Augustine and Neo-Platonism

I first heard that Augustine was a Neo-Platonist in my undergraduate philosophy program.  Since then, the concept has simply been a given.  Of course he was.

The major problem with this statement is that it lacks much distinctive value.  It is true that Augustine was familiar with the works of the Platonists, but that hardly makes him a devoted member of a distinctive “Neo-Platonic” school.  Most of the Fathers were Neo-Platonic in some sense, and indeed, most of the medievals and quite a bit of moderns are Neo-Platonic.  But to stop at this “description” is to do very little indeed.

For all we know, John’s prologue has Neo-Platonic elements.  Does that therefore mean we relegate his gospel to a sub-Christian standing?  To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, this gets embarrassing.

Michel Barnes, with an appropriate amount of cynicism, has sought to show just how ahistorical most of these claims against Augustine actually are.  In fact, he says that we only possess one or perhaps two credible histories of Augustine that seek to locate him in his intellectual and historical context.

Unpacking this, he writes:

What I will suggest now is that the judgment of the ‘neoplatonic’ character of Augustine’s trinitarian theology may have once had the function of placing that trinitarian theology within a historical context and within a narrative of the development of doctrine (namely, placing that trinitarian theology within the historical context of late fourth-, early fifth-century Latin neoplatonism).  But if such a judgment on neo-platonic character of Augustine’s emphasis on unity ever had the function of locating that theology within a historical context, the judgement does not, cannot, continue to do so credibly any longer.  There are several reasons why reading Augustine’s trinitarian theology as an event in Latin neoplatonism can no longer creidbly serve to locate that theology historically, of which I shall only three name.  The first reason is that the understanding of neoplatonism as a historical phenomenon which was presumed for that narrative is itself no longer viable from a scholarly point of view.  The second reason is that he secondary work which supposedly supports such a judgement (e.g. du Roy’s) in fact does not.  The third reason why reading Augustine’s trinitarian theology as an event in Latin neoplatonism can no longer credibly serve to locate that theology historically is the point of departure of this essay: such a location fails to reflect the doctrinal content of the texts is is supposed to explain, depending as it does upon an ahistorical, decontextualized, or dismembered reading of the texts.

~ “Reading Augustine on the Trinity” in The Trinity ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins, pg. 152-153

The Reformed are as bad as anybody when it comes to this methodology.  All we have to do is point out that someone was influenced by “pagan” philosophies and there no longer seems to be any reason to read that person, or at least not read them seriously.

This also shows that most of us, like most of Christianity, are the nerdy kid who is trying to be cool.  We always catch on too late.

It may be that Barnes ends up being wrong.  That isn’t what I mean.  What I do mean is that we should begin noting that there is some scholarship that is challenging these notions, and at the very least, we leave the judgment open for others to discern.

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4 thoughts on “Augustine and Neo-Platonism

  1. THE CITY OF GOD expresses an admiration for Plato while not finding much helpful in Aristotle as I remember. But, in Peter Brown’s work on Augustine, Brown demonstrates that Plato was for Augustine just one step moving toward his maturation as a Christian thinker. Plato resued him from Manacheism, and St. Paul rescued him from Plato.

  2. It’s kind of like an elaborate game of hot potato: who influenced who and who infected who with what prejudices, etc. It is not suprising that the Fathers and the “Neoplatonists” thought the same: they both lived in the same age, had the same approach to the past and texts, and other things. To assume that we have more of a relationship with the Church Fathers than their pagan contemporaries just because we claim them as our own is a form of historical imperialism on our part. I remember reading somewhere of one scene in the life of Plotinus where he was lecturing in Alexandria when Origen walked in the room. At this, Plotinus sat down and kept respectful silence. He wouldn’t dare speak in front of Origen out of respect for an intellect greater than his own, and he was no Christian.

    Secondly, the “Neoplatonists” from Plotinus on up (and Plato implicitly) did not believe that they were inventing anything new or developing elaborate, very personal ways to express the truths of reality. Rather, they were transmitting a tradition that was much more archaic than even the Greek language, something primordial and revealed directly by the gods. It is no wonder then that many aspects of this prisca theologia had much in common with Christian ideas. The major difference is that while the Neoplatonists looked to Greek myths, Egyptian mysteries, and Chaldean astrology as the higest revelations of the Divine, Origen and other Fathers gave that distinction to the Christian Scriptures. The same tools (allegory, numerology, metaphysical hierarchies, cosmic symbolism) were the things they had in common. And they are things that we moderns, overly scholasticized and sectoralized in our forms of knowledge, sorely lack.

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