Transcript: 114 - Sarah Byers on Augustine's Ethics

Peter speaks with Sarah Byers about the Stoic influence on Augustine's ethics and theory of action.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: In the podcast I've already done, I've already been talking a bit about Augustine's reaction to various philosophers and especially the Platonists. But I know that you think the Stoics were also an important source for him, especially when it comes to ethics. So maybe we should start by having you say something briefly about how much he knew about Stoicism. Which Stoic sources could he use or which sources they report on Stoic doctrines? 

Sarah Byers: Okay. Well, most of the work that I've done so far in Augustine's ethics in relation to Stoicism has been specifically in the field of moral psychology. And there's a great deal of use of Stoicism in that area. And his principal sources were Cicero and Seneca. So in terms of Cicero, some of the important texts would be the Tusculan Disputations, the On Goals, the On the Republic, and the On Fate. And with Seneca, I saw him using On Providence, On Clemency, On Anger, On the Constancy of the Wise Person, for example. And it's interesting to note that in the Confessions, when he expresses his disappointment about Faustus, the Manichean, one of the things that he says about Faustus was that Faustus had only read a few works by Seneca. And this implies, of course, that Augustine had read more than a few and that he was familiar with Seneca. And that's one of the things that I think scholars haven't taken into account enough in the past. It's interesting to look at some of those connections. But another interesting thing is that Augustine also gives evidence of knowing things that are not extant today in Latin texts, such as the ones I just mentioned. But there are things that we have today in Greek sources, like Diogenes Laertius, that Augustine gives evidence of having known. So, for example, in the City of God 14, he uses the Greek term, eupatheia, which is a technical Stoic term for a morally good emotion. But this term is not given in Greek by Cicero in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, when he's summarizing the Stoic account of the good emotions and the bad emotions. And so then the question would be, where did Augustine know that term from, right? So it seems that either he knew it from a Latin source that's not extant anymore, like part of Cicero's De Fato that's now lost, or else he had an anthology of extracts from Greek philosophers that was translated into Latin. And that's an argument that TeSelle has made in another context, that Augustine did have some kind of anthology or compendium or encyclopedia. 

Peter Adamson: One of the topics where Augustine seems to have drawn on the Stoics is their theory of motivation. And before we get on to what Augustine thinks about motivation and how it works when we have a desire and act on it, I thought since it's been a while since I actually covered the Stoics in the podcast, maybe you can just remind us what the Stoics think is happening. So if I have a desire to say, eat a piece of cake, how does that arise? And then how do I act on it? 

Sarah Byers: Right. So, okay, so the theory of motivation is based on their general theory of cognition. So a motivation for the Stoics is a specific type of perception or cognition. And so the basic elements of Stoic epistemology are impression and a sense. So the first thing that happens is I experience an impression, a first impression. The term means something similar to the way that we use it in English, my first impression, the way something initially strikes me. And the Stoic term for this is phantasia, it's translated into Latin as visum. And then if I'm a rational being, if I'm a rational animal, a human, then I formulate to myself in mental language an interpretation of what I have sensed or the way that I've been struck. So for example, if I smell chocolate cookies baking, and then I would think to myself, there are chocolate cookies baking in the oven. So that's the impression. And then I have the choice of whether to assent to it or refuse assent, not assent. And in the case of motivation, there's a specific type of impression that I would have that is going to explain why I reach out and grab the cookie and somebody else who just walks into the kitchen and smells the cookies but doesn't grab the cookie doesn't do so. And the explanation that the Stoics have for that is that I had a motivating impression. So the particular features of this type of impression are that the mental language that I formulate to myself to interpret my sensory data spells out to me the attractive features in the cookie. So not only do I think there are cookies baking in the oven, but I think it's appropriate for me to eat those cookies because they're yummy. Go get that cookie. Okay. So I have an imperatival lekton. I have a sayable in my mind that's in the imperative mood. And this is one of the essential features of this type of impression. So then again, I have to either assent or not. I have to either agree to do it or not to do it. And if I do decide to do it, then I will have impulse, which is the impetus to do the action. It's a psychological thrust, putting myself in motion to do the action. And at that point, the only thing that would prevent me from eating the cookie would be some kind of external obstacle. So if I trip on my way over to the oven or something. 

Peter Adamson: Or if I come in and grab the cookie out of your hand and eat it instead. 

