Plotinus & Augustine, Part 1
A detailed study of an important, but little-known philosopher, who had a huge impact on Augustine, and through him on Western Christianity.
The Influence of Plotinus on the Writings of St. Augustine
History of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy, PH 502
March 8, 2017
If Plato and Aristotle are the most important thinkers of the ancient world, St. Augustine could be a close runner up in brilliance and importance. Far less known, however, is the vital role of Plotinus. Serving as a link between Augustine and Plato, Plotinus was to have a lasting influence on Augustine, and through him on the Christian Church, especially in the West.
This paper will bring illumination to the often overlooked intellectual contribution of Plotinus to the thoughts of Augustine. To that end, it will provide an overview of Plotinus’ thought, paying special attention to his use and modification of Plato and Aristotle. It will then turn its attention to Augustine’s appropriation of Plotinus, and the lasting mark he made on the shape of Augustinian theology.
Section One: Plotinus
Plotinus was a native of Lycopolis (or Lycon) in Egypt. At the age of 28 he became interested in philosophy and moved to Alexandria to study. After expressing dissatisfaction in several teachers, he finally found Ammonius Saccas (175 AD – 240 AD), declaring, τοῦτον ἐζήτουν, “This is the man I was looking for!” and became his pupil for eleven years. This Ammonius Saccas is identified (probably wrongly) by Eusebius as a lapsed Christian. Eusebius also records that Origen studied alongside of Plotinus: though this may not have been the Christian Origen.
In 243 AD Plotinus accompanied the emperor Gordian on an il-fated expedition to Persia in order to become acquainted with Persian and Indian philosophy. Gordian was assassinated, and Plotinus fled to Antioch, moving later moved to Rome. There he established a school in 244 AD, at the age of forty, where he taught for the rest of his life. Ten years later, he began to write. Plotinus enjoyed the favour of the emperor Gallienus and his wife – to the point of nearly being authorized to found a new city, as a “concrete realization of Plato’s Republic.” Not only a teacher, Plotinus was a philanthropist, supporting orphan children in his home. He served as a spiritual guide to the many who came to him for advice. Mild-mannered and well-spoken, Plotinus had, “many friends and no enemies.” Plotinus is recorded as having no less than four mystical experiences with God near the end of his life. Plotinus died in 270 AD at the age of 66.
Plotinus is remembered mostly through the efforts of his devoted disciple Porphyry, who wrote a Biography of Plotinus’ life, and preserved texts of Plotinus’ writings. Porphyry attempted to systematize Plotinus’ writings by recording them in a work consisting in fifty-four treatises, arranged in six groups of nine. The work – which became Plotinus’ major contribution to philosophy – became known as ‘Enneads’, from the Greek ‘εννεάς literally, ‘nines’.
Along with his teacher, Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus is usually considered the founder of “Neo-Platonism” – an intellectual movement which was to have profound impact upon both Christian and non-Christian thought.
Plotinus and Neoplatonism
Plotinus saw himself as a faithful recipient and progenitor of the teachings of Plato. However, Plotinus also showed significant proficiency in the works of Aristotle, and applied his genius to reconciling the two systems, as well as responded to questions of philosophy and religion which had developed in the half-millennium between the Aristotle and himself. After Plotinus, all of Platonism – and even a good deal of Aristotelianism – was flavoured by Plotinus’ thoughts. It is for this reason that modern historians have attached the title ‘neoplatonism’ to Plotinus’ system.
Like Plato before him, “Plotinus attempts to give a complete account of reality and a guide to spiritual life.” He rejected both Gnostic dualism and the Christian vision of redemption to present his own system. Plotinus’ contribution has been seen as a re-introduction of a religious component into Platonic philosophy. Due to difficulties in interpretation, there is some debate as to whether Plotinus’ system was pantheistic or theistic. It is probably best to interpret it as an original religious system in its own right, which transcends both categories, but could be interpreted within either, and has, in fact, proven to be influential in both theistic and pantheistic religions.
For Plotinus, the highest reality is simply ‘the One’, τὸ Ἕν. He sometimes also calls it “the Good,” “the Father,” or “The Father-Land,” but rarely God. “The One is absolutely simple, that is, it has no parts.” It exists necessarily, eternally and changelessly. The one is incapable of thought, action, or will. Similar to Parmenides’ monad, Plotinus’ One is completely perfect, and is thus both without need of movement, and incapable of it.
One might be tempted to associate the One with Plato’s highest form, ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (the Form of the Good). This would be a mistake, however. Plotinus is careful not to identify the One as a form, or to say that it has being. As this would include the One in a lower set: but “Unity must precede Reality and be its author.”
