Thursday, January 23, 2020


Michael P. Foley, Against the Academics: St. Augustine's Cassiciacum Dialogues, Volume 1. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019. Pp. xli, 307. ISBN 9780300238556. $18.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Erik Kenyon, Rollins College (

Version at BMCR home site


Do we become happy by finding the truth (Socrates in Plato's Republic) or in the dogged pursuit of it (Socrates in Apology)? Fragments of Cicero's Hortensius suggest both options. But are we really in a position to judge? If not, how can we even find guidance when we aren't sure what end goal we're working toward? In the months between his conversion and baptism, Augustine gathered a group of family and friends at a villa outside Milan to wrestle with such questions. The "Cassiciacum Dialogues," present their conversations in literary form and mark the beginning of Augustine's extant corpus.

Foley's project of producing translations and commentaries on the complete set—Contra Academicos, De beata uita, De ordine, Soliloquia, De immortalitate animae—is the most recent stage of a new wave of scholarship on these works. 20th-century scholars, starting with Alfaric in 1918, mostly mined the dialogues for evidence for or against Confessions' more famous account of Augustine's conversion. In the last 15 years, scholars have attempted to understand the dialogues in their own right.1 But use of these works in undergraduate classrooms has been problematic, given that most lacked good English translations, commentaries or both. Foley has provided a vital and long-needed service, giving us lively, engaging and accurate translations, and commentaries that are well-grounded without being overwhelming.

Against the Academics is unique among the dialogues in that Peter King has already produced a perfectly fine translation and Blake Dutton has already written a perfectly fine philosophical commentary.2 Foley's edition goes beyond both, however, by bringing together philosophical and literary questions and by treating C. Acad. as an integral part of a larger, unified set of dialogues.3

To judge by the two volumes now in print, each part of his set includes a common preface, translation key, general introduction to the Cassiciacum dialogues, possible chronology of the Cassiciacum retreat, glossary of names and bibliography. Through this scholarly apparatus, Foley sets out to situate Augustine against his own intellectual horizons. This brings to fruition the reading Foley sets out in "Cicero, Augustine, and the Philosophical Roots of the Cassiciacum Dialogues,"4 which makes sense of the Cassiciacum set in terms of "antiphonal referents" to the dialogues of Cicero. The result is a rich and thoughtful discussion of Augustine's debt to Cicero, Plotinus and even Plato.

Foley's translation "aspires to be as literal as is reasonable" (ix) and does not try to "save readers from the disorientation that would ensue from an unmediated encounter with an alien worldview" (xi). Augustine's Latin is occasionally turgid for specific ends. We find this particularly in the dedications to C. Acad. 1 and 2. In the work's opening sentence, Augustine addresses his North-African patron, "O Romanianus, if only Virtue could take a man who is well suited to her and snatch him away from an opposing Fortune, in the same way that she keeps Fortune from snatching anyone away from her!" (1.1). This is hardly the stuff of skim-reading. But that's the point. The text trips readers up and invites them to rethink assumptions as they struggle to make sense of what lies on the page.

The main debate of book 1 presents Romanianus' teenaged son, Licentius, arguing that we may obtain happiness in perfectly seeking truth, and his companion, Trygetius, arguing that happiness is attained only in finding the truth. (Both have been reading Hortensius.) Augustine concludes the book, explaining that his intention was to exercise (exercere) the boys (1.25). Decades of scholars have taken this as an invitation to flip to book 2 for the work's 'real arguments'. Foley pushes back. On his reading, the entire dialogue is one big spiritual exercise. Our task as readers is to understand it in that light (138). This is a breath of fresh air.5 Foley's commentary sets out the reasoning behind the debate's numerous "mental curveballs" (xxxiii), such as the (chiastic) irony of Licentius who invokes Cicero as an authority to defend skepticism and Trygetius who, in attacking skepticism, throws off authority in ways that Cicero would support (125). Foley sets this against the "Roman adage facta non verba." He explains, "One cannot always divorce the arguments of one's speech from the arguments of one's deeds" (121). With this, we find a first glimpse at the work's driving concern for "self-referential coherence" (11-12).