Sarah Byers: Exactly. If you're competing with me for the cookie in a Hobbesian universe. But the point is I'm culpable or praiseworthy from the point that I give assent. Because at that point, the only thing that will stop me is something else. 

Peter Adamson: It’s like a tripartite analysis, so you've got impression, assent and impulse. 

Sarah Byers: Exactly. Right. 

Peter Adamson: How far does Augustine then follow the Stoics on this? Does he adopt the same basic tripartite structure when he's analyzing how human action works? 

Sarah Byers: Yes, he certainly does. And that's one of the things that I argued in a book that I had come out called “Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine,” which came out at the end of 2012. What I argued there is that he adopts this tripartite model and he follows it very closely even in its details. So even the idea that there's an imperatival mental sayable that I experience in my mind when I experience a motivating impression, that's an idea that you can find in his corpus. He uses the word suggestio, for example, as a technical Latin term to render the Greek phantasia hormetike. So that's fairly extensively used by him. And one example in a famous text where he's doing that is in Confession's Book Eight, where he has these sort of warring motivations. He's attracted to the virtue of continence, but then he's simultaneously or shortly thereafter, he's also attracted to the contradictory incontinent actions that his old habits are proposing to him. And so in that case, he's using the word suggestio and he's talking about continence appearing and having quasi-speech. And so I argue that that's an example of him using this model of the motivating impression that has mental language. And it's also found extensively in his sermons that he uses this same model. You see the word suggestio also appearing there over and over again, used in the same way. He does distinguish himself from the Stoics by trying to synthesize a Platonic eros theory with this account of motivation. And the way that he does that is to say that in the higher part of the mind, the intellect recognizes intelligible goodness and beauty in certain types of actions or in certain types of objects. And then as a consequence of perceiving the goodness of an object, the mind in the lower part of the reason and the ratiocinative, discursive part of the reason, the mind then experiences the mental language, and all the other things that happen in the Stoic model are happening in that discursive lower part of the mind. So that would be something that he adds to this Stoic theory, but he does so in a way that I argued was coherent in the sense that you have two different powers of the mind doing these different things and that they're aimed at different intentional objects. So the love or the attraction for the object is precisely for an object or a state of affairs. And the motivating impression is about an action, doing an action. So the two things work together in tandem. 

Peter Adamson: Right. But it still sounds anyway like it's more of a Stoic theory with a bit of Platonism added on top rather than what you might have expected, which is a Platonic theory with traces of Stoic terminology or whatever. 

Sarah Byers: Yes, this is true. Certainly at the level of talking about the genesis of concrete actions and the amount of detail that he gives, all the detail that he uses and the way of talking about concrete actions is all from the Stoics. 

Peter Adamson: Interesting. Okay. Actually, if I could ask you something else you mentioned sort of in passing there, you said that a lot of his sermons contain this theory or at least make allusions to this theory. And I think that's very interesting because to the extent that philosophers or historians of philosophy have drawn on Augustine's works at all, they tend to read things like the Confessions or On the Trinity or City of God, perhaps the philosophical dialogues that he wrote early in his career, but they don't look at texts like the sermons very often. So have you found that that's really rich hunting ground for philosophical ideas in Augustine? 

Sarah Byers: Yes, I have found that in this particular area of moral psychology, and I think there are several reasons, but just to name a couple of them. First of all, in the sermons, his goal is usually to exhort people to improve themselves morally. So obviously, if you want to exhort someone to improve herself morally, you need to try to help that person understand her present motivations to become self-aware and then consequently to reform, to come to want to do things differently or to do the right thing. Therefore, in the sermons, we sometimes get detailed descriptions of how motivation and temptation work, what's going on in the mind when we're tempted, when we're motivated, etc. Another case is the case of the passions, in the sermons, he's dealing with oikeiosis, training in moral excellence generally. And so, like the Stoics, he thinks that some emotions are morally bad. And therefore, in the sermons, he's explaining to people how bad emotions are generated in the psyche and how they can be forestalled or how they can be avoided. 

