1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


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Provisional results. Personal statements are not, of course, the end station but the starting point for any informed discussion about Augustine’s skepticism at the time of Against the Academicians, and they must be balanced against philosophical arguments.111 It should be clear, however, that, according to Augustine’s testimony in Against the Academicians, he was not an Academic skeptic at the time of the conversation against the Academicians or of the dialogue Against the Academicians. In fact, there is no text in Against the Academicians which in context would indicate that Augustine was an Academic skeptic in any significant sense at the time of the work. But the real problem throughout is with any interpretation that does not adequately distinguish between an answer to the question as to whether and when Augustine was a skeptic and an answer to the question as to whether and when Augustine was an Academic skeptic. For, given the overlapping and underlapping, all Academic skeptics are skeptics, but not every skeptic is an Academic skeptic.

The explanation of Academic skepticism should not hinder but further the clarification of Augustinian skepticism. Having refuted the Academicians to the extent that they are understood to be skeptics (c. Acad. 3.7.15–3.20.43), Augustine emphasizes the elective affinity that he finds between himself and the Platonists (ibid., 3.20.43). According to Against the Academicians, it is obvious to whom Augustine views himself as more closely related, that is, to the Platonists, and to whom as more distantly related, that is, to the Academicians. His self-evident differences with Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus notwithstanding, Augustine, who does not distinguish between Platonism and “Neoplatonism” (ibid., 3.18.41), tries to rehabilitate the Academic skeptics as ‘lapsed’ Platonists, as it were. After all, Plato believes that the human being is capable of knowledge, whereas Arcesilaus, Carneades, and other Academicians seem to have forgotten this (ibid., 2.4.10–2.6.15, 3.17.37–3.19.42). On the question of a human potential for knowledge, Augustine is with Plato and against Carneades. On which side Plato would have come down in the great debate between Stoic dogmatic absolutism and Academic skeptical relativism, is another question entirely.112

Remarkably, the Academicians were not noted for directing their skeptical arguments against religious belief.113 So one can get the impression, on a quick study of Against the Academicians, that Augustine is out not to refute but to recruit the Academicians. Yet it is clear that Augustine appreciates the acute danger to orthodox faith lurking in the Academicians’ approach to philosophical topics (conf. 6.11.18): “Nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty.” Again, according to Augustine, the Academicians have an esoteric and an exoteric teaching (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; conf. 5.10.19, 5.14.25). The former is that, metaphysically speaking, the Platonic legacy of idealism must be preserved in the face of the general threat of Stoic and Epicurean materialism; the latter is that, epistemologically speaking, no truth can be known and all assent must be withheld, and it is directed specifically against the empirical Stoic notion that the wise man either enjoys an apprehensive appearance or brackets his judgment (c. Acad. 2.5.11–2.5.12; conf. 5.10.19). Augustine sides with the ontology of Platonism over that of Stoicism and Epicureanism, because idealism is compatible with Christianity and materialism is not.

It is also clear where the exoteric teaching of the Academicians would lead and land anyone striving for conversion to orthodox Christianity. Nor is Augustine deceived for a moment about this. For, even when he claims to have doubted all things in the manner of the Academicians, he then never doubts the simple truths of the Christian religion (conf. 5.14.25, 6.5.7–6.5.8, 7.7.11). In the long run, Academic skepticism, which, in its radical form, entails withholding of judgment about all things practical and theoretical, and Christian faith, which, in its basic form, involves assenting to truths because God has revealed them (lib. arb. 1.2.4), are incompatible.

Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism are also not so related that the edifice of the former can be built on the ruins of the latter. Rather, Augustine’s actual argument not “against” (contra) but “about” (de) the Academicians (retr. 1.1.1, 1.2, 1.3.1) is that, if one understands them not vulgarly but properly—hermeneutically speaking: better than they understood themselves114—then one sees that they are not skeptics at all, because they knew, and knew that they knew, the truth (c. Acad. 3.18.40). Yet one cannot give an adequate account of the relationship between Augustine and the Academicians without taking into consideration his curious account of the distinction between their esoteric and their exoteric teachings. If one ignores the distinction, then one can get the wrong impression, namely, that Augustine is closer to the Academicians than he is and that he has more in common with them than he does.

A fine distinction yields a big difference. For, to the extent that Augustine understands the Academicians to be Platonists, he has nothing against them; but, to the extent that he understands them to be Skeptics, he has a great deal against them. Ironically, Contra Academicos or De Academicis is about the Academicians and against the skeptics. To employ Aristotle’s notion of the Golden Mean (Nicomachean Ethics, bks. 2–4), what Augustine seeks is a moderate mean between the excessive extreme of (Neo)platonic dogmatism and the defective extreme of Academic skepticism.115 At the former extreme, human beings know too much, since they can even enjoy “ecstasy” on their own if they train hard enough; at the latter extreme, they know too little, since they cannot even know enough to be happy. This is another reason why one has to be careful not to place Augustine closer to the Academicians or farther from the (Neo)platonists than he really stands. It is a matter of a delicate balance.

