Excessive of Self-restraint in Saint Augustine’s Confessions

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Excessive of Self-restraint in Saint Augustine’s Confessions

When it comes to renunciation, "no pain, no gain" is what I've slowly, reluctantly, inexorably come to believe. And when Pete opted for scholarly monkhood, I think he was just trying to outsmart his pain. . . . He'd calculated that by considering the physical world "illusory" and burying his nose in metaphysical texts he could go on doing something comfortable--while his ignorance and sufferings and hometown and troublesome family just fell away like so much excess poundage. Obviously l question his calculations: to slough off half a self in hopes of finding a whole one is not my idea of good math.

--David Duncan,The Brothers K

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine warns against the many pleasures of life. "Day after day," he observes, "without ceasing these temptations put us to the test" (245).[1] He argues that a man can become happy only by resisting worldly pleasures. But according to Aristotle, virtue and happiness depend on achieving the "moral mean" in all facets of life. If we accept Aristotle's ideal of a balanced life, we are forced to view Saint Augustine's denial of temptations from a different perspective. His avoidance of worldly pleasures is an excess of self-restraint that keeps him from the moral mean between pleasure and self-restraint. In this view, he is sacrificing balance for excess, and is no different from a drunkard who cannot moderate his desire for alcohol.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that virtue and happiness come from achieving the moral mean. The moral mean is the midpoint between deficiency and excess in any particular behavior. For example, the moral mean of recklessness and cowardice is courage. In matters of ple...

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... of sainthood requires an excess of self-restraint that makes it impossible to attain the moral mean. The saint may tell himself that the denial of worldly pleasures will bring him true happiness, but in fact he is pursuing a kind of perverse pleasure in self-restraint. Saint Augustine is looking for happiness from beyond life; but happiness, as Aristotle says, comes from achieving the moral mean in life. If we aspire to the moral mean, we must consider moral martyrdom to be like any other excess. In this view, the denial of worldly pleasures is not a virtue; rather, it is a vice that leads us away from the balance that we seek in our lives.


[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions, Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1961).

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics, Translated by Martin Oswald (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1962).

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