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Augustine's immanent critique of Stoicism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2017

Gerald P. Boersma*
St Bonaventure University, 3261 West State Road, St Bonaventure, NY 14778, USA


The broad contours of Augustine's critique of Stoic virtue theory in De civitate dei 19.4 finds a fascinating analogue in Theodor Adorno's theory of immanent critique: Augustine ‘enters’ into Stoic virtue theory and criticises it from its own postulates, illustrating the striking implausibility of Stoic orthodoxy when lived out in concreto and the absurd, but logical, conclusions to which one is necessarily carried by Stoic ethics. Through this deconstruction, Augustine clears a space to propose his own virtue ethic. Augustine maintains that a Stoic virtue ethic fails to deliver on its promised eudaimonistic ends because it lacks a robust eschatological vision. For Augustine, the Christian faith offers a more viable virtue ethic.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 Augustine scholarship is increasingly attuned to diverse ancient philosophical influences on Augustine's understanding of the movements of the will. In this regard, the place of Stoicism in Augustine's thought has received substantial recent attention. Sarah Byers’ compelling analysis of Augustine's theology of moral motivation is one recent example of a study of Augustine's appropriation of Stoic conceptions of the will and the virtues. Her work is attentive to the influences of Cicero, Perseus, Seneca and other Stoic authors on Augustine's understanding of motivation: Byers, Sarah, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)Google Scholar. Byers's monograph is evidence of the rich harvest that can now be gathered in the wake of the careful labours of Brad Inwood, Marcia Colish, John Rist, and others to account for the significance of Stoicism for Augustine's theology of the will, the emotions and the place of the virtues.

2 Immanent critique is presented as the ground of all critical theory, finding its roots in Karl Marx's criticism of G. W. F. Hegel. Marx critiques Hegelian idealism for failing to deliver on its emancipatory promises. Marx's criticism is posited as an immanent critique: he adopts Hegel's idealist premises, structures, language and the emancipatory hope of a finite, temporal eschatology. Marx is, then, well positioned to deliver his decisive coup de main: he excoriates Hegel for failing to attend to the ‘real corporeal man’. According to Marx, it is the historical human person in his ‘actual, sensuous, real, finite, particular’ existence that is overlooked in Hegelian idealism. Marx, Karl, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International, 1964)Google Scholar, pp. 180–1. Cf. Antonio, Robert J., ‘Immanent Critique as the Core of Critical Theory: Its Origins and Developments in Hegel, Marx and Contemporary Thought’, British Journal of Sociology (1981), pp. 330–45;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Buchwalter, Andrew, ‘Hegel, Marx, and the Concept of Immanent Critique’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 29 (1991), pp. 253–79;CrossRefGoogle Scholar de Boer, Karin, ‘Hegel's Conception of Immanent Critique: Its Sources, Extent, and Limit’, in de Boer, Karin and Sonderegger, Ruth (eds), Conceptions of Critique in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 83100;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Turetzky, Philip, ‘Immanent Critique’, Philosophy Today 33 (1989), pp. 144–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 ‘[C]ritical theory is not a general theory, but is instead a method of analysis deriving from a nonpositivist epistemology.’ Antonio, ‘Immanent Critique’, p. 332.

4 Adorno, Theodor, Negative Dialectics, trans. Ashton, E. B. (New York: Seabury Press, 1973 Google Scholar [1966]). For Adorno, critique lies at the heart of philosophy already in its pre-Socratic inception. The initial posture of philosophy, explains Adorno, is ‘as critique, as resistance to the expanding heteronomy . . . to convict untruth, by their own criteria’ (my emphasis). Adorno, Theodor, ‘Why Still Philosophy?’, in Critical Method, trans. Pickford, Henry W. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 10.Google Scholar

5 Antonio, ‘Immanent Critique’, p. 338. Cf. Horkheimer, Max, Eclipse of Reason (New York: OUP, 1947), pp. 7091.Google Scholar

6 Cf. Jarvis, Simon, Adorno: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 148–74;Google Scholar O'Connor, Brian, Adorno's Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

7 Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 97.

