Saturday, 13 October 2018

Augustine and the Scepticism of the Platonic Academy

Against Academicians and the Teacher is Augustine’s first writing after his conversion from paganism to christianity. It is a surprising work, because instead of focusing on a study of scripture, as any new convert is expected to, Augustine engages in a purely philosophical discussion in which the name of Christ occurs only once.

The reason for his focus on philosophy can be found in his Confessions, where he has stated that in 384—385, after his Manichaean period, he went through a sceptical crisis. The sceptical crisis was so deep that, after his conversion, he had to try to refute the skeptical philosophers.

In the period when he was working on Against Academicians and the Teacher, Augustine wrote a letter to Hermogenian (Letter 1; The Letters of St. Augustine), in which he offers a surprising meta-argument on Academic Scepticism. He recognizes that he is unable to produce arguments that will bring down scepticism, and as he is unable to defeat people of such authority, he considers it best to imitate them. Here’s the complete text of Augustine’s letter to Hermogenian:
1. I would not presume, even in playful discussion, to attack the philosophers of the Academy; for when could the authority of such eminent men fail to move me, did I not believe their views to be widely different from those commonly ascribed to them? Instead of confuting them, which is beyond my power, I have rather imitated them to the best of my ability. For it seems to me to have been suitable enough to the times in which they flourished, that whatever issued pure from the fountainhead of Platonic philosophy should be rather conducted into dark and thorny thickets for the refreshment of a very few men, than left to flow in open meadow-land, where it would be impossible to keep it clear and pure from the inroads of the vulgar herd. I use the word herd advisedly; for what is more brutish than the opinion that the soul is material? For defense against the men who held this, it appears to me that such an art and method of concealing the truth was wisely contrived by the new Academy. But in this age of ours, when we see none who are philosophers — for I do not consider those who merely wear the cloak of a philosopher to be worthy of that venerable name — it seems to me that men (those, at least, whom the teaching of the Academicians has, through the subtlety of the terms in which it was expressed, deterred from attempting to understand its actual meaning) should be brought back to the hope of discovering the truth, lest that which was then for the time useful in eradicating obstinate error, should begin now to hinder the casting in of the seeds of true knowledge. 
2. In that age the studies of contending schools of philosophers were pursued with such ardour, that the one thing to be feared was the possibility of error being approved. For every one who had been driven by the arguments of the sceptical philosophers from a position which he had supposed to be impregnable, set himself to seek some other in its stead, with a perseverance and caution corresponding to the greater industry which was characteristic of the men of that time, and the strength of the persuasion then prevailing, that truth, though deep and hard to be deciphered, does lie hidden in the nature of things and of the human mind. Now, however, such is the indisposition to strenuous exertion, and the indifference to the liberal arts, that so soon as it is reported abroad that, in the opinion of the most acute philosophers, truth is unattainable, men send their minds to sleep, and cover them up forever. For they presume not, forsooth, to imagine themselves to be so superior in discernment to those great men, that they shall find out what, during his singularly long life, Carneades, with all his diligence, talents, and leisure, besides his extensive and varied learning, failed to discover. And if, contending somewhat against indolence, they rouse themselves so far as to read those books in which it is, as it were, proved that the perception of truth is denied to man, they relapse into lethargy so profound, that not even by the heavenly trumpet can they be aroused. 
3. Wherefore, although I accept with the greatest pleasure your candid estimate of my brief treatise, and esteem you so much as to rely not less on the sagacity of your judgment than on the sincerity of your friendship, I beg you to give more particular attention to one point, and to write me again concerning it — namely, whether you approve of that which, in the end of the third book, I have given as my opinion, in a tone perhaps of hesitation rather than of certainty, but in statements, as I think, more likely to be found useful than to be rejected as incredible. But whatever be the value of those treatises [the books against the Academicians], what I most rejoice in is, not that I have vanquished the Academicians, as you express it (using the language rather of friendly partiality than of truth), but that I have broken and cast away from me the odious bonds by which I was kept back from the nourishing breasts of philosophy, through despair of attaining that truth which is the food of the soul.
It is noteworthy that Augustine says in his letter that if he had let the sceptical image of the Academy persist, he would have encouraged his contemporaries to believe that they could not discover what Carneades (the great sceptic philosopher of the Platonic Academy) himself had been unable to discover. 

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