Plotinus & Augustine, Part 2
How Augustine was shaped by, and shaped, Neoplatonism (aka Plotinus’ thought).
Listen here (audio includes significant explanation notes).
Download research paper (with footnotes and bibliography) here.
St. Augustine (354 AD – 430 AD) was an African-born Roman, with a Christian mother and a pagan father. He was raised as a catechumen, but he lost his faith when he went to study rhetoric in Carthage in 370 AD, taking a mistress and fathering a son. He later read Cicero’s Hortensius, a now-lost call to philosophy, which set the 18-year-old Augustine on a quest for truth: a quest which the later Augustine would describe as a God-ward journey. This journey lead him to Manichaeism, and for nearly a decade he followed the dualistic system. In 384 AD, after teaching rhetoric in Tagaste, Carthage and Rome, he accepted a position as professor of rhetoric at Milan. Here, a number of factors conspired to bring Augustine back into the Christian fold.
Among these factors was contact with the bishop St. Ambrose, whose life and teaching impressed him. A meeting with the foremost living Manicheain scholar, Faustus, had left Augustine disillusionment with the movement. Augustine was now flirting with the beliefs of the Skeptics, who had recently taken up residence within Plato’s Academy. Significantly, Augustine found a group of Christian and agnostic neoplatonist who met to read the works of Plotinus. This discussions helped him to resolve two decisive issues essential for his conversion to Christianity: the immateriality of God, and the problem of evil.
Doing a great disservice to the sophistication of Christian thinking, Manichaeism portrayed Christians as believing in a purely materialistic God. As evidence, they read all of the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament (OT) as literally referring to the hands, feet, eyes, wings, etc. of God, and mocked Christianity accordingly. Ambrose was able to explain to Augustine that many passages of Scriptures can justifiably be interpreted metaphorically, whereas Plotinus helped Augustine conceive of the immateriality of God. Writes A. W. Argyle, “Plotinus made clear, as never before, the non-spacial non-material, non-quantitative nature of God and the soul.”
An even more significant contribution was in regards to the ‘problem of evil,’ or the ancient problem of theodicy. In 386 AD Augustine wrote De Ordine chronicling his intellectual wrestlings with this question. This appears to have been one of the main reasons he resisted his mother’s persistent call to leave Manichaeism for Christianity: if all of reality comes from a single, good Deity, then whence comes evil? Either God is not almighty, or He is not all-good. One of the main attractions of Manichaeism was its ability to explain both good and evil in the world: it did so by assigning to each real and equal ontological existence. Both good and evil are competing forces in the world, thus apparently explaining what Christianity could not. Plotinus, however, was able to explain how evil could exist in a schema where all comes from one good source: that is, evil is a privation of good. This solution was satisfactory to Augustine, and has become an important apologetic argument to the present day.
In a climactic event described in book VIII of his Confessions, Augustine finally became a Christian in 386 AD. He was baptized the next year, and was ordained a priest in 391 AD. For the rest of his life, Augustine devoted his formidable intellect to the task of defending and expanding the Christian faith: in doing so, he made heavy use of on of his favourite philosophical tutors, Plotinus, thus bringing Platonic philosophy with him into the Church.
The Influence of Plotinus on St. Augustine
Augustine likely did not have good access to Plato and Aristotle, owing to his poor Greek. He did, however, have access to a good Latin translation of Plotinus. Like most Platonists after Plotinus, Augustine’s apprehension of the Greek masters seems to have been significantly coloured by the contributions of Plotinus.
Since Augustine saw (along with Clement of Alexandria, but in contrast to Tertullian) Christianity as the fulfillment and perfection of the Greek Philosophical quest, he feels no compunction in quoting favourably from philosophers, or alluding to texts that would have been well-known at the time. Care should be taken here, however, to distinguish between the vocabulary and the substance of Augustine’s neoplatonism. In general, Augustine’s positivism towards philosophy was tempered by his submission to Scriptures and to Catholic doctrine: for him, conversion included a commitment to belief in the core doctrines of the church. Thus, while Augustine at times utilizes with some liberality the terminology and imagery of neoplatonism, he often redefines these terms in radically new directions. As a result, one could justifiably say that Augustine had as much of an impact on Western neoplatonism as the movement had on him, and that the neoplatonism to which Augustine opened the door of the Church through his works was a significantly different entity to that which had existed without.
The Nature of God
Augustine drew on Plotinus at numerous points to describe the essence of God. As has been mentioned, it was Plotinus who helped Augustine apprehend the immateriality of God. He also drew on Plotinus in seeing God as eternal: “When Augustine wrote: ‘In the Eternal there is neither anything past, as though it had passed away, nor any future, as though it not yet, but whatever is, IS,’ he was freely quoting Plotinus.” Following Plotinus, Augustine referred to God’s omnipresence in that His centre is everywhere, and His circumference nowhere. Augustine also makes use of the concept of unity as a defining characteristic of God, sometimes speaking of multiplicity as a descent away from God, and salvation as a ‘losing’ of one’s self back into the unity of God. Augustine also followed Plotinus in affirming the ineffability of God. “We can know what God is not, but not what He is,” writes Augustine.
