Mar 12, 2013

Virtues in Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will

We've been studying St. Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will in my Introduction to Philosophy class these last two weeks (here's video 1, 2 and 3 of the sessions).  This book has long been one of my favorite Augustinian works -- ranking up there with his Confessions, the City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and (what might come as a surprise, since they are considered minor works), the treatises On Lying and Against LyingOn Free Choice of the Will is really quite masterful as a dialogue -- real discussion and exploration is going on in that text -- problems are raised, resolved, just to give rise to new deeper problems -- and gradually, a through what initially appear digressions, a complex picture gets systematically sketched out.

Time is always an issue in teaching Introduction classes -- there's never enough, even if everything goes exactly as it ought to, to devote adequate attention to everything in the monumental texts I am privileged to teach -- and one of the casualties this time around, specifically with respect to this text, is Augustine's discussions about the virtues, mainly carried out in books 1 and 2.  There's nothing like a full-blown and systematic Augustinian treatment of the virtues and vices in On Free Choice of the Will -- we learn much more, and much that is important, from other writings of his, not just from major works and specific treatises, but even from remarks made in his various Letters.  In fact, only the four cardinal virtues are examined in this work.  But, what he does say is interesting in its own right -- if all we had of Augustine was this one work, it would still represent an advance -- or, perhaps a departure -- in the tradition of virtue ethics.


Eternal Law, Reason, and Wisdom

Each of the three books of On Free Choice of the Will is centered around one particular puzzle having to do with God, human beings, and moral values.  Book 1 begins by Augustine's pupil asking whether God is responsible for -- because the cause of -- evil.  Book 2 asks why God gave free will to human beings.  And in book 3, the question is whether divine foreknowledge is compatible with genuine freedom of the human will.  Each of these -- the last one perhaps a bit less than the others -- involves Augustine and Evodius in what appear at some points to be simply digressions from the subject under consideration -- but which actually belong within those books, bit by bit adding illuminations to the understanding being developed of human beings, their various faculties, moral choices and life, and even God.  The passages about the virtues -- and the vices as well -- fall into that category.

So, what does Augustine tell us about the virtues in book 1?   At first glance, not a lot.  He does introduce several very important notions which will provide an intellectual framework for the virtues, among these the notion of eternal law, what Evodius calls a "stronger and secret law".  Augustine himself asks:
Will not any intelligent man regard that law as unchangeable and eternal, which is termed the law of reason? We must always obey it; it is the law through which wicked men deserve an unhappy, and good men a happy life, and through which the law we have said should be called temporal is rightly decreed and rightly changed. . . . 
And notes:
I think you also see that men derive all that is just and lawful in temporal law from eternal law.  
And then concludes: 
Therefore, to explain shortly as far as I can the notion which is impressed on us of eternal law, it is the law by which it is just that everything should have its due order.
This right ordering provides a pattern, model, and canon for the imperfect rationality of the human being, in which it can participate -- and it also provides guidance for the will.  As he tells us:
When reason, or mind, or spirit controls the irrational motions of the soul, then that element is ruling in man which ought to rule in virtue of that law which we have found to be eternal. 
This control on reason's part is far from automatic -- in fact, there are many possibilities for going astray in this sort of arrangement.  It is the will which turns out to be decisive in determining -- in deciding -- whether reason, the higher portion of the human being, or whether the desires, the appetites, the passions will prevail.  This is the point where the cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, courage, and temperance -- will soon come in.  But first, Augustine brings up another possible perfection of the human being -- wisdom, which occupies a somewhat wider, and more elevated role than the prudence which is often its analogue or even translation.

Wisdom is the state a person is in when, within them -- within their thinking, desiring, acting, choosing -- reason controls the other parts of the soul, including even those distinctively human faculties or portions concerned, for instance, with laughing and joking, or with recognition and rivalry.  Now, as we'll see later, what wisdom we do have is at best partial in this present life, not least because the critical juncture point is the human -- and thus free -- faculty of will, our faculty of choice, so free it can even bear reflexively upon itself.

