Although Augustine was strongly influenced by Plato, the two have clearly different ideas of what constitutes human Happiness. For Plato, justice, or psychic harmony, is the dominant component of happiness and must be present in order for happiness to be possible. This psychic harmony is unsustainable without wisdom, and therefore so is happiness; this means we must study the Forms. Because the Forms are unchanging and present in everything, this study gives one the ability to inform the ruling part of one’s soul most reliably, and therefore to maintain justice most consistently within the soul. Once this harmony sustained by wisdom is established in a life, happiness will be most possible.
For Augustine in On Free Choice of the Will, happiness is the enjoyment of true and unshakable goods, or the pleasure derived from eternal things and real knowledge. Eternal things are those things which cannot be lost against one’s will. Real knowledge resides in the mind of God, and knowing Him allows one to possess and meditate on things not of this world, undying things that one cannot lose against one’s will. In order to know God, we must wholeheartedly will the Good and strive to attain four virtues which, while similar to Plato’s virtues, are much more explicitly tools for becoming happy. In this paper I will explain Plato’s view and contrast Augustine’s view with it in light of the central point of difference, Theism, from which all the other differences between the two radiate. My own opinion is that neither of them is wholly right. It seems to me that there are certain things that Plato instinctively knew about Grace even though he didn’t have faith in God. Augustine, though not lacking there, seems to rely too heavily on our own human efforts to be virtuous and happy. Perhaps a good sift through both of them is necessary.
For Plato, happiness is a consistent state of psychic harmony maintained through the virtues, which together result in reason’s rule of the soul. All decisions are then made on the basis of the wisdom the rational part of the soul has gained in contemplation of the Forms. In Plato’s Republic, justice, or psychic harmony, is the dominant component of happiness and must be present in order for happiness to be possible. This psychic harmony is not sustainable without wisdom, and therefore happiness (as a stable state) cannot be reached without it either; wisdom is necessary. Wisdom can be gained through engaging in and experiencing the highest and truest pleasures (rational ones), which involves being of a philosophic nature and studying the Forms. Because the Forms are unchanging and present in everything, this kind of study gives one the ability to inform the ruling part of one’s soul most reliably, to make better decisions about which pleasures would be the most appropriate for each part of the soul, and therefore to maintain justice most consistently within the soul. Once harmony is established in a life, happiness will be most possible in that life.
For Plato, justice is equivalent to a kind of psychic harmony, or deep peace, in which each part of the soul performs its own task well and does not meddle in the affairs of other parts or do their work (444 b, Republic). The three parts of the soul are the appetitive, the spirited, and the rational parts, having to do (respectively) with bodily pleasures and desires; anger, envy, and righteous indignation; and reason and knowledge. The psychic harmony of the just soul is beautifully described when Socrates says that “one who is just…
“… regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He… harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale- high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act” (443 d-e, Republic).
When these three parts are working together in harmony as they should, the rational part rules over both the appetitive part and the spirited part with its knowledge, or wisdom, reigning them in and keeping them in line for the good of the whole soul.
This harmony is not maintainable without wisdom, because the continued harmonious relations between the parts of the soul are made more and more possible to the extent that the rational part is informed by Wisdom. Plato’s description of how the philosophic nature manifests itself shows us that his greatest authority is the Forms:
“ the philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying” (485b), and that “it is the nature of the real lover of learning to struggle toward what is… until he grasps the being of each nature itself with the part of his soul that is fitted to grasp it.” (490b, Republic, emphasis mine).
‘What is’ and ‘what always is’ as referred to here are the Forms: things that are unchanging and present in everything. In the Republic, Plato contradicts the popular notion that pain is the absence of pleasure and pleasure the absence of pain. He maintains that there is a higher pleasure. This true pleasure comes from filling ourselves with “what is appropriate to our nature… with things that are more, [thereby enjoying] more really and truly a more true pleasure” (585e, Republic). Filling oneself with true knowledge of the Forms will reliably inform the rational part of the soul with wisdom and understanding, bringing the potential for a consistently maintained state of psychic harmony, and therefore for happiness. The more one meditates on the Forms and ‘what is’, the more just one’s soul will be since the ruling part will be making the wisest decisions about the which Pleasures are most appropriate for each part of the soul.
Basically, Plato says that psychic harmony is necessary in order to experience true pleasure and ultimately happiness. This is because only when each part of the soul minds its own business and harmonizes with the other parts is conflict going to cease so one can experience peace and pleasure. And only when the rational part of the soul is ruling do you see and act on what is best for each part of the soul and the whole, because only it chooses the rational pleasures (the truest pleasures) above mere bodily pleasures and honor and the rest. The rational part of the soul chooses to study the Forms and gain true knowledge of that which is unchanging (Wisdom) in order to make its decisions. As ruler, then, it makes the wisest judgments about the best Pleasures for each part of the soul, thereby preserving justice within the soul.
