Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I aim to expose the academic underpinnings of my thoughts on story-telling and writing. In this series I make no attempt to give a comprehensive view of any of the philosophers I tackle, but instead pick out and explain what draws me back to their works again and again.
For the past few weeks I’ve been exploring the tenuous relationship between faith and reason in a sub-series I’m calling “Expecting Ambiguity“. My aim is to explain how philosophical arguments for the existence of God are not as concretely determinate (and thus as easy to dismiss) as they are often cast, but that they instead offer as much insight into the limits and powers of subjective human knowledge as they do into religion. For the finale, I offer you some thoughts on Augustine’s City of God and the promise of hope.
AUGUSTINE: Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, who lived from 354-430 AD, is often categorized as a Medieval theologian, though he more properly fits into what is known as the Late Antique period. As both a philosopher and a Church Father, Augustine wrestled with questions of faith and reason throughout his life, ultimately finding that reason was a tool for the faithful, best used to help them seek understanding in their faith, but in itself not sufficient to deal with infinite goodness of God, the prospect of individuated conceptual substances, and the excess of being. We are but finite creatures, and our rational capacity to simplify the complex world around us could not, by itself, give us a full picture of reality.
Augustine faces his despair over and over throughout his career, moving closer and closer to the comfort and understanding he seeks even as his despair and grief grow and deepen through loss, regret, and devastation. I could cite dozens of examples, but for this post I’ll stick to just one: Book XIX of The City of God.
Written at the end of his life, The City of God is often categorized as a response to the Visigoth’s sacking of Rome in 410. In the face of violence and death, The City of God is thought to be Augustine’s attempt to console Christians and help those who suffered find a way out of despair.
And human reason just wasn’t going to cut it.
The Earthly City
Chapter 1 of Book XIX begins with the difficulties and particularities of finding happiness in the earthly city. Life in this world, in these bodies, in these cultures, with these personalities – it’s highly complex and personalized. Following the logic of the Roman Marcus Varro, Augustine determines that there are at least 288 different possible paths to happiness, and likely a good deal more. While some people desire pleasure above all else, others desire repose. Some like a balance of pleasure and repose, and others find value in objects or goals. That’s at least four different possibilities right there, and none of them very specific. Augustine/Varro then takes those four general categories and divides them up again – whichever you desire most can be desired primarily for its own sake, for what it can do for you (and the virtues it can cultivate), or can be valued both for its own sake and for what it brings. Now were up to 12, and aren’t any closer to saying something specific. Those 12 possible combinations can be seen in our personal lives, and in our social interactions, and may not be the same in each – now we’re at 24.
Augustine’s fortitude exceeds mine, so while I’ll stop here, Augustine makes it all the way 288 before giving up on the seemingly indefinite project of finding perfect happiness by earthly means. While we all seek happiness above other things, our finite and complex lives on earth make it difficult for us to be perfectly satisfied even under the best conditions.
And so Augustine trims away the excess, eliminating accidental qualities and matters of taste, seeking to find the central core of the matter, collapsing categories until he can see only 3 major differences in the ways humans can seek happiness, or rather, three ways of answering one major question: for the sake of what do we live?
In the City of Men we have but three options:
- we can seek good things for their own sakes, using virtues and talents to get us these things.
- we can seek good things for the sake of making ourselves better people (the cultivation of virtue).
- we can value both the things themselves and the virtues equally, but separately.
Or in other words, we can try to find happiness through our bodies, our souls, or some equally yoked combination. For the earthly philosopher – in this case Varro – there can be only one answer: because bodily pleasure seeking cannot regulate itself, and requires virtue, we must seek virtue above all else. Because virtue is the wise regulation of the self according to reason, it alone is capable of organizing life to keep both the body and soul in line. Virtue is the only way to get the most of these three possibilities, and so virtue alone can bring us any possibility of earthly happiness.
Virtue makes a good use both of itself and of all other goods in which lies man’s happiness, and where it is absent, no matter how many good things a man has, they are not for his good, consequently should not be called good thing while they belong to one who makes them useless by using them badly.
But for Augustine, virtue isn’t enough.
