Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine

Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine

Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine

Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine


Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine turns to the vast collection of moral advice found in Augustine's letters and sermons, mining these neglected and highly illuminating texts for examples of Augustine's application of his own moral concepts. It focuses on letters and sermons in which Augustine offers concrete advice on how to interact with the various goods relevant to social and political life. A special set of goods reappears throughout the letters and sermons, namely sexual intimacy and domestic life, power and public office, and wealth and private possessions. Together, these goods form the central topics of this book. Joseph Clair highlights that the most revealing cases are those in which an individual must choose between competing goods, and cases in which an individual's role and role--specific obligations inform their decisions. Such cases uncover the nimbleness of Augustine's moral reasoning in action—an artful blend of scriptural interpretation, virtue theory, and sensitivity to the circumstances of individual lives. He reveals that Augustine's understanding of the goods constitutive of social and political life is deeply indebted to the Stoic and Peripatetic doctrine of oikeiand#333;sis, or "social appropriation". The colorful, personal, and practical details found in these writings provide a window onto Augustine's moral reasoning not available in his more theoretical treatments of the good, and the concrete cases often illustrate the human significance of properly discerning the good. Beyond providing one of the first analyses of these ethical writings, this work contributes a new sense of Augustine's ethics--both in terms of the range of questions he addresses and the manner in which he treats them.


“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In his celebrated essay on Leo Tolstoy and the philosophy of history, Isaiah Berlin employs this ancient Greek aphorism to mark a distinction between thinkers who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing idea. Augustine of Hippo falls decidedly among the latter group, with those who move around a powerful center of gravity. His allembracing idea is the good, and the moral life is about one big thing: properly ordering one’s loves toward the good. Interpreters of Augustine’s thought often construe properly ordered love as a mechanical correlation between desires and particular goods in a world-denying ascent that leaves the manifold goods constitutive of human life in the shadows. But this rendition of how Augustine treats the moral life turns out to be oversimplified and misguided when viewed through his letters and sermons. These texts bear witness to Augustine’s keen sense of the plurality of goods that may be loved and pursued in life, and the variety of ways and lifestyles valid for pursuing them. In these pages we find a horizontal complement for the ascent of the soul, the social and political dimensions of ordered love—a pool full of interconnected ripples rather than a narrow staircase.

I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, 2nd ed., ed. H. Hardy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

See ciu. 15.22: “it seems to me that a brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’”

By “sermons” I refer to the collection known as Augustine’s “Sermons” (Sermones), as well as his Expositions of the Psalms (Enarrationes in Psalmos) and Homilies on the First Epistle of John (In epistulam Iohannis ad Parthos).

My thanks to Peter Brown for this image.

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