Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.15

Gareth B. Matthews (ed.), The Augustinian Tradition. Philosophical Traditions, 8.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. xix, 398.  ISBN 0-520-21001-8.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christian Tornau, University of Jena (
Word count: 2380 words


Marilyn McCord Adams, Rüdiger Bittner, M.F. Burnyeat, Frederick J. Crosson, Richard Eldridge, Ishtiyaque Haji, John E. Hare, Simon Harrison, Ann Hartle, Robert L. Holmes, Christopher Kirwan, Simo Knuuttila, Genevieve Lloyd, Scott MacDonald, William E. Mann, Gareth B. Matthews, Martha Nussbaum, Alvin Plantinga, Philip L. Quinn, Paul J. Weithman

This volume is a collection of twenty philosophical essays on Augustine and the Augustinian tradition. They range over a wide variety of themes: Augustine's ethical theory, his thinking about human free will and his epistemology are studied as well as the way in which Augustine or Augustinianism influenced later thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau or Kant. Generally speaking this book is an instructive example of what kind of interest contemporary philosophers take in Augustine and what can be done about him with contemporary philosophical approaches. As ethical theory is a main concern of modern philosophy, there are many contributions that view him primarily as an ethicist (MacDonald, Mann, Haji, Kirwan, Holmes); others take up his thinking about time, which has earned much philosophical interest throughout this century (Lloyd, Hartle); and some attempt to make use of Augustinian ideas in the context of modern political philosophy (Weithman). A more historical point of view is adopted in essays that deal with Augustine's influence on the medieval and modern traditions (Adams, Knuuttila, Matthews, Hare, Quinn). I will restrict myself to the contributions I found most profitable; allowance for personal interest and competence should be made.

Modern (though not ancient) philosophers are not very much given to talking about love. Martha Nussbaum is an exception. In her paper "Augustine and Dante on the Ascent of Love" she contrasts the Platonic characterization of the ascent of love -- familiar throughout the Platonic tradition and endorsed by Augustine in some of his early writings -- with accounts of the Christian's love of God, especially from the Confessions. The Platonist according to Nussbaum ascends by means of his intellectual activity to a tranquil, finally non-erotic state of contemplation, whereas the Christian lover, being always conscious of his sinful state and of his dependence on divine grace, feels more passive and receptive, in short, more like a human lover. This line of thought was pursued further by later Christian thinkers: when Dante and Beatrice meet, the latter acts as the personification of divine grace, but Dante's love for her is expressly described as "a sign of the old flame" (Purgatorio 30.48). I have some doubts, though, whether it is appropriate to take Augustine's two rather dry descriptions of intellectual ascent, where the word amor does not even occur, as "the pagan ascent of love". If Nussbaum had concentrated on Plotinus instead, she would have got quite a different picture (the few texts she cites on page 64 do not prove the contrary). Nonetheless it is true, as Nussbaum shows, that what makes all the difference between Plotinian Platonism and Augustine is the increased importance of "memory", i.e. of the empirical, historical self (65-71).

Scott MacDonald's article "Primal sin" deals with the first angelic sin Augustine describes in De libero arbitrio book 3 and City of God books 11 and 12. Primal sin is the critical point at which evil enters God's wholly good creation. Augustine attributes it to the evil angels' free will which is its own "deficient" cause. The problem MacDonald addresses is this: if evil enters the world with primal sin, it cannot be prepared by anything in the sinner; but if there is nothing in the sinner to prepare his sin, how can it really be his sin, that is, how can there be genuine moral agency? Starting from lib. arb. 3.18.50, where Augustine talks about sins not avoided out of carelessness, MacDonald answers: primal sin arises when the sinner carelessly neglects the reasons he has to act in a certain way and chooses to act differently, out of reasons he also has. The possibility of this failure in practical reasoning is due to some limitation in the sinner's being, viz. his creation de nihilo. The first problem with this approach is acknowledged by MacDonald himself. It is difficult to see how a choice that, though it is wrong, in a way just "happens", can lead to eternal damnation. MacDonald consequently tends to understand primal sin not as a single act but as a process, which, as he admits, is un-Augustinian. Next, it seems that MacDonald concentrates too much on acts and choices. For Augustine, the first and archetypal sin the evil angels commit is to love themselves more than God. This is not an act or a choice; the problem rather lies with the fact that self-love is on the one hand natural and even an image of the Holy Trinity (ciu. 11.26-28) but on the other hand always in danger of changing into perverse self-love usque ad contemptum Dei (ciu. 14.28 etc.). It does not seem that primal sin can be explained without taking into account this problematical structure of self-love (addressed e.g. in ciu. 11.28).

