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). 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 pleasure, most people are prone to moral weakness: excess enjoyment of pleasure and deficient exercise of self-restraint. But Aristotle writes,
There is also a type who feels less joy than he should at the things of the body and, therefore, does not abide by the dictates of reason. . . . For a morally weak person does not abide by the dictates of reason, because he feels more joy than he should in bodily things, but the man under discussion feels less joy than he should. (NE22)
Aristotle does not give a name to this type of person, so we shall call him the moral martyr. Moral martyrs abandon worldly pleasures such as friendship, food, and entertainment for the apparent benefits of self-restraint. Therefore, they are deficient in their enjoyment of worldly pleasures and excessive in their use of self-restraint.
Saint Augustine has clearly taken the path of moral martyrdom. He writes, "The eye is attracted to beautiful objects, by gold and silver and all such things. There is great pleasure, too, in feeling something agreeable to the touch, and material things have various qualities to please each of the other senses . . . . But our ambition to obtain all these things must not lead us astray" (Conf., 48). In...