Contra Academicos ": Was eigentlich hat Augustinus "



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Wieso “Contra Academicos”: Was eigentlich hat Augustinus “gegen” die Akademiker? Philosophisch-philologische Beobachtungen zum Verhältnis zwischen Augustinus und den Akademikern
Colloquium Latinistik

Institut für Griechische und Lateinische Philologie

Freie Universität Berlin

30. November 2010
George Heffernan

Department of Philosophy

Merrimack College

Abstract. According to the most recent English edition of the work, namely, that of Peter King, Augustine’s Contra Academicos/Against the Academicians (386/387) is “a manifesto written by a former skeptic presenting himself for the first time as a platonist and a Christian”. On this interpretation, Augustine for a time “despaired of finding the truth and went through a period of being a skeptic”. During this time, he “defended the view of the Academicians”, “did so publicly”, and “did so” by “peddling” it with the use of their skeptical notions of the plausible (probabile) and the truth-like (veri simile). Thus Augustine was “more than sympathetic” to the Academicians and it is wrong for scholars “to minimize his attachment” to them. The argument of this paper, on the other hand, is that the notion that Augustine once defended Academic skepticism is not a demonstrable fact but an interesting yet untenable interpretation. The reason is that there is no evidence that would convince a judicious scholar beyond a reasonable doubt that Augustine ever assented to Academic skepticism. Indeed, the attempt to argue that Augustine was once an Academic skeptic obfuscates the legitimate issue of whether and how he may have been a skeptic in a different, philosophically more significant, sense.

“O magni viri Academici!” (conf. 6.11.18) “Isti homines … caducarii sunt ….” (b. vita 2.16)



1. Introduction: Scholarly skepticism about Augustine’s Academic skepticism
One of four Cassiciacum Dialogues composed between his conversion (386) and his baptism (387),1 Augustine’s Against the Academicians is a philosophical discourse on the skeptical “wisdom” that there is no such thing as knowledge. It is understood that, if there is no knowledge, then there is also no wisdom.2 In Against the Academicians Augustine explains that, as they are usually understood, and as he himself used to understand them, the Academicians have two basic tenets:3
1. The Assertion of Dogmatic Ignorance: “Nothing can be known.”

2. The Requirement of Universal Abstention: “All assent must be withheld.”


Against the Academic tenets, nihil percipi potest and sapiens nulli rei assentitur, Augustine argues that there are several kinds of knowledge, for example, knowledge of truths in physics, in mathematics, and in ethics, and knowledge of the existence of the sensible world, of perceptions of the senses, and of the laws of logic.4

Given the evolution of Plato’s original Academy (founded c. 387 B.C.E.), some later Academicians, for example, Arcesilaus of Pitane (316/315–241/240 B.C.E.), Carneades of Cyrene (214/213–129/128 B.C.E.), and Philo of Larissa (159/158–84/83 B.C.E.), were what are now referred to as “skeptics”. Yet their ostensible opponent was not Plato (428/427–348/347 B.C.E.), who in dialogues such as Meno, Politeia, and Theaetetus argued that there is knowledge of intelligible forms or ideas but not of sensible things. Rather, they rejected the Stoic empiricist attempt, led by Zeno of Citium (334/333–262/261 B.C.E.), to define knowledge in terms of an “apprehensible impression” (Greek: phantasia kataleptike; Latin: visum comprehendibile),5 that is, a sense-perception that exhibits signs (signa) showing that it must be true and cannot be false (c. Acad. 2.5.11, 3.9.18, 3.9.21). To the contrary, Arcesilaus asserts that nothing can be apprehended in this way and that therefore all assent must be withheld (c. Acad. 2.5.11, 2.6.14, 3.9.21). Responding to the objection that the skeptical sage (sapiens) cannot do anything because he cannot assent to anything (c. Acad. 2.5.12, 3.15.33–3.15.34, 3.18.40), Carneades claims that the “plausible” (Latin: probabile) or the “truth-like” (Latin: veri simile) can serve as a guide to action, thus enabling action without assent (c. Acad. 2.5.11, 2.11.25–2.12.28).

