And yet, we cannot conclude that our happiness lies in escaping our embodied condition, in becoming some sort of strong Stoic sage, who confuses true tranquility with insensate stupor, or those other philosophers like Cato again who conflate the end of life with ending this life/ with seeking secure and settled happiness through an escapist suicidal flight from here. For Augustine, true virtues can exist only in those in whom there is true piety and godliness, and even so, in those people, true virtue does not promise full happiness here; we can only ever at best be happy in hope.According to Augustine, then, Christians differ from pagan philosophers both in their conception of the good and in their understanding of how that good will be realized in their own lives. All the routes to happiness that the philosophers and others have scouted out are shown here to be inadequate. This world is filled with opportunities for destabilizing misery, and even any attempt to avoid that misery would simply leave us more miserable still. The world for(Page 404).
Christians is full of blessings, of course, but no matter how cannily we seek to inhabit them, none of those blessings offer secure happiness.Christians affirm the necessity and genuine good of social life, and especially the happiness of domestic family life. But society is corrupt and dangerously unstable, and family life is, as both experience and scripture teach us, just as perilous. Neither of these settings offers secure happiness. The perils of the polity are even more vivid; the necessity of judgment and the use of violence screams out the wretched corruption of the human condition in the polities of this world. The differences of language and the misery of war offer still further evidence of humanity’s corruption. Not even friendship is carefree because we fear the loss of our friends, whether to death or distance or the sheer changes of character and personality that happen over life.In short, the world as we find it gives hints of being a sort of suitable host for a flourishing life; but when scrutinized close-up, the tantalizing promise of settled joy turns out to be a taunting mirage. The world is a site wherein creatures could perchance be happy; but particular features of this specific world, and certain characteristics apparently inherent in us, at least in this dispensation, invariably subvert our plans to be happy here, and vex our hopes for joy.It is worth noting the depth of Augustine’s acquaintance with the ancient philosophical traditions here, and the radicalness of his critique and rejection of them. The first four chapters of Book 19 comprise a treatise on the nature of the good life, a classic example of a well-established philosophical genre in the ancient world— calmly and lucidly laying out the possible options for the sapiens, the wise man, to consider in the leisure of his study. But then, what Augustine does with and to this genre is unprecedented. He says the whole approach is built upon illusion, the illusion that there is some technique or trick or gimmick that we can do to acquire this happiness for ourselves—there’s a fantasy that we(Page 405).
are or can be the captains, as it were, of our own particular, individual ships. This, Augustine thinks, is the root of our error.(Page 406).