8 Ibid., p. 5.

9 Harvey, David, ‘Critical Theory’, Sociological Perspectives 33 (1990), p. 5 Google Scholar.

10 Ibid.

11 Of course, many of the concerns of the Frankfurt school of critical theory do not apply to Augustine's engagement with Stoic thought. Indeed, at a foundational level, Augustine's Christian (and Platonic) commitments would limit his ability to endorse much of the materialist assumptions of the Frankfurt school and Marxist critique more broadly.

12 I have used the English translation of the City of God by Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 2003). For the Latin I have used Augustine, De civitate dei, Libri XI–XXII, ed. B. Dombart, A. Kalb, in Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955).

13 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 6.5; 1140a 25–8, trans. Barnes, Jonathan, The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 89.Google Scholar

14 Nicholas Wolterstorff remarks, ‘I judge that our term “the estimable life,” comes closer to what [Aristotle] had in mind. The eudaimon life is the estimable life.’ Wolterstorff, ‘Augustine's Rejection of Eudemonism’, in Augustine's City of God: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p. 151.

15 The locus classicus is Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: OUP, 1993)Google Scholar.

16 Wolterstorff, ‘Augustine's Rejection of Eudemonism’, p. 151.

17 For a discussion of the classical definition of eudaimonia, see Vlastos, Gregory, ‘Happiness and Virtue in Socrates’ Moral Theory’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 210 (1984), pp. 181213;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kraut, Richard, ‘Two Conceptions of Happiness’, Philosophical Review 88 (1979), pp. 167–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Cf. Long, A. A., ‘Stoic Eudemonism’, in Stoic Studies (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp. 179201.Google Scholar

19 Long explains, ‘The Stoics share with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus the doctrine that happiness is essentially a condition that depends upon a person's values, beliefs, desires and moral character. Where the Stoics stand alone is their claim that happiness consists solely and entirely in ethical virtue.’ Ibid., p. 182.

20 Civ. 19.1.5–6; CCSL 48: 657: ut ab eorum rebus uanis spes nostra quid differat, quam deus nobis dedit.

21 Civ. 19.4.23–5; CCSL 48: 664.

22 Civ. 19.3.4; CCSL 48: 662.

23 Civ. 19.3.24–7; CCSL 48: 662: ac per hoc prima illa naturae propter se ipsa existimat expetenda ipsam que uirtutem, quam doctrina inserit uelut artem uiuendi, quae in animae bonis est excellentissimum bonum.

24 Civ. 19.3.41–2; CCSL 48: 663. In Civ. 19.3 Augustine quotes Varro as positively relating Antiochus of Ascalon's criticism of Stoic anthropology. Antiochus integrates the primary gifts of nature and virtue, with the latter fulfilling and completing the former. John Dilon describes Antiochus’ anthropology: ‘Nature provides the “primary natural objects of desire” (ta prôta kata physin) and the “seeds” or “sparks” of the virtues; Reason (logos) enables man to develop this beginning into a coherent philosophical life.’ Dillon, John, The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 72 Google Scholar.

25 The philosophically rigorous Stoic position is manifest in Cicero's description of the Stoic sage who, being burned alive inside Phalaris’ bull, responds unaffected: ‘How sweet; how indifferent I am to this!’ (Tusculan Disputations 2.7.17).

26 Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p. 72; Bryant, Joseph M., Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece: A Sociology of Greek Ethics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics, SUNY Series in the Sociology of Culture (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 434.Google Scholar Augustine does not think that the Stoics really even believe that the prima naturae are not goods, because they categorise some ‘indifferents’ as ‘things preferred’ (ta proêgmena), thereby demonstrating they have value. Therefore, the Stoics are being disingenuous, and, in reality, share the same position as the Peripatetics and Platonists, insists Augustine, because they share the common demarcation between temporal good and eternal good: ‘Now Cicero, in his work On the Ends of Good and Evil, proves that the opposition between Stoics and Platonists (or Peripatetics) is really a quarrel about words rather than things. For example, the Stoics refuse to give the name “goods” to what they call material and external “advantages”. According to them there is no “good” for man except virtue, meaning the art of the good life, which exists only in the soul. The other side called them “goods”, in conformity with the normal usage, but they regarded them as goods of small or infinitesimal value in comparison with virtue, the practice of the good life. The result is that both sides attach the same value to “goods” or “advantages”, in spite of the different terminology; the Stoics are only indulging in the pleasure of linguistic innovation on this point’ (Civ. 9.4). Cf. Barney, Rachel, ‘A Puzzle in Stoic Ethics’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24 (2003), pp. 303–40Google Scholar; Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation, pp. 83–8.

