I want to explain how the Confessions is essentially a philosophical work, even in its most literary, autobiographical moments. Its philosophical content is neither scattered nor peripheral, but animates and organizes all thirteen books. My focus will be on the first nine books, the autobiographical portion that is most accessible to an undergraduate audience. My modest aim will be to sketch the principal themes and the way in which they relate. I will be asking as many questions as I will be answering, although in the third section I will try to reach some more definite conclusions about Augustine's ultimate conversion, where both the narrative and the philosophy come to a climax. By focusing on the argument that develops over the course of the autobiography, we can learn a great deal about Augustine's philosophy. We can also see why the Confessions is not just a Great Book, but a great work of philosophy, ideal even for an introductory course.
Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not find myself, much less you (V.ii.2).In effect, one paradox has been answered with another. (How does one depart from oneself?) But this new paradox is one that the early books of the Confessions set out to explain.
Augustine depicts his early years as a continual failure to grasp the true meaning of life. The sins he describes and confesses to can all be viewed as distractions from God: "My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures -- myself and others" (I.xx.31). Here is a partial list of those distractions:
The general line of argument expressed in these early chapters is the Platonic one familiar from the Phaedo. Augustine offers his own Christian version:
Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you, God creator of all. But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses (IV.x.15).Augustine does not want us to look toward the heavens; he wants us initially to follow the famous advice of Socrates, to look within ourselves. By finding ourselves, we begin to find God. Augustine strayed from God because he strayed from himself. "You were more inward than my most inward part" (III.vi.11); "you were within while I was on the outside, seeking you there" (X.xxvii.38). (This line of thought foreshadows Augustine's later efforts, in the De trinitate and elsewhere, to base theology on introspective psychology.)
Although Augustine sometimes gives the impression that he was an extraordinarily wicked child, it's clear on a closer reading that he takes himself merely to exemplify the human condition. This is clear, above all, in the first few pages of autobiography, in his remarkable discussion of infancy (I.vi-vii). This discussion is remarkable for at least several reasons: first, for Augustine's scrupulous care in evaluating the evidence he has for his earliest years, which anticipates his later discussion of belief and skepticism (see below);(5) second, for the stress he places on original sin as having infected even infants: "the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant's mind" (I.vii.11). John O'Meara speaks of the "inhumanity" and "immoderation" of this passage, and blames it on Augustine's rhetorical style.(6) But it's essential to Augustine's larger argument to insist that human beings start out bad, often become worse, and improve only with the help of God (see section two). Augustine would have none of Rousseau's sunny optimism about human beings in their natural state; he would prefer the dark pessimism of a Hobbes. Human beings are not kind and good until corrupted, they are corrupt and selfish until redeemed.
Augustine regards his early years as a mistake because he misidentified what is important in life. He conceives of morality in eudaimonic terms: the wrong lifestyle can immediately be seen to be wrong because of the unhappiness it brings. To this end, he continually stresses his miserable condition, a theme most memorably expressed in his encounter with a drunk beggar: "there was no question that he was happy and I racked with anxiety. He had no worries; I was frenetic" (VI.vi.9).(7) From this perspective, the Confessions can be read as an extended philosophical argument for a Christian way of life. We should live this way not because it is what God wants, and not because God will reward us in the next life, but because, quite simply, this is the way of life that will make us happiest here on earth. "Our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i.1); "You alone are repose" (VI.xvi.26).
Augustine makes his first significant move toward this repose at the age of nineteen, when he reads Cicero's now lost work, the Hortensius. This marks a first crucial turning point:
The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you (III.iv.7).Augustine implies that until this point he had been wandering away from God, without any real desire to do otherwise. Now he sees the error in his ways and he begins his search for wisdom. Of course, this is just the first step, and there will be plenty of errors along the way. Twice later on in the Confessions, Augustine will look back at this moment and marvel in frustration that his search has taken so long.(8) But in many ways this first conversion was the most important turning point of all. Without this underlying desire for wisdom, none of what follows would have been possible.(9)
Augustine's reading of the Hortensius marks the beginning of his return to God. There are still false steps, such as his interest in astrology and his misplaced friendships. But the Confessions now begins to focus on his specifically religious quest. It is important to notice the limits of that quest. Augustine shows not the slightest interest in any non-Christian religion, let alone in atheism. Early on, he identifies himself as "already a believer" (I.xi.17). His one disappointment with the Hortensius was that it did not mention Christ: "any book which lacked this name, however well written or polished or true, did not entirely grip me" (III.iv.8). In his authoritative study of the Confessions, James O'Donnell remarks that Augustine "probably never `missed church' a week in his life."(10)
Augustine struggles not over whether to embrace Christianity, but over the kind of Christianity he ought to embrace. In this respect he is like many of our students, who have no doubt that there must be a God but are uncertain about the details and anxious about whether indulging in their new-found freedom is compatible with their religious commitments. For Augustine, the primary contenders are the Manichees and the Catholics. His eventual conversion in Book VIII is a conversion not to Christianity but to Catholicism: he himself routinely uses the word Catholica to distinguish the mainstream Church from the various sects and heresies of the day, Manicheism above all.
Augustine is now on the path that will lead to the climactic conversion of Book VIII. He goes through five stages:
1. The Manichees are weird and amusing because of their peculiar dietary practices (III.x.18, IV.i.1); they are philosophically interesting because of their dualism both at the cosmic level (V.x.20) and within human beings (V.x.18, VIII.x).(11) Augustine never makes it clear in the Confessions why he embraced Manicheism. In De utilitate credendi (i.2) he explains that his interest sprang not from any specific Manichean doctrine, but from the Manichees' promise to lead their followers to the truth through reason alone, without relying on faith or authority. (There are hints of this at VI.v.7.) Evidently, Augustine believed at the age of nineteen that this was the surest path to wisdom, and that any reliance on faith or authority would amount to a retreat toward superstition, the defeat of his quest for wisdom. He asks, "Who would not be enticed by these promises?" It is worth taking the question seriously. Why is it natural to suppose that wisdom is best achieved, or even only achieved, through evidence and arguments?