It is well-known that Augustine's ethics are strongly intentionalist. What matters is not a concrete action or its consequences but the agent's inner state. This is what William E. Mann calls "Inner-Life Ethics" and what he analyzes in his paper so titled. In a first chapter Mann offers a reconstruction of Augustine's ethical theory (primarily based on texts from De continentia, De moribus ecclesiae and De doctrina Christiana 1). For Augustine, it is the concept of consent which is crucial: for an action to be sinful, the agent's consent is necessary, but also sufficient, even if the action is unsuccessful, never carried out or even never attempted. Consent in this sense may mean intention as well as mere fantasy. The background of all this is to be found in Augustine's reading of the two commandments of love and in his doctrine of use and enjoyment (uti and frui). A second chapter, titled "Applications", contains sections on lying, on the theft of pears in Confessions 2 (a paragraph very much worth reading), and on actions committed in dreams. This last point makes it particularly clear that without God's grace we are unable to avoid sinful actions; as Mann concludes, the consequence of Augustinian inner-life ethics is his anti-Pelagian doctrine of grace. The topic of dreams is taken up by the following article, Ishtiyaque Haji's "On Being Morally Responsible in a Dream".

In "Avoiding sin. Augustine against Consequentialism" Christopher Kirwan evaluates a text from De mendacio (9.12-14), where he finds adumbrated something ancient ethicists are in general silent about, viz. a method of deciding how to act in a given situation. Unsurprisingly, Augustine rejects the consequentialist method to aim at the best outcome, that is to act in a way that as little harm as possible is produced, regardless of who produces it. Instead, he advocates a method the core of which seems to be one's own obligation not to commit sins oneself. Contrary to what might be expected, the problem of this method does not primarily concern sins of omission, as Kirwan manages to show, but there are serious shortcomings concerning homicide: as homicide for Augustine is not always a sin, his method in this case does not offer an alternative to consequentialism.

Modern ethicists have usually found it impossible to accept Augustine's doctrine of grace. When Kant in his "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone" tried to "translate" an Augustinian -- historically Lutheran -- doctrine of grace into a form acceptable to pure reason, the result inevitably sounded more or less Pelagian, as is shown by John E. Hare in his "Augustine, Kant, and the Moral Gap". Because Augustine presents his theory as an exegesis of St. Paul, some have tried to discard Augustine's legacy by showing that he misread Paul on the central issue of original sin. Against this, Philip L. Quinn's essay "Disputing the Augustinian Legacy. John Locke and Jonathan Edwards on Romans 5:12-19" shows that it is far from clear that original sin is not to be found in Paul's letters. This can be seen from an 18th-century controversy about Romans 5:12 ("for that all have sinned"): Though Augustine's reading of this verse (in quo [sc. Adam] omnes peccaverunt) can be shown to be based on a mistranslation, John Locke in 1705 was forced to explain the biblical "sinned" as a strange metonymy for "are subject to death" to get rid of original sin in Paul, and Locke's device, influential though it was, could be refuted without much difficulty by the Calvinist Jonathan Edwards 50 years later.

Ann Hartle's "Augustine and Rousseau. Narrative and Self-Knowledge in the Two Confessions" is a study of Augustine's and Rousseau's answers to the problem how "the self" can be revealed in narrative if our being is in time, that is, if our past is only partly accessible through memory and our future is wholly unaccessible. Augustine the narrator of the Confessions understands Augustine the protagonist only if he sees the latter's life in its total dependence on God, because only God knows the self as it really is. By contrast, Rousseau claims absolute knowledge of himself. He can enter into himself and see himself as he really is. Therefore the inevitable failures of memory can be compensated by creative imagination, which assures the truth of everything narrated. Rousseau claims for himself the power to construct his own self, and from the Augustinian point of view Hartle adopts this means that he claims the position and perspective of God.

