The Early Augustine’s Relationship to Stoic and Epicurean Therapies of Death
How do you cope with suffering and death? To answer this question was one of the central tasks of philosophy in the classical world. The ultimate aim of doing philosophy was to attain the happy life and thus to seek for remedies against fear and pain. In “O philosophy, ” Cicero exclaims, “you in your bounty have given me tranquility of life and have taken away the fear of death. ” As scholars such as Pierre Hadot, Paul Kolbet, Ryan Toppings, and Martin Claes have pointed out, the young Augustine inherited this tradition of philosophical therapy and integrated it into his newly embraced Christian faith. This paper investigates how the Christian philosopher Augustine deals with suffering and death and how he relates to two philosophical therapies that he knew or might have known, namely Stoicism and Epicureanism.
Scholarship has largely focused on the Platonic nature of Augustine’s early stance towards death. The early Augustine saw death as a good, as it released the soul from the bodily impediments to the vision of God. To the early Augustine, not the resurrection of the body, but the immortality of the soul was his primary consolation in the face of death.
What has not been done thus far is to investigate the distinctively Christian aspects of the early Augustine’s approach to death in relation to ancient philosophy. In this essay I would like to show how Augustine’s Christian replacement of Stoic and Epicurean physics with a theology of creation and redemption distinctively affects his view of how to cope with suffering and death as a Christian.
Stoic and Epicurean Approaches to Death
In order to understand the Stoic approach to death, we have to begin with Stoic physics. Characteristic of Stoic physics is its materialist understanding of the world. Everything that exists, including God and the soul, consists of matter. Nonetheless, the Stoics distinguish between an active and a passive principle in reality, a substance that forms and a substance that is formed. The active principle, called god or providence, or eternal law, consists of fire and structures the whole of reality. Everything that happens in the universe happens according to this law, and has a function within the greater whole. For this reason, one cannot say that human death or decay, or whatever happens to us against our will, is evil, or against nature.
Everything that happens, must happen, according to the deterministic movement of the universe. This deterministic view of reality is foundational for the Stoic perception of good and evil. According to the Stoa, what happens to us is indifferent (adiaphoron), and only how we relate to it is good or bad. As the human soul emanates from the rational principle of the universe, its proper movement is to move along with nature (secundum naturam uiuere). This is what virtue consists of and what makes the human person happy. We should not desire for more that nature allots to us, but rather use what we receive and accept what is taken from us.
This view results in the heroic attitude towards suffering for which the Stoics have become famous. Seneca summarizes this attitude as follows: “[Virtue knows] that every hardship that time brings comes by a law of nature, and like a good soldier she will submit to wounds… and as she dies she will love him for whose sake she falls — her commander; she will keep in mind that old injunction: ‘Follow God.'” Death, then, is nothing else than the last command of this divine commander.
Just as with all forms of suffering, we live most happily if we embrace it as it comes and refuse to be disturbed by irrational fear about it in advance. With regard to the state of man after death, Stoicism held the view (echoing Socrates’ funeral oration in the Phaedo) that death either annihilates us altogether, or, releases the soul from the limitations of this life and brings the soul into a happier state. However, this period only lasts until the time of universal conflagration, when everything, including human souls, will return to the divine fire and everything will start all over again.
The mythic idea of divine punishment after death is rejected. These notions of the afterlife render death largely indifferent. Happiness in the face of death and suffering is to be sought in joyful acceptance of life as nature grants it to us.
The Epicurean approach to suffering and death both differs from and agrees with the Stoic approach.
Contrary to the Stoic view of the universe, Epicurean physics denies that there is a rational principle that orders the universe and from which the human soul derives. Reality consists of atoms and a void which enables the atoms to move. When atoms come together in particular arrangements they form compounded bodies, such as human bodies. These bodies, however, do not have any internal stability beyond the temporal colliding of atoms. There is no (divine) intention behind the composition of the human person, nor an immortal soul that continues in existence after death.
When we die, personal identity dissolves in the flux of matter. This physics informs Epicurean ethics in the sense that the highest good is conceived in sensualist terms. There is nothing higher than material sensation. Therefore, good is that which causes pleasure and evil is what causes pain. This does not mean that Epicurus’ advocates a kind of popular hedonism that strives after immediate satisfaction of one’s bodily appetites. The highest good in Epicurean ethics rather consists in a state of mind, called ataraxia, in which one’s basic bodily needs are met and in which the desire to overcome one’s limitations as a mortal being have ceased to exist.
