Augustine, Manichees, and Neo-Platonism (Part 2)

Soon, the Neo-Platonists would change his perceptions of reality. Augustine would make his way to Milan and win a teaching position there after leaving Carthage (where he met Faustus) (Confessions 5.13.23). It was here that Augustine would meet Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (Confessions 5.13.23). For all intents and purposes, it was Ambrose who not only brought the ideas of Neo-Platonism to Augustine, but also brought him from a literal reading of a Bible to a sometimes-allegorical reading (Confessions 5.14.24).

Neo-Platonism was a school of philosophical, as well as religious, thought primarily formed from the works of Plato and expanded upon by Plotinus. Plotinus believed that there is a One being who is transcendent and above the rest of reality (Knowles 69). From this One, the rest of reality exists. In general, there are many other gods and spiritual creatures attached to this concept as well, but all other beings are beneath the One (Knowles 69). According to Plotinus, the One is the source of everything, but it does not have any determinate properties that humans can explain; it defies categorization of any kind (Knowles 69).

The One differs from Manichaen conceptions of God in that there is an omnipotent being above all others – He does not share this power, nor is there an opposite power greater than the One (Knowles 70). A materialistic view of the world does not work in the Neo-Platonism, because much of its thought is based upon the world of ideas. Matter does not have the influence to cause good or bad actions, as in Manichaeism, but the soul (which dwells in the world of ideas) (Knowles 70). Knowles and Penkett also ascribe other aspects to Neo-Platonism:

There is a unity and permanence that underlies and undergirds multiplicity in differences we experience in this world. Even as we talk of change, we imply a permanence that is unchanging (69).

The One, in addition, is the source of the intellect. The important concept, at least to Augustine, is that the soul exists primarily because it can comprehend divine concepts. Plotinus believed that mankind could re-attune themselves with the One, much like many Christians believe they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (Knowles 70). However, the mind, which can be self-serving and prideful, as well as the soul, which has the power to produce matter, both prevent the One, the supreme good, from taking hold (Knowles 70).

Matter is the opposite of form, the perfection of an idea, and thus is evil (however, this is not in a moral sense – this was added later on in Christian theology) (Knowles 70). Evil arrives primarily from the defects of the soul, which tends to become preoccupied with matter, as well as a misuse of human freedom, or free will (Knowles 70). Suffice to say, Neo-Platonism is a synthesis of Plato’s philosophy regarding the world of ideas and Plotinus’ particular penchant for religious ideas as well.

Ambrose was not directly responsible for bringing Neo-Platonism to Augustine, but his particular ways of viewing the Bible and its doctrine were definitely derived from a theologically similar mode. Thus, Augustine read the texts of the Platonists and was very pleased (Confessions 7.9.13). Within Neo-Platonism was a view that fit Augustine – an emphasis on the intellect, the ability of humans to understand and learn, a rational belief that was not outlandish like the Manichees, and human responsibility resulting from free will. These concepts fit Augustine’s conception of reality up to this point; Augustine was drawing closer and closer to Christianity, but Neo-Platonism was not the end of Augustine’s journey.

As much as this system of thought aligned with Augustine almost perfectly, the concept of “communing” with the One was still a problem. Plotinus believed that he had communicated with it at least 4 times – however, he did not list the process by which he was able to communicate with the transcendent being (Knowles 70). In addition, Neo-Platonism advocates a sort of “self-purification” in order that the soul might reach the highest goal of communication with the One; in effect, this process was a shared unity of divinity between God and man (Boulding 172). What Augustine declares about this situation is most explicitly stated in the Confessions, as he converses with God about Neo-Platonism:

Warned by these writings that I must return to myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper I was able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken, transcending my mind; not this common light that every carnal light can see, nor any light of the same order but greater, as though this common light were shining…as to fill the universe…this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made.

Confessions 7.10.16

One could say that Augustine attempted to “purify” himself and reach Neo-Platonic ecstasy but was driven from it by the one true God of the Christian faith (at least, that is the way Augustine wishes his audience to believe it occurred). The reason for Augustine’s hostility to such a belief is complex and not explicitly stated in The Confessions. First, Neo-Platonic ecstasy relies on no person but the individual to gain an understanding of the divine. Certainly, Augustine had already deduced at this point that the Christian faith was the most reliable and fitting text from Ambrose, but he was struggling to attach a rational mode of thought to it.His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but her faith was not grounded in logic or reason – he wished to move away from that tradition. Thus, Augustine would not have accepted a salvation of the self, a type of enlightenment, especially after Manichaeism’s selfish escapism.

Augustine had moved from a philosophy where mankind was not responsible for anything, to land into another where man dictates his own destiny in a way by Platonic self-purification; this he could not accept, simply because of his Christian upbringing. In addition, the One as a more impersonal, unknown factor also bothered Augustine. If this were true, there would be no element in the world leading people to good; in fact, they would have to discover this path themselves.

As a whole, every tradition before Christianity that Augustine entered required some form of self-discipline and sacrifice, but only to a physical degree. As a Manichee, he still delved into the world’s pleasures such as sex and drinking, and even after his conversion he struggled with lust. However, Christian theology told Augustine that Jesus was the redeemer and mediator who brought about a connection with the divine; it was not the human, but the Divine that saved a person, and it was only by grace that a person could become whole (Confessions 7.21.27).

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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.