The Influence Of Neoplatonism In Augustine’s Journey

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Augustine was a Roman African who lived from 254 – 430 AD, he is renowned as a great theologian, philosopher, and writer. Throughout his life Augustine composed dozens of works, the arguably most influential being Confessions, an autobiography that outlines the spiritual journey Augustine had in his life. Throughout Confessions, Augustine constantly references his relationship with God, and the mysterious and beautiful ways in which one can connect to God. Through analysis of the text it becomes apparent of the strong influence that Neoplatonism had on Augustine’s idea of God. Neoplatonism is a derivation of Platonic philosophy that originated in the 3rd century AD, it was initially developed by Ammonius Saccas and is thought to be influenced by ideals outlined in Gnosticism (early religious ideas that promoted personal spiritual connections over public teachings and traditions), and the Israel ideation of God ‘Yahweh’. This paper argues that Neoplatonic themes molded Augustine’s idea of God, and the significant effect it had on his conversion from a dualist Manichaeism thinker, into a member of Christianity.

Neoplatonism takes a high order on the origin of the human soul. They believe that all human souls emanating from a singular source, which is often referred to as God, the One, Yahweh, etc. In Latin this source is referred to as the anima mundi, which translate to the world soul. Within Confessions Augustine struggles with understanding why and how God stood by when he was an imperfect soul littered with vices. Augustine states “What was it that I delighted in, if not loving and being loved?” (pg. 770). Here Augustine is referring to the insignificance ¬of worldly pleasure in comparison to the eternal joy that is brought by the connection to the eternal source of the soul, God. For what does one love, if not the salvation of all things pure, but instead the vices of the physical body. Augustine then goes on to explain that “There was no path from soul to soul, no luminous links of friendship” (pg. 770). This statement is explaining the world of ego, in comparison to the world of spiritual enlightenment. When one is enthralled in their ego, they perceive other people as either a threat, utility, or some form of pleasure. All of which make for a faulty connection from themselves, to all things that surround them, it becomes ‘me vs. them’ and leaves no room for unity. To be specific, Augustin defines true friendship as “luminous links of friendship”, here the word luminous could be attributed to the formless entity of God that ‘links’ together all things, as well as the moment in which the luminescent luster of God shines from the firmament and into one’s mind. These quotes display a pull from Manichaeism towards Christianity. For Manichaeism believes in a God that embodies a physical entity, one that possesses mass. However, within these quotes what Augustine refers to is much larger than an entity in the form of man, for Augustine is referring to a God that is much more akin to the Anima Mundi. In the article Augustine’s Moulding of the Manichean Idea of God in the Confessions by Therese Fuhrer she states “Augustine has chosen to make his protagonist ‘Augustinus’ develop his own, new account of the ‘one’, omnipotent, create God …. he [Augustine] critiques the Manichaeans and their doctrine…. Their materialist idea of God and the religious practice that corresponds to it” (pg. 532). Here Fuhrer states that Augustine is creating his own depiction of God, which can be said to be true for all who create a connection with God. However, it should be noted of the similarities that Augustine’s God must that of the Neoplatonist’s God. In addition, Fuhrer further explains how Augustine’s God, is contradictory to the beliefs of the Manichaeans.

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As you read further into Confessions it becomes clear that Augustine is immensely interested in the source of evil, or wickedness in the world. In book II Augustine speaks of an evening, on his 16th year, where he went to steal pears, from a pear tree. Augustine tosses back and forth attempting to understand why God would allow such discourse to be so apparent in one’s life. Augustine states that “every disordered soul will be its own punishment” (pg 768), here Augustine is acknowledging the idea that the punishment of one’s actions, will be the repercussions they face not only on earth, but within their soul. For if one chooses to not walk with God, then they will never know the feeling of true joy. Augustine then goes onto recognize the lessons learned from this Godless life, he states “I recall my past impurity and the carnal corruptions suffered by my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God” (pg 268). This statement shows a moment of great development in Augustine’s spiritual journey, one in which he recognizes that one must suffer immensely, in a life driven by the wants of man, in order to see the light that emanates out of all things in eternity. To put it simply, one must experience darkness, to desire light. Here it can be seen that Augustine recognizes the good in the evil. To be more specific Augustine is beginning to merge good and evil into a singular entity, rather than two separate things. Going back to Augustine’s Moulding of the Manichean Idea of God in the Confessions by Therese Fuhrer, we can see that the Manichaeans viewed good and evil in a dualistic light. Fuhrer states “a ‘cosmic drama’ (this refers to the battle between good and evil) in which two principles or powers struggle against each other” (pg. 533), this is the ideology that Augustine is slowly moving away from. As Augustine sunders from Manichaean beliefs he finds himself once again thinking in a manner akin to that of Neoplatonic ideals. Augustine begins to view evil as the loss of good (a privation of good), yet there is not a point of loss in which good turns to evil. For it is an idea of perception, in which one cannot see the ‘bigger picture’ and sees a small bad, rather than the large good. Just as in Augustine’s midst of suffering, he did not see the road of light that it led him to. This thought process is one of difficult comprehension, for the realm of good exists outside of the realm of space and time in which we are bound. For good exists purely in the heart of God, the eternal now. Within Christianity, good and evil exist in the same manner as Augustine had defined, it is even theorized that Augustine’s answer played in influential role in the development of Christianity’s’.

