The Fragility of Flourishing: Augustine’s Critique of the Stoics by Brendan W. Case


Augustine and the Stoics agreed that human flourishing is fragile if it depends on any external goods, but the Stoics took this to show that virtue alone suffices for our happiness, whereas, for Augustine, it proved that true flourishing is impossible except in the kingdom of God.

J. G. Trautmann ‘The Sack of Troy/Das brennende Troja’/Wikimedia

Philosophers and theologians are wont to pose large, apparently intemperate questions: Why is there anything at all? What is goodness as such? In this short essay, I take up such another, no-less overwhelming question: is true human flourishing possible in this life? I address it by considering St. Augustine’s (350–430 AD) criticism of the ancient Stoics in his classic work, On the City of God. Interestingly, Augustine and the Stoics agree that if our well-being depends on external goods such as physical health, meaningful work, or deep relationships, then true flourishing is effectively impossible for any of us. They respond to this fact in very different ways, however, with the Stoics denying that such external goods are actually necessary for human flourishing, and Augustine denying that full flourishing is possible, even for a perfect human such as Jesus, this side of the resurrection.

City of God, Augustine’s “great and arduous work”, was initially prompted by the charge that Christianity was the indirect cause of the sack of Rome in 410 by “barbarian” invaders from the North. This was the first time in Rome’s then 800-year history that an invading army had breached the walls, and some pagans claimed that this disaster had befallen Rome because, just twenty years prior, the Emperor Theodosius had banned the worship of the old gods and named Christianity the state religion. The work is complex, but one important thread running through it is a dispute over whether genuine flourishing is even in principle possible in this life. Augustine’s view, to put it baldly, is that calamity and misery are par for the course in the present state of things, which he calls “this vale of tears”. Only in the “city of God,” or the kingdom of heaven, is true happiness possible. He develops this rather grim thesis particularly by way of a fierce polemic against the Stoics.

The Stoics were distinctive among the West classic philosophical schools for their insistence that virtue (in broad terms, being a good person) is sufficient for happiness, which they identified as a condition of being free from all negative emotions. I’ll particularly focus here on the thought of the Seneca the Younger, who was a Roman Senator, grandson of Marcus Antony, and tutor to the Emperor Nero. Seneca lived from 4 BC to 65 AD, when he died by suicide, rather than be executed by an increasingly deranged Nero.

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez “The suicide of Seneca”/Wikimedia

For both the Stoics and Augustine true human flourishing, at least in our present state, is impossible if it depends on any external goods — this is where they agree. Let’s consider the familiar view (defended in the ancient world by Aristotelians, among others) that human flourishing requires, not only a good character, but also close social relationships, good health, meaningful work, and financial stability. The problem with this enlarged basket of goods, as Seneca and Augustine alike will be quick to point out, is that all of them, with the possible exception of character, are vulnerable to loss. A person who makes any external good essential to his well-being has given hostages to fortune, and this will be evident, not only when he loses some or all of them, but even ahead of time, in the fear and anxiety that will beset him when he thinks about the possibility of their loss.

Seneca returns again and again to the fickleness of worldly goods, as in a letter written to console a friend on the death of his brother:

Whole kingdoms together with their kings, whole nations with all their component tribes, have all submitted to their doom. All men, nay, all things look forward to an end of their days: yet all do not come to the same end: one man loses his life in the midst of his career, another at the very beginning of it, another seems hardly able to free himself from it when worn out with extreme old age, and eager to be released: we are all going to the same place, but we all go thither at different times.

Our impending doom is so evident, he writes elsewhere, that “no man loses anything by the frowns of Fortune, unless he has been deceived by her smiles.”

Augustine was at least as pessimistic as Seneca about the fragility of the human condition: social life, he writes, is a tissue of “slights, suspicions, quarrels, war, all of which are undoubted evils; while, on the other hand, peace is a doubtful good, because we do not know the heart of our friend”. And even a true friend, Augustine goes on to note, is apt to betray us by dying: “He who will have none of this sadness must, if possible, have no friendly intercourse”.

Seneca and Augustine agree about the way in which external goods threaten the happiness of anyone who relies on them. They fundamentally diverge, however, in their assessment of how we ought to respond to that fragility. The Stoic view is that virtue suffices for happiness; nothing we can lose is actually essential to a flourishing life. In his short work, On Providence, written shortly before his own forced suicide, Seneca raises the classic question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” His answer, counter-intuitive though it may seem, is that they don’t: “No evil can befall a good man; contraries cannot combine…I do not say that he does not feel them, but he conquers them, and on the occasion calmly and tranquilly rises superior to their attacks.”