Another major distinction between Plato’s ‘Form of the Good’ and Plotinus’ One is that the One cannot be described in any way. “And this name, the One, contains really no more than the negation of plurality.… If we are led to think positively of the One, name and thing, there would be more truth in silence” (3.8.101). This leads to the question of how such an entity could create anything meaningful, how it could be meaningfully described with human language, and how it could be approached.
With evident reference to Aristotle’s distinction between active and passive potency, Plotinus uses the image of “emanation” to explain how an impassible entity could create. In this way, all reality flows or emanates out of the One, but it is not diminished, altered or in any way changed by these emanations. Indeed, it is not even aware of the emanations being completely impassable and unchangeable.
The Plotinian Triad: Mind
We can know something about the One through its offspring, being (6.9.5). The first level of being is Divine Mind, or Intelligence, “The One-and-Many,” or Greek νοῦς. Norman Geisler explains,
Of the emanations from the One, Nous is the first (5.1.4, 8) When the One emanates outward, and this emanant looks backward upon its source, there arises the simple duality of Knower and Known (6.7.37). This simple duality is Nous. Nous in turn gives rise to further emanations by bending inward upon itself.
The Mind has being, and gives rise to all other being. It is the least divided thing that has being, and thus is the highest form of being. Copleston associates the Nous as the Demiurge of Plato: the Platonic forms are located within this Divine Mind.
The Plotinian Triad: Soul
By bending in upon itself, the Nous gives birth to ψυχή or Soul (6.6.22). The Soul is even further from the One, and thus more divided and less “real.” There are two levels within Soul: (1) a higher Soul, which is in contact with Nous, and (2) a lower Soul, which is in contact with Matter, and animates it.
The Soul is the first emanation of Soul from Mind. It is united to Mind, and also animates all individual souls and Matter. It is very similar to the World Soul of Plato, in the Timaeus, in that Soul is the ‘formal cause’ of material things in both cases.
Human souls are a part of Soul, and similarly have a higher and a lower portion in them. The lower is in contact with Matter, and dragged down by it: the higher is united with Soul, and in communion with the Nous, and is lifted to unity and ascension by both.
The Plotinian Triad: Matter
Unlike in Plato, Matter is not self-sufficient for Plotinus. Rather, it is produced eternally and necessarily by The One, through the emanations of the Mind and Soul. Matter is, then, the third level of reality. As the most multiple and divided of the levels, matter is the least real. It is like a shadow, or the copy of a copy of a thing. With reference to the analogy of an image being reproduced, “The further removed something is from the Source of being, the One, the less unity and being it has (6.9.1).” It is, in fact, “one step away from complete nonexistence,” and Plotinus sometimes describes matter as “non-being.” “as the privation of light,” explains Copleston, “he also adopted the Aristotelian conception of matter as the substrate of form, as an integral component of material objects.”
Despite this apparently negative view towards matter, Plotinus had a high view of the natural world. Over against the radical dualism of Gnosticism, Plotinus elevated Creation as the beautiful workmanship of Nous and Soul. It is by contemplating this natural world that we can begin our ascent towards the One, as described below. However, the world is only good because of the influence of Nous and Soul: Matter, in the absence of the rationality of Nous and the organizing properties of Soul is “evil itself,” and “so stands over against the Good as its radical antithesis.”
Matter in the visible world is imbued with Soul, and everything is thus in a sense alive (panpsychism). There is a sort of tension or battle at work everywhere in Creation, as Soul seeks to order Matter in accordance with Nous, and Matter resists the Soul. It is in this way that Plotinus explains both the perfections and the imperfections of the visible world.
It is imperative to note at this juncture that for Plotinus, evil has no positive existence, but is rather the privation of good. If it is emptied of all residue of Nous and Soul, Matter in itself, “has no residue of good in it” (1.8.7). Matter is the source of chaos, vice, dark passions, and individuality. All of these hinder the ascent of the Soul back to the One.
Humans are composed of a pre-existent soul, which has become trapped in the lower realm of matter. Each human soul has three parts: the higher soul, which is an undivided portion of Soul, and a lower soul, which is distinct from all other souls, and is attached to Matter. This divided existence implicates humans in the tension between Soul and Matter, and is the cause of all human suffering.
The lower portion of the soul contains all of the vices and passions which spring from Matter, contaminate the soul, and produce the seeds of personality and individuality. The higher portion of the soul is still connected to Soul, and is thus able to commune with Mind, and, eventually, to ascend (with great difficulty) to the One.
The whole thrust of Plotinus’ system is to provide a path of salvation for humanity. Human souls aught to seek liberation from their contamination with matter. This liberation is possible through ethics, contemplation, and mysticism.
