when I was marketing these notions; but later [deinde], when I had examined the whole situation more carefully, I then seemed to me to have seen an avenue of access through which error would rush in upon those who felt safe. I think that he is in error, namely, not only who is following the false path, but also who is not following the true one.”

The phrase “during my retirement here in the country” refers to Augustine’s “life of Christian leisure” (retr. 1.1.1), between his retirement in August of 386 (conf. 9.2.2) and his resurrection in April of 387 (9.6.14), at the estate of his friend Verecundus at Cassiciacum near Lake Como (9.3.5). (Augustine leaves Cassiciacum for Milan in late winter or in early spring in order to prepare for the sacrament [9.6.14].) But the passage quoted (c. Acad. 3.15.34) cannot be cited as evidence that Augustine was an Academic skeptic during this time. For all it says is that a certain position of the Academicians seemed to Augustine to be unassailable while during his time at Cassiciacum he was pondering at length how the “plausible” or the “truth-like” could defend human actions from error. “At first” the position seemed to him to be well-defended, as it did back then when he, as a professional rhetorician, was “marketing these notions”, namely, the “plausible” and the “truth-like”; but “then later” he found a problem with the position. Indeed, this passage constitutes poor proof that Augustine was ever an Academic skeptic, let alone still one in Cassiciacum. On the other hand, it is compelling evidence that after retirement to Cassiciacum and before Against the Academicians Augustine was for a long time thinking about the arguments of the Academicians in a critical mode, “at first” unsuccessfully, but “then later” successfully. Of course, this was never in doubt. In no case does analyzing the arguments of the Academicians make Augustine or anyone else a skeptic. Accordingly, a skeptical interpretation of the passage that opened the entire issue also no longer seems as compelling as it did at first glance (3.20.43):

“Yet, so that you may receive my entire intention in brief: however human wisdom may handle itself, I see that I have not yet [nondum] perceived it. But, although I am in the thirty-third year of my life, I do not think that I should despair of reaching it someday [quandoque]. Still, after having contemned all the other things that mortals think to be good, I did intend to devote myself to investigating wisdom. Given the fact that the arguments of the Academicians used seriously to deter me from this business, I think that I am sufficiently protected against these arguments by this disputation.”
The reason is that Augustine’s statement that he has neither perceived nor despaired of perceiving human wisdom is immediately followed by the observation that there are two paths to an apprehension of the truth, namely, reason and authority. Augustine wants not only to believe but also to understand, and that is why he is attracted not to the Academicians, whose doctrines he thinks inconsistent with Christianity, but to the Platonists, whose teachings he considers consistent with this religion (ibid.):
“Moreover, no one doubts that we are impelled to learn by the two-fold weight of authority as well as of reason. I am resolved, therefore, to depart from the authority of Christ in absolutely nothing. For I do not find any more powerful authority. However, as for what is to be pursued by the most subtle reasoning––my present state is [iam sum affectus] such, namely, that I am impatient in my desire to apprehend what is true not only by believing but also by understanding––I am confident that in the meantime [interim] I shall find it in the Platonists, and that it will not be inconsistent with our religion.”
Nor does the end of the piece yield any evidence of Augustine’s Academicism (3.20.45):

“Read the Academica, and, when you find there that Cicero emerges as the victor over all these inconsequential arguments––for what could be easier?––then let Alypius be forced by you to defend this discourse of mine against those invincible arguments!”

For later Augustine expresses regret at his ‘jocular’ and ‘ironic’ remark (retr. 1.1.4):
Also, I have said [in Against the Academicians] that, in comparison with the arguments that Cicero employed in his Academica, mine—by means of which I have refuted his arguments with the most certain reasoning—were ‘inconsequential’, which, although it was said jokingly and above all ironically, still should not have been said.
So much for the notion that Augustine was still a skeptic in the Academic sense at the time of the conversation against the Academicians or of the dialogue Against the Academicians. There is no evidence that would persuade a reasonable human being beyond a reasonable doubt that this was the case. Therefore it is highly improbable that it actually was the case.




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