Augustine looks at the life that philosophy can provide, and he finds it a dismal prospect. Virtue, in its classical meaning, refers primarily to self-control and discipline. Classical virtues were based in hard-work, punishment, eschewing pleasures, being temperate, moderate, and restrained. Effectively, virtue would stop individuals from hurting themselves and others through overindulgence, bad decision making, greed, violence, rage, or emotional outbursts. It would make a good starting point, Augustine thought, but there was no way he could ever see that as “happiness” properly speaking.
Firstly, even if we were able to achieve perfect self-control, that still leaves an infinite world of things out of our control. And the world, as it was for Augustine, is full of terrible things. The forces working against our happiness are unlimited – limitless, even – and so no matter how wise we may be or how well we master ourselves, our limited powers will always be outmatched. In every good thing we can encounter, there is something evil. That is the nature of our physical world. Every friend we love will leave us eventually, either by choice or by death. Every moment of safety we feel can easily be upset by outside forces. Every reward of discipline can be undermined by a failure of the body, a disease, natural deprecation, a betrayal, unfairness, and on, and on. Self-control is a fine thing, but the evils of the world far exceed those of our own making. Virtue has no intrinsic ability to make good out of bad.
Secondly, even achieving self-control is no small feat. In fact, far from adding goodness our lives, every virtue exists only in opposition to some tempting vice, and we are faced with a constant battle against our own human weakness. Prudence, the virtue of the cautious, “is itself a proof that we are in the midst of evils, or that evils are in us.” Justice is the restoration of order, but only after it has been disturbed. Chastity is the virtue of physical restraint. Temperance is the virtue of refraining from indulgence. Nearly every virtue exists in reference to some potentially self-destructive desire, and no one is “so wise that he has no conflict at all to maintain against his vices.”
That isn’t to say that virtue isn’t important to Augustine; it’s an essential piece of the puzzle. Virtue helps us deal with misfortunes, avoid temptations that would cause new misfortunes, and make us ready to receive goodness by waging war against the miseries of the outside world. At its most effective, perfect virtue can keep our vices at bay and lead us to contentment within our situations. But though self-control is necessary for happiness, it is far from sufficient.
And so, according to Augustine, it is clear that human beings lack the power to make themselves happy. They’re too busy trying to avoid self-destructive behaviors. If they succeed, then they can look to external sources of positive happiness and goodness that are big enough to combat the ills of earthly life. Any attempt to effect for ourselves a happiness on earth resolves either into arrogance or ignorance – either in the active oppression and control of others, or in the stoic abstention from all human joy.
The Promise of Divine Hope
In order to be happy we need something that is great enough to not only match the forces of evil and sadness, but great enough to actively make something good out of them. He sees evidence of this in our earthly lives; the death of a plant or animal nourishes the ground so that other plants and animals may live, through the pain of study or exercise we can become stronger and smarter, the loss of one opportunity may open the door to another, and in all sadness and fear there is a promise of something better:
In the abode of weakness, and in these wicked days, this state of anxiety has also its use stimulating us to seek with keener longing for that security where peace is complete and unassailable.
What this means for Augustine is not that we need to feel pain in order to understand pleasure and joy, but rather that our feelings of pain and sadness tell us there is something we would wish to have – a state of peace and goodness. If there was no better goodness, then we would have nothing to long for, and our pain would not be so keen. What we want is in this way as real to us in its absence as it is in its presence. Just as there is in every good thing a persistent threat of loss, there is also in every sad event the possibility of goodness – but only if we look for it and hope for it.
Happiness, thus, is tied to the hope that there is some possible way for things to turn out all right, even if we cannot ourselves imagine how. In fact, the hope that we need in order to be happy is, for Augustine, necessarily ambiguous. Since what we can imagine is limited to our own powers and the evils of lived experience are unlimited, we must necessarily seek an external power that far exceeds our own understanding. When we attempt to reach beyond the limits of what we can reasonably control, our attempts to affect for ourselves our own peace stretch us too thin. When we try to make others behave the way we want, we either set ourselves up for disappointment (when we inevitably fail) or turn ourselves into monsters obsessed with power. When we think we can make ourselves happy and create our own perfect peace, we end up either settling for an utterly impoverished notion of happiness (as the Stoics do, and perhaps as Socrates does) or becoming bullies and tyrants, and separate ourselves even further from goodness (as Kakos, and perhaps Callicles also, does).
