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Augustine (354-430)

[The following includes the (slightly expanded) text of Robert Park's lecture on Augustine and Plotinus (October 1, 1998).]


Life and Works
Plotinus (205-270) [Parks]
Philosophy and Theology [Parks]
Augustine on Hebrew and Greek Conceptions of God [Parks]
Anthropology [Parks]
Ethics [Parks]
Church and Society [Parks]
Ciccarelli Creation: Augustine and the Promise Keepers

Life and Works

To see the oldest portrait of Augustine (6th century, from the the Lateran in Rome), click here. Other pictures are here, here, and here.


  • 354: Born Thagaste, North Africa, son of pagan father, Christian mother
  • 371-374: Studied law at Carthage
  • 372: Adeodatus (son) born
  • 375: Conversion to Manichean religion
  • 376-383: Taught rhetoric in Carthage
  • 384: Became Professor of rhetoric in Milan
  • 386: Under influence of Neoplatonism and Ambrose’s preaching; converted to Christian religion
  • 387: Baptized and joined monastic community in Thagaste
  • 391: Ordained reluctantly; founded new community in Hippo
  • 397: Consecrated Bishop of Hippo
  • 430: Died in Vandal siege of Hippo


To see a beautifully illuminated manuscript of Augustine's Confessions, click here.

  • Enormous literary output, much of it directed against the heresies of Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism
  • Confessions was written in 397-8, after he was consecrated Bishop
  • On the Trinity was written in 15 books from 400-416
  • City of God was written in 22 books from 413 to 426, after the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths had commonly been interpreted as a direct result of the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire

Plotinus (205-270)

In the last couple of lectures we have picked up on an important theme: the relation between Christianty’s two major inheritances—Greek philosophy and the Hebrew religion. We have noted and been concerned with Tertullian’s 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 Plotinus—called 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 Plato’s allegory of the cave:

  • Plotinus sees reality as hierarchically ordered (descending in power and goodness and descending from unity to plurality) and insists that the sensible world is not the most real.
  • The human task is to rise out of the cave and into the sunlight.

So, how does Plotinus envision this hierarchically ordered reality?

The One

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 doesn’t exist, but that God, in God’s 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 doesn’t think, or will, or act, how do we get creation?


Think about a time when felt really happy, really joyful.

Joy can’t 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 doesn’t decide to give off light, or decide to give off heat. Just because it’s 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 can’t be contained.

Emanation (Plotinus): the process in which the One pours over into all of the realms of being.

Mind (Nous)

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 can’t 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.

Three Primal Hypoastases (Plotinus): One, Mind, and Soul.

Coming out of the cave – What’s the problem with human existence and how do we solve it?

  • At the lowest level of the universe is matter-in-itself. This for Plotinus is simply the privation of light. Matter is not an independently existing principle (although he does sometimes speak of it as a positive force), but rather the point at which the outflow of light, reality and form from the One fades into utter darkness.
  • Matter, as privation of light, is evil.
  • Human beings are soul and body. They are an intelligible soul mixed with a material body.
  • The goal of every human soul is union with the One. Like everything else, the human soul longs, aches to contemplate the One. Ascending to the One is a process of interiorization, requiring vigorous moral and intellectual discipline – turning away from the world of sense and concentrating on the forms. Mystical union is the culmination. At this point, the highest state of union, there is no distinction between subject and object, between soul and the One.

Theosis: divinization through intimate union of human soul with God.

With this picture of Neo-Platonism before us we can now look at Augustine’s system, and we can see the ways in which Augustine both accepted and rejected different aspects of Neo-Platonism.

Philosophy and Theology

So what does Augustine think of the relationship between Philosophy and theology?

Common Goal

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 retrospect—as one who has attained to some knowledge of the Truth—Augustine 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 exodus—as 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: Being itself, a purely spiritual reality whose ideas define the intelligible world, knowable only by the soul

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 Augustine’s 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.