The first stage of ascension is achieved by sense perception, as one apprehends the “beauties of the realm of sense, images and shadow-pictures, fugitives that have entered into Matter,” and then sees that, “there are earlier and loftier beauties than these.” The quest for wisdom will lead the sage to purify himself from fleshly pursuits, and to live an ethical life. The order which is imposed on Matter by Mind (through Soul) is visible to humanity. Humans aught to follow this order to its source, and thus begin to contemplate Mind. Here, the sage studies philosophy, science and mathematics. In all of these activities, the Soul of the sage is being progressively purified and moved ever closer to the One.
This contemplation is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but takes on a mystical tone: “Human mind must identify with Mind. Knower and known must become one. This is done through meditation.” From there, the senses and even rationality is left behind. To achieve union with the ineffable One, a soul cannot use their intelligence, because the One is beyond all description or rationality. Rather, one must make a mystical leap, and arrive at union with the One through intuitional knowledge and ecstatic experience. Logically, it would seem that this union with the One would be the end of personhood for the individual, as in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Perhaps inconsistently, however, Plotinus seems reticent to relinquish individuality: “Can we suppose that Socrates, who existed as Socrates on this earth, will cease to be Socrates, just because he has reached the best of all abodes?” Resorting to paradox, Plotinus affirms that personhood will be maintained, even in the radical unity of oneness with the One, stating that they will “all be one, but will be one together.”
The process of ascension is a natural one: for as the One emanates outwards, reality expands into multiplicity, then contracts back into unity – rather like an elastic band which can be stretched, but returns with equal force to its original shape. Although natural, this path is very difficult. The ascension is made entirely by human effort, in the ascetic life of the philosopher. Those who are not able to live this life cannot be saved and even for the philosopher there is a danger of failure: “As for violent personal sufferings, he will carry them off as well as he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off.” Anyone who is pulled down and overcome by the force of matter will fail to ascend, but will necessarily be reincarnated, to begin the process again.
Evaluation and Critique
In his article on Plotinus, Norman Geisler identifies two positive aspects of Plotinus’ system, and five negative ones. Positively, Plotinus’ system highlights the transcendence and immateriality of God, and human immortality. Negatively, it seems to suffer from five logical flaws.
First is the problem identified by Parmenides, namely that being cannot come from non-being. If the One is outside of being, it cannot bring anything into being, since “out of nothing comes nothing.” Recourse to Aristotle’s passive and active potency does not seem to help here, since a non-being cannot have the ability to bring being into existence. A second problem is that in this schema, “the effect turns out to be greater than the cause.” Mind arises from non-mind, being from non-being, rationality from irrationality, etc. This violates the principle that an effect will never be greater than its cause.
A third problem arises from the principle of analogy, which states that a cause will always share some elements of similarity with its effects. Certainly, a cause cannot be identical to its effects: but for it to have a causal relation, it must share some of its attributes with the effect. Thus, for Plato, ultimate Being and the Forms caused all lesser beings and reality. The effects are not identical, but analogous to their causes. However, in Plotinus, the cause shares absolutely no attributes with the effects. It is completely ‘other’. This appears to violate the principle of analogy.
A fourth critique is anticipated by Plotinus himself. If nothing can be known about the One, why is Plotinus taking great pains to write about it, and educate others? His response is that nothing can be known positively about the One: we can approach knowledge only in speaking about what the One is not. “And this name, the One, contains really no more than the negation of plurality.… If we are led to think positively of the One, name and thing, there would be more truth in silence” (3.8.101). His writings are, he says, a “call to vision,” which “urge towards the One.” Although nothing can be known directly about the One, something can be known about its offspring, Being. Once this has been understood rationally, one can take an irrational and intuitional leap into the One through a mystical experience. However, it seems that only absolute mutism and mysticism is the appropriate approach to a One such as Plotinus describes.
As will be seen, neoplatonism became an important fountainhead of ideas for Christianity. However, his thoughts would need to be significantly modified by Augustine and other Christian and Muslim scholars before a significant appropriation would be possible.
A problem which is probably more apparent to post-Reformation readers is that Plotinus’ salvation is, in the categories of Luther, ‘a works-based salvation.’ Perhaps even more pressingly, Plotinus’ influence on Origen lead him to see the Trinity as analogous to Plotinus’ Triad. Origen was the first to apply Plotinus’ word hypostasis to the Godhead, assigning to the Father the place of the One, and to Jesus (the Logos, of John’s Gospel) the place of Nous. This lead, however, to an ontological distinction between God and Jesus which lead in turn to the Arian controversies, and earned Origen the epithet, “the father of all Orthodoxy, and the Father of all Heresy” – a title which might have been more justly awarded to his neoplatonic tutors.
Neoplatonism was to yield rich rewards for Christian theology. But it would need a more skilled theologian even than Origen to finally harmonize all of the difficulties between the two systems.
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