Philippe de Champaigne “Saint Augustine” /Wikimedia

Even if he sees his father being murdered, Seneca famously wrote in his treatise On Anger, the sage won’t become angry, though he will pursue swift justice. Getting angry, for a Stoic, is like taking poison in the hope that your enemy will die. So too for grief, fear, and even compassion: negative emotions only harm their bearers and in fact hinder effective action to avert whatever evil prompts them. Augustine himself endorsed this ideal in his early works, as when he wrote,

“Those who seasonably and wisely supply all the things required for warding off these evils and distresses are called compassionate, although they may have been so wise that no painful feeling disturbed their mind in the exercise of compassion”.

A Stoic sage never loves a perishable good (even including another person) as though he might not lose them at any moment. Anything which can be lost must be held lightly; to cling to a good you can’t control would be unreasonable, would set one up for failure and despair. We have to learn to proportion our affections to the fragility of the goods they encompass. Stoics grant that health, wealth, and family are rightly thought of as “preferable” to their alternatives, but not as genuine constituents of our well-being. The truly wise person will be able to enjoy all external goods in a measured, deliberate way, without being elated by their possession, or distraught by their loss. The Stoic ideal is Socrates, who chose suicide over dishonor, and made even his deathbed an occasion for a cheerful philosophical dispute.

We’re nearly ready to transition to Augustine’s theological critique of the Stoics, but first, it’s worth noting how much Stoicism has to commend it. For one thing, it’s tremendously egalitarian: whereas Aristotle at least strongly implies that only wealthy and free Greek men can be truly happy, Stoicism makes the flourishing life available in principle to anyone, even a slave such as the famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55–135 AD). Further, Stoicism takes seriously the role of character in shaping our reactions to external events — they rightly emphasize, for instance, that a financial loss which a greedy person finds devastating is only a mild irritation to a temperate person.

Finally, Stoicism is worth taking seriously, because something like it has growing cultural caché in the West today. Stoicism itself isn’t making many converts these days, of course, but Buddhism is; Theravada Buddhism in particular has a number of striking similarities to ancient Stoicism. For instance, the “second Noble Truth” which the Buddha is reported to have grasped in his moment of enlightenment is that suffering arises from our “attachment” to or “craving” for transitory goods, while the third Noble Truth proclaims that suffering ceases only when these attachments or cravings cease. The Stoic and Buddhist programs for attenuating those attachments are somewhat different, but their fundamental normative frameworks have a great deal in common.

Let’s summarize our progress so far: faced with the view that human flourishing requires some combination of a good character plus some external goods, the Stoics object that this renders flourishing so fragile as to be unattainable beyond a few fleeting moments in a person’s life. If happiness is a real possibility, it can’t depend on anything we don’t control, which means it can’t depend on anything except our own character or virtue. In City of God, Augustine responds to the Stoics by, as philosophers say, denying the consequent — because happiness does depend on a wide range of external goods, in addition to virtue, true happiness is impossible in this life.

I noted earlier that the Stoic ideal was the dispassionate Socrates; when Augustine received baptism in 387 AD, he was given a new set of ideals against whom to measure human excellence, including St. Paul and above all, Jesus, the God-man. As Augustine points out in City of God, neither of these two modelled Stoic reserve: the Apostle Paul, after all, exhorts his converts to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), and said of himself, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” over the failure of his fellow Jews to receive Jesus as the Messiah (Rom. 9:2).

And as he’s depicted in the Gospels, Christ too is hardly impassive. He grows angry at the cruelty of the Pharisees in Mark 3:5, and weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus in John 11:35. “Truly,” Augustine wrote, “Jesus accepted these emotions into his human mind for the sake of his own assured purpose, and when he so willed”. It seems clear to Augustine that Jesus and Paul regarded anger or grief as appropriate responses to evils which befall those they loved.

At least in City of God, Augustine extends the appropriate range of anger or grief beyond spiritual evils, to encompass temporal evils as well. His discussion of friendship is particularly poignant:

Augustine, “De ciuitate Dei contra paganos/The City of God — opening page”

We are not only anxious lest [our friends] suffer from famine, war, disease, captivity, or the inconceivable horrors of slavery, but we are also affected with the much more painful dread that their friendship may be changed into perfidy, malice, and injustice. And when these contingencies actually occur…who but the man who has experienced it can tell with what pangs the heart is torn?

