Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XIX/Chapter 2

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Chapter 2.—How Varro, by Removing All the Differences Which Do Not Form Sects, But are Merely Secondary Questions, Reaches Three Definitions of the Chief Good, of Which We Must Choose One.

The same may be said of those three kinds of life, the life of studious leisure and search after truth, the life of easy engagement in affairs, and the life in which both these are mingled.  When it is asked, which of these should be adopted, this involves no controversy about the end of good, but inquires which of these three puts a man in the best position for finding and retaining the supreme good.  For this good, as soon as a man finds it, makes him happy; but lettered leisure, or public business, or the alternation of these, do not necessarily constitute happiness.  Many, in fact, find it possible to adopt one or other of these modes of life, and yet to miss what makes a man happy.  The question, therefore, regarding the supreme good and the supreme evil, and which distinguishes sects of philosophy, is one; and these questions concerning the social life, the doubt of the Academy, the dress and food of the Cynics, the three modes of life—the active, the contemplative, and the mixed—these are different questions, into none of which the question of the chief good enters.  And therefore, as Marcus Varro multiplied the sects to the number of 288 (or whatever larger number he chose) by introducing these four differences derived from the social life, the New Academy, the Cynics, and the threefold form of life, so, by removing these differences as having no bearing on the supreme good, and as therefore not constituting what can properly be called sects, he returns to those twelve schools which concern themselves with inquiring what that good is which makes man happy, and he shows that one of these is true, the rest false.  In other words, he dismisses the distinction founded on the threefold mode of life, and so decreases the whole number by two-thirds, reducing the sects to ninety-six.  Then, putting aside the Cynic peculiarities, the number decreases by a half, to forty-eight.  Taking away next the distinction occasioned by the hesitancy of the New Academy, the number is again halved, and reduced to twenty-four.  Treating in a similar way the diversity introduced by the consideration of the social life, there are left but twelve, which this difference had doubled to twenty-four.  Regarding these twelve, no reason can be assigned why they should not be called sects.  For in them the sole inquiry is regarding the supreme good and the ultimate evil,—that is to say, regarding the supreme good, for this being found, the opposite evil is thereby found.  Now, to make these twelve sects, he multiplies by three these four things—pleasure, repose, pleasure and repose combined, and the primary objects of nature which Varro calls primigenia.  For as these four things are sometimes subordinated to virtue, so that they seem to be desired not for their own sake, but for virtue’s sake; sometimes preferred to it, so that virtue seems to be necessary not on its own account, but in order to attain these things; sometimes joined with it, so that both they and virtue are desired for their own sakes,—we must multiply the four by three, and thus we get twelve sects.  But from those four things Varro eliminates three—pleasure, repose,

pleasure and repose combined—not because he thinks these are not worthy of the place assigned them, but because they are included in the primary objects of nature.  And what need is there, at any rate, to make a threefold division out of these two ends, pleasure and repose, taking them first severally and then conjunctly, since both they, and many other things besides, are comprehended in the primary objects of nature?  Which of the three remaining sects must be chosen?  This is the question that Varro dwells upon.  For whether one of these three or some other be chosen, reason forbids that more than one be true.  This we shall afterwards see; but meanwhile let us explain as briefly and distinctly as we can how Varro makes his selection from these three, that is, from the sects which severally hold that the primary objects of nature are to be desired for virtue’s sake, that virtue is to be desired for their sake, and that virtue and these objects are to be desired each for their own sake.