Although Augustine also does not employ the terms “skeptic”, “skeptical”, or “skepticism”, the Academicians of his Contra Academicos are the skeptical philosophers of the New Academy.6 They are, first and foremost, Arcesilaus7 and Carneades.8 Philo, who wisely questions the conventional Academic wisdom of letting the Stoics define the terms of the debate, is interesting for Augustine only in so far as he is a teacher of Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130–c. 68 B.C.E.), whom he regards as a “Platonic straw man” (faeneus ille Platonicus) who was “more desirous of glory than of truth” (gloriae cupidior quam veritatis) and whose intent was to revive the Old Academy but whose effect was to infect it with the “evil” of Stoic materialism by positing that “apprehensible impressions” are certain after all.9 Finally, Augustine regards Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), whose Academica (45 B.C.E.) is a main source, if not the main source, of his own knowledge of Academic skepticism,10 as an Academic skeptic.11

Yet a key issue in the continuing interpretation of Augustine’s philosophy is the striking divergence of scholarly opinion about his temporary involvement with the skepticism of the Academicians. There are three different approaches here:

1. Some scholars assert that Augustine was once an Academic skeptic. For example, speaking about the “radical scepticism” of Augustine’s “sceptical period”, Chadwick says: “At Milan [in 384] his lost belief in Mani was replaced by a scepticism about the possibility of any certainty. He devoured the writings of sceptical philosophers of the Academic school telling him that certainty is not available except in questions of pure mathematics.”12 This view is consistent with those of Cary,13 Wills,14 and O’Daly.15

2. Other scholars doubt whether Augustine was ever an Academic skeptic. For example, Kavanagh says that Augustine was “acquainted” with but not that he “adopted” Academic skepticism: “After [Augustine] had discovered that the doctrine of the Manichaeans, who had attracted him by their clamorous claim of truth, was confused and pernicious materialism, he became acquainted with the skepticism of the New Academy. Like many others before and after, this young seeker after truth may well have been occasionally tempted to despair of the existence of truth and a rational meaning of the world. He himself confessed that skepticism had threatened to rob him of his interest and energy.”16 This reading is consistent with those of O’Meara,17 Fox,18 and Stock.19

3. Still other scholars take an ephectic approach to Augustine’s alleged Academic skepticism. For example, O’Connell questions whether Augustine ‘fully commits’ to Academic skepticism: “[Augustine] realized he could no longer continue as a Manichee; the skepticism of Academic philosophy now made a strong appeal to him, but since the name of Christ was missing from it … he could not fully commit himself to Academicism.”20 This interpretation is consistent with those of O’Donnell,21 Matthews22 and Harrison.23

In a recent treatment of Augustine’s intellectual conversion from Manichaeism through Platonism to Christianity, a careful one that emphasizes its gradual character with exemplary attention to detail, Dobell writes of his subject’s temporary attraction to “the sceptical stance of the New Academy”:24 “This [that nothing could be known] … was the position of the sceptical Academy, and it was also Augustine’s position shortly before he read the ‘books of the Platonists’.”25 In fact, the more nuanced the approach, the harder it becomes to say simply what the nature of Augustine’s involvement with the Academicians was.26 This is as it should be. Hence the question about the precise relationship between Augustine and the Academicians must be posed anew.27 What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Augustine and Academic skepticism?28



2. The question: Was Augustine ever an Academic skeptic?
Despite the disputes, Peter King, in the highly influential edition of Contra Academicos/Against the Academicians that has become the standard for philosophers in the English-speaking world,29 claims that Augustine was once an Academic skeptic:30
When Augustine became disillusioned with Manichaeanism in 383, he despaired of finding the truth and went through a period of being a skeptic. Consequently, he had an insider’s knowledge of skepticism, though he never apprenticed himself to any skeptical school. Eventually his reading of ‘platonist books’ convinced him that skepticism was mistaken. … Against the Academicians … is a manifesto written by a former skeptic presenting himself for the first time as a platonist and a Christian.

