Sense and Nonsense: An Augustinian Sentence

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Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit. This sentence is found in Book 19, Chapter 1 of Augustine’s City of God. I was first consciously alerted to it because it is cited, in both Latin and English, on the first page of E. F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. In English, it reads, “For man, there is no cause for philosophizing except (in order) that he be happy.” It is one of those absolutely riveting sentences that we frequently find in Augustine or Aquinas whose full depth we can only speculate about.

I cited this sentence from memory to a friend. She replied, laughing, “You mean if I am happy, I am a philosopher?” No doubt it is probable, the correlation between laughter and philosophy, between happiness and both. The sentence is taken from the famous chapter in which Augustine examines all the philosophic pagans, under the guidance of Marcus Varro, a man Augustine appreciated. Some 288 different philosophical answers are calculated to be possible to the question of what philosophers, by the use of their reason alone, can mean by happiness.

Augustine’s purpose is to establish that none of the 288 philosophic sects has it quite right. But their question, as asked—what is happiness?—is quite proper. We must rely on revelation to know the exact nature of the Supreme Good. Philosophers simply did not, could not, suspect that our Supreme Good, our Happiness, would be related to a divine Person made Man; though once known, there is nothing in philosophy that could not understand its feasibility, if true. It is through this Incarnation that we are to see the Father, but not in this life. This latter, however, is the arena wherein we decide how we shall stand to the ultimate realities. Augustine is no world-fleer, however much he is a realist about what goes on within it.

If we take a second look at Augustine’s sentence nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit—we see that it deals with the very experience of “philosophizing,” not just with what we philosophize about. The gods do not philosophize. The gods do not seek happiness. They do not need to. We are the beings in the universe who “long” for happiness because we know that we do not fully possess it.

 

We also know that we have enough happiness, or the beginnings of it, to seek its fullness. Were we in a totally horrid and agonizing existence, where nothing was related to anything, we would not recognize that being as such is good. We recognize, in our daily experience, the curious fact that some things simply delight us. An ordinary experience like, when hungry, eating an excellent pasta or, when thirsty, drinking a good wine or beer leaves us with the curious wonder of why it is that something outside of us can satisfy something inside of us. While we may have made the pasta or brewed the beer, we did not make the correlation between what we enjoy and that there is something to be, in fact, enjoyed. If we did not already know this correlation, we would not have bothered about making the pasta or the beer in the first place. Why is there something to be enjoyed, and why do we have powers to enjoy it? And even if we “evolved” into it, we do not wish to evolve out of it.

One of our activities is “to philosophize.” What can this mean? It seems to be something rather different from the relation of our appetites and what fulfills them. “To philosophize” suggests that we have a special power that has a proper activity. This activity is to wonder, to figure things out. Why? Evidently just because we want to know.

Augustine’s sentence, however, implies something further. He inquires why anyone would go to the trouble of “philosophizing” in the first place. If there are 288 different possibilities of what happiness means, philosophizing is a daunting task, with little likelihood of a definitive answer. So perhaps we have been given a power and a world that are “in vain,” that offer no solution to the questions as asked.

Surely, we are not beings who have been created with a purpose that has no purpose. All 288 philosophical reasons have some plausible point to them. We philosophize to be happy, to know what it is, to know what it is not. We have, as Augustine says elsewhere, “restless hearts.” We philosophize because we seek to answer a question. We philosophize lest we give a wrong answer to this question. We philosophize about happiness because we suspect that our happiness is to know the truth of things, including the truth of divine things as they are explained to us.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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