27 The chief difference between the Stoic and the Peripatetic valuation of the prima naturae lies in whether or not these primary gifts of nature are to be rejected after one has achieved inner virtue or whether they are taken up in the virtuous life. Dillon explains, ‘The Stoics . . . held that these “first things” were only the basis laid down by Nature for the human being by which he should ascend to a comprehension of Virtue, which for the adult then becomes the telos. Antiochus agreed, but with the proviso that Nature does not intend the lowest “first things” to be then rejected.’ Dillon, Middle Platonists, p. 74.

28 Cicero relates, ‘Those very philosophers who deny that pain is an evil do not generally go so far as to say that it is sweet to be tortured; they say that it is unpleasing, difficult, hateful, contrary to nature, and yet that it is not an evil’ (Tusculan Disputations 2.7.17).

29 Civ. 19.4.25, 34–5, 40, 58–9, 62, 153.

30 Civ. 19.4.25–7; CCSL 48: 664: ea quippe, quae dicuntur prima naturae, quando, ubi, quo modo tam bene se habere in hac uita possunt, ut non sub incertis casibus fluctuent?

31 Byers notes, ‘Augustine never questions the legitimacy of Seneca's assessment of what may happen to us. His graphic list of the continual threats and disappointments that characterise human life in City of God 19.4–8 evokes Seneca's catalogue of potential disasters and disappointments: the death of oneself and one's friends; physical pain; betrayal by professional associates; disappointment in one's spouse; being trapped by the fiscal responsibilities that follow from parenthood; the corruption of friendship through malice or lies; hunger; poverty; and disease.’ Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation, p. 155.

32 Civ. 19.4.39–41; CCSL 48: 665: Quid ipsius animi primigenia quae appellantur bona, ubi duo prima ponunt propter conprehensionem perceptionem que ueritatis sensum et intellectum?

33 Civ. 19.4.44–8; CCSL 48: 665.

34 Civ. 19.4.52–3; CCSL 48: 665: Et quis confidit hoc malum in hac vita euenire non posse sapienti?

35 Augustine's animated description of life's evils is intended, I am arguing, to establish the common ground of an ‘immanent critique’ by agreeing with the Stoics against the Peripatetics that happiness cannot be found in the primary gifts of nature. However, this catalogue of bodily and mental evils is also meant to unsettle glib assertions of the Stoic sage's apatheia (or equanimity of soul) no matter the external circumstances.

36 Cf. Harvey, David, ‘Critical Theory’, Sociological Perspectives 33 (1990), p. 5 Google Scholar.

37 Cf. Civ. 19.4.62–4; CCSL 48: 665: porro ipsa uirtus, quae non est inter prima naturae, quoniam eis postea doctrina introducente superuenit, cum sibi bonorum culmen uindicet humanorum.

38 Civ. 19.4.65; CCSL 48: 664: perpetua bella cum uitiis.

39 Civ. 19.4.80–2; CCSL 48: 666: Absit ergo ut, quamdiu in hoc bello intestino sumus, iam nos beatitudinem, ad quam uincendo uolumus peruenire, adeptos esse credamus.

40 Civ. 19.4.83–4; CCSL 48: 666.

41 Civ.–8; CCSL 48: 666: ipsa nos in malis uel mala in nobis esse testator.

42 Civ. 19.4.91–6; CCSL 48: 666: quid iustitia . . . nonne demonstrat in eo se adhuc opere laborare potius quam in huius operis iam fine requiescere?

43 Civ. 19.4.100–1; CCSL 48: 666: quamdiu ergo nobis inest haec infirmitas, haec pestis, hic languor.

44 Civ. 19.4.103–5; CCSL 48: 666: iam uero illa uirtus, cuius nomen est fortitudo, in quantacumque sapientia euidentissima testis est humanorum malorum, quae compellitur patientia tolerare.