  • Pre-Socratics—question of ultimate origins was not really raised
  • Plato—In the Timaeus Plato speculates about a demiurge using the forms as a blueprint for forming a pre-existent matter
  • Aristotle—Raised the question of creation, because he had made the cosmos utterly dependent on an unmoved Mover. Thinking the idea of creation unintelligible, he argued that the universe was eternal
  • Philo—Combined the Jewish notion of God as a personal being with the insights of Greek philosophy, arguing that the forms were the ideas of a personal divine being, whose word caused creation to occur
  • Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd century CE)—possibly the first to deny the preexistent chaotic stuff (matter), arguing instead that God creates from nothing (ex nihilo)
  • Augustine—included the idea that time itself is created. There is no "before creation."

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.

Augustine on Hebrew and Greek Conceptions of God

One of the questions that came up in the Augustine lecture concerned how Augustine related the Greek conception of an immutable God (Being Itself) with the Hebrew conception of a passionate God who interacts with and responds to human beings (a Personal Being). We know that Augustine owes a large debt to Neo-Platonism and also that Augustine insists on the authority of the Scriptures. But how do these very different views come together? My suggestion is that Augustine tries to bring these two different conceptions together through various approaches, none of which is wholly satisfactory (but we can debate whether that is a failure on Augustine’s part or simply the nature of all God-talk).


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 [God’s] will is not varied with time … no man’s 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 Augustine’s. Thus, we can look for another approach to the relation of these different conceptions—the one suggested by Melissa Danielson in lecture. This is the time and eternity approach. God’s immutability relates directly to God’s eternity. God wills and acts in one and the same eternal movement. From the perspective of eternity, God is immutable because God’s will is never changing and because God’s act of creating the whole universe is simply one act. From our perspective, that is, from a perspective within time, God’s unchanging will and unified act seem to vary from time to time and place to place. Because God stands outside of time, God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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:

Human Person: a rational soul using a mortal and earthly body

Soul: a substance endowed with reason and fitted to rule a body

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:



rules rules
Ruled Body

However, because of his biblical inheritance—which sees the body and soul as united, and which values the body and matter more than the Neo-Platonists—Augustine 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.

"Thus, there can be no unchangeable good except our one, true, and blessed God. All things which He has made are good because made by Him, but they are subject to change because they were made, not out of Him, but out of nothing. Although they are not supremely good, since God is a greater good than they, these mutable things are, nonetheless, highly good by reason of their capacity for union with and , therefore, beatitude in the Immutable Good which is so completely their good that, without this good, misery is inevitable." (City of God, 323)


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 evil—and 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 evil—it is created by God

Free Will

Augustine maintains an important distinction:

Liberum Arbitrium: free choice

Libertas: the condition within us for making good choices (a state of our being conducive to making good choices)

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.

Church and Society

[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.]

Two Cities

  • Two cities, an earthly city and a heavenly city.
  • The two cities issue from two kinds of love--love of self over God (earthly) and love of God over self (heavenly).
  • In history the two cities are mixed; they cannot be separated.
  • The heavenly city is not identified with the church.
  • The Church includes both wheat and tares.

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:

  • the validity of the sacraments is not dependent on the personal sanctity of the priests
  • salvation is the work of God and not of man
  • holiness of church derives from its union with Christ
  • the Church is not a club of saints. It includes both the wheat and the tares, only to be distinguished at the harvest

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)


  • Human person is by nature a social being
  • Not naturally political—the state is necessary as a result of fall—role of state is to check the disorder which results from the fall.
  • Originally opposed to the use of state force in church matters but later came to use state force to compel the Donatists to convert.

Ciccarelli Creation: Augustine and the Promisekeepers

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 Augustine’s 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 can’t 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 women’s rights, homosexuality, abortion prominent. Augustine’s 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 group’s intent is to secretly organize Christian men into a conservative political force," and "It’s government-enforced Christianity." (Herald, col. 4).

Rightly ordered love - A major theme in Augustine’s 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 A’s 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.

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