Ironically, this means that our efforts are best spent on cultivating our own virtue and controlling what we can – but only in so far as we externalize our view of happiness by focusing on our hope for a greater and more perfect happiness beyond what virtue can provide. When we do this, we actually make it easier for ourselves to be virtuous. The humility inherent in hope actually makes us better at controlling ourselves because it gives us something to focus on, a goal to work towards. This focus makes us better at unifying our virtues, and increases our power.
Reading this section of City of God reminds me of walking on a tightrope. In this metaphor, the tightrope is stretched over all of the temptations in the world that will lead us astray, as well as the nearly infinite world outside of our control. Our goal is to stay on the tightrope in order to avoid falling into despair. Virtue, in this case, is the means by which we hold our balance and tighten our core muscles. If we focus on ourselves as complex beings, looking at all of the different ways we can move our arms and legs, we’ll flail one arm, bend a little to compensate, and end up continuously countering each movement with another.
But if we lift our head up, and focus on a point off in the distance, we’ll be much better at keeping our balance in a unified way. We’ll pull ourselves together without thinking about the details and move smoothly forward. As soon as we stop moving towards our goal, we wobble. As soon as we look down, we lose our balance.
In the same way, hope makes it easier for us to be virtuous without thinking through all of the details. Instead of considering various lifestyle choices offered by the world (attempting to juggle all of Varro’s 288 possible combinations), if we look towards something always off in the distance, we will be able to keep ourselves from succumbing to self-destructive temptations. This hope isn’t just a hope that waits – it’s a productive anticipation that changes how we feel in the present.
For Augustine, belief in God manifests necessarily as hope and not resolution because otherwise, God couldn’t continue to make us happy as we encounter new situations and scenarios. In order to be happy, there must be something capable of granting happiness and peace beyond anything we can imagine, because it is only when we are able to fix our eyes on something in the distance that we can move through the world with ease, and without feeling our constant mortal struggle. Without this hope, we get stuck, and happiness is impossible.
What Augustine seeks is something to counter the trivial precision of human reason. Virtue is a good starting point, but it does nothing but guard us against preventable misery – it’s not enough to actually make us happy because it cannot extend beyond itself. While it is tempting to look at The City of God as a mere apologetic for Christianity, Augustine’s reasoning in Book XIX actually stems first from his desire for a Goodness that exceeds the evils of the world, and then finds fruition not in the resolution of his desire, but in his hope for it. Hope itself becomes not merely knowledge of a delay, but rather an active and productive anticipation that is itself an experience of happiness. Hope begins in a desire for something of unquantifiable power, but manifests itself in a true experience of happiness, radiating back from our projected desire.
As I explained in a post on optimism last year:
In Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine implies that hope is not just anticipation of the good that you wish to come, it is the reflection from the goodness beyond, reaching back to us in order to pull us along. He goes on at length about the various ways that even good things can disappoint us, because the evil in the world is so insurmountable that happiness seems impossible. But he doesn’t just give up. As long as we keep our heads up and our eyes fixed on the far away light of God, even though we cannot see it directly but can only use it as a guide for where to look, the overwhelming darkness around us can’t swallow us whole. As soon as we drop our gaze and try to grapple with the misery on our own terms, we get pulled into it.
I thought this made a fitting capstone for this series on ambiguity in explorations of God. The purpose of this series is not to argue for the existence of God, but instead to argue that explorations of the nature of God are more open to interpretation than they may initially seem. Far from defining a precise vision of God, Augustine finds fruit in the distance between the precision of human reason and the productive happiness of ambiguous hope. If we could see God clearly and prove his existence, then he wouldn’t be God. He wouldn’t provide us with the continuous motion we need to stay balanced with ease, and he wouldn’t help us avoid focusing too much on individual details. Without that distance – that ambiguity – we would think about our arms and legs, and we would wobble. We would dwell on the things we couldn’t control and we would look down, falling into despair. We would try to conquer others who would threaten our peace and disrupts ourselves further. We would find our small achievements disappointing and give up entirely.
While this is not exactly a proof for the existence of God, it doesn’t assume that God exists either; rather, it begins with a need, and then looks to what works. And this – this power, this goodness, this ambiguous possibility – is what he attempts to argue for. He doesn’t argue that God must be pure goodness – he argues that there must be something purely and infinitely good.
And this he calls God.