chapter  II
16 Pages

Against the sceptics

The dialogue Contra Academicos Augustine’s attack on scepticism is largely confined to the Contra Academicos, his earliest surviving work, which he composed at the time of choosing between Christianity and pagan Neoplatonism. Fourteen years before, when he was an eighteen-year-old student at Carthage, Cicero’s now lost protreptic Hortensius had attracted him to the pursuit of wisdom (Conf. 3.4.7, Beata Vita 1.4). He resolved, according to the account in the Confessions: ‘To bend my mind to the holy scriptures, to see what they were like…. But they seemed to me unworthy of comparison with the dignity of Cicero’ (Conf. 3.5.9). He was probably at that time already under the influence of the Carthaginian Manichees who, while honouring Jesus and Paul, derided the inconsistencies and crudities of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament. But the positive doctrines of Mani, which correspondingly claimed the authority of reason, gradually lost their hold on Augustine (Conf. 5.6.10-5.7.13) until, some ten years later: There began to arise in me the thought that those philosophers whom they call Academics were wiser than the rest, because they held that everything ought to be doubted, and they declared that no truth can be apprehended by man’ (Conf. 5.10.19, cf. C. Acad. 3.20.43). That was in Rome in 383 or 384. There followed exposure to Neoplatonism (C. Acad. 2.2.5, Conf. 7.13.26) and, connectedly (cf. Ep. 6.1), conversion to Christianity in 386 at Milan. Shortly afterwards Augustine retired with his African friends to the country villa at Cassiciacum where the Contra Academicos was written. His conversion had had a strongly intellectual element. Confidence in reason reasserted itself, together with a new conviction, perhaps due to Ambrose (Conf. 6.4.6), that the Bible could be defended (Conf. 7.21.27). At the end of his life he wrote of the Contra Academicos: ‘My purpose was to rid my mind, with the strongest reasoning I could, of the arguments [argumenta] of those who cause many to despair of finding truth…. For these arguments were also influencing me’ (Retract. 1.1.1, cf. Ep. 1.3, Trin. 15.12.21).