Christianity and Neo-Platonism (7.9.13- 7.9.15) [i]
At this time Augustine began to “keep company with an ‘intellectual’ circle in which pagans and Christians mingled.”[ii] Lancel call this the ‘Millanese circle’ and it included both pagan and Christian dignitaries and philosophers. In the forefront was Manlius Theodorus, and Christian who wrote a history of philosophy and other treaties and was a fervent disciple of Plotinus.[iii]
Around this time Augustine notes that “a certain man grossly swollen with pride” provided him with “some books by the Platonists, translated from the Greek into Latin” (7.9.13).[iv]
Reading Plotinus helped Augustine to abandon his overly literal interpretation of divine substance. Plotinus talks about three first principles [Greek: archai] or hypostases, One (or the Good), Intellect, and Soul.[v] Bussanich notes that, “the One is the source [arche] of all beings and, as the Good, the goal [telos] of all aspirations”[vi] Plotinus believes that the nature of the One is ineffable, and that efforts to define it are doomed to fail as inadequate. At the same time it is possible to speak about it and examine its universal role in reality.[vii] Having become saturated in Neo-platonic thinking, Augustine is willing to see spiritual reality through figurative or metaphorical language rather than a crude literalism. This enabled him to see the close parallels between the philosophical presuppositions of Neo-Platonism and Christianity. Does Augustine simply accept Neo-Platonism and then project certain Christian doctrines on to it as if Plotinus believed them? There is sufficient evidence in Confessions to suggest that Augustine is well aware of the distinctions between the two systems and that ultimately he presents a contrast between the two systems.
In the next section he highlights some of the most distinctively Christian aspects. Vaught notes, “The Neo-Platonists know that the Word is the offspring of God, but they do not understand that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[viii] Augustine emphasizes that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (7.9.14). He also quotes from Philippians 2 noting that although Christ was “equal to God” he “emptied himself taking the form of a servant” (7.9.14). This incarnational perspective is unique to Christianity and may even contrast the ‘pride’ of the Neo-Platonists with the ‘humility’ of Christianity. The humility of God allows one to participate in true Wisdom. The truths of the Neo-Platonists are compared to the ‘gold’ the Israelites plundered from the Egyptians during the Exodus.
Neo-Platonic Mysticism (7.10.16-7.17.23)
Following the advice of Neo-Platonism Augustine attempts to attain a mystical experience. Plotinus suggested that “our awareness (sunesis) of that One is not by way of reasoned knowledge (episteme) or of intellectual perception (noesis), as with other intelligible things, but by way of a presence (parousia) superior to knowledge (Enneads VI.9.4.1-3).”[ix] Augustine attempts to purify himself and enter in to a mystical vision of God. He describes a series of visual metaphors involving light, yet this light is the presence of God. God is real but far away and his intense rays beat back his feeble gaze. The experience shifts back to an auditory experience where he hears a word in his heart. The experience was so intense there could be not possibility of doubt about its truth or reality (7.10.16).
Although this does not immediately lead to his conversion, it does give him new light on the problem of evil. Augustine argues that “things prone to destruction are good” and that “all things which suffer some harm are being deprived of some good” (7.12.18). This leads to the conclusion that everything that exists is good, and that evil cannot be a substance or being at all. All created things are good is so far as they exist, yet they can be subject to corruption. Most finite beings are not just subject to corruption but have turned away from God and become corrupt. God is the only being not subject to corruption. A thing which lacked all goodness would not exist. But evil is not only a privation of the good, but a perversity of the will twisted away from God (7.16.22).
Augustine describes another attempt to mystically ascend into God presence. He is draw towards God’s beauty but dragged away by his carnal habits (7.17.23). He attains a “tremulous glance” of That Which Is, but then is forced back through weakness. Yet he is comforted by a loving memory.
Christ as Mediator (7.18.24-7.21.27)
Finally he comes to realize his need for Christ as a mediator (7.18.24). Even so, in his pride he was not yet willing to embrace the full meaning of the incarnation. He notes that he regarded Christ “as not more than a man” (7.19.25). Christ was merely a good example of distain for earthly goods and a teacher of incomparable authority. Christ was to be preferred because of “the outstanding excellence of his human nature and his perfect participation in wisdom” (7.19.25).
At this stage Augustine began to read the writings of the Apostle Paul. Earlier he had rejected these writings as contradictory, but now he was able to see their truth. He is particular struck by the contrast in Romans 7:22-23 between the inner desire to delight in God’s law and the other law in the bodily members “which strives against the law approved by his mind” (7.21.27).
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)
[i] John Bussanich, “Plotinus's metaphysics of the One” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996) p. 38-65.
[ii]Lancel, St. Augustine, p. 82.
[iv] Most likely the Latin translation of Marius Victorius.
[v] Bussanich, p. 38.
[viii] Vaught, Encounters, p. 40.
[ix] As quoted in Bussanich, p. 41.