Of those who would be skeptical of Augustine’s Academic skepticism, King says:31


Some scholars have questioned this claim [that Augustine despaired of finding the truth and went through a period of being a skeptic], pointing out that from Augustine’s autobiographical remarks in The Happy Life 1.4 … and Confessions 5.14.25 …, for example, all we may infer is that Augustine was impressed by the Academicians, not that he was an adherent of their doctrines; his “despair at finding the truth” …, as described in Against the Academicians 2.1.1, Revisions 1.1.1 …, and Enchiridion 7.20 …, need not involve any philosophical allegiance to the Academicians.
To the contrary, King continues:32
Yet Augustine was more than sympathetic to them [the Academicians]. He writes in Against the Academicians 3.15.34.17–20 (emphasis added): “When in my retirement in the country I had been pondering for a long time just how the plausible or the truthlike can defend our actions from error, at first the matter seemed to me nicely protected and fortified, as it usually seemed when I was peddling it.”
Later, in a footnote to the translation, King reiterates and reinforces his interpretation:33
Augustine often disparages his former career as a rhetorician by describing himself as no more than a “salesman of words” (venditor verborum: Confessions 9.5.13). See for example Confessions 4.2.2 (“I used to sell the loquacity that would overcome an opponent”) and Confessions 8.6.13 (“I was selling my abilities at public speaking”). Here [c. Acad. 3.15.34, 17–20] Augustine says he himself held that “the plausible or the truthlike can defend our actions from error” while he was a rhetorician, alluding to his period as a skeptic: see the Introduction n. 5.
Then King adds that Augustine even “publicly defended” Academic skepticism:34
Augustine thus defended the view of the Academicians, and did so publicly. This conclusion is reinforced by such remarks as Confessions 5.10.19: “There also arose in me the thought that the philosophers called the Academicians had been more prudent than the rest, since they held that everything should be doubted, and made the amount of truth that man is able to apprehend disappear.”
Finally, King concludes:35
It is understandable that Augustine should later want to minimize his attachment to the Academicians, as he does in Confessions 5.14.25, but we need not follow his example.
On King’s interpretation, it seems that what Augustine has “against the Academicians” is that he himself once was an Academician, that is, an Academic skeptic, and that he is trying to forget it or not to remind his readers of it, “da man gegen nichts strenger ist als gegen erst abgelegte Irrtümer”.36 It would be a grave error not to take King’s reading very seriously, since it frames the most recent and most read English translation of Augustine’s Against the Academicians. At the same time, scholars owe a debt of gratitude to King for his bold and challenging reading of Augustine’s Against the Academicians.

3. Evidence I: An explication of the texts before and after Against the Academicians
It is remarkable that Boulding does not mention Academic skepticism in the thorough introduction to her recent standard translation of the Confessions, the text through which most English readers gather what they think about Augustine and the Academicians.37 Yet to bracket the question is not to resolve it. It is best to begin with Augustine’s general testimonies, reserving Against the Academicians for a special analysis:

1. In On the Happy Life (386/387­), recounting the main stations on his travels from Manichaeism via Platonism to Christianity, Augustine, employing the metaphor of the sea as a place of strong waves and winds, notes that, after he had escaped from the Manichaeans, “the Academicians determined [his] directions for a long time” (diu gubernacula mea … Academici tenuerunt).38 As for when and for how long (diu) this was the case, one must look—prima facie—at the years from 383/384 (conf. 5.6.10, 5.10.19, 5.14.25, 6.11.18) to 386/387 (c. Acad. 1.1.4, 2.1.1–2.3.9, 3.15.34, 3.20.43).

2. In the Letter to Hermogenianus (386/387) Augustine indicates that it was in Against the Academicians (386/387) that he was able to break “that most odious snare [odiosissimum retinaculum] by which [he] was being held back from … philosophy out of a despair about the true [desperatio veri]”.39 Since to be ensnared by Academic skepticism and to endorse it are two different things, this does not entail that Augustine was ever an Academic skeptic. And an Academic skeptic cultivating the attitude toward doubt of the Academic sage would experience not “despair about [not finding] the true” but joy in searching for it without finding it (c. Acad. 1.2.5–1.9.25). Yet it will turn out that there is no evidence that the Academic attitude was ever Augustine’s attitude.

3. In On the Usefulness of Believing (391/392) Augustine provides one of the most helpful accounts of his first documented encounter with Academic skepticism after moving from Carthage to Rome in 383:40


… once established in Italy, I took counsel with myself and I held a great deliberation, not about whether I would remain in that sect into which I regretted having fallen [Manichaeism], but about how the true should be found, the true for which I longed with sighs better known to no one than to you [Honoratus]. Often it seemed to me that the true could not be found, and the great waves of my thoughts were carried off in the direction of the Academicians. Then again, often I sensed, as far as I was able to do so, the human mind to be so vivacious, so sagacious, and so perspicacious, and I thought that, if the truth were concealed from it, then it could only be because the mode of inquiry concealed it from the mind, and that this very mode itself had to be taken up by some divine authority. It remained to find out what that authority was, since in such great dissensions every one promised that he would be the one to deliver it. Accordingly, there loomed before me an impenetrable forest, which I was very loath indeed to enter, and in the midst of these things my mind was agitated, without any repose, by the desire of finding the true.
Thus, even when “the great waves of [his] thoughts were carried off in the direction of the Academicians” (magni fluctus cogitationum mearum in Academicorum suffragium ferebantur), Augustine remained skeptical of Academic skepticism, finding it hard to believe that the human mind was not “vivacious, sagacious, and perspicacious” enough to find the truth. So Augustine’s attitude toward doubt and truth, as well as toward Academic skepticism, was ambivalent: “Therefore, had there been someone who could have taught me at that time, he would have found me most ready and very docile.”41

