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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 3

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 3.—Which of the Three Leading Opinions Regarding the Chief Good Should Be Preferred, According to Varro, Who Follows Antiochus and the Old Academy.

Which of these three is true and to be adopted he attempts to show in the following manner.  As it is the supreme good, not of a tree, or of a beast, or of a god, but of man that philosophy is in quest of, he thinks that, first of all, we must define man.  He is of opinion that there are two parts in human nature, body and soul, and makes no doubt that of these two the soul is the better and by far the more worthy part.  But whether the soul alone is the man, so that the body holds the same relation to it as a horse to the horseman, this he thinks has to be ascertained.  The horseman is not a horse and a man, but only a man, yet he is called a horseman, because he is in some relation to the horse.  Again, is the body alone the man, having a relation to the soul such as the cup has to the drink?  For it is not the cup and the drink it contains which are called the cup, but the cup alone; yet it is so called because it is made to hold the drink.  Or, lastly, is it neither the soul alone nor the body alone, but both together, which are man, the body and the soul being each a part, but the whole man being both together, as we call two horses yoked together a pair, of which pair the near and the off horse is each a part, but we do not call either of them, no matter how connected with the other, a pair, but only both together?  Of these three alternatives, then, Varro chooses the third, that man is neither the body alone, nor the soul alone, but both together.  And therefore the highest good, in which lies the happiness of man, is composed of goods of both kinds, both bodily and spiritual.  And consequently he thinks that the primary objects of nature are to be sought for their own sake, and that virtue, which is the art of living, and can be communicated by instruction, is the most excellent of spiritual goods.  This virtue, then, or art of regulating life, when it has received these primary objects of nature which existed independently of it, and prior to any instruction, seeks them all, and itself also, for its own sake; and it uses them, as it also uses itself, that from them all it may derive profit and enjoyment, greater or less, according as they are themselves greater or less; and while it takes pleasure in all of them, it despises the less that it may obtain or retain the greater when occasion demands.  Now, of all goods, spiritual or bodily, there is none at all to compare with virtue.  For virtue makes a good use both of itself and of all other goods in which lies man’s happiness; and where it is absent, no matter how many good things a man has, they are not for his good, and consequently should not be called good things while they belong to one who makes them useless by using them badly.  The life of man, then, is called happy when it enjoys virtue and these other spiritual and bodily good things without which virtue is impossible.  It is called happier if it enjoys some or many other good things which are not essential to virtue; and happiest of all, if it lacks not one of the good things which pertain to the body and the soul.  For life is not the same thing as virtue, since not every life, but a wisely regulated life, is virtue; and yet, while there can be life of some kind without virtue, there cannot be virtue without life.  This I might apply to memory and reason, and such mental faculties; for these exist prior to instruction, and without them there cannot be any instruction, and consequently no virtue, since virtue is learned.  But bodily advantages, such as swiftness of foot, beauty, or strength, are not essential to virtue, neither is virtue essential to them, and yet they are good things; and, according to our philosophers, even these advantages are desired by virtue for its own sake, and are used and enjoyed by it in a becoming manner.

They say that this happy life is also social, and loves the advantages of its friends as its own, and for their sake wishes for them what it desires for itself, whether these friends live in the same family, as a wife, children, p. 401 domestics; or in the locality where one’s home is, as the citizens of the same town; or in the world at large, as the nations bound in common human brotherhood; or in the universe itself, comprehended in the heavens and the earth, as those whom they call gods, and provide as friends for the wise man, and whom we more familiarly call angels.  Moreover, they say that, regarding the supreme good and evil, there is no room for doubt, and that they therefore differ from the New Academy in this respect, and they are not concerned whether a philosopher pursues those ends which they think true in the Cynic dress and manner of life or in some other.  And, lastly, in regard to the three modes of life, the contemplative, the active, and the composite, they declare in favor of the third.  That these were the opinions and doctrines of the Old Academy, Varro asserts on the authority of Antiochus, Cicero’s master and his own, though Cicero makes him out to have been more frequently in accordance with the Stoics than with the Old Academy.  But of what importance is this to us, who ought to judge the matter on its own merits, rather than to understand accurately what different men have thought about it?

Next: Chapter 4

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