2. It takes Augustine ten years before he becomes thoroughly disenchanted with Manicheism. Rather than move immediately to the Catholic faith, he began to take seriously the so-called Academic skeptics, who "believed that everything is a matter of doubt and insisted that nothing of the truth can be grasped by human beings" (V.x.19).(12) It is easy to see how the same principles that attracted Augustine to Manicheism would eventually attract him to skepticism. If truth is achieved only through evidence and arguments, and if neither evidence nor argument is sufficient for grasping the truth, then skepticism immediately follows. Augustine seems to have embraced skepticism for just a brief period. He describes himself in Milan as having "lost all hope of discovering the truth" (VI.i.1), as "someone who doubted all these things and believed it impossible to find the way of life" (VI.ii.2). But how exactly is one supposed to embrace skepticism? The Academics endorsed "doubting all things and fluctuating between all things" (V.xiv.25), but where does that leave one? One has to live, to function on a day-to-day basis. (Aristotle reports that Cratylus came to give up speech entirely, preferring merely to move his finger [Metaphysics IV 5, 1010a12].) Augustine decides that he must leave the Manichees, but what then?
I therefore decided for the time being to be a catechumen in the Catholic Church, commended to me by [the example of] my parents, until some clear light should come by which I could direct my course (V.xiv.25).Despite his skepticism, Augustine remains committed at some level to Christianity. Thus to the skeptics, "who were without Christ's saving name, I altogether refused to entrust the healing of my soul's sickness" (V.xiv.25). Does this abiding commitment to Christianity show that Augustine has not genuinely embraced skepticism? And what force does the example of his parents have? Why follow their example as opposed to any other?(13)
3. Augustine's skeptical stage is at best unstable, at worst a torment to him: "Fearing a precipitate plunge, I kept my heart from giving any assent, and in that state of suspended judgment I was suffering a worse death" (VI.iv.6). Augustine swiftly diagnoses his problem:
By believing I could have been healed. My mind's eye thus purified would have been directed in some degree towards your truth which abides for ever and lacks nothing (VI.iv.6).Augustine's comments at this point are relatively brief, but go to the heart of his religious epistemology, perhaps his most significant contribution to contemporary philosophy.(14) He holds that belief and faith must precede understanding and knowledge, and must serve to direct and support the mind's inquiries. Augustine is not repudiating his quest for wisdom, merely refining his methodology. There is a fundamental divide here between those who give credence only to what they can prove, like the Manichees and the skeptics, and those who are willing first to believe, and then to seek understanding. On Augustine's side is the worry that the first method leads inevitably to skepticism. But on his opponent's side is the lingering suspicion that there is something intellectually irresponsible about leaping before one looks -- about reaching conclusions without sufficient evidence.
It is not clear to what extent Augustine abandons his original search for reasons (what would now be called his "evidentialism"). He describes his mistake as holding out for a certain kind of proof: "I wanted to become as certain about things I could not see as I was certain that seven and three are ten.... I desired other things to be just like this" (VI.iv.6). But there is room here for some other kind of certainty, based on some other kind of evidence. Augustine in fact takes Christianity to be no worse off in this respect than many of our ordinary beliefs.
I considered the innumerable things I believed which I had not seen, events which occurred when I was not present... many facts concerning places and cities which I had never seen, many things accepted on the word of friends, many from physicians, many from other people. Unless we believed what we were told, we would do nothing at all in this life (VI.v.7).It is of course questionable whether the case of Christianity is entirely -- or even remotely! -- analogous to the cases described here. But it is clearly Augustine's view that belief in Christianity should be more than just blind faith. We should not look for mathematical certainty, but nor should we simply throw up our hands and do whatever comes naturally to us. It is, on his view, utterly reasonable to be a Christian, as reasonable as many a belief that we can support with neither argument nor first-hand evidence.
4. Augustine holds that we have to believe before we can achieve wisdom, and that the believing will itself lead us to wisdom. This is the real import of his words "By believing I could have been healed" (VI.iv.6). Before long, the strategy begins to work. In Book VI, Augustine is still despairing that "there was no certain source of light" (x.17), but by the middle of Book VII he's achieved the kind of certainty he had sought: "all doubt left me; I would have found it easier to doubt whether I was myself alive..." (x.16).(15) This intellectual conversion, if we can call it that, raises several questions.
First, there's a worry about whether we should trust any intellectual insight that comes only in virtue of some prior faith. One reason it may seem irresponsible to believe first, understand later, is that the method looks entirely random and unchecked. Wherever you start, that's where you'll end up. Those who put their faith in Christianity end up as committed Christians; those who put their faith in Islam end up as committed Muslims. But (as one of my students recently remarked in class) Augustine's story suggests a very different conclusion. He came to the Catholic Church after having put his faith in many other things. Those other things didn't hold his faith because they didn't yield the repose and certainty that he sought. He stayed with the Church partly because of its reasonability (see above), but partly because his faith in it payed dividends. For Augustine, then, the method of faith seeking understanding is not a blank check. One has to put one's faith in the right place, and only then will one be rewarded. (Of course, Augustine would hold that this method works only for the Catholic faith. But one might question this conclusion. Couldn't much the same work for Jews, or for pagans, or for heretics?)