Epicurus believes that the most profound source of human unhappiness is man’s fear of death and his fear of the gods. These anxieties give rise to all kinds of desires to overcome this fear and thus deprive one of tranquility of mind. The Epicurean therapy aims to take away this fear of death and of the gods. According to Epicurus, the gods do exist, but they do not interfere with humans, because they enjoy a perpetual state of happiness and do not need anything from mortals. Therefore, we do not have to fear their anger in this life.
With regard to death, Epicurus’ answer is simple: there is no consciousness after death. Or, as Lucretius, the Latin poet who summarized Epicurus’ thought in his poem De rerum natura, put it: “Therefore death to us is nothing, nor concerns us in the least. Since nature of mind is mortal evermore. ” When we are dead, it is as if we never existed. Therefore, we cannot experience death as an evil. As the popular version of Epicureanism goes, engraved on many Roman tombstones: “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care. ” In this way, Epicureanism tries to heal the fear of death. Death itself cannot be an evil, because there is no subject that experiences it as such.
Augustine’s Christian Neoplatonism and the Fear of Death
As has been argued by scholars such as Colish, O’Daly, Napier, Simpson and Van Dusen, Augustine’s early writings testify that he was well acquainted with Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. In Contra Academicos, Augustine describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as someone who believed that the soul is mortal; that nothing exists beyond the sensible world and that nothing happens in this world accept through a body. Zeno’s concept of God was therefore materialist and immanentist.
God is identical with one of the four elements, namely fire. Augustine’s knowledge and use of Stoic ethics is reflected in his depiction of the Sage in De beata uita 25, to whom nothing happens against his will, because he has freed himself from dependence upon fortune.
Augustine’s early works also testify to his familiarity with Epicurean thought. In De magistro Augustine mentions the Epicurean belief in the mortality of the soul. In De utilitate credendi he refers to Lucretius’ description of the human soul: “… Lucretius writes that the soul consists of atoms and that after death it dissolves into these same atoms and perishes.” He also goes beyond the popular description of Epicureanism as mere satisfaction of bodily appetites by noting that Epicurus indeed acknowledged certain virtues, such as continence, although they are praised by him in the context of a hedonistic morality.
Further, Augustine mentions Epicurean belief in the multiplicity of worlds, resulting from their belief that the universe is endless and therefore likely to contain more worlds like ours. How does Augustine’s approach to death relate to Stoic and Epicurean therapies? Augustine’s critique of both Stoicism and Epicureanism primarily targets their materialism. In several passages he rejects the philosophies of this world, referring to Col. 2:8 where Paul says that we should not be deceived by the philosophies and the elements of this world.
What characterizes these philosophies is that they seek ultimate truth in the world of sense, “so that the soul thinks that nothing exists but what is material. ” Augustine also critiques the idea that the soul is of the same substance as God. This critique is primarily directed against the Manichean understanding of the soul, but by implication it also applies to Stoicism (and to Neoplatonism as well), which, just like Manichaeism, advocated the soul’s derivation from the divine fire and its material nature.
The common element in Augustine’s critiques of these philosophies is that they all commit idolatry with creation. They cut creation off from its ontological dependence upon God its creator and make it into a kind of autonomous entity, enclosed into itself.
In this view of reality, death and suffering simply belong to the makeup of the universe. They are necessary facts of human life that have always existed and will always exist. In contrast to these philosophies, Augustine comes to perceive death from the perspective of a theology of creation and fall. It must be conceded that this notion is not present from the beginning, but increasingly becomes so from De quantitate animae onward.
Augustine comes to regard the human creature, both soul and body, as having been created from nothing by God and as being utterly dependent upon God for the preservation of his spiritual and bodily life. Man would only stand out from nothingness as long as he would continue to take delight in God, the highest form of existence (summa essentia). In this way, soul and body would have remained the best in their kind, the soul receiving its life from God and the body from the soul.
In other words, peace with God warranted the peace between body and soul. Decay and corporeal death, then, resulted from the soul’s rebellion against God. The soul started to take delight in the life of the body and neglected its own life (God). Thus, it tended more towards nothingness and dragged the body with itself in its fall.
The consequence of this ‘bow’ of the soul to nothingness, resulted in corporeal death and the pain that accompanies it. Augustine writes in De vera religione, “[The soul having disobeyed God’s command] then he is dragged off to punishment, because by loving low things he is assigned his place among the lowest, lacking all his pleasures, enduring all his pains. What, after all, is the pain of the body but the sudden perishing of health and salvation in that very thing which the soul has rendered liable to perish by loving it badly? And what is the pain of the spirit but the lack of those changeable things it used to enjoy or had hoped it would be able to enjoy? And this is the sum total of what we call evil, namely sin and the punishment of sin.”