4. In the Confessions (397/401) Augustine clarifies not his personal association with, but his philosophical attraction to, the Academicians in 383/384:42


And indeed there arose in me too the thought that those philosophers whom they call “Academicians” were more prudent than the rest, since they maintained that all things are to be doubted, and they claimed that nothing of the true can be apprehended by the human being. For thus did they seem to me, too, clearly to have thought so, as they are popularly held to do, especially to one who did not yet understand their intention.
Describing not ‘a period of skepticism’ but “a time of doubtfulness”, Augustine admits sympathizing with the Academicians but denies committing himself to them:43
And thus, doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians, as they are held to do, I resolved at least that the Manichaeans should be abandoned, thinking at that time of my doubtfulness that I should not remain in that sect, to which I was now preferring some philosophers, to which philosophers, however, I altogether refused to commit the healing of my feeble soul, since they were without the saving name of Christ.
Augustine also reports the sense of what he was thinking at the time of his transition from hearing Academicism to reading (Neo-)Platonism in 385/386:44
“What great men—the Academicians! Nothing for the conduct of life can be apprehended with certainty. Yet let us seek more diligently and not lose hope.”
Although the temporal distention is not adequately articulated, it seems that Augustine was then attracted to the Academicians when he was no longer a Manichaean and not yet a Catholic (conf. 6.1.1). Yet he also seems to have cultivated skepticism about Academicism during the “time of [his] doubtfulness” (eo ipso tempore dubitationis meae). For, if he is “doubting all things and wavering on all things in the manner of the Academicians” (Academicorum more dubitans de omnibus atque inter omnia fluctuans), then he is also “doubting and wavering” on what they say too. A significant complication emerges later. Namely, at the time (383/384), his understanding is that the Academicians doubt all things, both sensible and intelligible; by the time of Against the Academicians (386/387), he corrects this misunderstanding, positing that the Academicians doubt sensible things but not intelligible ones (c. Acad. 2.10.24, 2.13.29–2.13.30, 3.7.14, 3.17.37–3.17.38, 3.18.40, 3.20.43). Yet his temporary lack of discernment does not prevent him from acting in the meantime, since he decides to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church, a move hardly justified by Carneades’ “plausible” or “truth-like”. If Augustine wants to embrace Catholicism, then he has to overcome Academicism (conf. 6.4.6). Hence, even “at the time of [his] doubtfulness”, Augustine is attracted to but does not adopt the approach of the Academicians. The reason is that he lacks their patient attitude toward “doubting all things and wavering on all things”.

5. In On the Trinity (399/426) Augustine refers to the arguments of Against the Academicians, written “at an early time of our conversion”, as effective against the skeptical contention that “nothing can be known by the human being”.45 The lax designator “at an early time of our conversion” (primo nostrae conversionis tempore) specifies the temporality not of an act of doubting but of the act of writing.

6. In the Enchiridion (421/422) Augustine says that he wrote Against the Academicians “at the beginning of [his] conversion” to refute the Academic wisdom that it is unwise to assent to anything lest one fall into error by approving something false as true.46 Augustine suggests that, if one never approves anything as true, then one never finds the truth. Yet the phrase “at the beginning of my conversion” (in initio conversionis meae) hardly signifies that Augustine, who in this context is not speaking for himself alone, was an Academic skeptic suffering from “despair about finding the truth” (inveniendae desperatio veritatis) “at the entrance” (in ostio) to the Christian life. And again, Augustine’s “despair about finding the truth” is not an Academic sentiment.

