Monday, May 9, 2011

Book 7: Encounter with Neo-Platonism



In Book 7, Augustine encounters the writings of his contemporary Platonist philosophers[i], most likely the writings of Plotinus (c. 205-270).[ii] Plotinus is considered by modern scholars a Neo-Platonist, though there is some dispute about the use of this category. Plotinus was very knowledgeable about both Plato and Aristotle, but also the later developments in the Platonic philosophical tradition. He was able to produce an original synthesis of this material that was extremely faithful to the ‘spirit’ of Plato. He was a disciple of the philosopher, Ammonias Saccas. After his death, Plotinus’ disciple, Porphyry (c. 232-c.303) published Plotinus’ works as 54 treatises arranged in six Enneads (groups of nine), as well as his biography, The Life of Plotinus. According to his disciple, Porphyry, he born in Lycopolis, Egypt in A.D. 205 and became a philosopher at age 28.[iii] In 243 Plotinus attached himself to an expedition of the Emperor Gordian III to Persia in order to study to study Persian and Indian philosophy. When the Emperor was assassinated by his troops, Plotinus gave up these plans and moved to Rome in 245, remaining there until his death in 270 or 271.

The Nature of God (7.1.1-7.2.3)

As Augustine approaches the age of 30, he is to leave adolescence and enter “youth” (Iuventus).[iv] His philosophical thinking has become darkened by his insistence that the idea of substance must entail some sort of bodily existence. He imagined God as “something corporeal spread out in space, whether infused into the world or even diffused through the infinity outside it” (7.1.1). To deny this seem to him to predicate God’s non-existence. At the same time he believed that God must be imperishable, inviolable, and unchangeable (7.1.1). Looking back he sees how false this view is and how it contains many contradictions related to the presence of God in various sizes of objects.

Augustine moves on to recall an old argument of his friend Nebridius. What would happen, asked Nebridius, if God refused to fight against the powers of darkness? Would they have the power to injure God? Since God is inviolable, this is clearly not the case. He cannot suffer harm. This thought completely undermines the Manichean myths about an alleged fight between the powers of darkness and the powers of light which resulted in the entanglement of light and darkness in bodily existence (7.2.3). Augustine argues that either, God is incorruptible and, the Manichean myth is “shown up as untrue and to be rejected with loathing” (7.2.3) or God is corruptible and not really ‘god’ at all.

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] Mark J. Edwards “Neoplatonism” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 588-591. Lancel, St. Augustine, p. 82-84. Brown, Augustine, p. 79-107. Carl G. Vaught, Encounters with God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books VII-IX. (New York: SUNY Press, 2004), p. 25-66.

[ii] For these dates see “Plotinus,” and “Porphyry “ in F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd rev. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 1310, 1318.

[iii] Lloyd P. Gerson, “Introduction,” ” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996, p. 2.

[iv] See above note 1.

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