Greek/Hellenistic Tradition Augustine View
In Book XIX of Augustine’s City of God, his focus is on the end of two cities — “the earthly and the heavenly” (843), which he explains while simultaneously illustrating the nature of the Supreme Good. He tells the reader that peace and happiness, which exists in the heavenly city, can also be experienced on earth. The cities are, in fact, entangled in this, the earthly, world. Augustine explains to us the many different ways humans try to combine virtues and pleasure in order to find peace and happiness in life, but he claims that none of these ways are answers, none of these ways will bring a person peace nor happiness; on the contrary, combining virtues and pleasures can bring insecurity and thus unhappiness. Man does not know, according to Augustine, how to combine both virtue and pleasure, so the goal of life becomes about how to live according to a certain wisdom, which can eventually take us down the path to eternal happiness. The goal is to incorporate justice into one’s own life.
When comparing Augustine’s City of God to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, it becomes apparent that Augustine, though critical of Aristotle’s work, echoed some of Aristotle’s theories related to virtue and justice. Both philosophers were in pursuit of a just society and they both believed that goodness was key; however, it was in their ideas about what made up goodness that made them different. Even though Aristotle believed that God was needed in society for the chief reason of people having a responsibility to something else (other than themselves, making them selfish), which would encourage them to be good citizens, and Augustine believed that God was not to be used as a part of the government, both wanted the same thing in the end: justice and goodness.
Aristotle believed that moral virtues set out to help us behave rightly. He notes that it is also important that one have the required intellectual virtues in order to reason about how one should behave. In the following passage, Augustine similarly tells us how we can coordinate God’s love and reason:
to make clear the great difference between their hollow realities and our hope, the hope given us by God, together with the realization — that is, the true bliss — which he will give us; and to do this not merely by appealing to divine authority but also by employing such powers of reason (Augustine 843).
In trying to find peace and happiness, Augustine agreed with some of Plato’s theories. One of the most obvious ways that Augustine agreed with Plato was in his belief that finding happiness must be sought through society. However, Augustine believed rather strongly that faith in God must be individually practiced (i.e., not through society) because that is the only way to the Supreme Good.
when it is asked whether a wise man should be so concerned with social life that he wants the Supreme Good, which brings man happiness, for his friend as much for himself, and is concerned to ensure it for his friend, or whether a wise man acts as he does solely for his own happiness, then the question is not about the Ultimate Good, but about taking or not taking a partner to share in this good, and that not for the philosopher’s own sake but for the sake of that partner, so that the wise man may rejoice in his companion’s good as in his own (Augustine 846-847).
Augustine concludes that even though there is the philosophy that a social life will bring people happiness (such as Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, “a human is a social being and his nature is to live in the company of others” 177), it will only bring man further unhappiness in the end. He claims in the passage that social activity is not about Goodness but rather it is about whether or not to take part in a social life and it has nothing to do with finding peace, but rather, it seems to be a distraction from peace. So, finding happiness is not in having a social life, but rather finding happiness can only be sought through society if all of the citizens of that society submit to that type of rule. “The peace of body and soul is the duly ordered life and health of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is an ordered obedience, in faith, in subjection to an everlasting law” (Augustine 870). The only way that society could help someone on the path toward Supreme Good is if everyone were on the same page, essentially, but Augustine knew that this was not the case.
Augustine also took up issues with the mind-body dilemma. In Phaedo, we are given an account of Socrates’ death that shows us a man that is so far away from his body’s needs, that his soul is free to leave the body without any hesitation. Socrates states in Phaedo,
if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either we can never attain knowledge or we can do so after death While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us (Plato 104).
Likewise, in City of God, Augustine quotes from the Book of Wisdom, saying that it is the body, which is perishable, that weighs the soul down (Augustine 853). Augustine, like Plato, suggests that all human beings may struggle with the conflicts that come up between the body and the mind. Socrates states that we cannot know knowledge, which perhaps for Augustine would be translated into God, if we are too focused on the body. Augustine, similarly, discusses the conflicts between the earthly city and the heavenly city. The earthly city represents all the evils that tempt people, things that offer them corporeal pleasure, and the heavenly city represents God’s city where the soul can live eternally, but in order for the soul to live there eternally, it has to submit itself to God while it is kept in its earthly form.
Augustine depicts two very distinct worlds — the earthly city, as represented by Babylon — “people should possess peace in this life, since so long as the two cities are intermingled we also make use of the peace of Babylon, although the People of God is by faith set free from Babylon” (Augustine 892) — and the City of God, as represented by the godly Jerusalem — “for ‘Jerusalem’ as I have said already, means ‘vision of peace’” (865). Through the course of our history, both cities develop and change when humans act. motivated by self-interested or sacrificial love. Augustine’s question remains, however: How can humans can implement justice in their own lives and live according to wisdom, which can bring us to eternal peace? While Augustine departed from many of the theories of Aristotle and Plato, they were all on a similar path, which was to discover how a person can attain knowledge and goodness while here on earth, which then would allow their souls to free themselves from the body and go on to a higher goodness.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Ed. Roger Crisp. (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Plato & Grube, G.M.A. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo.
Hackett Publishing Co., 2nd edition, 2002.
St. Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson; with an introduction by G.R.
London, England: Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 842-894.