Plotinus in the Jungle

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Augustine in the Jungle

In our blog thus far there has been much about the jungle, but not as much about Plotinus.  This post is a remedy to this imbalance, for in it I shall discuss my recent research.  Sadly, there will be no pictures in this post, because the visual record of a philosopher at work is rather boring.  Those of you who solely look at my blog for picture of Annie and mountains and bare-breasted dancers should stop reading now . . .

During the semester, I have been reading works of Augustine (in translation) whenever I could find spare time.  Now that the students have mostly left (some have remained for pastoral and anthropological training for their pastoral year), I have been taking notes on the works I read before and skimming through works that might be of interest.  I now have notes on the following works:

1. On the Happy Life (De beata vita)

2. Against the Academics

3. On Order (De Ordine)

4. Soliloquies,

5. On the Immortality of the Soul,

6. On the Magnitude of the Soul

7. On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees (with a glance at the other two Genesis works)

8. On True Religion, (De Vera Religione)]

9. 83 Questions on Diverse Subjects

10. On the Usefulness of Believing, (De utilitate credenda)

11. Faith and the Creed,

12. On the Nature of the Good (De Natura Boni)

13. On Faith in Things Unseen

14. Retractations which apply to these works (At the end of his life, Augustine reviewed and made critical comments on 93 of his works.)

15. First 12 books of the City of God

            My interest in these works is to understand Augustine’s early evaluation of Platonism and his initial understanding of the relationship between faith and reasoning.  In the later City of God, Augustine contends that the basics of Platonism agree with the fundamentals of Christianity.  In book 8 of the City of God, Plato and Christianity both teach that there is a single God that created all things out of nothing, that God is pure existence (Plato agrees that God is “I am who I am”), that the Wisdom of God is the light that illuminates the human mind (from John 1), and that salvation is found by turning from changeable material things to unchanging spiritual realities.  In later books of the City of God, Augustine also says that Plato believed that God created the world in time (a common Middle Platonic reading of the Timaeus) and that God freely created the world due to his goodness (a reading I have only found in Augustine).  Augustine does criticize Plato for holding that God creates using intermediaries, and Augustine sharply criticizes Plato’s followers for practicing the polytheism and idolatry of mainstream pagan culture.  As one often hears that Augustine became more Christian and less Platonic throughout his career, I was curious what a more Platonic Augustine would look like, given his overall positive evaluation of Plato in the City of God.  I should note that the City of God has a clear polemic intention – Augustine is implying that the Christians are truer and more consistent Platonists than the pagan Platonists who are by reason monotheists but by practice polytheists.

            The first four works listed are disappointing.  They come from when Augustine had retired to a friend’s villa in the country between his decision to become a Christian and leave his public career and his actual baptism.  The first three claim to be transcripts of Augustine’s disputations with those at his villa, including his mother and two teenagers he was tutoring.  (It has been suggested that they do not express Augustine’s own thought, but dialectical exercises and provisional conclusions for his students to mull over.)  The fourth is a dialogue Augustine has with personified reason about the soul.  These works have very limited philosophical value and show very little Neoplatonic influence, instead Stoic and Ciceronian ideas predominate.  Augustine’s responses to the Skeptics are of limited value because he does not know about Socratic wisdom and because he presents the Academics as dogmatic skeptics.  Of the four, Against the Academics was the most interesting for my work.  In it, Augustine declares his faith that Platonism and Christianity will be in harmony with each other (he clearly only knows the basics about both) and says that there is only one true philosophy for the disagreements between Plato and Aristotle are only superficial.  He also presents a history of Platonism in which the skeptical academy is explained as being a defensive move against the empiricism and materialism of the Stoicism, such that the true Platonic doctrine was hidden until a more opportune time.  Interestingly, Augustine’s account would have the reemergence of true Platonism (exemplified in Plotinus) temporally coincide with the spread of the Gospel.  He does not make the point explicitly, but Platonism would then serve as a preparation for the Gospel, due to the agreement between the two.

            On the Immortality of the Soul was the surprise gem of my reading.  Though it has little to do with Platonism, it is a snapshot of Augustine becoming a good philosopher.  The work begins with advancing a strange argument from the Soliloquies that Truth is eternal and Truth must exist something, it exists in the soul and so the soul as its subject must be eternal too, for if a subject perishes, all that inheres in it perishes too.  Since Truth cannot perish, the soul it inheres in cannot perish either.  However, the work ends by holding that the soul exists by participation in the Truth which is God who is Being.  Since the Truth will not abandon the soul it has brought into being, the soul will exist forever.  An early account is also given of the metaphysics of creation – that what depends on a cause for its existence remains dependent on that cause for its continued existence.  That the soul exists by a close participation in Truth/God and is itself neither eternal nor self-subsistent is a position Augustine holds for the rest of his life and is restated in Q 1 of the 83 Questions.

            On True Religion and On the Nature of the Good (the latter being written at the same time as the Confessions) were the most profound of these works.  On True Religion was the most relevant to my research, for the first part of it is a comparison between Platonism and Christianity.  Augustine here also describes Christianity and Plato’s teaching as being basically compatible.  Fascinatingly, he says let us assume that we have been converted to Platonism – we hold that there is one God, the Truth, by whom all things exist, and that to contemplate Him is happiness, and that he can only be reached by turning from worldly things.  How then shall we live?  How shall we worship?  How shall we spread the truth to other people?  The Platonists have failed to convert the people; in fact they have even failed to be consistent in their worship and what they hold by reason.  Christians however have a harmony of faith and reason and they are converting the nations and the uneducated to right opinion about these matters.  Would not even the Platonists themselves see the success of Christianity in areas where they failed as a sign of its divine dispensation?  Would not the Platonists of old have been Christians if they had lived today?

