Second in a series of reflections on what I’m teaching.
Late in his life, Augustine wrote his Enchiridion in response to a request from someone named Laurentius. What Laurentius wanted was a handy summary of Christian teaching that he could “always keep beside” him, to have ready when questions arose. He also wanted the handbook — for that is what enchiridion means — to contain refutations of other philosophies and theologies, but Augustine tells him that that kind of thing wouldn’t fit in a handbook, but rather would require several bookshelves full of books; and in any case, if one wishes to refute falsehoods, what one needs most of all is “to have a great zeal kindled in one’s heart.”
Augustine doesn’t say this, but in his day the best-known and most influential Enchiridion was that of Epictetus — which was, to be precise, a selection from Epictetus’s writings made and organized by a disciple of his named Arrian. It’s clear (if unstated) that Augustine thinks that Epictetus got it all wrong by starting from inadequate initial principles. Epictetus says that we need to begin by learning what is within our power and what isn’t. Augustine, by contrast, says that we have to begin by understanding that “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.” Nothing is within our power; everything comes from the Lord, and returns to him. (Exitus et reditus.) To fear the Lord is to worship him, and the “graces” by which we worship him are faith, hope, and love. Therefore a proper Enchiridion must be a guide to faith, hope, and love. Q.E.D.
And of course “the greatest of these is love.” For Augustine, human flourishing is never about assessing the scope of our power and adjusting our expectations accordingly. It’s about altering the direction and force of our loves, about turning away from self-love — ceasing to be incurvatus in se, uncoiling our self-constricted mode of being — and turning outwards, towards an ever-expanding love of God and neighbor.