- Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis by Sarah Catherine Byers
Byers’s book focuses on the Stoic background to Augustine’s account of moral motivation and moral progress, though many other background sources and topics are discussed as well. She covers relevant passages from the classical Augustinian works most familiar to [End Page 164] those who work in the history of philosophy, such as the Confessions, City of God, and On Free Choice of the Will, but her book is particularly notable for its extensive discussion of Augustine’s sermons; rarely are these cited in present-day philosophical contexts. The clear, easy familiarity she has with these texts, as well as with the many ancient, Hellenistic, and Roman sources she draws upon to contextualize Augustine’s thought, is quite impressive. Thinkers such as Cicero, Seneca, Gellius, Rufinus, Plotinus, and Chrysippus figure prominently in her discussions, and one is plunged into the incredibly rich and varied intellectual world of Augustine’s time as one reads Byers’s book. As a work of intellectual history, then, the book does much, and it does it well.
Philosophically, however, there is not as much as one would hope to find. There are definitely flashes of excellent philosophical work—for example, chapter 3 as a whole, sections of chapters 4 and 5, and the first half of appendix 2—so it is not as if Byers is incapable of doing this sort of thing. But this is not her primary focus, and if one understands that, the book is well worth reading. For the philosophicocentric, it may be better to skim through the more source-based sections (especially chapter 1) to get to the interesting philosophical discussions of moral psychology that follow.
So what exactly is Augustine’s view? In chapter 1, Byers explains that Augustine uses a Stoic theory of mental speech and perception in many writings and thus it is likely that this theory is in the background of his work in the Confessions as well. In chapter 2, she extends this hypothesis, arguing that a Stoic account of emotions and moral psychology also figures prominently in the development of Augustine’s own views. In particular, she examines what the Stoics call “hormetic impressions” and their role in motivating someone toward action, and she compares this approach to Augustine’s discussion of love as a motivator of action. In chapter 3, the focus is squarely on emotions; Byers argues that Augustine is much more Stoic in approach than has been previously recognized. Though he agrees for the most part that emotions are under our control, and should be controlled, he is more open than the Stoics are to the positive value of some emotions, at least for short periods of time (compassion, for example, is an emotion that he thinks the Stoics undervalue). Chapter 4 gets into some of the details of moral psychology, where Byers concentrates on “preliminary passions”—roughly, pre-rational emotion-like responses to things—that do not involve rational consent. Chapter 5 shows one of the ways Augustine goes beyond the Stoics, insofar as he focuses on the value of positive emotions such as joy, whereas the Stoics dwell mainly on negative emotions. Chapter 6 turns to “cognitive therapies” that are useful for training the mind to deal appropriately with emotions; Augustine adapts these (with some changes, of course) from earlier thinkers. In the final chapter, “inspiration” is the subject: since our natural lot in life is to engage in bad cognitive habits, how can we raise ourselves above this? For Augustine, unsurprisingly, God is ultimately behind our movements away from this initial state, and Byers explores different ways of understanding Augustine’s account of this sort of divine moral inspiration. At the end, she includes two brief appendices. The first is the full text of Confessions 8.11.26–27 in Latin and English, and the second is a discussion of Augustine’s account of the will in a few of his...