GREAT BOOKS 202.001
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 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 ëPlatonic 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 ëPlatonic 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, ëan 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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