Short Lectures on Ethics David Keller



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Short Lectures on Ethics – David Keller

Lecture 4

Christian Virtue Ethics: Augustine

My name is David Keller. Today we are going to look at the virtue ethics of the great Christian philosopher St. Augustine. To understand Augustine it is helpful to understand something about Plato. It is accurate to say that Augustine Christianized Platonism. Augustine lived in the fourth century of the Common Era, mostly in present day Algeria on the northern coast of Africa. Augustine’s mother was a Christian, and apparently Augustine was pretty rowdy, partying and living a hedonistic lifestyle until he was about thirty-two years of age, when he converted to Christianity upon reading Romans chapter 13, particularly verses 13 and 14. Augustine was very intelligent, of course, and once he converted to Christianity and became involved in the Catholic Church, he rose quickly through the ranks of the church hierarchy. Earlier in his life, Augustine was a Manichean. The philosophy of Manichaeism is that reality consists of two material forces, one good, one evil, in continuous struggle and conflict with each other, with no definitive triumph of one over the other. Augustine wondered why these two forces would be in continual struggle and continual conflict, and found answers in Plato which freed him from the shackles of materialism and pointed him to a higher good, a higher meaning, above and beyond these two material forces. So Plato, Platonism was incredibly important in Augustine’s development as a Christian philosopher. In his great work the Confessions, Augustine says, “the Platonists in many ways led to the belief in God and His Word.” So here we see that as a Christian philosopher, Augustine was motivated by faith, but he used the tools of rationality, which I outlined in the second lecture, to think about virtue, and ethics, and truth. In this way, Augustine was not simply a Christian saint, but also a philosopher.

The subject matter of Augustine’s philosophy focused on his soul and justice. Augustine was not worried or concerned with the makeup of the natural world. He was not a natural philosopher. Like Socrates, he tended to refocus philosophy on himself, on his soul, on the justice of his soul. And in this way he is very much in the tradition of moral philosophy in the Western tradition, in the spirit of Socrates. Now following Plato, Augustine believed that the soul consisted of different elements or aspects, which can either be in harmony, which represents justice, or disharmony, which results in injustice. Hearkening back to Plato and what Plato says in the Republic, the soul consists of three elements, three parts, three aspects: a rational part, which desires wisdom; a spirited part, which desires fame, and reputation, and recognition from our peers, our colleagues, our loved ones; and thirdly an appetitive part, which primarily desires physical pleasure—it is the hedonistic part of us. Injustice, as Plato argues, results when the soul is dominated by one of the two lower parts of the soul, that is the spirited part or that appetitive part. This puts our soul, our being, our suke into disharmony. Justice or harmony results when the rational part, the part that desires wisdom, controls and subordinates the two lower parts of our soul, the spirited part and the appetitive part. And the soul functions in harmony according to reason. This results in justice or virtue.

Augustine is very similar to this Platonic ideal of harmony of the soul with one critical distinction, and that is this. In Platonic philosophy, ethics, justice of the soul, is primarily self-referential. You want a harmonious soul because you want to be happy. And the end of ethics is yourself. It is the harmony of your own soul, your own being, your own suke. Augustine as a Christian pointed his ethics to God. So whereas in Plato the end of ethics is self-referential, that is, one’s self, for Augustine the end of ethics is manifestation of the glory of God. It points to a higher end and higher purpose than one’s self, something higher, something transcendent. And that is God. So in this way we see Augustine’s Platonic emphasis on different aspects of the soul, and the soul functioning in harmony. In his work The City of God, Augustine writes, “If we were irrational animals, we should desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the body’s parts and the satisfaction of our appetites[.] But because there is in man a rational soul, he subordinates all that he has in common with the beasts to the peace of that rational soul” (The City of God). So because we are rational animals, we must subordinate our animalistic desires to reason, but unlike Plato, reason is not the end of itself. It is the love of God which ethics points to.

As a Christian philosopher, it was imperative that Augustine deal with the problem of free will in the context of God’s omniscience. That is, if God is omniscient, God should know everything about how each one of us is going to live our lives. God in his omniscience would know that at some point in your life, a point of temptation, you are going to choose to turn to God or away from God, to be a saint or a sinner. And God presumably will know the outcome of that point in your life. But then the question arises, if God already knows the outcome of how we are going to live our lives, what is the point of living an earthly test? What is the point of going through the motions and acting as if we genuinely have the free will to turn to God or away from God when the outcome is already predetermined? Augustine’s solution is a very creative one. He argued that God does in fact know the outcome of the choices we will make, the choices I will make, and the choices you will make, but we genuinely have the free will to turn to God, or away from God, in a moment of temptation to be a saint or a sinner. At that point of temptation, we genuinely have free will to choose to turn to God or away from God. It is that God knows beforehand what our choice will be. God knows whether we will be a saint or a sinner. Nonetheless, we are not predetermined mechanistic beings, plodding through our lives from point A, to point B, to point C. We genuinely have the free will to turn to God or away from God. Therefore God has omniscience. God knows the outcome of all events. God knows what our choices will be, but we genuinely have the choice. We have the free will. The notion of free will is important for Augustine to retain as a Christian philosopher. He feels in this way he has solved the problem between the conundrum of God’s omniscience and free will.