Second, there's a question about just how faith contributed to Augustine's intellectual certainty. He says that the "books of the Platonists" played a crucial role. Evidently, it was crucial for Augustine to read these books through the lens of faith. But how exactly did faith do its work? Augustine suggests that his intellectual investigations would have fallen short if he had not turned to the Bible: "we were too weak to discover the truth by pure reasoning and therefore needed the authority of the sacred writings" (VI.v.8). (He later says that he was fortunate to have come to the Bible after being inspired by Platonism [VII.xx.26].). Does this mean that no one can achieve religious truth through "pure reasoning"? Perhaps the answer to this question depends on how much God is willing to help. It is time, at any rate, to turn to this separate but parallel line of development.
You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised; great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable (I.i.1).The Confessions, even more than a study in human psychology, is a study of the way God works within human lives. The title itself is meant to convey this point: in Latin one confesses (confiteri) not just one's sins, but also one's faith in God and one's praise for God.(17) In reflecting on this work near the end of his life, Augustine remarks that it "praises the just and good God for both my bad and my good deeds, and inspires human thought and affection toward him" (Retractationes II.vi.1). Over and over, Augustine stresses God's role either in directing events:
You were always with me, mercifully punishing me (II.ii.4);or, less often, in purposefully withholding help and guidance:
Yet very secretly I was being governed by you (IV.xiv.23);
For in your hidden providence your hands, my God, did not forsake my soul (V.vii.13);
Then little by little, Lord, with a most gentle and merciful hand you touched and calmed my heart (VI.v.7);
I travelled very far from you, and you allowed it. I was tossed about... and you were silent (II.ii.2);These passages, and many more like them, draw attention to the true focus of the narrative. The protagonist of the Confessions is not Augustine at all.
You still let me go on turning over and over again in that darkness (III.xi.20);
I tried to approach you but you pushed me away (IV.xv.26).
The opening lines of Book I (as quoted above) refer to both power and wisdom, and we should understand these to stand for the various avenues along which God has an impact on human lives. It would be an interesting exercise to try to categorize all of the different ways in which God has an influence on Augustine. Here I'll draw attention to three that are particularly notable for their philosophical implications: providence, illumination, and grace.
1. Providence. The Confessions draws attention repeatedly to God's provident influence on the course of events. He not only knows what will happen to Augustine,(18) but actually causes events to occur:
Providence does not directly impinge on free will, because Augustine always insists that we, not God, make our own choices.(19) He reads Psalm 37 as saying that "he [man] chooses his [own] way," thanks to the direction of God.(20) But it's easy to wonder whether there's room left for us to make any meaningful choices, given the doctrine of providence. For even if God does not causally determine the choices of our will, he does seem to shape the opportunities that are open to us. We choose to take or not to take advantage of these opportunities, but it's God who sets the parameters, who decides what we will have the opportunity to do. Perhaps there is room for God to shape events without completely determining them. Yet it's not clear that God's providence can be limited in this way. How did God lead Augustine to Ambrose, for instance, without controlling the will of either party? Perhaps God arranged circumstances in such a way that Augustine would inevitably choose to visit Ambrose. But in what sense, then, was it Augustine's choice? The more room one leaves for Augustine to choose freely, the more God seems to lose control. It can easily seem, then, that Augustine is committed to a form of determinism (a form that, for many students, proves more compelling than anything the laws of physics or of human psychology might entail). If Augustine's form of providence entails determinism, then he is committed in turn to a form of compatibilism: God directs our steps, while we take those steps freely. As usual, compatibilism looks paradoxical: if we're free, then it seems that God is not in control; if God is in control, then surely we're not free.
2. Illumination. God influences human lives not just by shaping the opportunities available to us, but also by giving or withholding knowledge. A careful reading of the Confessions shows that Augustine invokes divine illumination constantly, and makes bold claims for its global necessity:
The mind needs to be enlighted by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth. You will light my lamp, Lord (IV.xv.25);Augustine stresses over and over the role it played at every stage of his journey:
None other than you is teacher of the truth, wherever and from whatever source it is manifest (V.vi.10);
You hear nothing true from me which you have not first told me (X.ii.2).
Truth, when did you ever fail to walk with me, teaching me what to avoid and what to seek.... Without you I could discern none of these things (X.xl.65).
3. Grace. Augustine's ultimate conversion is the product not of any intellectual illumination, but of the illuminating power of grace. Just as Augustine credits God with providing the cognitive help required to bring about intellectual conversion, in Book VII, so he credits God for the motivational help required to bring about his final moral conversion, in Book VIII.(22) Augustine suggests that the most important lesson to be drawn from the Confessions is the role of God's grace in our lives:
Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickednesses.... Prevent their heart from sinking into the sleep of despair and saying "I am not capable." Let their heart wake with the love of your mercy and the sweetness of your grace, by which the weak are given the capacity and made conscious of their own weakness (X.iii.4).Augustine does not express the hope that his words will have an effect all by themselves; his prayer is to God, whom he hopes will stir up the hearts of his readers. In this he follows his own more general advice from the previous book: "No one should attribute it to one's own power if one's words correct the person one hopes to correct" (IX.viii.18).
Grace is the remedy for one's motivational weaknesses, one's inability to do the things one knows one should do (see section three). Just as no knowledge is possible without illumination, so no good deeds are possible without grace.(23) Augustine hopes that by describing the influence of grace on his own life, his readers would come to recognize their own weakness and the need for grace in their own lives. He once made the mistake of searching for wisdom on his own, through evidence and argument; the result had been skepticism. Subsequently he made the same mistake, at the level of will; by trusting only in himself, he became paralyzed by weakness. He imagines Lady Continence coming to pay him a visit: "Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable? Cast yourself on him, do not be afraid" (VIII.xi.27). His predicament is not unusual; it exemplifies the plight of all human beings. "No one can be continent unless you grant it" (VI.xi.20). "It is you who provides when what you command to be done is done" (X.xxxi.45). Even those who seem to suffer from none of Augustine's sensual impulses should not be so arrogant as to take the credit.