Hence there is no significant sense in which Augustine’s Against the Academicians contains both an esoteric and an exoteric teaching about the Academicians. Indeed, as indicated, the bulk of Book Three consists of a powerful monologue by Augustine aimed at proving that the Academicians are all wrong about the alleged impossibility of knowledge (c. Acad. 3.7.15–3.20.43, 3.10.23–3.13.29). In order to achieve his aim, Augustine uses a certain kind of philosophy to show that another kind of philosophy does not and cannot work. In doing so, he both uses pagan philosophy to demolish Academic skepticism (see passages just cited) and appeals to Christian religion to show that Greco-Roman philosophy does not have the final word on human and divine affairs (ibid., 3.6.13, 3.20.43). But there is no conflict between these two agendas and no reason to view them as disjunctive alternatives.

The connection between Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism is, of course, considerable. This does not mean, however, that in Against the Academicians Augustine is defending any significant form of skepticism, and certainly not any form of epistemic skepticism. For the operative sense of skepticism in the piece is “Academic skepticism”, and Augustine clearly aims to refute it (c. Acad. 1.9.24–1.9.25). Thus Augustine’s Against the Academicians is both a short treatise on epistemology and a complex work that passively leaves open as well as actively opens up the possibility that Academic skepticism will at some point be “aufgehoben” (in Hegel’s sense: negated, preserved, and enhanced) in Augustinian skepticism.116 It is, above all, an essay on the connection between the attainment of wisdom and the achievement of happiness: ‘Per sapientiam ad beatitudinem’ (b. vita 1.13–1.16, 1.26–1.35; c. Acad. 1.2.5–1.2.6, 1.3.9, 1.8.23, 2.2.4–2.2.5). No wisdom, no happiness.

Throughout, the main task is to define clearly and distinctly the sense of “Augustinian skepticism” that is required for addressing the issues that are raised by Against the Academicians. The best way to accomplish this task is by means of a rigorous though not rigid juxtaposition of Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism. An account of the relation between Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism that is all comparison and no contrast or vice versa is doomed from the start.
5. Prospectus: From Academic skepticism to Augustinian skepticism
The forest and the trees. According to the standard interpretation, it occurs to Augustine, at a pivotal point on his oblique odyssey, that the Academicians are more prudent than the other philosophers. For, as he understands them at the time, the Academicians teach that one can apprehend nothing true, that one must doubt all things, and that one must withhold all assent. After this experience, Augustine endures a time of doubtfulness in which he wavers on all things in the manner of the Academicians. But he also instrumentalizes Academicism in breaking with Manicheism. Gradually Augustine realizes that the Academic theory that nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty makes life unlivable from a practical standpoint. Eventually he overcomes the hesitation that is urged by Academic skepticism and converts to Catholicism. Finally, between conversion and resurrection, Augustine writes Against the Academicians. There, besides refuting Academic skepticism, popularly understood, he argues that the Academicians, properly understood, are not skeptics.

What is surprising about all this information is how little it reveals about the role of skepticism in Augustine’s conversion. In fact, to reduce the question of Augustine’s relation to skepticism to a question of his relationship to the Academicians is to miss a major part, and arguably the most important part, of the problem. Indeed, only then when one recognizes that Augustine was a skeptic before, during, and after his encounter with Academic skepticism can one even begin to realize that there is a sense in which the issue of whether and for how long Augustine was under the influence of the Academicians, albeit interesting, is secondary. What is primary is the origin, nature, and function of Augustine’s own skepticism. To achieve an adequate understanding of Augustine’s conversion experience and conversion narrative, it is more important to recognize in what sense Augustine was a skeptic than it is to determine whether and for how long he was an Academic skeptic. Throughout, Augustine’s genuine response to Academic skepticism is Augustinian skepticism. In the end, as Augustine shows, one can be an Augustinian skeptic without being an Academic skeptic.

That Augustine overcomes Academic skepticism, does not mean that he transcends skepticism without further ado. Nor does it mean that he wants “to overcome” skepticism by eliminating it from his life or from human life. For Augustine regards a certain kind of skepticism as a perfectly natural and absolutely rational response to the ineradicable uncertainty of human existence. To be sure, faith picks up there where reason leaves off. None the less, rational, indeed, reasonable, doubt remains. According to Augustine, doubt and doubtfulness cannot be eliminated from human life. The entire time of such life is a tempus dubitationis (conf. 5.14.25). Thus it is necessary to deny reason in order to make room for faith. As Stock puts it: “Yet if we bear in mind [Augustine’s] use of scripture to overcome scepticism in the ‘philosophical dialogues,’ his approach to scientia and sapientia some thirty-five years later appears to reaffirm a type of scepticism.”117 Augustinian skepticism must restrain reason in order that faith may flourish. Reason leads to truth by means of knowledge through evidence. Faith leads to the Truth by means of revelation through illumination. Faith is not knowledge without evidence but an alternative approach, offering an alternate access, to truth. Of course, faith and reason do not necessarily conflict with each other, and there are many cases in which they complement each other.