For Augustine, happiness is the enjoyment of true and unshakable goods, or the pleasure derived from eternal things and true knowledge. True knowledge here, just as with Plato’s Forms, is not earthly. However Augustine believed that this knowledge resides in the mind of God whereas Plato simply referred to true knowledge itself as his authority.
The differences begin with sources of authority. From Augustine’s central belief in God, one can see all the other differences between the two philosophers radiate. According to Augustine, God has written his eternal law upon our hearts and if we freely follow this law and live virtuous lives we will be able to know him and enjoy those eternal goods which can only be attained through communion with him.
Enter free will.
Free will is a whole new element in the happiness discussion, one which Plato doesn’t even address. Free will’s duality necessitates a moral component including judgment and law. Evil-doing is defined by Augustine and Evodius echoes him, saying that “all sins come about when someone turns away from divine things that truly persist and toward changeable and uncertain things” (p.27, OFC). But the eternal law which God has written on our hearts “demands that we purify our love by turning it away from temporal things and toward what is eternal”(p.25, OFC). Augustine makes it clear that the will was given to the human race for Good when he says that “the very fact that anyone who uses free will to sin is divinely punished shows that free will was given to enable human beings to live rightly” (p. 31, OFC). It was given to us in order that we might pursue the virtues, live the virtuous life, and through them know God and enjoy true and unshakable goods.
Temporal goods, which one can lose against one’s will, are material possessions, life, health, beauty, strength, family, friends, and honor. Eternal goods cannot be lost against one’s will. These are the mind or intellect, reason, virtue, and the good will itself. What we will constitutes a reality of vital importance to our happiness, because if our desires are for temporal things we will never be happy because they do not last and they are not good in the highest sense. We must desire eternal things and real knowledge; we must desire to know God; we must will the Good. Plainly there are two sides to the moral coin of free will according to Augustine.
Augustine’s stance on reason is similar to Plato’s in that he says it ought to rule the mind. If reason directs free will, he says, then virtue is possible. Vice is incompatible with reason’s rule. The person in whom reason rules the mind does not give in the inordinate desire and sin, but builds virtues into his life. “And surely
we do not doubt that every virtue is superior to every vice, so that the better and more sublime the virtue, the stronger and more invincible it is… Then no vicious spirit defeats a spirit armed with virtue” (p.16, OFC).
But virtues for Augustine are not so much an expression of the make-up of happiness as it is an explicit method for obtaining it. They represent constant engagement and will as opposed to criterion or content. For Plato the virtues are more of an expression of happiness’ make-up. ‘The well-ordered soul looks like this,’ he says. Plato’s setup is almost entirely one of letting go, of giving way to a pre-established order and discovering within the mind what the rules and boundaries are for that order, whereas Augustine’s setup is at core one with a solid commitment to striving and acting and willing in accord with the eternal law which God has written on our hearts.
I believe that Augustine is more on target here in a way, but that a healthy measure of each view ought to be combined into something more complicated than either is alone. I agree with Augustine about God; God exists and He is my ultimate authority. I believe that there is a resulting moral component to life and to my actions. I believe as well that we have free will, although with my feeble mind and limited experience I may not know how this is possible. But I also believe in Providence. I do not believe that where God has submitted to us in any way He is weak or in any way less than omnipotent—anyway, isn’t that a part of what Jesus lived as a message? That in submission and love lies a certain inexplicably great power? And this leads me to my objection, summed up in two words: be still. I think that Plato’s ultimate resting back on something immutable and higher has something to it. Granted, he was not driven by a religiously moral sense of responsibility to strive for virtue, he had no God to answer to. But if he did, he would have submitted to Him as surely as he submitted to the Forms and the order he conceived to be in the world. I think submission is key here, letting go and allowing God. We’re always trying to control everything; Augustine could possibly do with some settling down and letting God soothe his ruffled feathers. His system tries too hard, his ‘free will’ necessitates so much striving to become virtuous—as if there were no precedent for righteousness! As if God did not work in our lives as well as around them. I’m not saying we oughtn’t to try, just that we shouldn’t focus so much on trying.
A lot of our overcoming in life has nothing to do with our trying, just doing. Obeying. Peter didn’t need to focus on staying above the water and the waves; he had only to look at Jesus’ face. Plato may not have addressed free will, and I’m sure that was a very important articulation. Augustine did, and Augustine answered to the one true God as well. Plato’s faith in the Forms themselves was incorrect (or at least incomplete, a serious error); his laying back into the order he perceived may have been unfounded, but he seems to me to have had more of a notion of what believing in Grace really is than Augustine makes clear in On Free Choice of the Will. We are more than Overcomers, yet not of ourselves. It is not our own efforts that keep us from sinking in the stormy seas of life. It is not simply our own striving that allows us to walk on the water. It is only by concentrating on the face of our Lord that we are able to achieve these things which seem impossible.
c. Mary Kathryn Gough, university paper
(Katie Huffman (Gough, married), 11/26/02, Van Dyke, Philosophy 251)
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