No one who considers his weakness would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence, so as to love you less.... He should love you no less, indeed even more; for he sees that the one who delivered me from the great sicknesses of my sins is also he through whom he may see that he himself has not been a victim of the same great sicknesses (II.vii.15).Augustine's doctrine of grace raises problems about freedom and responsibility that are even more serious than those raised by his doctrine of providence. If we cannot do good without God's direct assistance, then it would seem that we're not free to do good and hence not responsible for doing bad. (I might be free to do bad, but if I'm not free to do good, how can I be truly responsible for doing bad?) Analysis of this issue rests partly on understanding what it means to do a thing freely: Can one be free and yet dependent on others? What kinds of dependence are and are not acceptable? There are further questions about whether Augustine can hold onto moral responsibility (if not freedom) by appealing to the things we did or did not do to merit grace. (Even if I am presently a hopeless sinner, untouched by grace and hence incapable of doing good, it may be that I am responsible for my current situation because I failed in the past to do the things that would have earned me grace.) Augustine sometimes suggests that grace can be earned, and was earned in his own case: "...had my love for discovering the truth not won me divine aid, I could not have arisen from my fall" (De libero arbitrio I.ii.4). But given God's pervasive role in shaping what we know, what we desire, and our opportunities to act on those desires, it is not clear that Augustine should claim any credit for his initial love of wisdom. In the years after writing the Confessions, he became less and less willing to yield any scope to human freedom; eventually he made a notorious concession: "On the solution to this question I tried hard to maintain the free decision of the human will, but the grace of God was victorious" (Retractationes II.i). Augustine's honesty is charming, but his conclusion is appalling. It is interesting to consider whether the Confessions itself contains the premises that ultimately lead him to deny human freedom.
No one is virtuous without grace, and there are no good deeds that do not come from God.
The day had now come when I stood naked to myself, and my conscience complained against me: "Where is your tongue? You were saying that, because the truth is uncertain, you do not want to abandon the burden of futility. But look, it is certain now, and the burden still presses on you (VIII.vii.18).Augustine himself was as surprised as anyone by this twist in the plot. "I was astonished to find that I now loved you, not a phantom surrogate for you, and yet I was not stable in the enjoyment of my God" (VII.xvii.23).(24) He takes great pains to bring out the paradoxical nature of the situation, first by stressing his complete intellectual certainty: "all doubt left me" (VII.x.16); "I was in no kind of doubt" (VII.xvii.23); "Of your eternal life I was certain" (VIII.i.1). This intellectual certainty had even led to a practical conviction about what he should do next: that he should dedicate his life to God. This, he believed, entailed giving up his career aspirations and becoming completely celibate.(25)
It was the latter, of course, that posed the problem. Comparing himself to a man unable to get up out of bed, he writes,
I was sure it was better for me to render myself up to your charity than to surrender to my own cupidity. But while I approved of the former course and found it persuasive, the latter course was pleasant and it entwined me(26) (VIII.v.12).Here his certainty extends beyond the purely intellectual realm to the practical question of how he should change his life. But despite being "sure" that it was "better" to become celibate, he found that sensual desire "entwined" him anyway.
Though at every point you showed that what you were saying was true, yet I, convinced by that truth, had no answer to give you except merely slow and sleepy words (ibid.).This is a straightforward case of what philosophers now call weakness of will: where an agent deliberately acts in a way that is contrary to how the agent believes he should act. Augustine was not the first to analyze such cases; Aristotle, for one, had discussed the problem at length in Nicomachean Ethics Book VII, and philosophers still use his word akrasia to discuss the problem. But it is Augustine, in the Confessions, who first analyzes the phenomenon as a failure of will.
What is Augustine's analysis? One might get the superficial impression that weakness of will is a mystery for Augustine, one that can be solved only through the power of grace. But although it is true that Augustine thinks only God can cure weakness of will, it does not follow that we cannot understand what causes the phenomenon. Indeed, the Confessions is quite clear about how weakness of will comes about and why it is so crippling.(27) The key texts come in Book VIII chapters five through eleven. Augustine begins by describing the chain holding him prisoner:
The enemy had a grip on my will and from there made a chain for me and bound me. From a distorted will comes lust, and servitude to lust becomes habit. When there is no resistance to habit, necessity follows. By these links, as it were, connected to one another (hence my term a chain), a harsh servitude held me under constraint (VIII.v.10).The root cause, or first link, is a distorted will, a will burdened by original sin and not yet free of the influence of the enemy (evidently, the devil). From here the rest of the chain develops:
Distorted will ---> Lust ---> Habit ---> Necessity.We can project each link onto Augustine's life. As an infant he had a distorted will; as a teenager, this grew into lust; as a young man this became habit, and now, despite his intellectual certainty, he is in the grip of necessity.
Weakness of will occurs when someone in the grip of such necessity attempts to escape. To see the paradox in the situation, one has to stress that the agent in question truly desires to change her life. Her conviction is not qualified; her desire is intense. She sincerely believes that she ought to behave differently, she sincerely desires to behave differently, yet she does not. So described, it is easy to share Socrates's suspicion that weakness of will is simply not possible (Protagoras 352-357). But Augustine regards himself as a living counterexample. He found it easy to command his body to move, but "was not doing that which I had an incomparably greater longing for" (VIII.viii.20). The force of habit is such that "even the unwilling mind is dragged down and held" (VIII.v.12). He held to his old ways even though this was not what he actively desired: "in large part I suffered it unwillingly rather than did it willingly" (VIII.v.11).