Peter Adamson: That brings us to, I think, a very obvious difference between the Stoics and Augustine when it comes to moral theory, which is that the Stoics famously think that we should be trying to avoid all emotion. So the Greek word here is pathe. So they think that what we should be doing is making rational judgments completely unclouded by these emotions. Whereas, although Augustine obviously recognizes bad emotions, one of the themes that comes across in a work like the City of God is precisely that it could be good to have an emotion, so even something like grief, which the Stoics would reject – so the Stoics would say, you know, if your best friend dies, then the rational thing to do is accept that as part of divine providence. Whereas Augustine, by contrast, says that an emotion like grief could be appropriate, could be the right response to, say, the death of a friend. So how does Augustine defend the appropriateness of certain emotions when he's got this Stoic theory about assenting to these impressions? 

Sarah Byers: Right. I'm glad you brought this up because I think it's very helpful. Many people have a certain characterization of the Stoics in mind; they're not quite aware of the fact that the Stoics have this category of good emotions called the eupatheiai. So it's very slippery in English sometimes to talk about different affective reactions and try to tie those to the Stoic categories and keep everybody on the same page. So basically the Stoics think that emotions are caused by judgments, that something good or bad has happened to me or is going to happen to me. Then they subdivide emotions into two categories, morally good and morally bad, depending on the truth or the falsity of the judgment. So I can have a good emotion if it's the result of a true judgment that something that's truly good or truly bad has happened to me or is going to happen to me. So far Augustine agrees with the Stoics. He thinks that all of that is right. But the difference comes in what is really good and what is really bad for us. So in terms of the content of the actual propositions that we're allowed to assent to in order to have a morally good emotion, that's where the difference lies. So for the Stoics and Stoic value theory, the only thing that is good is virtue, and everything else is indifferent. And then the class of indifferent things are subdivided into preferred, dispreferred and absolutely indifferent. So what the Stoics want to say is that the passions, the pathe, are caused by false judgments that something that's merely preferred indifferent is really good, basically. So I lose my job or I fall down on the ice and I break my hip, and I think, oh, this is bad and then I become sad and I grieve. And the Stoics want to say, no, no, no, you're wrong. That's not really bad because those things are preferred indifference, which means in the Stoic theory, the Eudaimonistic theory of the Stoics, it means that those things are neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness. 

Peter Adamson: In other words, they don't matter for virtue. Virtue is the only thing you need to be happy, since having an unbroken leg isn't required for virtue. In the long run, it doesn't matter even if it's preferred. It's rational to prefer to not have a broken leg. 

Sarah Byers: Right. So we're supposed to select things that are preferred, but we're supposed to do so with an absolute detachment and to always realize that it's not the preferred indifferents that are the matter. They're not constitutive of our happiness. They're the material cause. They're the things that we're working with as we make virtuous choices in life. And that's why they're preferred. Okay. So they might be useful for doing more good to more people or something like that, but they're not intrinsically valuable. So virtue is the only thing that's necessary for happiness. And it's also sufficient for happiness. So Augustine's disagreement is to say, no, no, no, these preferred indifferents are actually necessary for happiness, for being completely happy. They're not sufficient – the Stoics were right about that – but they are necessary. And so when I fall down and break my hip on the ice, I can think this is bad for me and I can be sad. But he wants to still say there is a radical difference in value between virtue and something like health. So when I fall down and break my hip, I can be sad, but I should be much less sad than I would be if I told a lie, because then I had done something against the virtue of honesty. 

Peter Adamson: Right. There's actually a passage in the City of God where he says, do the Stoics really expect us to believe that someone who's being tortured would really still be happy just because they were virtuous? And he says, of course not. And so his point would be that a necessary condition for happiness would be, for example, not being subjected to torture. 

Sarah Byers: Right. Yes. 

Peter Adamson: In light of the distinction you just drew, I'm wondering whether we could resolve what I saw as a tension in the City of God and talked about in the episode on that. Because on the one hand, he keeps saying, well, we'll only be happy in the afterlife. But on the other hand, he keeps saying the Stoics are wrong to think that it doesn't matter if I or my friends and family are subjected to misery in this life. And so reading the City of God, you keep thinking, well, wait a minute, do the things that happen in this world matter or not? And I guess what you're saying is that they do matter because what happens to me in this life can destroy my happiness. For example, if I or my family is tortured to death. But nothing that happens in this life could be sufficient for happiness, only God's blessings in the afterlife could be sufficient for happiness. 