5.1. A path to truth and the path to the Truth. Skeptic that he is, Augustine seeks not only trivial truths but also the total Truth. Again, in the Confessions he repeatedly refers to God as “the Truth” (Jn. 14:6); he regards him as the fount and ground of all truth. The dual search requires a dual approach. In the spirit of collaboration, Augustine winds down his refutation of Academic skepticism with a plea for pluralism (c. Acad. 3.20.43 [cf. ord. 2.5.16]): “… 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 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 I shall find it in the Platonists, and that it will not be inconsistent with our religion.” He also admits (c. ep. Man. 5.6): “I would not have believed the Gospels except on the authority of the Catholic Church.” The dilemma is to use (uti) the doubtfulness that comes from the search for truth and to enjoy (frui) the certainty that comes from the possession of the Truth.118 Academic skepticism focuses on how reason and sense do not lead to truth; Augustinian skepticism looks at how faith and reason do lead to the Truth. The discernible distinction between focuses of inquiry yields a big difference between results of investigation.

5.2. Faith seeking understanding. From his earliest writings, Augustine employs a definite formula to express the relation between faith and reason. For example, in On Free Choice (387/395) there is the seminal passage (lib. arb. 1.2.4): “For God will be there for us and he will make us understand what we believe. For this is the course prescribed by the prophet who says [Is. 7:9]: ‘Unless you have believed, you shall not understand [Nisi credideritis, non intellegetis]’, and we are aware that we consider this course good for us.” The reference is reiterated and reinforced (ibid., 2.2.6): “You remember rightly, and we cannot deny what we have posited at the beginning of the previous disputation. For, unless believing is one thing and understanding is another, and unless we first believe the great and divine thing that we desire to understand, the prophet has said in vain [ibid.]: ‘Unless you have believed, you shall not understand [Nisi credideritis, non intellegetis]’.” In On the Teacher (389) one again finds the formula (mag. 11.37): “Unless you have believed, you shall not understand [Nisi credideritis, non intellegetis].” (Cf. also f. et symb. 1.1; s. 91.7.9; etc.) But the locus classicus of Augustine’s view of the well-ordered relation between faith and reason may be found in the Tractates on the Gospel of John (408/420) (Jo. ev. tr. 40.9): “We believe in order that we may know; we do not know in order that we may believe [Credimus ut cognoscamus, non cognoscimus ut credamus].” The point is that, unless one believes the truths that are supposed to be revealed by the Christian faith, one will not be able to understand them. Augustine is right about this, in fact, whether these “truths” are true or not. In the course of his systematic refutation of Academic skepticism, Augustine hints that the human being needs a divine spirit to find the truth (c. Acad. 3.5.11–3.6.13). The Academic skeptics, on the other hand, want to understand before they can believe that which they can only understand after they will to believe. Arranging priorities differently, the Augustinian skeptic does not run into this obstacle.

5.3. Levels of assent and degrees of warrant. In On the Usefulness of Believing (391/392) Augustine presents a detailed account of the relation between faith and reason. Criticizing “those who realize that they do not know but do not seek in such a way as to find”, Augustine distinguishes between three levels of cognitive awareness (util. cred. 11.25): “There are … in the minds of human beings three activities that border on each other, as it were, but which are worthy of distinction: to understand, to believe, and to opine. If these activities are considered separately, then the first is always without fault; the second is sometimes with fault; and the third is never without fault.” Correspondingly, he also differentiates between three degrees of warrant (ibid.): “Accordingly, what we understand, we owe to reason; what we believe, to authority; and what we opine, to error.” In brief, he explains how the activities fit together (ibid.): “But everyone who understands also believes, and everyone who opines also believes. Not everyone who believes understands, and no one who opines understands.” He concludes (ibid.): “Therefore, there can be two kinds of adversaries of the truth: the one consisting of those who oppose only knowledge, not faith; the other, of those who reject both ….” Applying these distinctions, Augustine argues that there are many significant instances in which one must distrust opinion and trust belief—even grant it primacy and ultimacy over understanding. This is a highly skeptical move that is unacceptable to most, especially modern, skeptics. In the history of philosophy it is notably Hume who criticizes both revealed and natural religion by appealing to the legacy of Academic skepticism.119 In doing so, he confirms Augustine’s suspicions about the compatibility of Academic skepticism and Christian faith.