Augustine specifically appeals to his own experience as evidence for the phenomenon that Socrates had judged impossible: "In this way I understood through my own experience what I had read" (VIII.v.11). The reference is to Paul's epistles, specifically to Galatians 5,17:
The flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. They are in conflict with one another, and so you do not do the things you want;and to Romans 7,15-17:
For this good that I will, I do not do; but the evil that I hate, I do.... As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but the sin that lives in me.Augustine puzzled throughout his life over the meaning of these passages, but in the Confessions it is clear that he takes them as an apt description of his own predicament, a sinner who knows what he ought to do but fails to do it.(28) So understood, Paul's words are puzzling because they seem to absolve the sinner of responsibility. Augustine repeatedly endorses the claim that it is "no longer I" who is doing evil (VIII.v.11, x.22). But he is always careful to explain that his present predicament does not in fact remove responsibility:
I had made the habit become so embattled against me; for I had willingly come to the place in which I did not wish to be (VIII.v.11).Even if he has lost control, he still bears the responsibility for having developed his entrenched habits. (Think of an out-of-control drunk who remains responsible for his actions because of his prior decision to become drunk.)
On this analysis of weakness of will, it turns out to be impossible for the agent, on her own, to do the things she wants to do. She is unable to overcome her entrenched habits, and so unable to act until freed by the grace of God. Yet this does not settle the problem; it merely shifts the paradox elsewhere. How can the force of habits make it literally impossible to do what one genuinely wants to do? How do these habits form a chain so tight that we cannot free ourselves even if we intensely desire? How do we manage to imprison ourselves? To see how Augustine solves the paradox, one needs to understand how Augustine conceives of the will, and how he plots the connections between will, mind, passions, and habits. Augustine is often credited with having first articulated the now commonplace notion of the will as a faculty of the soul.(29) Certainly, he's the first major philosopher to give the will detailed, explicit attention, and Book VIII of the Confessions is one of the crucial texts.
Initially, Augustine describes himself as having "two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual" (VIII.v.10). This suggests that there are two opposite forces at work within him, each worthy of being called a will. But this turns out to be a misunderstanding. His talk of two wills is intended to suggest not a battle between two internal forces, but a struggle within his one will. Augustine was failing to act because, despite the intensity of his longing, his will was not complete and steadfast. If he had willed without reservation to convert, then it would instantaneously have happened.
Not just the going but also the arriving there would have required nothing other than the willing to go -- willing strongly and wholly, not the turning and twisting one way and other of a will half-wounded, struggling with one part rising up while the other part falls down (VIII.viii.19).The old will that he describes corresponds to his entrenched habits. These are not a force external to the will, but a part of the will itself. Because it cannot rid itself of these habits, the will cannot act.
These remarks illuminate Augustine's conception of the will's function. It is a conceptual truth, on his account, that "willing strongly and wholly" immediately leads to action. (It's important, of course, that this is a case without possibility of external impediment; willing does not guarantee "arriving" when what is willed is physically impossible.) This shows that, for Augustine, the will is our mental capacity for making decisions and issuing commands to the body. By definition, the will is whatever power within us has that final conscious responsibility for triggering action. (Of course, the will triggers certain events in the brain, which trigger muscle movements. But the will has the ultimate conscious responsibility.) Augustine goes on to stress this point even further:
As soon as I had willed it, I could have done it, because as soon as I had willed it, I would have entirely willed it. For there the will was the power itself; to will was at that point to do (VIII.viii.20).No psychological obstacles can stand in the way of what the will decides, because there is nothing in Augustine's schema that stands between will and action. The theory itself stipulates that the will has the last and decisive word.
Augustine's battle takes place within his will, not between will and some other internal force. He criticizes at length the Manichean view that a human being has "two minds with two distinct natures, one good, the other bad" (VIII.x.22). And although he endorses St. Paul's talk of a struggle between flesh and spirit, he does not mean to suggest that these are two independent springs of action, or that the flesh (passion) might potentially overcome the spirit (reason & will) and take control of our actions, even contrary to the desires of will. Augustine's view, instead, is that the passions do their work indirectly, through the will, building over time the chains that eventually necessitate the will. The passions encourage our habits, but we choose our habits for ourselves, willingly. Whatever role the flesh has played, we are responsible for the outcome because we have, at some point, consented through will to carry out the desires of our passions. The will is not only sufficient for action, but also necessary. If the flesh conquers the spirit, it must be an inside job; the spirit must cooperate in its own downfall.(30)
But now the paradox returns. If the will is necessary and sufficient, then how is weakness of will possible? How can Augustine fail to do the thing he wills to do?(31) Augustine solves the paradox at this point by complicating his account of the will. Among later medieval philosophers, there is a tendency to treat the will as a strictly rational appetite, subject to whatever reason identifies as most desirable. Augustine's will is, in contrast, far less compliant; its rationality is erratic. Of course, the will does follow the lead of reason, but it does not simple rubber stamp whatever reason endorses. The will is easily habituated to prefer certain courses and is not easily cured of those habits, even when preserving them becomes irrational. (Notice that if such independence from reason gives the will a measure of freedom, it is hardly the sort of freedom that we should unequivocally value.) For better or worse, the will is far more complex than it might initially seem to be.(32) Such complexity explains the parodoxical situation that Augustine faces, where one knows what ought to be done, one is capable of doing it, but nevertheless one fails to act.
In a sense, Augustine is not capable of doing what he wants to do. He could have done it if he had willed to do it, but he holds that he could not have willed it without God's help:
You commanded me to abstain... and because you provided, it was done (X.xxx.41);How can this be? What prevents the will from weeding out its entrenched habits? It is easy to see the force of Augustine's logic at this point. The will could rid itself of its habits, or simply override its habits one time, only by willing to do so. But that's just the problem. If it could will to override its habits, it would have already willed to perform the action.
The labor is beyond me until you open the way (XI.xxii.28).