45 Civ. 19.4.105–9; CCSL 48: 666: Quae mala stoici philosophi miror qua fronte mala non esse contendant, quibus fatentur, si tanta fuerint, ut ea sapiens uel non possit uel non debeat sustinere, cogi eum mortem sibimet inferre atque ex hac uita emigrare.

46 Civ. 19.4.130–1; CCSL 48: 667: quo modo igitur mala non erant, quae uitam miseram fugiendam que faciebant?

47 Civ. 19.4.109–17; CCSL 48: 666.

48 In establishing his immanent critique, Augustine initially adopts the Stoic criticism of the Peripatetics, who included the primary gifts of nature within the summum bonum. But now that Augustine has dismantled – ‘from within’ – the Stoic claim that the cardinal virtues alone constitute the happy life, he returns to the Peripatetics and asserts that, in reality, they are closer to the truth than the Stoics: ‘[T]hose who acknowledge such things to be evil are talking in a more tolerable fashion; the Peripatetics, for example, and the members of the Old Academy’ (Civ. 19.4.132–3; CCSL 48: 667).

49 Civ. 19.4.177–80; CCSL 48: 668: ‘For in this state the very virtues, which are certainly the best and most useful of man's endowments here below, bear reliable witness to man's miseries in proportion to their powerful support against man's perils, hardships and sorrows.’

50 Civ. 19.4.189; CCSL 48: 668.

51 Civ. 19.4.181–5; CCSL 48: 668: non se profitentur hoc posse, ut nullas miserias patiantur homines, in quibus sunt (neque enim mendaces sunt uerae uirtutes, ut hoc profiteantur), sed ut uita humana, quae tot et tantis huius saeculi malis esse cogitur misera.

52 Civ. 19.4.201–2; CCSL 48: 669: hic sibi conantur falsissimam fabricare.

53 Wolterstorff, Nicholas, ‘Augustine's Rejection of Eudaimonism’, in Augustine's City of God: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: CUP, 2012)Google Scholar.

54 Ibid., p. 149. See also Wolterstorff's broader argument concerning the inadequacy of eudaimonism to offer a full-orbed account of human rights in ch. 8 of Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

55 Civ. 19.4.3–4; CCSL 48: 664: respondebit aeternam uitam esse summum bonum.

56 Civ. 19.4.6–7; CCSL 48: 664: Iustus ex fide uiuit. In addition to Augustine's insistence that the cardinal virtues do not bring happiness, he also criticises the corollary implication: that happiness is the result of human effort and self-mastery rather than grace. The theological virtues are an infused gift, so that the man who lives by faith receives happiness from God: ‘[I]t is not in our power to live rightly, unless while we believe and pray we receive help from him who has given us faith to believe that we must be helped by him’ (Civ. 19.4.8–10; CCSL 48: 664). In contrast, precisely because the Stoics think happiness is found in this temporal existence, they also think that happiness is the result of ‘their own effort’ (a se ipsis beatificari; Civ. 19.4.17–18; CCSL 48: 664). Cf. Civ. 19.4.109–11; CCSL 48: 666: ‘Yet so great is the stupefying arrogance of those people who imagine that they find the Ultimate Good in this life and can attain happiness by their own efforts.’ (Tantus autem superbiae stupor est in his hominibus hic se habere finem boni et a se ipsis fieri beatos putantibus.)

57 Civ. 19.4.7–8; CCSL 48: 664: quoniam neque bonum nostrum iam uidemus, unde oportet ut credendo quaeramus.

58 Civ. 19.4.189–90; CCSL 48: 668: qui secundum ueram pietatem uiuerent et ideo uirtutes, quas haberent, ueras haberent.

59 Civ. 19.4.193–4; CCSL 48: 668: sicut ergo spe salui, ita spe beati facti sumus.

60 I am grateful to Daniel Ellis and Jim Fodor, colleagues and friends at St Bonaventure University, whose insight guided thinking through the contours of the argument.

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