In his important work, De Trinitas, Augustine made free use of Plotinus’ terminology of hypostasis to define the Trinity. As has been mentioned, this move was not original to Augustine, having already been crucial in the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century. What had become clear through the Arian controversy was that there could be no ontological distinction between the Father and the Son: all three hypostasis of the Trinity were one ousia or being (that is, they were ‘ομοούσιος). Rather, the great ontological distinction must be made between Creator and Creation. This was a distinction that Plotinus could not make, and represents a significant reworking and ‘Christian appropriation’ of his system.
Augustine followed Plotinus by locating the Forms in the mind of God. Further, he made this Truth or Mind the true telos of the philosopher’s quest. But here, again, is a significant difference: “The Truth as it is in Jesus is no other than the Truth which the true philosopher seeks.” This is nothing short of a Copernican Revolution for the neoplatonic Mind. It is the very “foolishness” of which Paul speaks (1 Cor. 1:8). For Plotinus, personhood is at the bottom end of the scale: it results when Soul comes in contact with Matter, and is left behind as souls look first to Soul, then to Mind and finally become re-united with the One. But for Augustine, God Himself is personal!
Further to differences of opinion on the nature of God, (the so-called ‘immanent Trinity’) Augustine also differed from Plotinus in the actions of God (the so-called ‘efficient Trinity’). Plotinus’ One created involuntarily and necessarily: but the God of Augustine creates volitionally. He did not need to create, but in love and goodness, He chose to do so, at a definite point in the finite past. This difference has huge ramifications for how Augustine was to see the related themes of matter, sin, humanity, the incarnation, and redemption.
Matter & Body
Along with Plotinus, Augustine sees Creation as the outworking of a benevolent and intelligent Deity. Together, then, they reject the radical Gnostic rejection of the world. However, Augustine saw the World in an even more positive sense than Plotinus. For Augustine, the very Matter of the World is a good creation of the all-good God. As that part of Matter which presents itself most immediately to us, the body is itself good. For Augustine, writes Williams, “The body is not this evil, shadowy pseudo-reality that only gets in the way of our true happiness. The body is a divine creation.”
In a radical break from Plotinus, metaphysical distance for Augustine does not equate moral depravity. Rather, it is the turning of the creature away from the creator to himself that effects the “fall” of man. This is not to say that the ‘World’ is all good. The Creation presents a certain possibility of temptation and evil to every human. First, there is the danger that humanity turn from worship of the Creator to worship of His Creation (Rom. 1:21-23). Further, the business and ‘worldliness’ of embodied existence can have the effect of distracting one from the Divine. In a distinctly neoplatonic citation, Augustine writes that, “The multiformity of temporal things did by the senses distract fallen man from the unity of God » This turning of the Creature away from the Creator, to fold in upon itself in selfishness is the Augustinian definition of Evil, and here Augustine returns to the neoplatonic language of a ‘fall,’ and of our need to ‘rise’ back to God. However, this neoplatonic language must be read within the larger Christian framework of Augustine: for him, evil is ethical and not ontological.
Whereas Augustine’s view of the body represented a significant elevation of humanity, his teaching as regards the soul represented a sort of demotion. In Plotinus, as in most Greek religion and philosophy, the human soul is in some way divine: but in Christianity, there is an ontological distinction between God and man. Further, the Augustine came to reject, with some difficulty, the idea of the pre-existence of the soul, teaching instead that souls are generated through copulation. This belief became very important for his doctrine of original sin
A Hunger for God
Although humans are not a part of God, we were made in His image (Gen. 1:27). Sin has “made a separation” between God and man, (Isa. 59:2). It is this reality that sets up the hunger to be reunited to God, spoken of by Plotinus. In what has been described as “probably the most oft-repeated prayer in Christendom after the Lord’s Prayer,” Augustine begins the confessions with the prayer, “Thou didst make us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee.” Like Plotinus, Augustine too lays out a path towards unity with God: but both the path and the destination show marked differences.
A Godward Quest
Augustine’s Confessions is not mere biography, but is at least in part a sort of tract or manual, using his own life as a road-map towards salvation. In this path, Augustine described his quest towards God in terms very similar to the Plotinian quest. First, in a love of nature one can see the handiwork of the Divine Mind, and from there move to contemplation of the Maker. This contemplation aught to be coupled with a separation from worldliness, and ever-higher speculations, leading finally to mystical experiences with God. All of this is mere preparation for the true adventure, however, which is unity with God Himself.
In a passage rich in literary significance, Augustine contrasts two philosophical/mystical experiences he had. The first occurred in Milan, before his conversion, and seems similar to the sorts of mystical unions experienced by Plotinus. Augustine makes much of the short and ultimately unsatisfying nature of this experience, contrasting it with an experience he shared with his mother after his conversion in Ostia. Of the differences between the two he says,
I lacked the power to fix my gaze there. My weakness was rebuffed, and I returned to my accustomed ways, taking nothing back with me but a loving memory and the desire for a food that I had smelled but could not yet eat. And I was seeking some way of gathering a strength that would fit me to enjoy you, but I was not to find it until I embraced the Mediator of God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is God above all, blessed for ever, calling out and saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and mingling with flesh the food that I was too weak to eat.
Ever the evangelist, Augustine was writing directly to the Plotinian disciple in this passage. Making much of the short and transient nature of the experiences that Plotinus described, Augustine explained that the weakness of our humanity needed to be complemented with the strength of the Incarnation, in order for true Salvation to take place.
Augustine, famously, championed the doctrine of Original Sin in his Confessions, and defended the doctrine in his later, anti-Pelagian writings. Augustine’s view that all humans are non posse non peccare, that is, “not able not to sin” dashed any hopes of a self-effected salvation through contemplation and asceticism such as Plotinus offered. It also gave definite form, and a reason for the “weakness” that both Augustine and Plotinus seem to have experienced in the presence of God. Why are humans unable to dwell in the presence of God? The problem, for Augustine, is original sin, and the solution is Jesus.
Augustine’s Christian view of the Body made possible what would have been μωρία, absurdity or foolishness to Plotinus (1 Cor. 1:18). In an illuminating passage, Augustine writes that much of the Logos theology of John 1 he found in Plotinus, but “‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:13-14) I did not find there.” The Incarnation was the greatest affirmation possible of the validity of the material world. Not only was Matter created by God, but it was capable of being conjoined to God in Christ, in whom, “dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” (Col. 2:9). Because the Divine was able to join himself to Matter, He could by that union draw humans up to Himself, providing a way of salvation.
Lasting Plotinian Effects on Augustinianism
As has been mentioned, Plotinus had an effect on Augustine in regards to language and symbology. Since much of Augustine’s writing was either explicitly or implicitly apologetic in nature, much of these superficial similarities can be dismissed as Augustine seeking to present the unchanging Gospel in a culturally acceptable form. However, there were at least three ways in which Plotinus was to inject a foreign element into the church through his effect on Augustine.
In regards to the soul, Augustine made a conscious break from Plotinus when he came to understand the soul as created during copulation (traducianism) and not eternal or pre-existant. However, Augustine was to retained the notion that human beings are a soul, which merely possesses a body. Further, Augustine continued to consider the soul as complete in itself, and able to apprehend knowledge through access to the Forms in the Mind of God, without recourse to sensory information. This rationalistic tendency “encouraged Augustine towards an ‘inwardness,’” produced a tendency, like Plotinus, to turn away from the material world to the inner world, with an effect which, “tends to etherealize the Christian life.”
Augustine further taught that sin is passed from parents to children through copulation, and specifically through the male seed. This, apparently, explains why Mary did not pass on original sin to Jesus. This belief, in addition, to an ascetic comportment of life which was a holdover of his Manichean and Neoplatonic heritage predisposed Augustine to have a negative view of sex and the body: a belief which was to have large consequences especially for the Western Church in years to come.
A final influence of Plotinus on Augustine was in regards to the ineffability of God. While maintaining that we could know much about God, due to His Self-Revelation, Augustine followed Plotinus in affirming the final unknowability of God. This aspect of Augustine’s neoplatonism was to join other tributaries of Christian thought to create the broad river of apophatic theology, later known as the via negativa.
Alfred North Whitehead is famously known as characterizing all of Western Philosophy as a series of footnotes on Plato. If this be true, it cannot be insignificant that the vision of Platonism that Augustine received was viewed, as it were, through the spectacles afforded by Plotinus. As has been shown, the Platonism of which Augustine was made familiar was one which brought elements of Aristotle in harmony with Platonism, and proposed some original elements, such as the religious element of salvation through asceticism and contemplation.
Since Augustine became, in some ways, a conduit of Platonism into the Western Church and philosophy, it is also significant to note the influence of Plotinus upon Augustine, and vice versa. As has been shown, Augustine was no passive recipient of Plotinus, but significantly reworked his system. That being said, Plotinus left several very significant marks on Augustine. These marks include the vocabulary of hypostasis, and the uniquely Platonic imagery of ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ as analogies for describing one’s relation to God. More significantly, Plotinus was to have a lasting impact on Augustine’s view of the soul, of the body and human sexuality, and on the ineffability of God.
Without a doubt, however, the most important effect of Plotinus on Augustine was that of facilitating his conversion from Skepticism to Christianity. For this reason, whatever the adverse effects which Plotinus may have had, it should be concluded that the net result of Plotinus on Augustine was an overwhelmingly positive one, leading to the conclusion that Western Christianity owes a debt of gratitude to the pagan, non-Christian Plotinus, who was used of God to aid in the conversion of one of the most important Doctors of the Church. Bibliography
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