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The charge of Neo-Platonism is often leveled against St. Augustine.  While it is certainly true that Plotinus is always in the mind of Augustine (due to his conversion from that system), and there are clearly areas where Augustine borrows from this great, and final light of the Hellenistic age.  But it is equally clear that Augustine’s doctrine is soundly critical of Plotinus as I hope to show in four distinct areas; 1.) God.  2.) The World.  3.) Man and knowledge.  4.) Ethics.   This week I'll deal with the doctrine of God


God – Like most Christian theologians of late antiquity, Augustine conceived of God as Being.  Ex 3:14 is accepted by him in its literal sense.  This alone is enough to separate him from Plotinus.  For Plotinus, the absolutely first principle was the One, which he posited above every being.  In the mind of the Christian there is nothing above God and since we know from Scripture that God is “HE WHO IS”, we also know that the absolute first principle is being.  Augustine admits that God is the One but he does not subordinate being to the One, rather he identifies the One with Being.  Because of this fundamental difference no two metaphysical statements can have the same import in the doctrines of Augustine and of Plotinus. 


For the same reason the Trinitarian doctrine of Augustine who, contrary to some popular opinions, follows the Council of Nicaea, and is nowhere the same as Plotinus.  The Trinity of Plotinus is three universal causes – the One, who is above being; the Intellect, who is both nous and being but is not the Word or Logos; the World Soul, who is the lowest of these three universal causes.  The One is above Intellect and Intellect is above the World Soul.  In Augustine’s Trinity, there is equality of the three persons and unity in essence (or being).  A theology of the One differs on every point from a theology of Being; a doctrine where the first three universal causes do not share in the same ousia is in every respect other than a doctrine where the three divine persons are one single being, one single God. 


In Plotinus being only appears after the One, with the Intellect who is being.  For Augustine, God the Father is Being in his own right.  A consequence of this for Augustine is the notion of being, conceived as essence is always identical with itself, that is both eternal and immutable and these two attributes will always remain the controlling factors for Augustine.  Eternality and immutability will also become the basis of Augustine’s epistemology and his doctrine of Illumination (as opposed to Platonic reminiscence.)


This factor points to differences in philosophical implications between Augustine and Plotinus.    For Augustine the main metaphysical problem is the relation of being to becoming, immutability to change, time to eternity.  In Plotinus, the main metaphysical problem is the relation of the many to the One.  As an aside, in Thomas Aquinas, it is the relation of participated acts of being to the supreme act of Esse.  No single proposition can be translated from the metaphysical language of one of these three doctrines into the language of another without undergoing a radical transposition. 

Much more could be said here but the contrast is clear enough.  There surely are Neo-Platonist within the early church (and in modern times too - i.e. Paul Tillich).  Dionysius the Areopagite reproduces verbatim, large section of Proclus, and John Eriugena's doctrine is a purely Dionysian reproduction.  But to apply such a charge to St. Augustine I believe falls short of its mark.  

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Comment by Lisa Robinson on May 3, 2012 at 4:33pm

Damian, I can always count on you for some light reading.  Very helpful distinctions. 

Comment by Damian on May 3, 2012 at 6:26pm

Thanks Lisa.  More to come :-)


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