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Theological Notebook--Augustine Seminar, Day 1

Here's the kickoff class notes from our first day in Michel René Barnes' doctoral seminar on Augustine.

Theo 261: Augustine
Dr Michel Barnes
January 24, 2005 Class Notes
Anthony Briggman

* I would have been rather disappointed if I had not been able to open the notes for this course with a few classic quotes. As is typical, Dr Barnes took a moment to discuss his preference for the use of surnames when in his presence. After attributing this preference to his “whimsical arbitrary use of power,” he then concluded this announcement by referring to this preference as his one idiosyncracy “outside of which I am sweetness and light!” Mr Harris quietly observed that while Dr Barnes may possess only one idiosyncracy: it is one “with many footnotes.”

* I would also like to take a moment to note that our esteemed professor failed to discuss the optional title by which his students (if they be so bold) may address him. I attribute this forgetfulness to the bottle of morphine pills that sat so conspicuously on his right-hand side, and simply hope that this oversight will be remedied shortly.

Introductory comments with regard to studying Augustine:

* The dominant way of approaching Augustine has been to analyze his work with respect to his philosophical influences. Since the early 20th century the thesis has existed that Augie really converted to neo-platonism (N-P), rather than to Christianity (espoused by Alaric). Consequently, the relationship between Augie’s faith and his (presumed) philosophy has had a significant role in determining the prima facie manner in which he has been read and understood (e.g., note Chadsworth’s repeated footnotes which point toward Plotinus: the philosopher who scholars typically have in mind when the refer to Augie’s N-P). However, the idea that Augie really converted to N-P, and not to Christianity, has been largely discredited and is no longer the majority consensus. Yet, this opinion frequently continues to shape incoming scholarship “like missing teeth.”

Augie + N-P = N-P, really

* Mr Novak inquired as to the reasoning that led to Augie been read through an N-P lens. Dr Barnes responded with a two-part answer:
1. A disparity exists between Augie’s description of particular periods in his life, and the texts that he wrote during those periods. His describes himself as possessing a more mature understanding of Christianity, than his works from those periods support.

Works from Confessions
387-392/4 whereas VII-X

don’t seem seem much more
conspicuously Christ focused

2. There was/remains a tendency to always use philosophy in theology: i.e., theology’s job is to always use/re-appropriate philosophy. In addition to this general tendency, there were specific Roman Catholic pressures to read Augie in light of Plotinus, since Aquinas is read in light of Aristotle.

* Another major way to read Augie was from a Thomist perspective (late 19th century?). According to this line of thought, Augie was the proto-Thomas, the imperfect Thomas. Moreover, Thomas developed what was imperfect in Augie. Edmund Hill’s The Trinity discusses Aquinas instead of Augie’s theology when he reached de Trinitate 6 & 7. This approach was also promulgated by Etienne Giulsant (sp?).
– This approach emphasizes his philosophical sources and how he deals with those sources (e.g., deciding between Plotinus & Prophyry).

* This multifaceted old way of scholarship has been rpresentd by the rebirth of the category of neo-Platonism. In the past N-P referred to Plotinus & Porphyry. Now, N-P means “anything really Western,” almost “idealism.” Surrounding the sketch of these ideas on the board were written the following words:

Bad (Bad, Bad, Bad)

Main discussion:

* Another way to read Augie (i.e., not through the N-P lens) is by considering other influences upon him. Given the fact that he was interested in moral psychology, who was dominant in Augie’s age? The Stoics. They have the most developed moral psychology of the time. Furthermore, there is evidence that Augie read Stoicism: contact with Cicero & Seneca (on the other hand, there is no concrete evidence that he read Plotinus).

* So, how do we look at Augie’s psychology? We should first examine what the ancients believed about moral psychology:
1. Plato
– Held to a tripartite soul or at the very least a reasonable/unreasonable division.

Tripartite Soul Reasonable/Unreasonable
1. Reason (in head) 1. Reasonable
2. Temper (liver) 2. Unreasonable
3. Passions (lower parts)

– As an example of the tripartite soul: after a battle General Leontius encounters some dead bodies while he is walking. Part of him wants to look at the torn bodies of the dead, part of him does not want to look at the bodies, and in the end he simply has his “fill” and just looks at the bodies (the looking = the Passions).
– The important thing to note is that a firm separation exists between the rational and irrational: they are different essences within the soul. With the rational essence being the “real” soul.

2. Aristotle
–His approach envisioned a more unified soul. Instead of three separate parts, he argued for three separate faculties within the soul.

3. Stoicism
– Stoic psychology has been appreciated only recently (the last 50 years). Gilbert’s work is the beginning of this movement, which also includes Brad Inwood’s book, and Martha Nussbaum’s work.
– Two important aspects of Stoic psychology:
1. The mind is transformed to better or worse (Seneca On Anger, p. 127)
* This position rejects the Platonic model in which the mind is essentially different from the passions. Instead, in this monistic psychology when the mind intends/assents to do something, it becomes either passionate or reasonable.

Mind picks Passion or Reason


* The important point to note is that this one mind can become either passionate or reasonable. The mind is not overcome by passion, as in the Platonic model (e.g., the charioteer (reason) trying to rein in his two horses (passions) in Phaedrus).
* Within the Stoic model, the problem is that when the mind becomes passionate it knows no limit. Reason is not contantly struggling against the passions as in Plato, instead the mind becomes passionate.
* The social model for the Stoic psychology is Galen’s work on Anger, in which he discusses slave owners who uncontrollably beat their slaves – highlighting the limitlessness of their passions.
* Thus, if there is an intrinsic limit to something, then it is not a passion.
2. Every living thing has a constitution which is the source of pleasure and self-consciousness (Seneca Ep. 121, On Animals).
* The following points develop from this position:
1. The importance of self-preservation. Ethics will grow out of the understanding that self-preservation = natural good. Accordingly, we must know who and what we are. Humans are rational, so we must preserve ourselves as rational being. Therefore, natural ethics focuses on preserving one’s rationality.
2. Delight in / will towards something = givenness & intention
3. The natural ability of animals provides evidence for the following theorem: what’s natural = what’s easy; what’s easy = what’s natural. Augie takes this understanding, posits that concupiscence is easy for us, therefore, it is our nature; virtue is difficult for us, therefore, it is not natural.
* Augie uses the Stoic monistic model of moral psychology from Seneca and Cicero, and not the tripartite model of Platonism.

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