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Augustine and Plato Texts

Augustine and Plato, by Gillian Clark, from pages 18 20 of the introduction to her Cambridge
Latin edition of Confessions, Books I-VI

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

Augustine 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

When Augustine was about twenty, 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.He also read more of Cicero's philosophical works.Augustine was impressed by Cicero's Academics.

Augustine was given Platonic books in a Latin translationand, he says, they changed his life. The Platonism
Augustine encountered, in books and discussion groups and preaching, was called New Platonism
(Neoplatonism), which set out to claim that Plato had understood the eternal truth and had explained it in a
consistent philosophical system which was passed on by his followers.

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.[Now,] 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.

But what Augustine found most important was that Platonism helped him to think of God as
spirit.Previously, he had tried 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 God
than a sparrow's, for example. Later 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, and which can aspire to union with God.

Excerpts from Augustine and the Platonists, Thomas Williams, The University of Iowa (2003)

Platonists tend to think that most people are stuck in the world of the senses. They cant see past the sights and
sounds of this world and the pains and pleasure of the body. That means that most people know nothing
worth knowing. They think beauty, goodness, justice, truth can be found in this world, when in fact the Real
Thing can only exist in the intelligible realm. But thanks to the body, which constantly bombards us with
sensation and entices us with pleasure, were stuck here in the sensible world.

So the things of this world blind us to the intelligible realm, but they can also remind us of the intelligible
realm. The imperfection of sensible things can prompt us to look for whats perfect, the ideal exemplars that
things in this world try to be like. Sensible things can prevent us from knowing whats really worth knowing,
but they can also be the first step on the path back to the intelligible realm.
Now so far Ive stated several ways in which Augustine takes over the Platonist picture and modifies it so as to
accommodate his Christian faith. But I havent yet dealt with the most important difference, the one that
Augustine himself identifies as the one key thing he didnt find in the Platonists. That is the Incarnation [God
turning Himself into a human being, in the form of Jesus].

The Incarnation has huge implications for every aspect of Augustines thought. In terms of the metaphysical
picture, Augustine has to reject the crucial Platonist notion that the perfect intelligible reality can never be
adequately realized in the imperfect sensible world. For the doctrine of the Incarnation says that God himself
took on a body, that the eternal entered time, that perfection was fully expressed within the material order. So
now we have another mode of access to the truth. We dont have to engage in mystical meditation. We can just
look at Jesus. For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9).

I dont know that I can express adequately what a difference this makes. The intelligible reality that Platonic
ascent out of the cave reveals is an abstraction: Truth with a capital T, Goodness with a capital G. But the God
revealed in Jesus Christ is a person.The emphasis is still on knowing the truth, but now the Truth is not an
abstraction but a person, who claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And morally, our perfection does
not come from denying the body and purifying our minds, but from entering into a relationship with a person.

The stark differences between these two approaches encapsulate Augustines final judgment about the
Platonists, and about his own relationship to them. On the one hand, he acknowledges that much of his own
intellectual outlook was formed by the Platonist picture. The parallels between the two experiences show that:
the fact that both take the form of the Platonist-style ascent from mutability and imperfection to
immutability and perfection. But on the other hand, he thinks the Platonists are ultimately incapable of doing
anyone any good. Mere Platonism leaves you empty, hungry, unfulfilled. It occupies the mind with cold
abstractions, which you meditate upon fitfully in solitude as you try, however briefly, to get your head above
the murky water of the sensible world and glimpse the intelligible reality so far above it. The problem,
Augustine tells us, is that Platonists know the goal, but they refuse to acknowledge the Way, which is Jesus
himself. Apart from the right relationship to the Way, no amount of knowledge of the goal will accomplish
anything. But since Christianity offers him the Way, it allows him to reach the goal that the Platonists merely
glimpse from a distance. They can merely smell the food, but he can feed upon it in his heart by faith, with
thanksgiving