Neoplatonism and Christianity
Aurelius Augustinus was without doubt a Neoplatonist
Christian (Mendelson 2016). His views and interpretations of the Christian God were
heavily influenced by Neoplatonist ideas. This is to say his views were
influenced by the ideas of Plato and his followers, predominantly Plotinus and
Porphyry (Williams, 2003). Augustine’s writings gave Christianity a more
organised, coherent theology, using elements of platonic thought. Thomas
Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
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”
must clarify that Neoplatonism is a modified Platonism and refers nonexclusively
to the works of Plotinus and Porphyry. Neoplatonism is an extension and
interpretation of Plato’s philosophy and at the time Augustine referred to the
entire philosophy as Platonism.
is important to note that Augustine himself believed Platonism and Christianity
were compatible. In his The City of God
he states, “It is evident that none come clearer to us (Christians) than the
Platonists”. In his later works, however, he focuses on points of divergence
between Neoplatonist philosophy and Christianity.
is difficult to measure the success of Augustine’s work without clear metrics.
As such, I will briefly asses how Neoplatonist philosophy influenced
Augustine’s understanding of God and how to a greater extent he remedied what
he thought to be its’ incompatibility with Christian theology.
details in Confessions (VII.ix) how
he first read the “books of the Platonists”. At the time he was in Milan and
was questioning Gods being and His relation to the soul and to evil. These
books explained Platonist ideas which “provided him with a metaphysical
framework of extraordinary depth and subtlety, a richly-textured tableau”,
helping Augustine understand God (Mendelson, 2016).
is widely accepted that the books were the works of either Plotinus or Porphyry
(Williams, 2016). Regardless they explained the Neoplatonist views which made
“it possible for him (Augustine) to conceive of a non-physical, spiritual
reality” (Mendelson, 2016). For
Neoplatonists there are two realms, the intelligible and the sensual (Emilsson,
2015). The intelligible realm is akin to a spiritual realm, the sensual realm
is our physical world. The intelligible realm has three ontological levels, the
One, Intellect and the soul. The One is the what Augustine understood to mean
God as it is “the first cause of everything”. Intellect or Platonic Forms are
the eternal and immutable ideal paradigms (Silverman 2014). To illustrate what
Forms entail I will use Plato’s own explanation from his dialogue Phaedo (100c), that “if anything else is beautiful besides Beauty Itself, it is
beautiful on account of nothing else than because it partakes of Beauty
short, Beauty is the Form, the unchanging perfect idea and it is part of the
intelligible realm. Things from the sensible realm appear beautiful on account
that they try to emulate it. This is because the sensible realm is an imperfect
picture of the intelligible realm (Williams, 2003).
The third level is often referred to as the
“World soul” and causes the sensible realm, which itself has levels
compromising of finite souls (the non-rational soul’s humans have), bodies and
matter (Silverman, 2014).
explains in his Enneads how these
levels were a hierarchy. The World-soul is subordinate to Intellect which is
subordinate to The One. All levels, in both realms, are emanations of the One,
effortless generations of lower beings. Each emanation is a step away from the
One. (Moore, 2018)
accepted the Neoplatonic distinction between the physical and the spiritual,
however he was unsure or unhappy with other Neoplatonist views. In order to
explain how Augustine brought Platonism into dialogue with Christianity I have
identified two key areas where Augustine outright rejects or modifies those
views, so they become coherent with the Christian doctrine.
Firstly, for a number of reasons, Augustine
rejects emanation, that everything ‘flows’ from The One (Williams, 2003).
Neoplatonist ontology held that the One was not involved in creation, it didn’t
pay attention to the things that emanate from it. Augustine’s Christian God is
of course very concerned with creation, He shapes the world according to His
will. For many of the Neoplatonists The One emanates out of necessity whereas
Augustine held the Christian view that there is a ‘volitional nature’ to God’s
activity (Mendelson, 2016).
rejection of emanation meant he disagreed with the notion that each emanation
is a fall or step away from the One, God (Williams, 2003). For Augustine, all
that God creates is good, the existence of any thing is not a diminution of
God. This has implications for the Neoplatonist view of bodies. For Augustine
the body is a creation of the divine, thus conflicting with the Neoplatonist
philosophy that the body must be escaped as it resides in the sensible realm
(Emilsson, 2015). It must be escaped so that the soul can return the One.
danger of the sensible realm, for Neoplatonists, is its ability to remind us of
the intelligible realm thus preventing us from realising the truth of the One.