Bad Choices and the Vices

In fact, it is precisely because we have made, and do make, wrong choices -- that is we use the will wrongly, for the wrong purposes, ordering and prioritizing in mistaken manners -- that wisdom is a far-off but not unattainable good.  In its absence, and through the wrong free choices of the will, a kind of inversion of the natural, right order occurs -- one which establishes obstacles to wisdom, as well as to even knowledge or happiness.  We suffer a punishment:
which consists in the mind being ruled by passion, being robbed of its store of virtue, being dragged hither and thither, poor and needy, now judging false for true, now defending, now attacking what before it approved, and in spite of this running off into fresh falsehood, now withholding its assent, and often frightened of clear reasoning, now despairing of finding any truth at all, and clinging closely to the darkness of its folly, now striving for the light of understanding, and again falling back through exhaustion.
Meanwhile the passions rage like tyrants, and throw into confusion the whole soul and life of men with storms from every quarter, fear on one side, desire on another, on another anxiety, or false empty joy, here pain for the thing which was loved and lost, there eagerness to win what is not possessed, there grief for an injury received, here burning desire to avenge it. Wherever he turns, avarice can confine him, self-indulgence dissipate him, ambition master him, pride puff him up, envy torture him, sloth drug him, obstinacy rouse him, oppression afflict him, and the countless other feelings which crowd and exploit the power of passion. Can we then think this no punishment at all, which, as you see, all who do not cling to wisdom must necessarily suffer?
Notice two interesting things.  First, Augustine does not say that unless a person possesses wisdom, they are fated to such a condition -- the person must instead cling to wisdom, seek it out, turn their desire and their will towards it,  and thereby they will progress towards it.  Second, there is an interesting juxtaposition of passions or emotions with a non-systematic listing-off of bad states of character, among which we see most of the traditional seven deadly sins and the earlier eight principal vices (there's no explicit reference to gluttony or lust -- perhaps treated in terms of self-indulgence -- nor to sadness or accedia).

The Cardinal Virtues in Book 1

It's also very interesting that the virtues Augustine will reference throughout this work comprise a much shorter list -- not least because each of the four cardinal virtues is supposed to cover so much volitional and intellectual ground.  So, what are the virtues?  They are global, general, dispositional ways in which we go right in our uses of our faculties of reason and will -- in the ordering within and without us that possession of a free will makes possible for us.  Augustine characterizes goodness of the will in a threefold manner -- a good will is:
A will by which we seek to live rightly and virtuously and to reach the height of wisdom. 
These three different features of the good will are of course closely, even intimately, connected, and lead the person in the same proper direction.  Augustine goes on to note that possessing this very directedness, this kind of orientation of the will, prioritizing wisdom, rectitude, and virtue over other goods, preferrring to preserve what share of these one possesses or merely participates in over pursuing other offered goods -- that also is good will.  Good will involves an effort to keep good will.

Now, such a good will -- and the person whose will it is -- will follow and strive after wisdom, and will also thereby develop some modicum of the virtues. So, what are they?  Augustine succinctly and interrogatively defines each of them in turn:
Now consider whether prudence seems to you to consist in the knowledge what to seek and what to avoid.

And is not fortitude that state of the soul in which we despise all misfortunes and the loss of things not resting in our power?

Then do you agree that temperance is that state of soul which controls and checks desire in regard to those things which it is shameful to desire?

And what else are we to say about justice than that it is the virtue by which each man is given his due?
He goes on to argue that the person who has -- and chooses to maintain -- a good will, is going to have each of these virtues.

Such a person will have to possess prudence.  Why?  Prudence, as we have just seen consists in a kind of knowledge about what to seek and what to avoid -- what to choose, how to value things rightly, how to determine what is better and what is worse, what is higher and more valuable, and what is lower, albeit valuable as well.  A sign that this kind of person possesses this virtue of prudence is that they keep on reliably choosing to maintain goodness of the will when posed with the possibility of sacrificing it in order to obtain or at least seek after some other good. 

Similarly, this person ought also to possess fortitude or courage, since this is going to be required in order to stand firm against the temptations which will inevitably arise and assail the person.  Other goods are beguiling, even when one knows intellectually that they are not worth abandoning one's good will.  Augustine's conception of fortitude is understandably very Platonic, involving not only emotional and action components, but also an intellectual appreciation of the real values, threats, and dangers residing in things, in situations, even within oneself and one's own weak points.  This takes the form -- an unlikely one from certain perspectives -- of "despising" lesser goods, "not griev[ing] at their loss," being "resigned to the lack of those things of which it is not in our power to gain possession".

Temperance, or moderation in terms of bodily appetites and pleasures is another virtuous manifestation of the good will -- and this makes perfect sense, given that from Augustine's perspective, all of the kinds of goods temperance orders and keeps within proper bounds are in fact lesser, limited, temporal goods.  These are the kinds of goods for which we might most feel what he calls "passion" or "desire," to which we might in various ways become emotionally attached, even habitually addicted.  Characteristically, Augustine muses:
What is so opposed to a good will as passion? Hence you can understand that the man who loves his good will resists his passions by every means, and fights against them. 
 A good will also consolidates itself into the virtue of Justice, the disposition to accord to each what is due them, what they deserve.  In the Augustinian view of matters -- a view echoed by later thinkers like Anselm and Aquinas, justice as a virtue will necessarily entail a will to set things right, to order goods correctly, to give to each of them their proper place -- not simply giving each person their due.

In order to possess these virtues completely, for them to be entirely established within a person's soul,  one not only has to have a good will, choosing the right thing when called upon to do so -- and not only has to value the good will above other, limited, lesser goods, -- but must, Evodius also suggests, love their own good will.  The development of virtue moves along affective dimensions as well as those of habit, imagination, cognition, and choice.

There is much more yet to be said about the picture Augustine sketches of the virtues in this work -- book 2 and book 3 contribute additional dimensions of depth to the reader's view.  I'll take those insights up in a follow-up post later on.

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