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St. Augustine Against the academicians

  • Bernard J. Diggs (a1)


The writings of Augustine pose an interesting problem for the philosopher. Very soon after one begins reading them, there appears the old and apparently non-philosophical admonition: ‘Unless you believe, you will not understand.’ Is the autonomy of philosophy being threatened by this demand? Is reason being told that it must accept certain statements as true on authority other than its own? And if so, why?

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1 Isaiah 7.9.

2 De utilitate credendi 1.2.

3 Confes. 3.4.7; quotation from The Confessions of St. Augustine, revised from a former translation by Pusey, E. B. (Oxford 1853).

4 Ibid. 6.5.7; quotation from Pusey's translation.

5 Ibid. 5.10.19; 5.14.25; cf. Boyer, C., Christianisme et néo-Platonisme dans la formation de Saint Augustin (Paris 1920) 4750.

6 Confes. 7.9.13; Boyer, C., op. cit. 7981.

7 Retractationes 1.1.

8 Found in CSEL 63, 1-81; also PL 32, 906-57; English translation, Garvey, M. P., St. Augustine Against the Academicians (Milwaukee, Marquette University Press, 1942); also Kavanagh, D. J., Answer to Skeptics, in Writings of St. Augustine I (The Fathers of the Church, New York 1948) 85-225.

9 De Trinitate 15.12.

10 2.5.11-12; 3.10.22. Cf. Picavet, F, “Le phénoménisme et probabilisme dans l'école Platonicienne,’ Revue Philosophique 23 (1887) 378–99, 498-513. Note discussion of Carneades as an acataleptic rather than a sceptic. Cf. Brochard, V., Les sceptiques grecs (2me éd. Paris 1923) 123-85.

11 Cf. Cicero, , Academica (Loeb Library) 1.11.40-42; 2.6.18. Zeno in this doctrine was referring to the ‘presentations’ of the senses and the ‘notions’ which subsequently arise from them. No one doubts the reality of what the senses directly perceive and present to the mind. A natural act of assent is given these presentations.

12 Cf. 3.9.21. In the Academica this argument is framed in reference to sense presentations; i.e., the way in which a ‘true’ presentation is perceived does not differ from the way in which a ‘false’ presentation is perceived. Thus if Zeno's account is correct, no presentations can be known to be true, i.e., ‘grasped’ (2.13.40; 24.77).

13 For this as an argument of the dogmatists against the sceptics, cf. Academica 2.8; 12.

14 Cf. Boyer, C., L'idée de la vérité dans la philosophie de Saint Augustin, (2me éd. 1941) 32–3. The third major argument of Augustine, classed by Boyer under his ‘argumentation négative’ (p. 35: against withholding assent), is given a special place by Augustine (3.10.22; 30ff). For this reason and others which will become apparent, it appears that this argument should be given a place apart.

15 Up to 3.9.21.

16 Academica 2.20 to end.

17 3.9.21-13.29.

18 3.14.30-16.36.

19 2.6.16.

20 3.17.37-18.41. Cicero mentions that according to Philo the Old and New Academies are identical (Academica 1.4.13), and says that according to his own view the Old Academy is as sceptical as the New (1.12.46; 2.23.74). For the different views on whether or not there was an esoteric doctrine in the New Academy, cf. Boyer, C., op. cit. (note 1) 58–9.

21 Academica 1.12.45 (Arcesilaus); 2.20-21 (Cicero).

22 3.3.5-6.13;9.19; 14.31. Cf. Academica 2.7.24, where Lucullus mentions this as an argument against the Academy.

23 3.9.19-20.

24 We have this argument only as a fragment of the Academica: cf. Contra Academicos 3.7.15, and Academica (Loeb Library) pp. 460–63.

25 3.7.15-8.17.

26 Academica 2.11.33; 13.40; 31.98-9; 32.103-5; 33.107 ad fin.; 24.108.

27 Picavet, , op. cit. 498-501 and notes; Brochard, , op. cit. 135-7.

28 Academica, 2.10.32; 31.99.

29 2.6.16,19; 7.20.

