Augustine, Manichees, and Neo-Platonism (Part 1)

As much as Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity is propagated, the reasoning behind this decision – especially in introductory texts such as Augustine and His World by Knowles and Penkett – is overly simplified. In fact, Augustine’s transition was much more complex than that, as outlined in Augustine’s own The Confessions.

Here, the reader takes a journey in Books V through VII at Augustine’s increasingly divisive worldviews. He is a youth struggling to find the true answer to his problems, and he encounters many obstacles along the way. Starting with his parents, he was introduced to Christianity by his mother and paganism by his father. He would initially reject both these paths and follow Manichaeism. Manicheaism  was the first religious and philosophical tradition that Augustine embraced, but he eventually became disenchanted with the Manichees due to its inability to satiate his hunger for answers (especially from Faustus, the much-revered leader of the Manichees at the time).

Next, after meeting Ambrose of Milan, he would delve into the world of the Neo-Platonists. They would provide him, again, with a deluge of information that slowly molded his faith, but he rejected it too. What Augustine finally demonstrates, however, is a religious and philosophical synthesis within these traditions that formed his views on Christianity. Augustine does not take any issue lightly; he weighs all the differing thoughts of the time, in the context of his developing Christian faith, to form his particular views on the nature of reality. By exploring not only the Manichees and Neo-Platonism, as well as his mother’s fideism that drove him away from Christianity in the first place, a full picture of this synthesis can be gained. Modern parallels of this kind – a new view formed from the deconstruction of the old – still crop up today in films like The Matrix trilogy.

The Manichees are the best place to start in discovering this synthesis. The essential principle of Manichaeism is its distinct dualism (Knowles 52). Basically, there are two realms that exist in reality: one of light, and one of darkness. As a natural conclusion, light is the realm of harmony and order, while the realm of darkness remains the place of disorder and chaos (Knowles 52). These attributes of the universe led Mani, the founder of this religious tradition (hence the name), to several conclusions. First, there is no omnipotent power in the world. In fact, the worlds of light and of darkness are in perpetual conflict with one another, both being of equal strength in regards to their influence in the world. In addition to this, the body is a dualistic creature as well. The soul is associated with light, and the body is associated with darkness. Explaining the problem of evil is generally a problem in religious traditions, but the Manichees were able to resolve this potential conflict with these beliefs.

In traditional Christian theology, God is the omnipotent good power in the world – Satan and evil are in no way equal to good. Many find this view of reality to be a problem – why is there suffering in the world if God is all powerful? We often call this the “problem of evil”, in that we cannot solve the problem in any satisfactory way within Christian theology (although that depends on what you mean by “evil”, anyway). In that sense, Manichees solves that problem, as evil and good are equal forces fighting for the fate of mankind and the world (Knowles 52).

According to Augustine, his distaste for Scripture at first came primarily from the text of the Bible. He felt it “unworthy” in comparison to the eloquent words of Cicero and resigned not to read it at all because of its oddly structured prose (Confessions 3.9.18). It is important to remember that Augustine was reading the Old Latin translation of the Bible – generally considered to be poorly translated and difficult to read (Boulding 80). Derived from the Greek Septuagint, it was likely to contain multiple errors.

However, Augustine was not only intrigued, but accepting of the Manichees’ explanation for evil. It made perfect sense that darkness invaded the realm of light and causes evil to occur (Knowles 52). Augustine attributes his acceptance of these facts, in hindsight, to deception; he believed that the Manichees had taken advantage of his disappointment with the Bible (Confession 3.6.10). At the time, Augustine was unconcerned; Manichaeism fulfilled Augustine’s needs at the time.

Perhaps the key thing to understand about Mani’s view of the world is that no person is directly responsible for his or her actions; the spiritual battle between darkness and light was solely in charge of every action in the physical world. The Manichees desired to escape the trials and tribulations of the world; the goal was not to save the world, but escape from it (Knowles 53). To a young, adolescent Augustine, these ideas were not only reasons to do whatever he wished, but appealed to him on an intellectual level (Knowles 53). Mainly because Manichaeism brought a seemingly logical and rational explanation to human events, Augustine accepted their beliefs wholeheartedly.

Augustine would not be a Manichee forever, of course. At first, he would be a fervent evangelical for this religion, converting many of his friends to his worldview. Over the nine years he was a practicing Manichee, Augustine began to question the traditions of the Manichees. The Manichee belief that each human has a little glimmer of God within themselves was reassuring, but to Augustine, much of the Manichees’ traditions just did not fit the reality he knew (Knowles 52). Thus, he resolved to meet with Faustus, the person most knowledgeable of the Manichee religion at the time. Augustine hoped that Faustus would answer his burning questions and allay his concerns (Confession 5.6.10).

Specifically, Augustine found that Mani’s scriptures were actually incorrect about astronomy; science, even at that time, could map a fairly accurate picture of the stars, and Manichaen scriptures did not even correspond with it (Confessions 5.5.8). Such inconsistencies and contradictions began a loss of faith within Augustine. However, meeting Faustus would not allay his fears in this regard. Augustine felt Faustus was a great orator, but he lacked substance and education, even to answer the most basic questions of his own religion. Augustine relays this experience in Book V of the Confessions:

Once it had become sufficiently clear to me that he was poorly informed about the very disciplines in which I had believed him to excel, I began to give up hope that I could elucidate and clear up for me the problems with which I was concerned. Their books are full of interminable myths concerning sky, star, sun and moon, and it had been my earnest wish that by comparing these with the numerical calculations I had read elsewhere he would demonstrate to me that the phenomena in question could be more plausibly explained by the account given in Mani’s books, or at least that an equally valid explanation could be found there; but now I no longer deemed him capable of explaining these things to me with any precision.

Confessions 5.7.12

Clearly, Augustine was distraught, but the social connections he had gained through the Manichees meant that Augustine would remain within this sect

until some preferable option presented itself

in Augustine’s words (Confessions 5.7.13). Augustine did not abandon all of Manichaeism at this point; Augustine still held on to his notions of a completely material world that did not mingle with the spiritual.

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Augustine. The Confessions. Trans. Maria Boulding. New York: New City Press, 1997.

Knowles, Andrew and Pachominos Penkett. Augustine and His World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

The Matrix. Dir. Andrew and Laurence Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving. 1999. DVD. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2004.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Andrew and Laurence Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving. 2003. DVD. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2004.

The Matrix Revolutions. Dir. Andrew and Laurence Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving. 2003. DVD. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2004.

 

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.