It is the will that commands the will to exist -- not another will, but it itself. So the will that commands is incomplete, and thus what it commands does not happen. For if it were complete, it would not command itself to exist, because it would exist already (VIII.ix.21).If you find yourself unable to act, it does no good to command yourself to issue the command -- issuing, as it were, a metacommand. The metacommand can have no more force than the initial command, because the metacommand in effect reiterates the initial command. This illustrates one further feature of Augustine's account. There is nothing beyond will and reason that can take charge and alleviate the agent's predicament. If one's will is weak, there is no higher executive power on hand to provide further motivation. At that point, all one can do is wait for help to arrive.(33) (Of course, Augustine thinks that such help can come only from God [see section two]. But aren't there other potential sources for help? Wise friends, inspirational books, chance events? Augustine would presumably reply that friends and books are wise only because of God [illumination], and that no event occurs by chance [providence].)
It is customary to think of weakness of will as a peculiar and unusual circumstance. It is Augustine's view, in contrast, that human beings are constantly subject to such weakness. The phenomenon is pervasive in our moral lives because, on one hand, God illuminates us with moral truth, while on the other hand he has made us subject to constant pressures in the opposite direction. We know what we should do, but we all have desires to do otherwise; without God's help those desires will be victorious. Inevitably, weakness of will is a pervasive failing among human beings. Augustine's own struggle exemplifies the human condition.(34)
Will our students read 200 pages of anything philosophical? I think it's worth insisting that they try. And I can think of no work that would serve better as an object of their attention than Augustine's Confessions. The range of topics is vast, and the topics are meaningful today. A story unfolds, told in lyrical, shimmering prose. Beneath the various strands of the narrative stands a coherent philosophical structure, plotting the course of a human being's journey through life, accompanied by God.(35)
2. Generally, I follow the translation of Henry Chadwick, Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), but with frequent revisions on the basis of James O'Donnell's text (Augustine: Confessions [Oxford: Clarendon, 1992] vol.1).
There are many beautiful translations of the Confessions available. I've found Chadwick's to be the best of all, stylistically. He also provides extensive notes that are often useful and rarely annoying, and he divides the text into sections as well as chapters. Chadwick does regularly sacrifice textual fidelity for the sake of style, even in the text's most philosophical moments. But in this he is no worse than the others. None of the available translations are at all adequate for a close philosophical reading.
3. See the discussion in William Mann, "The Theft of the Pears," Apeiron 12 (1979) 51-58.
4. See John O'Meara, The Young Augustine (London: Longman, 1954), pp.86- 89.
5. "This period of my life, Lord, I do not remember having lived, but I have believed what others have told me and have inferred how I behaved from observing other infants" (I.vii.12). These epistemological reflections lead him to distance himself from his infancy: in a Lockean vein, he remarks, "I do not wish to reckon this as part of the life that I live in this world, for it is lost in the darkness of my forgetfulness.... What is that time to me now, of which I recall not a single trace" (I.vii.12).
Augustine withholds judgment on the question of when he came into existence (I.vi.7). Elsewhere he favors some version of the Platonic thesis that our souls existed before conception, although he always displays considerable uncertainty about the details. For a particularly clear discussion, see De Genesi ad litteram VII.24-28 and X.1-17. See also Robert J. O'Connell, St. Augustine's Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386-91 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp.146-83.
6. The Young Augustine, p.8.
7. Augustine elaborates on this theme constantly: "what miseries I experienced" (I.ix.14); "I plunged into pain, confusion, and error" (I.xx.31); "I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost" (IV.vi.11); "I was a thoroughly miserable young man" (VIII.vii.17); "When I shall have adhered to you with the whole of myself, I shall never have pain and toil.... But for the present, because I am not full of you, I am a burden to myself" (X.xxviii.39). For further discussion of Augustine's eudaimonism, see J.M. Rist, Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp.48-53; Étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Random House, 1960) pp.3- 10.
8. See VI.xi.18 and VIII.vii.17. Augustine also refers to this event at De beata vita 1.4 and Contra academicos I.i.4. Regarding his pre-Hortensius state, he remarks, "I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment" (III.i.1).
9. Mark Henninger, "The Adolescent's Making of Meaning," Journal of Moral Education 18 (1989) 32-44, has shown how the course of Augustine's development from this point forward closely matches a contemporary account of adolescent intellectual and moral development. (Given the plethora of such accounts, it would be peculiar if Augustine's case couldn't be found to fit at least one of them.) The account Henninger describes, by William Perry, focused on Harvard/Radcliffe students, who in large part can be assumed to share Augustine's drive for wisdom. What would be more useful, however, and much more difficult, would be to explain why most students never reach the point of seeking wisdom, and so never go down anything like the road that Augustine and Perry describe. For every student who finds something inspirational in Augustine's search for wisdom, there are at least two or three more who can't even be inspired to read all the way to Book VIII. If it's moral development we're interested in, we shouldn't be worried about the Augustines or the Harvard students. It's those who are unmoved by the search for wisdom that are the problem.
10. Augustine, vol.II, p.328. Augustine not only refuses to take atheism seriously, but also refuses to believe any intelligent, morally decent person could do so. See Gilson, Christian Philosophy, pp.11-12, who quotes, among other passages, Tractatus in evangelium Iohannis 106.4: "The force of the true divinity is such that it cannot be completely and utterly hidden from a rational creature who is in fact using that reason."
Is Manicheism a form of Christianity? I'm not well qualified to insist on an answer. Scott MacDonald suggests (in correspondence) a distinction between syncretistic religions such as Manicheism and heresies such as Pelagianism that are offshoots of orthodox (Catholic) Christianity. But what is our basis for saying that orthodox Christianity is not itself syncretistic? Does this proposal, in the end, amount to anything more than saying that Manicheism is too unorthodox to count as Christianity?