30 Picavet, , op. cit. 499-501, 509, 511-2. Cicero himself speaks of seeking the truth (Academica 2.20. 65-66) and of desiring either the truth or the closest approximation to the truth (Academica 2.3.7-8), as well as of probability as resembling the truth. Cf. Brochard, , op. cit. 137, 172-6.

31 2.11.26.

32 Picavet, , loc. cit. ; Brochard, , op. cit. 135-6.

33 3.9.18. Cf. Academica, 2.10. 32ff.

34 Picavet, , op. cit. 500 n. 1; Brochard, , op. cit. 132-7, 171-6, 181-5.

35 2.11.26-12.27.

36 3.10.23.

37 Carneades, however, argues against the view that causality consists in temporal succession. Cf. Brochard, , op. cit. 152–3. The criticism was of course proposed later by Nicolaus of Autrecourt, Hume, and others.

38 Academica 2.32.103. Cf. Picavet, , op. cit. 498; Brochard, , op. cit. 171-6.

39 3.11.24, 26.

40 3.9.19.

41 3.11.24-25.

42 De beata vita 2.715.

43 Gilson, E., Introduction à l'étude de Saint Augustin (2me éd.) 50 n. 3, 53–5; Boyer, C., op. cit. 45-54. It is profitable to note the resemblance between these arguments of Augustine and Descartes' ‘cogito.’ Many have pointed to the similarity between Augustine's later arguments and the ‘cogito,’ both in the way in which they are stated and in the functions they perform (see Gilson, E., René Descartes, Discours de la Méthode, texte et commentaire, 2me éd. Paris 1930, pp. 291-8, and Introduction à l'étude, loc. cit.). For example, Augustine's later arguments proceed both from ‘thinking’ and from ‘doubting,’ and point out immediately the existence of the ‘self.’ The arguments in the Contra Academicos, however, enable us to observe this similarity between Augustine and Descartes in a new light. For Augustine's early arguments were at least partly designed to answer the Academicians' argument that the senses afford no certainity (cf. Academica 2.24.76-26.86). But it is quite likely, as Gilson points out in commenting on the Discours, that Descartes, when he speaks of the errors of the senses and the illusions of dreams, was himself inspired by the Academics of Cicero (René Descartes. 292: ‘Il semble donc que Descartes se soit inspiré des Premiers Académiques de Cicéron dont les arguments son d'ailleurs discutés par saint Augustin [Contra Academicos, III, x-xii] qui, comme Descartes, s'en libéra par le “Cogito” [De civit. Dei, XI, 26].’). The distrust of the senses is, moreover, the very step which leads Descartes to the ‘cogito’ as the ‘first principle of philosophy.’ What Descartes borrowed from the Academicians thus has a place of fundamental significance in his method : by distrusting the senses we see the principle that truth is of the mind alone, the consequent distinction between mind and body, and the reason for denying substantial forms (ibid. 285-90). We may thus conclude that in effect Descartes embodied as constituents in his method two very diverse elements: on the one hand, the sceptical arguments of Augustine's opponents, and on the other, Augustine's reply to these arguments. Through the use which Descartes makes of traditional scepticism, we also see that there is an historical continuity, which although tenuous is nevertheless real, from the subjectivism of the Academy to that of the modern empiricists (cf. Brochard, , op. cit. 181-5, on the objective resemblance between Carneades, Berkeley, and others).

44 Cf. Academica 2.3.7-8.

45 We can see from this that there is a partial verbalism in the dispute between Augustine and the Academicians. A number of things which Augustine would call realities and truths, the Academicians would call appearances and probabilities. In this verbalism we see the basic sense in which the Third Academy constituted a preparation for a new dogmatism. Cf. Picavet, , op. cit. 507-13, and Brochard, , op. cit. 137, 172-6, 182-5.

46 3.12.27-28.

47 Academica 2.45.139. Cf. Picavet, , op cit. 501-7; Brochard, , op. cit. 158-62.

48 3.11.26. Cf. Gilson, E., Introduction à l'étude de Saint Augustin 52.