7. In On the City of God (413/427) Augustine juxtaposes the hesitancy of the New Academy and the constancy of the Christian city, although the passage does not reveal anything particularly noteworthy about his own personal struggle with doubt.47

8. In the Retractations (426/427) Augustine says that he wrote Against the Academicians “in order that, with the most cogent reasons that [he] could give, [he] might remove the arguments of the Academicians from [his] mind because they were disturbing [him]”, adding that these arguments “generate in many people a despair about finding the true [veri inveniendi desperatio]” and “prohibit the wise man from assenting to anything”.48 The fact that Augustine was “disturbed” (movere) by the arguments of the Academicians does not indicate that he was writing Against the Academicians to overcome his own past or present Academic skepticism. It does suggest that he was seeking, in a non-Academic way, to “remove” (amovere) the perturbations of their skepticism from his own mind and from the minds of others. Once again, “despair about finding the true”, and desire to overcome it, are not Academic sentiments.

9. In Against the Letters of Petilian (400/403) Augustine argues against the Donatist insistence on the purity of the minister as a necessary condition for the efficacy of the sacraments.49 His point is that Donatist theology fails to realize that it encourages doubts in the minds of the faithful about the legitimacy of the sacraments.

As a result, there is no cogent evidence here that would prove to a judicious scholar beyond a reasonable doubt that Augustine was ever an adherent of the Academicians in the sense of being an Academic skeptic. The point is not that, if Augustine was not an Academic skeptic, then one cannot prove the non-existence of a (negative) state of affairs, but that, in order to be justified in believing that Augustine was an Academic skeptic, one must have sufficient positive evidence for holding this supposition to be true. Yet it is more plausible that Augustine went through a skeptical phase without becoming an Academic skeptic.50 Hence it all depends on what is meant by “a skeptical phase”.51 For example, a joy in searching for the true based on the conviction that it can never be found is an Academic sentiment (c. Acad. 1.2.5–1.9.25), whereas the “despair about finding the truth” (ep. 1.3, c. Acad. 2.1.1, 3.20.43, Ench. 7.20, retr. 1.1.1.) that Augustine experienced during his “time of doubtfulness” (conf. 5.14.25) is not. Understanding skepticism as a virtuous way of life leading to happiness, the Academician would never “despair” about not being able to find the truth. But Augustine would and he did, because he never shared the Academicians’ positive attitude toward chronic doubt. Hence all the evidence suggests that it was possible for Augustine to be a skeptic without it being necessary for him to be at the same time and in the same respect an Academic skeptic. Thus what is primary and ultimate is not the question about whether or when or for how long Augustine may have suffered from a “despair at finding the truth”. The question of his attitude toward this sentiment is.

As has been indicated, the view of Augustine as an Academic skeptic in 383/384 is significantly complicated by his subsequent nuanced judgment of the Academicians not as skeptics to be attacked but as Platonists to be defended in 386/387:52


I would not ever dare to attack the Academicians, not even jokingly: for did the authority of such men not then sway me, when I did not think them to be of an opinion far different from that which is popularly believed?
Up to the time of Against the Academicians (386/387), then, Augustine openly alludes to the attraction to the Academicians that he still appears to sense:53
Therefore, I have imitated them, as far as I have been able to do, rather than attacked them, which I am not at all able to do.
The reason seems to be that Augustine’s allegiance is to Plato’s philosophy as he understands the Academicians to have preserved it in Plato’s school, the Academy:54
For it seems to me to have fit the times well that, if something undiluted flows from the Platonic spring, it is better that it be led through shadowy and thorny thickets into the pasture of a very few human beings, than that, while it is running through open places with cattle intruding everywhere, there is no way in which it can be kept clear and pure.
To the extent that Augustine “imitated” the Academicians, it was not as a skeptic but as a Platonist (c. Acad. 2.9.22, 3.9.18, 3.9.20, 3.17.37–3.20.43). For Augustine was first attracted to the Academicians at a time at which he did not yet understand their philosophical project (ep. 1.1, conf. 5.10.19, 5.14.25). Once he understood it, and not as skeptical but as Platonic (c. Acad. 2.1.1, 3.5.11, 3.17.37), his attraction to them was not diminished but enhanced. In one respect and at one time, Augustine was a skeptic, and in another respect and at another time, he was an Academician, but in no respect and at no time was he an Academic skeptic. According to Augustine, one cannot be both a skeptic and a Platonist at the same time and in the same respect. Yet the danger is that, due to overdeterminacy from overlapping and underlapping, what is specific to Augustine’s skepticism can get lost in what is generic to the Academicians’ skepticism.


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