            In defense of Augustine, it should be noted that Plato does associate philosophy with a divine dispensation.  Socrates has a guardian spirit that prevents him from doing wrong.  The Meno at the end speaks of a divine teacher that could explain what virtue is.  Republic bk 6 says that in disordered cities it is only by divine favor that a philosopher can arise.  If Plato is sincere about these remarks, then Augustine’s claim is quite relevant.

            On the Nature of the Good is a clear summary of Augustine’s teaching on God as pure Existence, Goodness, and Truth, on all things existing by participation in Him, and on evil as a privation or corruption of good being.  He presents his positions as the verdict of reason and faith.  The pagans are not discussed, instead Augustine gives Scriptural evidence for his positions, which I myself find rather convincing.  I plan on using this work for my course next year on the philosophy of God.

            The two works on faith have some interesting remarks on the naturalness of belief.  Most of which we say we know is based on trusting the words of other people; faith that what people say is true is the basis of all human relationships, therefore it is not strange that our relationship with the divine follows a similar course.  There is also a moral element to faith, which I think is often missing in contemporary apologetics.  One must believe and purify one’s soul before it can be at all possible for one to grasp God through reason – for only the pure in heart will see God.  These works do not mention philosophy however.

            Finally the Genesis work is valuable for is affirmation of the material world as being created good and in the image of God, such that contemplating its order and beauty can lead one to knowledge of its creator.  I found the Genesis commentary to balance Augustine’s tendency in other works to say that one must turn away from the created world to one’s soul in order to find God.

            As for the question of Augustine’s waning Platonism, there is an abandonment of certain Platonic theses as Augustine matures in his faith and philosophy.  First, he rejects the notion that all learning is remembering what the soul forget upon embodiment in favor of the view that the mind exists by a participation in divine Truth, a participation it is seldom aware of.  Knowledge does indeed start with sensation, but it is through this connection with the Truth that we can discern and reason out the truth from our experiences.  Thus Augustine abandons Platonic recollection for something more like Plotinus’ illumination theory.  Second, Augustine eventually decides that complete happiness cannot be found in this life for the vision of God that we attain here is imperfect.  Full happiness must wait until the resurrection of the dead, when the body and soul will work in complete happiness.  Third, Augustine sees the Christian philosopher’s task as correcting the errors present in pagan philosophy – there is not a simple agreement – though it is hard to find a list of these errors in Augustine’s writings and in the City of God, the errors are attributed more to Plato’s later followers (Apuleius and Porphyry) rather than Plato himself.  Fourth, the created world, bodily, and the senses are given a higher value in the older Augustine.  For instance, in his Retractations, Augustine rejects the suggestion he made in On Genesis that biological procreation only began after the Fall and was not part of the original human nature.

            Yet, what is more striking is Augustine’s basic consistency in holding that Platonism and Christianity are fundamentally compatible and that Christianity, due to its ability to reach uneducated people and its consistency in faith and reason is superior to and the fulfillment of true philosophy.  While the simple harmony thesis of Against Academics is dropped, On True Religion and the City of God and the Confessions all present Platonism in the same positive light.  For example, that Plato’s theory of the Forms corresponds to the Christ belief in the Ideas of God by which the world is created is expressed in the early 83 Questions (Question 46) and then is affirmed in the Retractations commentary on De Ordine.  Therefore, when Augustine judges that the Platonists achieved the idea of creation in the City of God, he is not simply making a rhetorical or polemical point, but is expressing one of his earliest and deepest convictions.  Augustine does not so much move from Platonism to Christianity, rather he matures as Christian Platonism which means that he critically evaluates the achievements of Platonism while expressing Christian truth in a more philosophically nuanced manner.

            In closing, I have noticed that Augustine is not so much a Neoplatonist, if we understand Neoplatonism to mean the system developed by Plotinus, as he is his own unique synthesis of Middle Platonist and Neoplatonic ideas.  His accounts of participation, creation, and illumination involve Neoplatonic concepts, but his description of Platonism in the City of God, his explanation of the forms, his understanding of God and God’s Wisdom as analogous to the Father and the Son, and his interpretation of the Timaeus and of Divine Providence tend to align more with Middle Platonism.  Augustine seems to not know or not understand the divide that Plotinus makes between the ineffable One and the world of the Forms (Nous or divine mind), which is often seen as the hallmark of Neoplatonism.  Thus it would be fruitful to see Augustine as following a Middle Platonic tradition that casts Plato’s Good and Demiurge as a creator God, a tradition began perhaps by the pagans Plutarch and Atticus and later championed by the Christians John Philoponus and Aeneas against the Neoplatonists, especially Proclus.  Perhaps the polemics between the Christians and the last of the pagan philosophers is actually a family squabble between the children of Plato!

P.S. I am presenting a paper on Augustine’s evaluation of Platonism at a conference in New Zealand at the end of January, so writing these thoughts down is a helpful preparation.



  1. Phill says:

    If you’re looking for more of Augustine’s thoughts about the goodness of the world as created in the image of God, try his anti-Pelagian works, especially those on marriage, as well as De Ordine. Additionally, you might want to reserve judgment on Augustine and the Platonists until you’ve finished with books 18 and 19 of City of God—he has another discourse on the relationship between Christianity and philosophy coming up, with just a bit of the good ol’ Augustinian sarcasm.


  2. Thoughts on The City of God | The Leather Library says:

    […] Augustine in the Jungle ( […]



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