49 3.11.26-27.

50 Academica 1.2.5; 2.30.97; 46.142. Cf. Picavet, , op. cit. 385 n. 5; 506-7.

51 3.13.29.

52 Academica 2.28.91-30.98. Cf. Picavet, , op. cit. 384-7; Brochard, , op. cit. 130-2.

53 Academica 2.36.116; cf. Brochard, , loc. cit.

54 3.13.29.

55 Picavet, , op. cit. 506–7.

56 3.14.30-32; 15.34.

57 Academica 2.7.19-8.26; 12.37-39; 18.59-19.62. For meaning of ‘assent’ to Lucullus, see 1.11.40-41.

58 3.15.33.

59 Academica 2.31.98-34.111.

60 3.15.34-16.36.

61 Academica 2.32.103-34.111.

62 3.16.36.

63 Confes. 6.4.5-6; 6.10.17-11.20. On the nature of Augustine's scepticism, see Alfaric, P, L'évolution intellectuelle de Saint Augustin (Paris 1918) 349–58; Boyer, C., Christianisme 45-60, 71-7.

64 Cf. Boyer, C., L'idée de la vérité 42–5.

65 See note 43 above. In the dialogue De libero arbitrio a similar argument has the important function of being the starting point of the argument for God (2.3), as was to be the case later with Descartes' ‘cogito.’

66 See note 9 above.

67 Boyer, C., op. cit. 22–7; Gilson, E., op. cit. 41.

68 Alfaric, P., op. cit. 361-99. Cf. Boyer, C., Christianisme 1-6, 26, and Garvey, M. P, Saint Augustine — Christian or Neo-Platonist? (Milwaukee 1939) 138, 78-86.

69 Harnack, A., History of Dogma (translated from the third German edition; 2nd ed. London 1897–1899) V, 79: quoted in Garvey, M. P, op. cit. 5.

70 Contra Academicos 1.1.1 (CSEL 63,4): ‘infirmo rationis atque lapsante uestigio humanam uitam errorum omnium plenissimam ingredereris,’

71 3.20.43 (CSEL 63, 80) : ‘sed ut breuiter accipiatis omne propositum meum, quoquo modo se habeat humana sapientia, eam me uideo nondum percepisse. sed cum tricensimum et tertium aetatis annum agam, non me arbitror desperare debere eam me quandoque adepturum. contemptis tamen ceteris omnibus, quae bona mortales putant, huic inuestigandae inseruire proposui. a quo me negotio quoniam rationes Academicorum non leuiter deterrebant, satis, ut arbitror, contra eas ista disputatione munitus sum. nulli autem dubium est gemino pondere nos impelli ad discendum auctoritatis atque rationis. mihi ergo certum est nusquam prorsus a Christi auctoritate discedere; non enim reperio ualentiorem. quod autem subtilissima ratione persequendum est — ita enim iam sum affectus, ut quid sit uerum non credendo solum sed etiam intellegendo apprehendere impatienter desiderem — apud Platonicos me interim, quod sacris nostris non repugnet, reperturum esse confido.’

72 Cf. e.g. Boyer, C., op. cit. 71–7, 170-88.

73 Some have considered that Augustine was not entirely free of scepticism in this period (see reference to Thimme, W, Augustins geistige Entwickelung in den ersten Jahren nach seiner “Bekehrung”, 386-91 [Berlin 1908] 17, in Boyer, C., op. cit. 5). Thus there may have been in the dialogue some desire on Augustine's part to confirm the fact that truth can be found. To the extent to which this is present — it seems slight indeed — the above interpretation will not hold. For to interpret Augustine's ‘beliefs’ as hypotheses to be confirmed would be to misconceive his whole position.

74 Gilson, E., op. cit. 3147.

75 De praedestinatione sanctorum 2.5 : ‘Quanquam et ipsum credere, nihil aliud est, quam cum assensione cogitare,’ quoted ibid. 32; PL 44, 963.


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