From the context, it is clear that Augustine applies this general principle to Adam in the Garden, as he refers to Adam’s disobedience to God’s prohibition to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If the soul in its movement towards nothingness is not turned around, it will end up in “outer darkness,” where the soul, reunited to its former body, seeks for satisfaction of its desires, but will suffer endless torment, because there is no remembrance of God there.
Augustine says that also the ungodly will be raised, but not transformed as will the godly (1 Cor. 15:51). They will rather suffer second death in their bodies. This point is much more elaborated by Augustine in ciu, where he says that even the damned will receive imperishable bodies, but not in order to enjoy beatitude, but in order to eternally suffer in those bodies. However, if the soul is reunited to the Creator, the decline of being in body and soul will be undone. Man will be restored and perfected in both body and soul.
This ontology is foundational for how Augustine comes to cope with suffering and death in the first five years following his conversion to Christianity. Because Augustine comes to believe in God’s providential care for both body and soul, he cannot accept the Epicurean way of dealing with death, according to which the pain of death cannot be experienced. On the contrary, in Augustine’s view, the man will be judged according to his merits after this life, which makes it very reasonable to fear death. His belief in God’s justice and the immortality of the soul prevent Augustine from accepting the Epicurean account of the happy life, which exists in the experience of ataraxia in this life.
As Augustine has it in the Confessions: “In disputing with my friends, Alypius and Nebridius, concerning the nature of good and evil, I held that Epicurus had, in my judgment, won the palm, had I not believed that after death there remained a life for the soul, and places of recompense, which Epicurus would not believe.”
In Augustine’s eyes, then, the Epicurean solution to the fear of death cannot be his, because there is a reality of judgment to be feared after death.
Nor could Augustine be happy with the Stoic therapy against death and suffering, because it adopts virtue as the highest good, and as the power through which the fear of death can be overcome.
Augustine distinguishes himself from Stoicism in his early works by stating that not virtue, but God is the highest good. Happiness consists in possessing God, and virtue is the way towards that goal. Stoic virtue might result in a carefree death, but does not solve the true problem, namely the broken relationship of the soul with God, the highest good.
Augustine’s ultimate problem with philosophical therapies of death is that they do not provide a real solution to the problem of death. They, as it were, help one to soften one’s experience of death, but they do not solve the fundamental problem of which corporeal death is only a symptom, namely the broken relationship with the Creator. This is what the God of Christianity does.
In De vera religione he clearly argues that the triune God who gave being and form to us, through Son and Spirit, also recreates those who have fallen away from him. For example, he writes: “Through his [that is Christ’s] gift, which is given to the soul, that is holy Spirit, not only the soul to which it is given will become sound, peaceful and holy, but even the body itself will be vivified and will be most beautiful in its own nature.” This is the Spirit, Augustine says, through whom non-being will be consumed by being, so that death will be no more.
The Spirit then helps a Christian to cope with suffering and death, not by helping him to adjust to the limitations of life, but to inspire him with hope of the future life. “In all these laborious tasks (of coping with suffering), Augustine says in De vera religione 92, “the Christian is not dashed into pieces (frangitur), because he has the certain expectation of future rest.”
This expectation comes from the holy Spirit who has poured out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). Through this love the Christian “is not seriously upset by the death of anybody, because one who loves God with his whole being knows that he himself does not lose what God does not lose, and God is the Lord of both the living and dead.” It must be conceded that Augustine’s early understanding of the future life is not as incarnational as it will be, when his thought further develops.
Although Augustine firmly states the resurrection of the body in its own nature and beauty, he emphasizes the direct vision of God through the soul, apart from the body. In other words, the bodily senses do not seem to have a function in the vision of God. This will change in De civitate dei where Augustine emphasizes that we will behold God’s glory exactly by seeing glorified creation.
But from his early thought the major difference with the classical way of dealing with death is already crystal clear: A Christian overcomes the fear of death because he is reconciled to a God who has the power to overcome death itself.
Dr. Bart van Egmond studied theology at Kampen Theological University and Free University Amersterdam. He completed his doctoral studies at Kampen Theological University and the Catholic University of Leuven in 2015.
Currently, he is minister of a Reformed Church in Capelle aan den IJssel (the Netherlands) and an independent scholar. In 2018, he published Augustine’s Early Thought on the Redemptive Function of Divine Judgement with Oxford University Press.
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