Hartle's approach is somewhat akin to Genevieve Lloyd's in her paper "Augustine and the 'Problem' of Time", a slightly revised version of the first chapter of her book "Being in Time" (London: Routledge 1993). With an approach partly indebted to Ricoeur and Derrida, Lloyd offers a reading of the Confessions according to which the problem Augustine has become to himself (conf. 4.4.9) is essentially the problem of being in time as discussed in Confessions 11.

Robert L. Holmes' essay "St. Augustine and the Just War Theory" is an attempt to determine Augustine's position between New Testament pacifism and medieval ecclesiastical theories about just wars. Augustine has comparatively little to say about war in terms of applied ethics; his interest lies with the more general question whether there can be just wars at all. Holmes does not restrict himself to texts that are directly about war but reads them within the general framework of Augustine's "inner-life ethics" (to take up W.E. Mann's expression). Augustine says that a war is just if it is commanded by a legitimate authority and if it has a just cause, e.g. being wronged by another state. But if an action is to be judged morally as just, what counts is nothing but the agent's motive, that is, whether the action is carried out from the right love (caritas), as Holmes demonstrates by analyzing the dilige et quod vis fac in Io. ep. tr. 7.8. In order to provide a solution for this dilemma, Holmes applies the distinction between true justice and temporal justice familiar from the City of God and concludes that if the above conditions are fulfilled, a war may be temporally just, but if it is to be truly just, it must in addition be waged from right love. Augustine acknowledged that actions performed during wars are usually not done from right love (c. Faust. 22.74) so that his opinion may very well have been that there are no truly just wars at all. But given the allowance he makes for temporally just wars, this is not really a position of pacifism.

Rüdiger Bittner's article "Augustine's Philosophy of History" is a convenient summary of what can be said about Augustine's thinking about history. The difference between an ancient philosopher, who is concerned with eternal truth, and a Christian thinker like Augustine is that in the latter's eyes (human) history receives a meaning, because the facts that are central to his understanding of the world -- God's incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection -- are historical events.

In addition, there are two articles on the much-disputed question of will in Augustine, viz. Simon Harrison's "Do we have a will? Augustine's Way in to the Will", where an analogy is drawn between the argument about will's self-evidence in Confessions 7.3.5 and Augustine's cogito-type arguments, and Simo Knuuttila's "The Emergence of the Logic of Will in Medieval Thought". Three more contributions are about later thinkers influenced by Augustine (Marilyn McCord Adams, "Romancing the Good: God and the Self according to St. Anselm of Canterbury"; Gareth B. Matthews, "Augustine and Descartes on Minds and Bodies"; Richard Eldridge, "Plights of Embodied Soul: Dramas of Sin and Salvation in Augustine and Updike"). M.F. Burnyeat's "Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro" begins and ends with a text from the Confessions (1.8.13) quoted by Wittgenstein, but its main interest is in the epistemology of De Magistro and its Platonic character.

Some criticisms remain to be made. The quality of the essays varies considerably. From Frederick Crosson's "Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine's Confessions" (reprinted from PACPhA 63, 1989, 84-97) there is little more to be learnt nowadays than that the literary problem of the Confessions cannot be solved without a commentary on the entire text, such as J.J. O'Donnell's from 1992. And Alvin Plantinga's first aim in his "Augustinian Christian Philosophy" seems to be to avail himself of Augustine's name for his own ideological concerns. He denounces thinkers who represent deconstructionism or pragmatism as "people without a country ... a threat to settled and civilized ways of intellectual life" (12), questions the theory of evolution (15sq.), and pleads for a more important role of revealed truth in natural science (20-24). This is disconcerting, the more so because the editor has chosen to open the volume with Plantinga's pamphlet. But this is an exception, and a healthy antidote is provided with Paul Weithman's "Toward an Augustinian Liberalism", a carefully argued piece of contemporary political philosophy.

Finally, some minor points. As Greek or Latin texts usually are translated into English and many readers will want to look up the original, it is a nuisance that so many references are wrong. I have spotted the following: 53 read 6.4.14 instead of 4.4.14 (Plotinus); 180, n. 3 read 572b instead of 573b (Plato, Republic); 252 read de gratia et libero arbitrio instead of de libero arbitrio; 344 n. 53 read 1.5.12 instead of 1.15.12 (de libero arbitrio); 376 read 7.21 instead of 8.21 (Confessions). Teloi is not the plural of telos (96). Even the introduction contains a flaw: Scott MacDonald's "Primal Sin" is not about Adam and Eve (x).

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