Midway through this opening debate, Licentius reflects on their discussion as a time of "great tranquility of mind," even though they "found nothing but merely searched for the truth" (1.11). Foley is sympathetic to this self-reflective line of argument and cites Thales and Einstein as intellectuals who would become completely engrossed in their work (129-132). But his final view is that this is "dubious" (137) support for the idea that we can be happy in merely seeking truth, and he later connects it to a youthful "libido spectandi" and "curiositas" at watching people debate (158 citing Confessions). I'll admit, as Foley points out, there might be some "thumotic" jousting between the boys (123-129). But why not also accept authentic delight in the process of inquiry? C. Acad. 1 builds on the idea, common to most ancient schools, that happiness, virtue and truth are a package deal. The question is how the pieces fit together. Foley assumes there is one right answer. I see at least two. When Augustine, the character, reveals his grand design at the end, he contrasts "true" virtues with "truth-like" or "political" ones (3.37). Meanwhile, in addressing Romanianus, Augustine claims to be "purging" himself "of vain and pernicious opinions" (2.9). To my ear, C. Acad. explores grades of virtue—civic, kathartic and real/contemplative—as found in Plotinus, Enneads 1.2. This scheme echoes the human and divine wisdom of Plato's Apology (cf. 127-128 for echoes of this in Aristotle, EN). While a life of searching and purifying may not be the best one possible, it has a kind of integrity which Foley comes close to embracing but never quite does.6

The main argument of book 2 is that Academic skeptics cannot both follow the "truth-like" and claim not to know the "true" (2.16). This is another problem of self-referential coherence, for which Foley's previous discussion of facta non verba has already paved the way. Otherwise, Foley treats the debates of books 2 and 3 as a single piece, tracing Trygetius' and Licentius' attempts to pass their roles to Augustine and his lawyer friend, Alypius, and Alypius' growing suspicion that Augustine is up to more than he's letting on (164). Alypius is right to be suspicious. In the speech which concludes the work (3.15-36), Augustine lays out a conspiracy theory, suggesting that the Academics' skepticism was a facade erected to protect their views on intelligible reality from the Stoics' rampant materialism. Along the way, we get some of the most powerful anti-skeptical arguments prior to Decartes. Philosophers have analyzed these arguments at length.7 What Foley's discussion contributes is to untangle the lawyerly wrangling that leads up to this speech and to show how it sets the stage for a conspiracy theory that seems to come from "out of the blue" (202).

Writing nearly eight centuries after the death of Socrates, Augustine confronts several layers of philosophical history. The central action of book 3's speech involves sorting through these layers with an eye to the present implications for Augustine, his companions and eventual readers. The general move is to take up concepts developed by the Stoics, show how Academic skeptics used them to refute the Stoics' empiricism in ways that set the stage for Platonic intellectualism and then suggest that the skeptics were Platonists all along. The task for an interpreter is to present the technical terms of the Stoic / Academic debate accurately while also running with Augustine's fantasy of crypto-Platonist Academic skeptics.

Foley's reading of the work's overall argument is largely in line with my own,8 and I applaud him for acknowledging Augustine's positive debt to skepticism (172-173, 188-189, 200-201). But there are two fronts on which his translation and commentary strike me as potentially misleading. The first is the skeptical term 'probabile.' The term is key to Cicero's dialogues, which argue for and against various schools' views and end as characters decide which view now strikes them as probabile. The trouble is that the closest English term, 'probable,' which Foley uses, can mean either 'plausible' / 'worthy of approval,' or 'statistically likely' (xxi). But there is never a time when Cicero or Augustine uses the term to invoke statistical likelihood. While Foley corrects potential misunderstandings in his notes, a reader working from the translation alone could get the argument very wrong. Why not just use 'plausible' throughout?