There is a second problem relating to free will and God’s knowledge. If God knows that some of us will choose to do evil, and God is all good, that is, omnibenevolent, why would God set up the possibility for evil by giving us free will? That is, if God is truly good, omnibenevolent, does not wish evil, why would God give us the free will, knowing full well that some of us will choose to do wrong and cause evil? Augustine answers that God gives us free will, even knowing this will result in evil, because if we did not have free will, there would be no morality. There would be no choice. There would be no basis for us as moral agents to be praised or blamed. Therefore, free will, what I have defined as the behavior of morality, imbedded in each one of us as human beings, puts us under an ethical obligation to turn to God. Augustine says, “No man is ever blamed for what he has not been given, but he is justly blamed if he has not done what he should have done; and if he has received free will and sufficient power, he stands under obligation.” Therefore, without free will, there would be no morality, and without morality, there would be no ethics.

This turns us to the keystone of Augustine’s moral philosophy, that is, the virtuous person, the person of virtuous character. For Augustine there are two types of people, generally speaking. These two types of people, people with two types of character, are cast by Augustine as citizens of two metaphorical cities: the city of God, which he calls the Christian city; and what he calls the city of man, the city of human beings, the pagan city. According to Augustine, the history of human civilization is the history of the interaction of these two types of people, these two types of culture. In his great work The City of God, Augustine writes, “Though there are a great many nations throughout the world, living according to different rites and customs, and distinguished by many different forms of language, arms, and dress, there nonetheless exist only two orders, as we rightly may call them, of human society[;] we may rightly speak of these as two cities. The one is made up of men who live according to the flesh, and the other of those who live according to the spirit. Each desires its own kind of peace, and, when they have found what they sought, each lives in its own kind of peace” (The City of God). This is the city of God and the city of man. On earth, all real cultures are intermixtures of the two, thought certain cultures may have a predominance of one type of person, of one citizen, over the other type—Jerusalem or Babylon. But your citizenship is determined by your orientation to God, not where you live in particular. Therefore, you could be a citizen of the city of God living predominantly in a city of man. This hearkens to Christ’s remarks about the kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew. Your citizenship, your orientation to God is not a question of a place in time and politics, but of your soul, of your character. Therefore there are two types of cultures, and the citizens that comprise them won’t be distinct until the Last Judgment.

Let’s look a little bit more closely at the character of these two types of citizens, and this will disclose the underpinning, the fundamentals, of Augustine’s virtue ethics. Citizens of the city of God live by a principle of conduct which is the love of God. Using free will, citizens of the city of God turn to God in obedience of divine law. The objects of love for citizens of the city of God are God, one’s neighbor, and one’s self. He writes, “This divine Master [God] inculcates two precepts,—the love of God and the love of our neighbor,—and as in these precepts a man finds three things he has to love, God, himself, and his neighbor, and that he who loves God loves himself, thereby, it follows that he must endeavor to get his neighbor to love God since he is ordered to love his neighbor as himself” (The City of God). So citizens of the city of God love firstly God, and then secondly all of God’s children, in other words you neighbor, and yourself. And as God has instructed each one of us to love our neighbor, through that love we as children of God are mandated to try to get our neighbor also to love God. Here we have the proselytizing element of Christianity exemplified in Augustine’s moral philosophy, a precept that is not evident in Eastern tradition, such as Buddhism.



Citizens of the city of man live by a much different principle of conduct, that is, love of self. Citizens of the city of man are egoistic and selfish. Using free will, citizens of the city of man turn their backs to God in defiance of divine law, and repudiate God’s will and God’s love .The objects of love for citizens of the city of man are one thing and one thing only—that is, one’s self. Therefore, we can see the importance of free will in Augustine’s moral philosophy. It is free will that determines whether we are citizens of the city of God or citizens of the city of man. Virtue, virtuous character, predisposition to moral judgment and moral behavior, is determined by choice. Augustine’s own conversion experience is, as he portrays it, a pure force of will. That is, it has nothing to do with the physicality of everyday life, physical impediments, things that keep you from choosing. It is purely a force of will, and a force of will only. Augustine says of his own conversion experience when he was in his early thirties, “I was frantic in mind, in a frenzy of indignation at myself for not going over to your law and your covenant, oh my God. Where all my bones cried out that I should be extolling it to the skies. The way was not by ship, or chariot, or on foot. It was not as far as I had gone when I went from the house to the place where we sat.” In other words, turning to God has nothing to do with physical everyday life. “For I had but to will to go in order not merely to go, but to arrive. I had only to will to go, but to will powerfully and wholly, not to turn and twist with a will half wounded this way and that, with the part that would rise struggling against the part that would keep it to the earth” (Confessions). So what Augustine is saying is turning to God or away from God is a matter of will, free will, and will only, and has nothing to do with the body. It is a matter of actually breaking away from the things shackle us to everyday life, and turning to God and manifesting God in his full glory. We see, therefore, for Augustine a virtuous character is a matter of the choices we make, based on the free will we have been given by God. And our outward actions, the way that we lead our lives—the things that are obvious to our peers, and our colleagues, our family, our friends, our loved ones—our manifestation, outward manifestations of the choices that we make in our souls, in our suke determine our character. The choices that we make determine our character, whether we are virtuous or not, and these are manifested in our outward actions, whether we are citizens of the city of God or citizens of the city of man. Thank you.


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