We are most fearful, Augustine thinks, for our friends’ souls, but also inevitably fearful for their temporal well-being, such that our hearts are “torn” with sadness at their losses. The temporal evils that befall both us and others really do diminish our happiness, and so properly excite our grief — that is simply what it means to live in this vale of tears, Augustine insists, and anyone who claims to live without such grief is either lying or deeply self-deceived.

Augustine now recognizes that love for neighbor in a fallen world necessarily entails countenancing such painful interruptions of one’s inner tranquility; a love in revolt against the suffering of a beloved that does not inflame the passions of the lover is, he has concluded, not love, but at best mere ersatz, love’s pale copy. This is why Augustine came to view the Stoic hope of building a wall between the rational soul and the passions as actually a form of self-mutilation, a freedom from pain purchased “at the price of brutality in the soul, of stupor in the body”.

Augustine’s changing attitude toward the role of external goods in our happiness also prompted him to reassess the role of negative emotion in human action. As we saw above, the early Augustine, like Seneca, sought to disjoin the act of showing mercy from the emotional disturbance of compassion. By City of God, however, Augustine has come to see that compassion, when it “is shown without violating right, as when the poor are relieved, or the penitent forgiven,” in fact “is obedient to reason”. Rather than destabilizing forces that disrupt the careful balance of the sage’s virtue, the passions, for Augustine, are at least open to being incorporated with the motives and judgments that move the saint to love the Lord and her neighbor with all of her being.

As Augustine reconsidered the reasonableness of the passions, he was also reflecting more deeply on the fragility of virtue itself, and this perhaps constitutes his most important challenge to the Stoic claim that virtue is sufficient for flourishing. In the first place, he notes, virtue is not in fact independent of bodily goods, since the exercise of virtue depends on the intellect, and “where are reason and intellect when disease makes a man delirious?”

And even if we do manage to cultivate the virtues, he continues, “what is [virtue’s’ occupation save to wage perpetual war with vices — not those that are outside of us, but within; not other men’s, but our own?”. We need the virtue of courage only because we are assailed by evils from without, and the virtue of temperance only because we are assailed by evils from within. “Far be it from us,” Augustine insists, “to fancy that while we are still engaged in this internal war, we have already found the happiness which we seek to reach by victory” (ibid.). Paradoxically, our very possession of virtues such as temperance and courage is a sign that much in our lives is not well, that we live to a great degree behind enemy lines.

Augustine’s view, in short, is that full flourishing is simply not attainable in this life. Even the sinless Jesus was born to be a “man of sorrows,” as Isaiah 53 puts it, and Christians at least understand themselves as called to follow “in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). In this vale of tears, loss lurks around every corner, and death finally comes for us all. We respond well to this situation by equipping ourselves with the virtues that help us withstand the slings and arrows of fortune, yes, but also by lamenting the losses which cannot but diminish our flourishing.

To this point, Augustine might seem like a nihilist or at least a hopeless prophet of doom. But, perhaps paradoxically, Augustine was freed to give an unvarnished depiction of the evils of this life precisely because he could compare it to biblical promises of flourishing which seemed no less outrageous to the ancients than they do today: his hope was not only for the immortality of the soul, but for the resurrection of an imperishable body; not only for survival past death, but for the death of death itself; not only a blissful union with God, but a union as well with one’s neighbors so intimate that no language will be required to share our thoughts. Augustine denied that flourishing was possible in this life precisely because he valued such constituents of flourishing as health, friendship, and family so highly that he thought our fragile and ultimately futile possession of them here and now would always be as much an occasion for mourning as for joy.

Let me offer a few words of application by way of a conclusion. In my view, Augustine is much more right than wrong about the impossibility of true human flourishing in the present, in view of the fragility of the goods on which it depends. This does not, however, make the promotion of imperfect flourishing impossible, any more than medicine is made impossible by the fact that, as Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead. I think that we cannot even begin to reform our deformed loves and habits and institutions unless we have a clear sense of how they ought to be; the ideal exerts a constant pressure on the actual.

Augustine’s perspective ought to make us cognizant, however, of the very real limits imposed on human flourishing in all of the areas which the social sciences study: even happy families have their share of grudging compromises and disappointed hopes, and even the most virtuous among us always live with sin crouching at our door. We live in a twilit world, in which sunlight and shadow mingle freely, but our true home is in that country where there is no darkness at all.

Brendan W. Case is associate director for research at the Human Flourishing Program. Brendan is the author of The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment.



The Human Flourishing Program @ Harvard University

Founded in 2016, studies and promotes human flourishing, and develops systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines