[The following includes the (slightly expanded) text of Robert Park's lecture on Augustine and Plotinus (October 1, 1998).]
Life and Works
To see a beautifully illuminated manuscript of Augustine's Confessions, click here.
In the last couple of lectures we have picked up on an important theme: the relation between Christiantys two major inheritancesGreek philosophy and the Hebrew religion. We have noted and been concerned with Tertullians famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In Augustine we find one of the most influential answers to this question. But before we get to his answer, we need to put one more piece of the puzzle into place. That piece is the thought of Plotinuscalled Neo-Platonism.
For more on Plotinus, see here.
Plotinus worked out of Egypt and Rome. His thought is an eclectic mix of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic thought. Along the lines of Platos allegory of the cave:
So, how does Plotinus envision this hierarchically ordered reality?
Plotinus insists that the One, or God, is absolutely transcendent. He even goes so far as to say that God is beyond being and non-being. It is not simply that God doesnt exist, but that God, in Gods superabundance is beyond existing. For something to have being, from Plotinus viewpoint, it would need to be a thing -- like you, me, a horse. But God is not a particular thing or being. One could also say that God has being if God were the totality of all things that have being. But Plotinus wants to say that God is more than even that. God is more than a being and more than the sum of all beings. God is the source of being
God is prior to being, prior to form, measure and limit. God cannot be limited in any way, even to say that God thinks, or acts, or wills.
But if God doesnt think, or will, or act, how do we get creation?
Think about a time when felt really happy, really joyful.
Joy cant be contained it oozes out of our body, out of every pore. People can hear it in our voices and see it in our eyes.
Another analogy that Plotinus himself uses is that of the sun and the light it gives off. The sun doesnt decide to give off light, or decide to give off heat. Just because its the sun it gives off light and heat. Light and heat just emanate from the sun. In the same way, the One just emanates; it spills over. Such goodness cant be contained.
With this spilling over comes Nous. In spilling over Nous (Mind, thought) also looks back on the One, contemplating the One. As Nous contemplates the One the forms/ideas are born. Nous is intuitive thought thought that immediately grasps its object and is always perfectly united with it. This intuitive unity of thought and objects of thought (forms) is the most perfect image of the absolute unity of the One. But still the goodness and joy cant be contained.
Nous spills over into World Soul. The Soul is a lower order of reasoning than Nous and acts as an intermediary between the intelligible and the sensible world. With Soul comes the time. It is the organizer of sense world. Our individual human souls proceed from the world soul.
Coming out of the cave Whats the problem with human existence and how do we solve it?
With this picture of Neo-Platonism before us we can now look at Augustines system, and we can see the ways in which Augustine both accepted and rejected different aspects of Neo-Platonism.
So what does Augustine think of the relationship between Philosophy and theology?
The main point to understand is that Augustine did not distinguish sharply between the two. Augustine understood both philosophy and theology to have a common goal--the blessed life. Both seek out the blessed life for the human being. For Augustine, obtaining that blessed life meant grasping the eternal truth of things, attaining wisdom. Thus both theology and philosophy seek the Truth in order to live the blessed life.
In retrospectas one who has attained to some knowledge of the TruthAugustine recognizes that the Truth, or Wisdom itself, is Christ.
Use of Neo-Platonism
As we work through Augustine's thought, it should become clear that he is deeply influenced by Neo-Platonism. In fact, his conversion to Christianity follows directly from his adoption of Neo-Platonic thought. He understood Neo-Platonism to be, on the whole, consistent with much of Christian doctrine. However, it is also important to remember that Augustine did not merely adopt Neo-Platonism. He altered it when it conflicted with Christian doctrine. An analogy is the Hebrew exodusas the Hebrew people fled, they took what they needed and felt was good and left behind what they did not want.
Thomas Aquinas puts the matter succinctly, "Whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists, found in their teaching anything consistent with faith, he adopted it; and those things which he found contrary to faith he amended.
God as Being Itself
One of the things that Augustine does adopt from the Neo-Platonists is the hierarchy of being. For Augustine, God is Being itself, or Supreme Being. As the fullness of being, or supreme being, God is immutable. All created things reflect greater or lesser being.
"Since God is supreme being, that is, since He supremely is and, therefore, is immutable, it follows that He gave "being" to all that he created out of nothing; not, however, absolute being. To some things He gave more of being and to others less and, in this way, arranged an order of natures in a hierarchy of being."
God as Creator: Creatio ex nihilo
While Augustine does adopt the hierarchy of being, he does not adopt Plotinus notion of emanation. Instead, he insists that creation is the free act of God. God chooses to create the world. Moreover, God creates the world out of nothing. One of Augustines distinctive contributions in this area is his idea that God created even time.
Let's trace the development of this notion as we've seen it in this class.
Augustine completes the movement toward the standard doctrine of creatio ex nihilo by making even time a creature; everything is dependent upon God for its being and God is Being Itself.
The first approach is the juxtaposition approach. It brings the different conceptions together simply through systematic juxtaposition. In other words, Augustine affirms and insists upon both and places them side by side, even without always explaining their relation. In the reading you did, he refers to Christ as the One through whom God was "seeking us" when we were not seeking him, and as the One who intercedes with God on our behalf. (XI, 2:4) In the next book of The Confessions he insists that God is the One who "can be changed by no motion and your [Gods] will is not varied with time no mans sin either hurts you or disrupts the order of your government." (XII, 11:11) These statements seem to be working from different assumptions about the nature of God. In one, God is seeking us and Christ can intercede with God on our behalf. In the other, the falling away of the creature does not even disturb God. Augustine does not always feel compelled to explain how the one view fits with the other. The power of this approach comes, not from always explaining how the one fits with the other, but from placing the differing conceptions within an integrated whole, within one vision of the human before God. In other words, Augustine could say, "I cannot tell you how the conceptions fit together, but I can show you that they do fit together into one vision, my vision, of God and the world."
Time and Eternity
This approach alone would probably not satisfy most of us, and it is not likely that it would satisfy a mind like Augustines. Thus, we can look for another approach to the relation of these different conceptionsthe one suggested by Melissa Danielson in lecture. This is the time and eternity approach. Gods immutability relates directly to Gods eternity. God wills and acts in one and the same eternal movement. From the perspective of eternity, God is immutable because Gods will is never changing and because Gods act of creating the whole universe is simply one act. From our perspective, that is, from a perspective within time, Gods unchanging will and unified act seem to vary from time to time and place to place. Because God stands outside of time, Gods willing and acting are not subject to the change and movement which occurs within time. However, since we understand and experience God within time, we experience Gods will and act as changing.
We can call the third approach, which follows from the previous one, the interpretation approach. With this approach Augustine interprets the Scriptures in light of his (philosophically influenced) understanding of God. This can be seen, for example, in some of his interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts. Because of Gods immutability and eternity Augustine argues that the creation did not take place over six days, as the Scriptures seem to indicate, but in a single moment. God created all things simultaneously, but in such a way that some things would not become manifest until later in time. In response to those who objected that his interpretations could not be found in Scripture itself, Augustine states, "Will you claim that those things are false which Truth with a strong voice speaks into my inner ear concerning the true eternity of the creator, that his substance is in no wise changed in time, and his will is not outside his substance?"(XII, 15) In these instances, Augustine insists upon the truth of the eternal and immutable God, and interprets Scripture in light of that truth.
These approaches work together in trying to synthesize the Greek and Hebrew views of God. Are they successful? Decide for yourself.
What does Augustine's broader theological framework mean for his understanding of the human being?
The Human Person as Body and Soul
Augustine retains a healthy dose of Platonic dualism when he speaks of the human person. Thus he advances the following definitions:
Both the body and the soul are created out of nothing and they contain an element of non-being. But because the soul is capable of knowing and loving God, it contains more being. The body is metaphysically inferior to the soul and tules the soul as a ruler rules his or her subjects:
However, because of his biblical inheritancewhich sees the body and soul as united, and which values the body and matter more than the Neo-PlatonistsAugustine is not as dualistic as the Neo-Platonists. In particular, he maintains that the body and soul are distinct, that both have substance of their own, but that the human person is always the union of the two. He never defines the human person as soul apart from body, or as body apart from soul.
Life After Death
This mediating position can be seen in his view of life after death. Augustine insists, against the Platonists, and in harmony with a higher valuation of the body, that resurrection includes the body. In other words, we do not continue after death as immortal souls. We continue, for better or for worse, as resurrected bodies. Augustine states, "At the resurrection the saints will inhabit the actual bodies in which they suffered the hardships of this life on earth; yet these bodies will be such that no trace of corruption or frustration will affect their flesh, nor will any sorrow or mischance interfere with their felicity." (City of God, 532)
What does it mean, ethically, that the human person is a soul and a body in a hierarchy of being?
The Ethical Task
For Augustine, the ethical task is the ordering of one's loving rightly, that is, loving each thing as is appropriate to that thing. This means loving God, the very being of all that is, above all things. A perfectly realized love of God is identical with a completely actualized moral life.