An intrinsic aspect of Augustine’s Confessions is that it takes on the form of an autobiography, which inevitably points towards a personal experience being told. Neoplatonism was a philosophy, one in which enlightenment was met through philosophical thought. Augustine contradicted this idea and promoted the idea of a personal God, an argument made clear by the very fact he writes of his personal spiritual journey. Furthermore, as Augustine developed these stronger and stronger ideas/answers, he leaned closer towards Christianity. In his treatise On Christian Doctrines Augustine states “Let every good Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master”. Here it becomes obvious that Augustine believes that, regardless of how accurate Neoplatonism was, the ideas it obtained belongs to the one true Master, the God of Christianity. In the article Spiritual Exercises in Augustine’s Confessions by Andres G. Nino, Nino explores the practices Augustine followed to walk closer to God. Nino states “Writing his Confessions about himself [Augustine] and the way he found God was a personal endeavor…. Augustine takes off from the ordinary level of attention…” and engages in “’solitary disengagement … an opportunity for self-discovery, emotional catharsis, and encounter with God’” (pg. 90). Here Nino emphasizes the importance of isolation, and silence in order to strengthen one’s connection with God. An aspect that Augustine has learned from the Gnostic traits littered throughout Neoplatonism. Nino goes onto to quote “Augustine ‘wants us to picture life as a way of inquiry … exercised not simply in contemplative interiority but in ecstatic communion with others in the world’” (pg. 91), here Nino is proving Augustine’s indirect dedication to the expansion of Christianity, and the importance to Augustine of that luminous link amongst all individuals, for experiencing it is a pathway to God. Additionally, this statement sheds light on the beginnings of Augustine’s great influence among the people of the time. For his fame as a spiritual preceded him in his later years. This achievement of influence is one spoken of in Confessions when Augustine once again questions God, and asks why he was given the innate ability to be a great and wise orator. This influence begs the question of whether Augustine converted to Christianity or if they met halfway. By this I mean that it is not entirely clear that Augustine had switched to Christianity and began following its Word, or if Augustine himself contributed to the Word. I believe that it is fair to say that each follower of Christianity, deserves a personal relation with God, which in part ties one closely to God, allowing one to respect their own thoughts and follow the Word faithfully. In part, meaning most conversions of faith, carry traits like that of Augustine’s.

Beneath all of the works Augustine had created is a continuous existence of a desired truth, the Word(referring to the word of God). Within Augustine’s Confessions he confronts this truth in text and explains to us, the reader, how he became familiar with the Word. Because of this relationship he establishes it gives the reader and innate ability to view his work in a tremendous hindsight, considering the time of its publication. By this, I have analyzed and concluded that Augustine was tremendously influenced by the ideals expressed in Platonism. Most notably, the transference of God from the Manichaean belief of a physical mass, to the Platonism belief of an eternal word soul that is bound by no physical entity. This, along with many other pivotal eureka moments, propelled Augustine from the word of men to the Word of God within Christianity.

Works Cited

  1. Fuhrer, Therese. “Augustine's Moulding of the Manichaean Idea of God in the ‘Confessions.’” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 67, no. 5, 2013, pp. 531–547. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.
  2. Niño, Andrés G. “Spiritual Exercises in Augustine's Confessions.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 47, no. 1, 2008, pp. 88–102. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.
  3. Puchner, Martin, et al. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
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