Sunday, October 27, 2013


Sarah Catherine Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xviii, 248. ISBN 9781107017948. $99.00.

Reviewed by Tobias Uhle, LMU Munich (

Version at BMCR home site


In this book Sarah Catherine Byers examines Augustine's concept of moral motivation, taking as her starting point Confessions 8.26-27, the section immediately preceding the famous "garden scene" that leads to his conversion. According to Byers, this passage has hitherto been interpreted in two ways: some scholars take Augustine's presentation of his inner struggle at face value and suggest an "external apparition" of personified vices and "Lady Continence", while others prefer to interpret the passage against the background of literary parallels to understand Augustine's use of personification of continence and incontinence.1

Byers argues that neither approach is entirely adequate to the task of providing a deep understanding of the text. Led by certain signal words in the text, she proceeds on the assumption that the conceptual framework behind the passage is essentially epistemological. Since Augustine is fundamentally influenced by (Neo-)Platonic and Stoic philosophy, Byers expects to find one – or both – of these traditions operating in the text. Her inquiry is accordingly dedicated to a precise analysis of Augustine's concept of moral motivation in terms of Stoic and Platonic epistemology and psychology. Byers own approach is, however, not entirely innovative, since Confessions, book 8 has already been interpreted as a practical demonstration of Augustine's theory of moral psychology by other philosophical readers, such as Johannes Brachtendorf (whom Byers ignores)2 and Scott MacDonald (whose article is in her bibliography).3 Nevertheless the particular strength of Byers' book is that it sets out an extended version of this pointedly philosophical approach.

After an introduction outlining the problem and the current state of research (Chapter 1: "Perception and the Language of the Mind"), Byers focuses on "Motivation" (Chapter 2), "Emotions" (Chapter 3), "Preliminary Passions" (Chapter 4), "Progress in Joy: Preliminaries to Good Emotions" (Chapter 5), "Cognitive Therapies" (Chapter 6), and "Inspiration" (Chapter 7). The book is completed by two Appendices, the first giving the text of Confessions 8.26-27 in English and Latin, the second dealing with Augustine's treatment of (free) "will" (voluntas) in some of his writings.

After demonstrating Augustine's acquaintance with Stoic epistemology and assessing his use of it in some of his 'rhetorical texts' in Chapter 1,4 Byers focuses in Chapter 2 on the nature of Augustine's concept of motivation.

She reaches the conclusion that Augustine is not only deeply influenced by the Stoic theory of hormetic (i.e. motivating) impressions but treats this Stoic heritage with greater epistemological sophistication than the other church fathers. Turning again to Confessions 8.26-27, Byers finds all of the essential features of Stoic epistemology at work there (pp. 38-39):

"Thus, in Confessions 8.26-27, the appearance, suggesting, whispering, murmuring, and quasi-speech of imperatives and other sentences is one instance of a widely used account of motivation, and this account was developed from Stoic epistemology. Augustine (the author) is describing how Augustine (the character in the story) was having successive, contradictory impressions about what kind of action would make him happy. He is interpreting himself to himself via this Stoic motivational model."

But, as Byers convincingly argues, Augustine's concept of motivation is not based solely on Stoic perception theory. By associating the apparition of continentia with mental pleasure in Confessions 8.27, Augustine ingeniously supplements the Stoic epistemology with a Platonic concept of "love" (ἔρως) as the basic source of action. This combination of Stoicism and Platonism in Augustine's theory of motivation is further expanded with some specifically Christian ideas, namely the idea that grace enables us to perform virtuous actions. Still, as Byers points out, Augustine's concept of motivation is not intrinsically Christian (p. 52):

"[R]ather, Augustine has a theory of philosophical psychology that is developed from Stoic and Platonic claims about motivation, and he also thinks that this anthropological model is coherent with the specifically Christian claim that grace is a means to the development of virtues."