Augustine defines evil as the privation of a good. Evil arises when humans freely choose to love themselves, or something of lesser being, over God, Being itself. Evil is a turning away of the created free will from the immutable and infinite Good. Evil enters the world through the free will. Because humans have free will, they have the capacity to say no to God.
Evil: privation of some inherent good (imperfection of nature for natural evil; deformed human will for moral eviland definitely not a positive agency opposed to God, as in Manichaeism, which Augustine explicitly rejected)
Notice the similarity and difference from Plotinus: evil is a privation (like Plotinus), but matter is not evilit is created by God
Augustine maintains an important distinction:
According to Augustine, Adam and Eve possessed both liberum arbitrium and libertas. That is, they had free choice and they were in a good condition for making good choices. After the fall, however, there occurs the vitiation of libertas. We are no longer in a suitable condition for making good choices. The doctrine of original sin means that we try to make free choices in a state that is not conducive to making good choices. We still have free will, but we have it in a state which is conducive to making evil rather than good choices
Augustine, particularly in his later years, deemphasizes liberum arbitrium and emphasizes the presence, or lack thereof of, libertas. Without grace we are in a state of original sin, and always end up sinning. With grace, we cannot help but to persevere. Grace, with its restoration of libertas, is definitive.
[Editor: This is a big topic for Augustine, who is after all a church beurocrat writing for the churches even as Rome fell. In fact, City of God was written specifically to explain how the fall of Rome relates to divine providence.]
Against the Donatists
This emphasis on the grace of God carries over into Augustine's controversy with the Donatists. The Donatists were a schismatic group in North Africa who argued that the sacraments of the Catholic church in Africa were invalid because of "blemished" priests and bishops in the Catholic church. The Donatists saw themselves as the true and holy church.
Against the Donatists, Augustine argues that:
As Augustine said: "My origin is Christ, my root is Christ, my head is Christ . . . The seed of which I was born, is the word of God . . . I believe not in the minister by whom I was baptized, but in Christ, who alone justifies the sinner and can forgive guilt." (ER, 523)
To make detailed sense of the following, especially if you are not already familiar with the Promisekeepers movement, obtain copies of the following articles: from Newton Tab (8/5/97), p.29; Boston Sunday Herald (7/27/97), p. 6; and Boston Sunday Globe (7/27/97), pp. B1, B5. (Actually, you don't really need the articles, especially if you know anything at all about the Promisekeepers.) It seems that these articles about the Promise Keepers (hereafter, PK) echo certain Augustinian themes and raise some parallel issues in fascinating ways.
"I cannot will the good", without Jesus help -- the Augustinian phrase could almost be a caption for the PK articles, and the emotional/conversional aspect (a stadium full of men "praying for upward of 14 hrs. at a time for Jesus to come and help them," Tab, col. 1) is also reminiscent of Augustines confessional approach to the problems of sin, grace, and free will. Moreover, the debate between Augustine & Pelagius about free will seems reproduced in a new conservative Christian vs. secular feminist format. Thus Clark (Tab) writes that true promise keeping cant be the result of "hand[ing] your free will on a platter to an unlicensed religious zealot" and that a man must be a "steward of his own morality and his own mind."
The linking of a theological perspective to political issues, and the potential use of such a perspective to justify certain political actions is also highlighted here. The PKs interpret aspects of American social life as morally problematic (divorce, single parenting, etc.) and believe that the solution to these moral problems is a Christian solution. Feminists see a not-very-hidden political agenda here, with issues surrounding attitudes toward womens rights, homosexuality, abortion prominent. Augustines theology/philosophy was used to justify certain coercive political actions against heretics, to bring them into line with the salvific plan of Christianity; "state" and Church allied. The feminist concern about the PKs is reminiscent: "the groups intent is to secretly organize Christian men into a conservative political force," and "Its government-enforced Christianity." (Herald, col. 4).
Rightly ordered love - A major theme in Augustines writings. For Augustine, this kind of love, caritas as opposed to cupiditas, reflected and respected the divine eternal order of universe. This of course also accorded with scripture. The PK notion that men must head the family, as stated in various member comments, is not only based on scriptural authority but suggests also that this ordering is right and "natural", what "God wanted" (Tab, col 2).
Apologetic and Polemic context. Much of As thought developed as response to various conflicts. And even though Augustine wrote after the era of Christian apologists, Augustine, too, attempted to give reasoned account, even defense, of Christianity in the face of other philosophical and spiritual alternatives and the social upheavals of his time. Similarly, the Promise Keeper movement seems to thrive in a polemic context.
The information on this page is copyright ©1994-2010, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.