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Augustine and Platonism

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  • Ron Criss
    AUGUSTINE AND PLATONISM (by Gillian Clark, from pages 18-20 of the introduction to her Cambridge Latin edition of Confessions, Books I-IV) After he became a
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 9, 2007

      (by Gillian Clark, from pages 18-20 of the introduction to her
      Cambridge Latin edition of Confessions, Books I-IV)

      After he became a Manichaean, Augustine continued to read philosophy,
      but was hampered by having a small range of books and by not knowing
      much Greek. He disliked Greek at school, and notes in the Retractions
      some mistakes he made in his early works through ignorance of Greek.
      In later life he became much better at it, and could check Latin
      translations against a Greek original..., but in his twenties he
      would have found it hard work to read a Greek philosophical or
      theological text (1.14.23).

      When Augustine was about twenty (4.16.28), he read Aristotle's
      Categories, a basic text of logical analysis which was available in
      Latin translation. He found it very clear, but he says it was a
      further obstacle to his thought about God, whom he imagined in
      Aristotelian categories as a subject with attributes, not as
      greatness itself or beauty itself (4.16.29). He was not, evidently,
      aware of the Platonist debate on whether the Categories was concerned
      only with human systems of classification, or whether it was
      applicable to all levels of being. He also read more of Cicero's
      philosophical works. Some of Cicero's ethical treatises, especially
      On Ends and Tusculan Disputations, supply him with the material and
      the style for ethical analysis in the Confessions (for instance,
      2.6.13), though he does not discuss the effect they had on him when
      he read them... As his commitment to Manichaeism weakened, Augustine
      was impressed by Cicero's Academics... The ëAcademics' were
      successors of Plato, who had taught at the house he bought near the
      shrine of the obscure Athenian hero Akademos. Some of them advocated
      strict agnosticism: As Augustine put it (5.10.19) ëtheir opinion was
      that everything must be doubted, and they declared that nothing of
      the truth can be understood by a human being'. But, he says, he had
      not yet understood what they meant, and what this means is that he
      had read Cicero on the state of philosophical debate 400 years
      earlier, but had not yet encountered the argument that their apparent
      scepticism camouflaged an esoteric teaching of the truth which had
      been expounded by Plato.

      At Milan, Augustine was given 'Platonic books' in a Latin translation
      by Marius Victorinus (7.9.13, 8.2.3), and, he says, they changed his
      life. The Platonism Augustine encountered at Milan, in books and
      discussion groups and Ambrose's preaching, was ëNew Platonism'
      (Neoplatonism), which set out to explicate Plato in the belief that
      he had understood the eternal truth and had expounded it in a
      consistent philosophical system which was passed on by his followers.
      It required great ingenuity of mind to reconcile Plato's various
      experiments in thought, Aristotle's critique, and the arguments of
      their successors, and many debates continued among the New
      Platonists. Milanese Neoplatonism was very much influenced by the
      third-century philosopher Plotinus, an impressive ascetic who refused
      to give formal philosophical lectures, and by his pupil Porphyry, who
      revised Plotinus' brief written records of his thinking and organised
      them into groups of nine, the Enneads... The 'Platonic books' may
      have included writings by Plotinus and Porphyry: certainly, by the
      time he wrote the Confessions, Augustine had read some Plotinus and
      had been profoundly impressed. Plotinus' style, as well as his
      arguments, is heard in the Confessions, both in the tenacious strings
      of questions with which Augustine pursues a difficult problem (as in
      1.3.3-4.4) and in occasional flashes of exhortation (as at 1.18.28).

      Plato's philosophy contrasts the uncertain, transitory world we
      perceive with the senses, and the unchanging reality, grasped by
      reason, from which the world derives its existence. The dominant
      Neoplatonist image was of the One, the highest level of being, from
      which emanates (literally, flows out), or radiates, all else that
      there is, as if in concentric circles. The circles of being turn back
      towards the original unity, and thereby define themselves in relation
      to it, but the outermost circle, the material world, turns away from
      unity into multiplicity and fragmentation, and finally into
      nothingness. But even in this material world there is the human mind,
      which is connected with the centre. Augustine found in this image a
      powerful expression of his own choice between focussing on God and
      dispersing himself among the concerns of the world (2.1.1, 2.3.3,
      3.8.16). It also allowed him to challenge the Manichaean account of
      evil as a substance, an independent and invasive power: instead, evil
      could be understood as distance from the One which is the source of
      all being, so that complete alienation from the One is non-existence
      (2.6.12; 7.12.18). But what Augustine found most important was that
      Platonism helped him to think of God as spirit. The Manichaeans
      attacked what they said was crude Christian anthropomorphism, but
      themselves taught in terms of very subtle bodies (3.6.10, 5.10.20);
      this caused Augustine great difficulties in explaining how God can be
      present throughout the universe (1.2.2-3.3). He tried (7.1.2) to
      imagine God permeating the universe like sunlight, but this suggests
      that some parts of the universe would have more of God than
      others, 'an elephant's body would have more of you than a sparrow's'.
      Later (7.5.7) he imagined the universe as a great but finite sponge,
      saturated by an infinite ocean. The Platonist books made him think in
      terms of his own thought, the mental power which forms images of
      everything yet occupies no space (7.1.2), and which can aspire to
      union with God.
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