The late-classical skeptics (just as their Greek predecessors) had denied that the possibility that anyone could know anything certainly. Augustine, then, poses this question to the skeptics, says MacIntyre:
in his Contra Academicos he posed the question of whether it is possible to attain happiness while still only a searcher for truth rather than as one who has achieved it. (25)
Augustine believed that true happiness could not be had while still uncertain of our actual goal in life or what true happiness consisted in.
Today, many people claim to believe that “everything is relative” or that we can’t really know truth. I think Augustine’s question applies well: What does it mean to be happy if we don’t know what goodness or happiness really are? Because if we can’t know truth or anything beyond relativism, how can we really know what those two concepts really mean?
Augustine responds further that somethings can be known certainly, even if the amount of certain knowledge is limited.
“ ‘if I am deceived, I am.’ ….I am deceived neither in believing that I know nor in believing that I love. What I love may not be what I take it to be, but that I love it, whatever it is, is certain” (26).
Thus, there are always two things we can know: that we exist and that there is something outside of ourselves that our loves (or desires) are directed at.
Lastly, Augustine unsurprisingly posits that we need knowledge of God to truly be happy and know truth and this knowledge only comes through grace.
Interestingly, he notes the biggest obstacle to receiving this grace is our own capacity to distract ourselves.
“What deprives us of the knowledge of God also deprives us of self-knowledge: an indefinite capacity for distraction by external trivialities and a craving for self-justification, so that we either do not attend to what is within or, if we do, disguise from ourselves our thoughts and motives. And in areas where our sexuality exerts its power, we lose our capacity for self-examination” (28). (referenced Conf. 10.35-37)
How true is this? I can’t help but think of the internet and the myriad ways we distract ourselves nowadays from thinking about things that truly matter. And I’m sure I do it just as much as anyone else.
And without knowing God, he says, we cannot truly know ourselves.
To connect to the first post, I think distraction is a big reason we avoid philosophy and tell ourselves that it is irrelevant anyway.