Sarah Byers: Yes, I think that's generally right. One interesting thing to think about is that I think he believes that it's because the Stoics don't have an account of the afterlife that they have to do these mental gymnastics in which they want to claim that all the things that disappoint us in this life, like when our spouse cheats on us or when we fall down on the ice or when we can't eat the cookie, all those things, we have to tell ourselves that those things are not really things to grieve over, they're not really bad for us, even though our natural instinctive reaction is to recognize them as disappointments. And he thinks that it's just because the Stoics don't have a view of the afterlife that they get themselves boxed into this corner, because it has to do with their associated belief that God is provident and that God is in control and that God is just. So the argument in Seneca's De Providentia, for example, goes: God is just, bad things seem to happen to good people, therefore these things can't really be bad, right? Because everything is smushed into this life. If you have a God who's provident and just, you have to have justice in this life. And Augustine wants to say, no, no, look, if we say that there's an afterlife, then you're relieved of this pressure; you don't have to lie anymore and say that it's not bad for me when my spouse cheats on me, right? And then you don't have to say that that shouldn't affect my happiness because you have more time to work out the justice of things, basically. Justice comes about in the afterlife.

Peter Adamson: So it's almost like you can stop pretending that this world is enough is what the Stoics are effectively doing. 

Sarah Byers: Right, right. And they feel that they have to because they have no other option. But Augustine also thinks that even the Stoics should have known better because Plato was able to see that it's rational to believe in an afterlife, right? So he says this in his sermons, for example, look, even the pagans realized, even Plato realizes that there is an afterlife of rewards and punishments. So he thinks that's something we can know by reason and that you don't need to get that from the Bible. And so that's part of the reason why he's hard on the Stoics for not building in that second piece of the puzzle. 

Peter Adamson: And also why he says several times that the Platonists, even though they're not right because they're not Christians, they are preferable to all the other pagan schools. And that's in part because they do have this rational belief in the afterlife. 

Sarah Byers: Yes, that's one of the reasons. I mean, we could say more about that, but it's certainly one of the reasons. Yes.

Peter Adamson: Well, actually, but before we start going off to talk about Platonism, I wanted to ask you something else about the Stoics, which is going back to this issue about assenting to the impressions that the world offers us. One thing that comes across very powerfully in the Confessions is this dramatization of someone, namely Augustine, who's in a situation where he's assented to a proposition, apparently, namely, I should convert to Christianity or I should become a pious Christian. So he has assented and yet he finds himself unable to do it. So it seems there like the Stoic model of human action and motivation is no longer sufficient, right, because it seems to him that he should become a Christian. He wholeheartedly, apparently, endorses this impression, and yet he finds himself not doing it. So how is it then that his belief in what he ought to do and what he finds himself doing can come apart like that if he's basically following the Stoic model? 

Sarah Byers: Okay, I don't read it that way, actually. I read the consent as happening in paragraph 29, which is the point at which he says that all the shadows of doubt were dispersed from his mind, that he came to a resolution. 

Peter Adamson: So this is after the “take up and read” bit. 

Sarah Byers: Yes, yes. So I think that the reading of that text actually is supposed to symbolize his adopting the propositional content that was in the impression. So the impression is described in paragraph 27, the impression of continence. And the same propositional content is repeated, it's actually in the passage from the Bible that he reads, because it says, make no provision for the flesh in its lust. And it talks about, essentially, it talks about continence, adopting a continent lifestyle. So it's a repetition of the same propositional content, but this time with commitment, with assent that happens in paragraph 29. 

Peter Adamson: So what's been happening then with him psychologically before that? So I mean, there's that famous bit, make me temperate or continent, but not yet. So maybe the thought is that there, although he feels like he should assent to the proposition, I should be temperate, he's not assenting to it. But then it seems like even that's kind of a puzzle, because then it seems like he's assenting to the proposition that he should assent to Christianity, but he's still failing to do something despite the fact that he's assenting to the thought that he should do it. 

Sarah Byers: Well, yeah, this is a bit like Frankfurt and the first and second order motivations, right. But I think that passage you just mentioned where he prays, make me continent, but not yet, it's much earlier in the Confessions. And at that point, what's happening is he sees Ambrose and he sees other philosophers who are either living a completely celibate life to be philosophers or to engage in contemplation of God. And he sees that in some sense, it's admirable, but he does not feel attracted to it for himself. So he doesn't perceive it as a good for himself. He just sees that it's good for them, it's working for them. And if I were a different type of person, then maybe it would work for me. And gee, God, if you could make me that type of person without my having to do anything to get myself into that state, then that would be nice. But I don't really want you to put me into that state yet, because I enjoy the state that I'm in. So that's what's happening earlier. And then in Confessions 8 in Chapter 27, he describes the first time that he actually perceives the virtue of continence or temperance as good for himself, as attractive and as good for himself, something that will make him happy in particular. But because he has this other habit, this habit of incontinent actions, as he calls them, there's a competition between this new motivation, the first time that he's motivated to be continent, there's a competition between that and his previous lifestyle. So now he has warring motivations, and the actual consent doesn't come until paragraph 29. 