In the following chapters Byers extends these findings to related questions. In Chapter 3 she examines Augustine's understanding of the nature of emotions. Again, Byers demonstrates the huge influence of Stoic teachings on Augustine's concepts, especially in that he agrees with the Stoics that emotions are caused by judgments. On the other hand, when it comes to ethics, Augustine seems to be indebted rather to (Cicero's presentation of) the Peripatetic or Antiochean than the Stoic theory of goods. According to Byers (pp. 69-73), Augustine thus agrees with the Stoics that only virtue(s) produce(s) happiness but he also states that temporal goods – his Christian wording for Aristotle's lesser goods – can make a life happier and even happiest (if only in an afterlife).

In Chapter 4 Byers demonstrates how Augustine's notion of preliminary passion is generally consistent with Stoic accounts, when he distinguishes proper passions, which are consented to within the mens, from preliminary passions, which are caused by impressions the subject has previously consented to and only affect the animus. But, as Byers points out, Augustine offers a different explanation for preliminary passions by identifying doubt as their cognitive cause. Using the technical terms of Stoic epistemology, Augustine explains doubt as a dubitative "sayable" (λεκτόν) accompanying an impression (pp. 116-117). According to Byers, this can be observed especially in the Sermones and Enarrationes in Psalmos, where Augustine uses scriptural metaphors to describe the cognitive process. However, Byers' elucidation of 'doubt' in terms of the proposition 'Either x is true or x is not true' (p. 116) seems confused. Given that 'x' represents a variable for a proposition ('P'), this axiom is simply the logical form of a disjunction which was considered universally true by the Stoics. Therefore, it cannot signify 'doubt'. On the contrary, Augustine even understands the logical form of the disjunction as an instance of certain knowledge in Contra Academicos 3.29.5

In Chapter 5 Byers identifies a gap in Stoic taxonomy: whereas there are preliminary passions (that is, preliminaries to bad emotions), preliminaries to good emotions seem to be missing. According to Byers, it is Augustine (possibly inspired directly by Philo of Alexandria) who fills this gap. She supports her claim by considering Augustine's exegesis of three scriptural narratives (the announcement of Isaac's birth to Sarah and Abraham, the announcement of a child to Zachary and Mary respectively, and Christ appearing among the apostles after his death). Byers convincingly argues that Augustine interprets these narratives along the lines of Stoic affection theory and thereby explains the cognitive state of preliminary joy that the Stoics themselves had left unexplained.

Chapter 6 addresses the question of cognitive therapies for curing emotional diseases. According to Byers, Augustine prescribes four different types of therapies modeled on pagan, and mostly Stoic, concepts: pre-rehearsal (praemeditatio) of future events, recalling (recordatio) of "historical" examples, particularly Christ himself, meditation (meditatio; cogitatio) on the Law, that is moral law, especially in the negative formulation of the Golden Rule, and, finally, referring (referre) temporal goods to their appropriate place within the metaphysical hierarchy. As in earlier chapters, Byers demonstrates here how Augustine develops his pagan, mostly Stoic and sometimes Platonic, models by subtly Christianizing them.

In Chapter 7 Byers rounds off her study by addressing certain issues related to moral motivation, such as habituation, determination, and divine aid. Here again, she brings into focus the pagan concepts Augustine builds on, since Augustine takes the idea of innate tendencies forming dispositions to false assent from the Stoics, and links it with the biblical teaching of original sin, thus ascribing the causal origin of bad habits to the original fall of Adam. According to Augustine, if someone is to overcome his bad habits, he cannot do so of his one volition but needs divine help. Consequently, Byers turns to the much discussed question of Augustine's concept of God's grace and demonstrates that, for Augustine, this divine help must be in the form of a motivating impression. It thus becomes clear how Augustine incorporates the Stoic-Platonic motivational theory into his concept of divine grace (p. 182):

"What he [sc. Augustine] means is that grace is God's action on the mind, whereby the intellect apprehends the beauty and goodness of virtue, and as a result formulates sayables, including an imperative, in the discursive reason. This is the motivating impression."