My second worry is how Foley understands 'scientia' / 'knowledge' in reconstructing the dialogue's overarching argument. In the translation key, Foley claims scientia "usually refers to … the grasp of eternal realities" (xxi). It's unclear whether he means this to be a formal definition. At points in his commentary, though, he seems to use it that way. At 2.27 Licentius throws off the yoke of skepticism and claims to "know" that the tree they're sitting around "cannot turn silver right now." Foley rejects this as a knowledge claim, "[a] Since scientia is of eternal and immutable realities not intrinsically shaped by space, time or matter, and [b] since when it comes to empirical phenomena, virtually nothing can be ruled out a priori" (167). There are two different lines of argument run together here. Within the dialogues, characters have agreed to Zeno's Stoic account, according to which scientia must be objectively certain. But the Stoics were also empiricists, and the Academic skeptics delighted in arguing that, even if we do grasp the world as it is, there is always the possibility that we are dreaming, insane, etc. This is enough to render all such graspings uncertain and thus, by the Stoics' own standards, unknown. We get a condensed form of this in Foley's argument (b). Argument (a), on the other hand, simply assumes that knowledge must be non-empirical. This will hardly convince a Stoic. More importantly, it will hardly convince anyone today who is not already committed to some hefty Platonizing assumptions.

This distinction matters when we get to the end of the work. Here, Augustine lays out a litany of claims that pass Zeno's certainty criterion. They consist in exhaustive disjunctions, mathematical truths and first-person statements of one's phenomenal state (3.21-29). But Augustine does not accept these as knowledge because they fit well with Platonic intellectualism (Foley's Argument (a)). The point is that the objective certainty of these claims is obvious, yet it cannot be readily explained in empirical terms (Foley's Argument (b)). This is the discovery that undergirds Augustine's endorsement of Platonic intellectualism (3.37), not the other way around. On my reading, Foley's argument (b) is doing the real work here, while argument (a) isn't an argument at all. It's the conclusion! To be fair, I suspect Foley offers (a) speaking as an intellectual historian ("since Augustine is a Platonist, he rejects empiricism") and (b) speaking as a philosopher ("since empiricism can't explain our rational activity, Augustine rejects it"). My worry is that these perspectives aren't clearly distinguished in the commentary, which leaves open the possibility for empirically-minded readers to latch onto (a) as an argument from Platonist dogma and miss the power of (b).9

But that is simply to say: there is much in this dialogue and Foley's presentation of it for contemporary readers to take seriously. If anything, I worry that Foley might be under-selling his case! It is my hope that this new edition and the set to which it belongs will spark a new wave of teaching and scholarship of these works.


1.   Books written in English include Catherine Conybeare, Irrational Augustine (Oxford, 2006); Simon Goldhill (ed.), The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Oxford, 2008); Brian Stock, Augustine's Inner Dialogue: The Philosophical Soliloquy in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2010); Ryan Topping, Happiness and Wisdom: Augustine's Early Theology of Education (Catholic University of America, 2012).
2.   Peter King, Augustine: Against Academicians and the Teacher (Hackett, 1995). Blake Dutton, Augustine and Academic Skepticism: A Philosophical Study. (Cornell, 2016).
3.   In this, Foley builds on my own Augustine and the Dialogue (Cambridge, 2018).
4.   Revue des √Čtudes Augustiniennes 45 (1999): 51-77.
5.   In his general introduction, Foley draws from Plato, Cicero & Lonergan to frame this approach to the Cassiciacum set (xxiii-xli).
6.   My critique here is aimed mostly at Foley's commentary. The one spot where this affects the translations is 1.9 where Licentius talks of one who seeks the truth "perfecte". Foley translates this as "completely" rather than "perfectly" which obscures the connection to the next sentence, "For we are seeking a perfect man, but a man nonetheless."
7.   See Dutton's excellent analysis and review of the scholarship. German readers should also see the extensive publications of Therese Fuhrer and Karin Schlapbach, which are not cited in Foley' bibliography.
8.   See chapters 1 and 2 of my Augustine and the Dialogue.
9.   At 134-136, 140, 183 and especially 203, we find versions of (a) but not (b). At 179, Foley contrasts modern empirical science with true knowledge which must be "fully complete, eternal and immutable," but he does not mention whether it is conditioned by space, time or matter. At 243 n. 72 he tempers (a), quoting Sol. for the claim that "knowledge involves (but is not identical to) comprehension through the understanding or intellect" (cf. 194). He lays out (b) more fully at 188-189 and 200-201.

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