For example, we may think an Abercrombie model is beautiful when really Beauty
is an Idea or Form. Augustine, for the most part also subscribes to this view,
that the body allows for us to be distracted from the intelligible, perverting
our search for God. However, he also maintains that this is the only reason the
body can be considered bad. It is not a lower
of its distance from the One (in some accounts of Neoplatonism the body is
hundreds of steps away from the One). The body’s existence is Gods’ will.
In another substantial departure from Neoplatonist
philosophy, Augustine criticised the way the Neoplatonists hope to establish a
union with the One (The Christian equivalent would be salvation or living in
the kingdom of God). Augustine outlines in The
City of God that the Neoplatonists should have accepted Jesus Christ but
choose to put too much faith in their own reasoning. Essentially Augustine
rejects the Platonist notion that the intelligible realm cannot be realised in
the sensible realm (Williams, 2003). This notion directly contradicts The
Christian incarnation, which holds that God became man, that the perfect,
eternal God entered the temporary and imperfect physical realm. In Confessions,
book seven chapter nine, Augustine explains how he found no mention of the
incarnation in those Platonist books, “But that the Word was made flesh, and
dwelt among us, I read not there.”
This is the reason that Augustine rejected the
notion that the intelligible cannot become sensible and eventually caused him
to reject the Neoplatonist views on how to achieve salvation. In short,
Platonic salvation or ascent is abstract and somewhat incomplete, whereas Jesus
Christ is a person and Augustine eventually believed that salvation came from
developing a relationship with Him (Williams, 2003).
read in Augustine’s confessions (VII.xvii) that he was unsuccessful with Platonist salvation,
or what he calls the Truth. He explains how he once discovered this truth:
“For I wondered how it was that I could appreciate
beauty in material things….and to rule that one thing ought to be like this,
another like that. I wondered how it was that I was able to judge them in this
way, and I realised that above my own mind, which was liable to change, there
was the never changing, true eternity of Truth”
By questioning how he judged what things “ought to
be” he achieved Truth, which we see later was a disappointment. He describes
his encounter with this Neoplatonist Truth in Confessions (VII.xxvii), “For
it is one thing, from the mountain’s shaggy top to see the land of peace, and
to find no way thither; and another to keep on the way that leads thither,
guarded by the host of the heavenly General”. The Platonist Truth is incomplete
and at the time Augustine felt exiled from this Truth, he feels that he is on a
mountain and that Truth is a faraway land. Relying on reason, and questioning,
the best that the Neoplatonists can achieve is a glimpse of the truth. They are
correct in understanding God, but they fail in how they chase after the Truth.
For Augustine, the Truth can only be accessed with Jesus Christ. He explains in
Confessions (VII.xxiii): “Then I
sought a way of obtaining strength sufficient to enjoy Thee; and found it not,
until I embraced that Mediator betwixt God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…. For,
the Word was made flesh”.
Augustine to bring Platonism into dialogue with Christianity he had to analyse
how the Platonists would achieve their Truth and was ultimately dispirited.
Platonists could not conceive of the perfect intelligible realm existing in our
flawed physical world and in turn had to reject that Jesus Christ was an
incarnation of God Himself. Without the ‘mediator betwixt God and men’ the
Platonists had no true way of accessing the Truth.
To conclude, Augustine was successful in bringing
Platonism into dialogue with Christianity. Augustine shows that the failures of
Plato’s philosophy, and its various extensions, can be remedied with
Christianity. He showed that belief in intelligible and sensible realms is
coherent with Christianity, while maintaining that the One or God does not
emanate. Furthermore, Augustine presents us with a Christian solution to the
Platonic downfall in the search for Truth.