5.4. Varieties of belief and ways of believing. In On Eighty-three Different Questions (388/396) Augustine recognizes that “belief” is a complex concept that defies heterophobic homogenization (div. qu. 48): “Three kinds of things are objects of belief. First, there are those things which are always believed and never understood, for example, history, which deals with events both temporal and human. Second, there are those things which are understood as soon as they are believed, for example, all human reasonings either in mathematics or in any of the sciences. Third, there are those things which are first believed and then understood. Of such a character is that which cannot be understood of divine things except by those who are pure of heart. This understanding is achieved through observing those commandments which concern virtuous living.” The idea is that reasons for believing may vary from one kind of belief to another. This notion of doxic diversity implies that the criteria for justified true beliefs may vary, depending on the kinds of things that are to be believed. Accordingly, evidence is neither univocal nor equivocal but analogical. Thus Augustine avoids the Academic error of focusing on assent as if it were a mere function of the judgment that is made in response to a sense-perception. Above all, he describes the relation between belief and knowledge so as not to denigrate religious faith in relation to scientific knowledge. This represents a major departure from the beaten path of Platonism (conf. 7.9.13, 7.20.26, 8.2.3; cf. b. vita 1.4, civ. Dei 8.12), with its persistent insistence on the rigid distinction between ‘true belief’ and ‘real knowledge’.120

5.5. Juxtaposition to primitive fideism. Augustine’s position on faith and reason is radically different from that of Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225). For example, about the death of the Son of God Tertullian says (car. Chr. 5): “The Son of God died; it is believable, precisely because it does not make sense [credibile quia ineptum est]; and after his burial he rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.” On the other hand, Augustine’s position is not: “I believe because it is unbelievable [credo quia incredibile est].” According to Augustine and contrary to Tertullian (praescr. haer. 7), Athens, the city of reason, and Jerusalem, the city of faith, have a lot to do with each other. Indeed, the two cities, like the city of God and the city of the human being, are inextricably intertwined in this earthly existence (civ. Dei 1.35, 10.25, 11.1, 14.28, 15.1–15.2, 15.6, 18.49, 18.54, 19.17, 20.9, 22.30). In this terrestrial world, then, the city of the theologians and the city of the philosophers are, from a Christian perspective, predestined to an animated but amicable coexistence (c. Acad. 3.20.43; sol. 1.13.23; retr. 1.4.3). Faith pursues understanding; it does not flee it. Augustine attempts to transcend skepticism; the Academicians try to perpetuate it.

5.6. Juxtaposition to existentialist enthusiasm. Despite a common misperception, Augustine’s understanding of the relation between faith and reason also bears little resemblance to Kierkegaard’s anti-systematic and pro-subjectivistic interpretation of the incarnation in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) to the Philosophical Fragments (1844): “Truth is subjectivity. … Subjectivity is truth. … What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, et cetera, has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being, in as much as all immediate recognizability is pre-Socratic paganism and from the Jewish point of view is idolatry.”121 Accordingly, the only valid criterion of truth (lucus a non lucendo) is the intensity of the passion with which a subject holds a position: “Objectively the emphasis is on what is said; subjectively the emphasis is on how it is said.”122 Of course, Locke had already anticipated and criticized this appeal to authenticity in “Of Enthusiasm”: “This is the way of talking of these Men: they are sure, because they are sure: and their Perswasions are right, only because they are strong in them.”123 Augustine would not regard the Kierkegaardian subjectivization of truth as an adequate basis for justification, epistemological or theological.

5.7. Juxtaposition to the “church of the absurd”. Some take what Kierkegaard says about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation in particular and assert it with respect to the Christian religion in general. This position is often expressed in the existentialist Christian aphorism: “Credo quia absurdum est [I believe because it is absurd].” But Augustine does not think that belief in the Christian religion is absurd or illogical or irrational. On the contrary, he is convinced that the decision to become an orthodox Christian, that is, a Catholic, is the most rational choice that a human being can possibly make in their entire life. Yet he also becomes persuaded that a constant and consistent Academic skeptic is hardly capable of such an act of assent.

5.8. Gnostic rationalism versus Christian skepticism. Remarkably, it is not about the Christians but about the Manicheans that Augustine observes (conf. 6.5.7): “… they ordered [me] to believe so many most absurd things because they could not be demonstrated [tam multa … absurdissima, quia demonstrari non poterant, credenda imperari].” Since gnosticism is rationalism, it has a higher requirement for recondite knowledge and a lower threshold for skepticism than does Christianity. These were key factors in Augustine’s decision to switch from Manicheism to Catholicism. The Academic skepticism that enables Augustine to break with Manicheism also makes it possible, though more difficult, for him to bond with Catholicism.

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