11. Regrettably, the Confessions does not give the reader a full account of the Manichees, and what it does say about their doctrines and practices is scattered and somewhat obscure. In addition to their dietary and metaphysical views, students will want to know about the Manichean stress on complete sexual abstinence, their corresponding view that procreation is always an evil, and their ideas about reincarnation. For a fuller account see O'Meara, The Young Augustine, ch.4 and Samuel N.C. Lieu, Manichaeism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985).
12. On the ancient schools of skepticism, Academic and Pyrrhonian, see The Skeptical Tradition, ed. M. Burnyeat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). Augustine's discusses these matters in detail in his Contra academicos.
13. It's interesting to see that William Alston recommends a course very much like Augustine's in Perceiving God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991):
What alternative is there to employing the practices we find ourselves using, to which we find ourselves firmly committed, and which we could abandon or replace only with extreme difficulty if at all? The classical skeptical alternative of withholding belief altogether is not a serious possibility (p.150).14. For many contemporary Christian philosophers. Augustine's phrase "Faith seeking understanding" provides a kind of charter for their movement. (The phrase appears, for example, on the masthead of the influential journal Faith and Philosophy.) Augustine discusses the role of belief at greater length in two early treatises, De utilitate credendi and De fide rerum quae non videntur. For discussion of Augustine's views, see Robert Cushman, "Faith and Reason," in R.W. Battenhouse (ed.) A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp.287-314 and Norman Kretzmann, "Faith Seeks, Understanding Finds: Augustine's Charter for Christian Philosophy," in T. P. Flint, ed., Christian Philosophy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp.1-36.
15. This claim is especially striking in light of Augustine's "Cartesian" argument for the certainty of his own existence, an argument that gets set out most fully in later writings (e.g., De civitate dei XI.xxvi; De trinitate X.x.14) but also appears in his early (pre-Confessions) works. See, e.g., De libero arbitrio II.iii.7: "I will ask you first, then, so as to begin with what is most obvious: Do you yourself exist? Or are you afraid of erring on this question? But if you did not exist then you could not in any way err." On this form of argument in Augustine, see Gareth Matthews, "Si fallor, sum," in R.A. Markus (ed.) Augustine, a Collection of Critical Essays (Macmillan: London, 1972); Christopher Kirwan, Augustine (London: Routledge, 1989), pp.30-33.
16. O'Donnell remarks that the opening is unprecedented in Latin literature: "its originality and oddity are clear" (Augustine, vol.2, pp.8-9).
17. See, e.g., X.ii.2 for this extended use of confiteri. And see O'Donnell, Augustine vol.2, p.4.
18. At the climactic moment of the entire work, when the tumult of Augustine's heart takes him out into the garden, he ratchets up the suspense one final notch, and at the same time makes a theological point, when he remarks to God, "you knew, but I did not, what the outcome would be" (VIII.viii.19). The problem of foreknowledge is not a special focus of the Confessions. On Augustine's views, see De libero arbitrio III.ii-iv; De civitate dei V.ix-x, and William Rowe's classic article, "Augustine on Foreknowledge and Free Will," Review of Metaphysics 18 (1964) 356-63 (reprinted in R.A. Markus [ed.], Augustine. A Collection of Critical Essays [Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972], pp.209-17).
19. Of course, the details of Augustine's evolving view are complex, and made tremendously more complex by his doctrine of grace (see below). But he holds steadily to the conviction that the will must be free and undetermined by outside forces, both in his early writings:
If the movement by which the will is turned this way and that were not voluntary and within our power, we could not be praised when we turn toward higher things or blamed when we turn toward lower ones, the will as our pivot (De libero arbitrio III.i.3);and in his later ones:
He directs the whole of his creation in such a way as to permit creatures to achieve their own goals and to carry out their own activities. For although without him they could be nothing, still they are not him (De civitate dei VII.xxx).20. See Enarrationes in Psalmos 36.15-16. Modern versions of the Psalms have an altogether different version of this passage. In the New International Version, it runs: "If the Lord delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm."
21. For further discussion of divine illumination both in Augustine and in ancient and medieval philosophy more generally, see my forthcoming article, "Divine Illumination," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
22. Although grace is generally regarded as a theological topic, not a philosophical one, it seems no less suitable for philosophical reflection than is divine illumination. For a thorough discussion of Augustine's views, see J. Patout Burns, The Development of Augustine's Doctrine of Operative Grace (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1980). For an interesting treatment of grace as something whose existence is beyond the limits of reason, see Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, where he confines the subject to an appendix. (I'm indebted to Vincent McCarthy for drawing my attention to that text.)
23. Augustine holds that every sin is caused by either ignorance or weakness, and that hence illumination and grace are the essential remedies for sin (see, e.g., Enchiridion 81). The need for illumination and grace stems ultimately from original sin, which has the twin effects of making us ignorant and highly susceptible to sensual temptation (see, e.g., De libero arbitrio III.xix). God must intervene to cure our diseased nature: "How is salvation obtained except through your hand remaking what you once made?" (V.vii.13)
24. Chadwick's translation of this passage misses the point by misconstruing the object of Augustine's amazement. On Augustine's evolving understanding of God as spiritual (rather than a physical "phantom"), see Scott MacDonald, "Augustine's Derivation of the Divine Attributes," Cambridge Companion to Augustine (forthcoming). MacDonald focuses on the Confessions, and provides an excellent guide to Augustine's evolving thinking about God from Book III to Book VII.
25. On his insistence on celibacy, see O'Donnell, Augustine, who remarks of celibacy: "nor was it what most people approaching Christianity in this period were worrying about. There was no reason why Augustine could not have been baptized and still made that good marriage Monnica arranged" (vol.I, pp.xxxvii-viii).
26. The Latin brilliantly captures the paradox by opposing verbs that do not seem to be in opposition:
Sed illud placebat et vincebat, hoc libebat et vinciebat.