Peter Adamson: I suppose that if you had warring motivations, you could also kind of waver back and forth at the level of assent. So one moment you might find yourself saying, yeah, I should really be a good Christian. And the next moment you might be thinking, oh, but that woman's really beautiful, I'd really like to pursue her or whatever it is that he's thinking. And I guess the Stoics must have thought this too, right? They weren't committed to the view that every time you assent to a moral proposition, you've made a decision that's going to last for the rest of your life, right? 

Sarah Byers: Yes. I mean, I think the difference is recognizing on a theoretical level that in some sense, a certain lifestyle or a certain type of behavior is admirable, and it seems to make other people happy and it seems to be useful somehow or beneficial. But none of that is really a motivation for the Stoics or for Augustine. So when someone's experienced an actual motivating impression towards doing some action, they are saying to themselves, do it, go for it. So you can be having that interior self-imperative and still not assent, right? That's still part of the impression. And if you have contradictory impressions, which you could have if you have a past habit of different dispositions being built up through different types of actions, then you're not necessarily going to assent, because your psychological weight is going to be distributed between these different abilities to find various things attractive. 

Peter Adamson: Let me ask you just one last question about this before we end. And this is about the theory of grace. So obviously this takes us into the realm of theology a little bit, but I'm wondering how the theory of grace then would interact with the story that you've been telling because it makes me wonder which part of my psychology does God have to interfere with, as it were, in order to give me grace? So is the idea that he makes things seem differently to me, or does the idea that he helps me to assent to the right seemings, or what does he do exactly when he gives me grace? 

Sarah Byers: Yeah, this is an excellent question, and it's something that Augustine’s thinking about this question develops over time, but by the time that he gets to the Confessions, he's proposing to us himself as an example in the Confessions. And the model that he gives there is that because he was habituated in the wrong direction in this incontinent lifestyle, as he calls it, he wasn't naturally able to perceive continence as good for him, as attractive for him. So the fact that he experiences this motivating impression of continence, of temperance in Book 8, he presents that as actually something that God gives him. So there's a first grace, which is when God makes him see the kalon quality of the virtue, that the virtue is good for him, that it will contribute to his happiness, that it's beautiful for him. It's a good and beautiful thing that he lacks and that he needs. And that's something that God has to do because on the natural level, our habits are determinative of how we perceive. Our habits influence our perception to such an extent that we're not going to be able to see a contradictory virtue to the vice that we have as good for us. So that, he thinks, is what grace is in the first instance. It's God giving us this motivating impression. So notice that it's God giving us an epistemological item that happens naturally all the time. But in certain kinds of cases, God has to give it to us because we can't get it naturally if we have bad habits. And then he seems to indicate also that the consent is also given by God, which is as a second grace in paragraph 29. Precisely because he has these conflicting dispositions, he cannot assent to the impression once it's given to him. So it's given as a second grace that God enables him to consent or consents in him would be an Augustinian way of saying it. 

Peter Adamson: Well, it's really interesting because it sounds like he's really thought in great detail then about how to adapt this Stoic model of motivation and action for use in this new Christian context.

Sarah Byers: Right. And the text where you really see it happening that he's thinking this through is the text they wrote right before the Confessions, which is Replies to Simplicianus. And in that text, you actually see an evolution of his thought about this question. So he starts off kind of thinking that maybe it's sufficient for people to come to some kind of conversion just by hearing preaching, exterior preaching. So the question is, what does it mean for God to call someone? And initially he's thinking, well, the calling is hearing preaching of, you know, virtues being talked about and the Christian life as a virtuous life. But he sees the problem that there's an empirical fact that two people can hear the same preaching. They hear the same message. And one person is moved and the other person is not moved. And then this causes him to say, if someone is moved, that person is moved because God is touching their mind with the type of impression by which their will may be moved. And then in the Confessions, I think we're getting an example of how that works in the life of a concrete person, namely himself. 


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