After setting out his theory, Byers shows how we should read her original passage, Confessions 8.26-27, along these lines (pp. 183-185). Finally, she contrasts Augustine's different accounts of divine grace with the early modern debate about the relation between divine prevenient grace and human free choice, known as the "De auxiliis" controversy.6

In sum, Byers offers a fine study which underlines the significant but often underestimated impact of Stoic ethics on Augustine's thought, above all on his concept of moral motivation. Notably, she does not confine herself to Augustine's more obviously "philosophical" writings but ranges widely across his oeuvre, especially the sermons and commentaries. Moreover, she always carefully considers possible objections to her argumentation and discusses them in detail. Using a well-conceived and precise terminology, showing deep insights into Hellenistic philosophy, and writing in a lucid style, Byers not only gives a satisfying interpretation of the famous passage of Confessions 8.26-27, but also highlights Augustine's creative and sophisticated advancement of the philosophical, especially Stoic and Platonic, tradition.

Unfortunately, Byers confines herself largely to English (and some French) literature, while German work is virtually absent. This includes studies which are very much in the tradition of philosophical interpretation of Augustine that Byers herself follows, such as Brachtendorf's book on the Confessions mentioned in footnote 2 and C. Horn, "Augustinus und die Entstehung des philosophischen Willensbegriffs", Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 50 (1996) 113-132. Another absentee, almost indispensable for Byers' assessment of Augustine's concept of divine grace, is V.H. Drecoll, Die Entstehung der Gnadenlehre Augustins, Tübingen 1999.

Moreover, Byers does not always sufficiently distinguish between Augustine, the empirical author, and Augustine, the literary figure or narrator of a text, thus falling into a sort of biographical trap.7 Finally, a brief summary at the end of the book would have been welcome.

These criticisms aside, Byers' well-written study makes a substantial contribution to Augustinian research and deserves a wide reception among scholars.


1.   Persius' fifth satire seems to be the closest of Augustine's alleged literary models.
2.   See J. Brachtendorf, Augustins 'Confessiones', Darmstadt 2005, 155ff. and his article "Augustinus: Die Ambivalenz der Affekte zwischen Natürlichkeit und Tyrannei", in: H. Landweer and U. Renz (eds.), Klassische Emotionstheorien. Von Platon bis Wittgenstein, Berlin; New York 2008, 143-162.
3.   See S. MacDonald, "Augustine and Platonism: The Rejection of Divided-Soul Accounts of Akrasia," in: J. Gracia and J. Yu (eds.), Uses and Abuses of the Classics. Western Interpretations of Greek Philosophy, Aldershot and Burlington 2004, 75-88. There are also several articles by Charles Brittain which sketch out the Stoic basis of Augustine's perception theory and moral psychology, e.g. "Non-Rational Perception in the Stoics and Augustine," in: D. Sedley (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy XXII, Oxford 2002, 253-308.
4.   By 'rhetorical texts' Byers understands texts about rhetoric (namely De doctrina christiana) on the one hand and the sermons (esp. the Sermones and the Enarrationes in Psalmos) as works of rhetoric on the other (p. 8). One could, however, object that she does not make clear how exactly these text are more 'rhetorical' than, for example, the Confessions.
5.   See T. Uhle, Augustin und die Dialektik, Tübingen 2012, 98-106.
6.   The so-called "De auxiliis" controversy was a theological controversy regarding divine grace between the Dominicans (primarily Domingo Báñez) and the Jesuits (primarily Luis de Molina) around the end of the sixteenth century (1582-1607).
7.   Cf. p. 153 (with reference to Conf. 9.32: "He [sc. Augustine] never advises … a cold bath as a cure for dangerous romantic passion. Little wonder: he had tried going to the baths to make himself feel better when his mother died, given that he had heard the baths remove anxiety, but found that it did nothing to alleviate his distress." See also p. 160.

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