CORE MEANING: pleases conquers pleases binds
IMPLIED SENSE: approved persuades pleasant entwined
27. I was initially inclined to think of Augustine as pursuing the same line as those two well-known philosophers of incontinence, St. Paul and Donald Davidson, each of whom thinks that in the end there is something inexplicable about the phenomenon:
I do not understand what I do: for this good that I will, I do not do; but the evil that I hate, I do (Romans 7,15).
What is special in incontinence is that the actor cannot understand himself: he recognizes, in his own intentional behaviour, something essentially surd ("How is Weakness of the Will Possible," in Essays on Actions and Events [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980], p.42).But, as we'll see, the view that incontinence is incomprehensible is different from Augustine's view that incontinence is insoluble.
28. This is a problematic interpretation, in part because St. Paul himself, at the time of writing, was surely not such a sinner. Augustine would later take Paul to be describing not weakness of will, but the inescapability of his own sensual desires, even when living in grace. (Augustine discusses the change in his own views at Retractationes I.xxii.1 and I.xxiii.2.) For an insightful philosophical discussion of these issues, in the context of Thomas Aquinas's similar view, see Norman Kretzmann, "Warring against the Law of My Mind: Aquinas on Romans 7," Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. T.V. Morris (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 172-95.
29. See A. Dihle, The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). The will seems strangely absent from ancient Greek philosophy, and its absence might make us wonder whether we could explain just as much about ourselves without postulating a mysterious faculty of will. Conversely, one might suggest that the will can be found, at least implicitly, in Greek philosophy. See, e.g., Terence Irwin, "Who Discovered the Will?" Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992) 453-73, who makes this suggestion regarding Aristotle.
For doubts about whether even Augustine is committed to an independent faculty of will, see T.D.J. Chappell, Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom. Two Theories of Freedom, Voluntary Action and Akrasia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995). Chappell denies that Augustine is committed to "a reified faculty of will constituting a substantial presence in the theatre of the psyche" (p.127). This is a suggestion worth considering, inasmuch as Augustine's word voluntas can very often be understood without making appeal to a "reified faculty." It is an interesting exercise, in what follows, to try replacing all occurrences of the noun `will' with `volition.' This is presumably Chappell's idea. But it's not clear what the point is. If we allow that the mind has acts of volition, there seems no reason not to go one step further and postulate a power of will, which we can define simply as whatever produces our acts of volition. Chappell seems to be under the influence of Gilbert Ryle's famous attack on the will (The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), ch.3. But Ryle focuses his entire argument on acts of volition, arguing that because there are no such acts, there is no such faculty as the will.
30. This point is made more clearly at De civitate dei XIV.6, where Augustine writes that "the state of a person's will matters, because if it is perverse, he will have affections that are perverse, whereas if it is upright, his affections will be not only free from blame, but even worthy of praise." The point is that strong passions are blameworthy only if they are acted on. Someone who has strong passions but wills to resist them should be praised rather than blamed. See also XIV.9, speaking of good Christians: "because their love is upright, all these affections are upright in them."
31. Gareth Matthews remarks that because of his theory of will, "akrasia ... is thus not a conundrum for Augustine, in the way that it is for Socrates and Plato, or even for Aristotle..." ("Augustine," in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy [London: Routledge, 1997], vol.1, p.548b). This is misleading. Akrasia does not pose the same puzzles for Augustine that it did for ancient philosophers, but the phenomenon remains a paradox, for the reasons described, and Augustine treats it as a paradox. More generally, it is not as if postulating a faculty of will simply dissolves the puzzles associated with akrasia. After all, it's now standard to conceive of the phenomenon in terms of weakness of will, and yet philosophers show no signs of supposing that the problem has disappeared.
32. The contrast with later medieval tendencies is meant to be merely suggestive; I do not mean to imply that any of the leading scholastics were actually committed to such a crude picture of the will. Aquinas, in particular, incorporates a great deal of Augustinian complexity into his theory of will. It's this complexity (I hope to argue elsewhere) that explains Aquinas's accounts not just of weakness of will, but also of the will's freedom. Such complexity also underwrites Aquinas's accounts of justice and charity, virtues that reside within the will and that could hardly be accounted for on the "rubber stamp" model.
33. It's easy to forget this point and to imagine Augustine himself as somehow above the fray, looking down at his fractured will and taking sides. See, e.g., Dan Crawford, "Intellect and Will in Augustine's Confessions," Religious Studies 24 (1988) 291-302. Crawford correctly sees that Augustine's two wills are "two conflicting (sets of) desires within one will or self." But then he goes on to write that Augustine "conceives the self as an agent in that it seeks to influence this struggle between his desires" (p.298), and this leads Crawford to introduce second-order desires supporting each of his two first-order wills. None of this fits Augustine's analysis. The whole reason he needs God's grace is that there is no way to transcend his divided will; there is no self over and above that will. He, Augustine, is the one who is divided. The notion of second-order desires is useful in explaining the sense in which Augustine identifies with his new will rather than his old will. But on Augustine's account such higher-order desires cannot be any more efficacious than the first-order desire. (I owe these last points to Elizabeth Linehan.)
34. It is presumably considerations of this sort that lead Rist to remark that, for Augustine, "all of us are acratic all the time" (Augustine, p.137). But this exaggerates so far as to miss the point. Despite our inner sense of the natural law, not all of us recognize the error of our ways. And some of us, thanks to the grace of God, do manage to act rightly. Weakness of will is the characteristic state of earthly human beings, but it is a state we can pass through. At Enchiridion 119 Augustine describes how it is possible even to skip over this stage of life entirely. (Why then didn't God allow Augustine himself to bypass this stage? See the remarks at VIII.iii on our joy over what is lost and then found.)
35. I've received considerable help on this paper from Scott MacDonald and from students and colleagues at Saint Joseph's University.