How important was Platonism to Augustine? Professor Thomas Williams illustrates by letting us examine Augustine’s Confessions (397). Indeed, with St. Augustine’s ‘autobiography’, he places his interaction with Platonism in the middle of the book, thus signifying that it was a foundational moment of importance to Augustine. But, the surprising thing is, though with age Augustine would distance himself from Platonism, he would never really fully cast off the Platonist tradition, as even how he reads scripture is heavily imbued with Platonist ideas, a general outlook or approach.
Williams decides to illustrate the sort of general approach with Platonism which Augustine held in the form of a story. The story is as follows.
Imagine you are a high school senior. You are dating Pat and they are perfect for you: there is no one more compatible with you than Pat, and you know it. But, you graduate and go off to college while Pat stays in your hometown. So there you are, involved in all the hustle and bustle of college while still trying to keep in touch with Pat; and yet, it is just not the same. Your friends see that you are missing something, so they try and set you up with someone else. At first, you say no since no one else could possibly live up to Pat’s perfection. But it gets harder and harder to think about Pat—your course work, club meetings, and studying take up so much time and energy that even when you do have time to think about Pat, your friends are all trying to set you up. Eventually, you decide to accept the date just to shut them up—besides, maybe a real date with a real person is actually better than nostalgic thoughts. So your date with Chris goes well; in fact, they remind you a lot about Pat. Of course, Pat is superior in all ways to Chris, except for one: Pat is far away in your home town while Chris is right here, in front of you. So you start spending more and more time with Chris. Soon you start to forget about Pat; even though that the only reason that you like Chris is that they are a pale imitation of Pat. But since you’ve lost all connection with your one true love, you’re happy with this one inferior version of the real thing.
Okay, so that is the story, so here is what it means according to Professor Williams.
Your home town is what is perfect, unchanging, and accessible only by the mind (in Platonic jargon, the ‘intelligible realm’). The hometown is your true homeland, the only place where you could have perfect rest and peace. Pat, meanwhile, represents, whatever it is, what will give you that perfect peace and rest. College is the world of the imperfect, changing, busy; the world which can only be apprehended by the senses (the ‘sensible realm’ in Platonic language). Chris represents those aspects of the imperfect world in which we try and peruse so as to evoke some kind of rest in the imperfect world.
There are three different ways to understand this story. One way is to use this story as making a point in metaphysics (or, the fundamental structure of reality).
To Plato, so-called ‘sensible things’ are imperfect replicas of the eternal, unchanging, and utterly perfect divine-like blueprints of reality—‘the forms’. There are principals, in other words, in which all things flowed from ‘the one,’ that which is the original inspiration for all that comes after—the ultimate origin. But the one is not a creator, it does not care for what comes forth from it; the One merely emanates in the same way that heat emerges from a lightbulb. Matter, therefore, is the furthest from the one since it lacks the same sort of ‘heat’ which emanates from the one.
Tied to the metaphysical use of the story, was an epistemological use of the story.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with knowledge. Because sensible things participate in and resemble the intelligible forms, they can remind us of the forms. But because they are deficient, they can also blind us to the forms. Platonists, meanwhile, tended to believe that most people are stuck in the space of the sounds and senses, the pain and pleasure of the body, with a result that most people end up knowing nothing worth knowing (that which exists in the intelligible realm). It is hard to get Pat on the phone, in other words, when you are constantly hanging out with your college friends. Though these imperfect, sensible copies, can goad us to look for the perfect, One, originals. So the sensible can blind us but also bring us back to the intelligible realm through the sort of sensational blip they cause us to experience when we realize their faults. Provided, there is always the chance that you will realize that one day Chris simply is not right for you, and you will have to disentangle yourself from Chris—and your college friends—and find Pat once more.
The third way to examine the story is from the moral perspective.
What blinds us to our true intelligible homeland is, to the Platonist, the sensible. It is important to separate the soul from the body; the body, in some strands of Platonist thought, is seen as a kind of evil, one which needs to be transcended in order for our soul to return to its real home. But, even so, part of the soul—the lower part—remains behind to engage with the body is sunk in sensation and emotion, and so we are forced to misperceive reality; we can’t choose the good because we can’t see the good, we can’t see the good because sensation and passion get in the way. Only if we escape this ignorance can we return to the one, only if we escape being dominated by our bodies can we escape ignorance.
So in order to return to the one, we must have two key requirements: (1) we have to have the right knowledge; that which we obtain by thinking ourselves out of the body as much as possible; (2) We must liberate ourselves from the passions and emotions of feeling pleasure and pain. We do this via moral purification and self-denial. WE have to deny the body which denies us access to the One.
All of the above is the grand picture which Williams ascribes to what Augustine saw in Platonist thought. To which, Augustine saw it compelling enough to continue with the basic outlook enunciated above for the rest of his life, even when Christianity dominated his worldview. Of course, Augustine is a Christian, and his faith requires him to modify Platonist thought in significant ways.
In each of the three subsets of philosophy discussed—metaphysics, epistemology, and morality—Augustine addressed the following.
First, Augustine wholly buys the idea that the sensible is second rate copies of the intelligible. Augustine, however, regards the Forms are ideas in the mind of God, not as Plato himself regarded them (independently living things). So Augustine accepts the story about participation but he does not accept the story about emanation; unlike the One, Augustine’s God is intimately concerned with material reality since it was designed and shaped according to his will. Augustine, in other words, does not agree with other Platonists who argue that every step away from the One represents a fall. So instead of emanation, we have creation, where the whole universe is lit up by God’s own creation. So, instead of the matter representing evil, it represents good (though still below God in terms of good). God has an investment in the material order and a demonstration of his perfection. So we can see how this effects the moral picture, in that, the body is no longer a shadowy, pseudo-reality which can only get in the way of our true happiness. The body is a divine creation because God deliberately put them there; the body is not bad because it exists, but only in that it has a tendency to monopolize our attention and pervert our imagination. Morally speaking, the goal is not to deny the body, but to discipline the body.
Another way in which Augustine’s delineation of Platonism fused into Christianity expresses itself: he must insist on a distance between metaphysical separation and moral depravity. Metaphysical separation from the One is not a fall because it is, in fact, in accordance with God’s will. Moral depravity, on the other hand, does represent a fall; moral depravity is a revolt against God’s ordering of things, the deliberate choice to prefer the lower to the higher. Or, in choosing the lower for its own sake than for God’s sake.
Augustine’s adaptation of the epistemological picture, meanwhile, shifts the emphasis on the dialectic between the sensible and intelligible. Though he mostly agrees with Plato—that sensible things can simultaneously blind us to the intelligible while also providing the first step to returning to the One—he makes some alternations. In the Confessions, for instance, he is far more interested in the reminding aspect than the blinding aspect; in withdrawing our mind from the imperfect reality of sensible things and gradually coming to know the perfection of God, the One, who sustains them.
But, of all of the changes that Augustine makes to Platonist thought, the most important is that of the incarnation. This has deep implications for every aspect of Augustine’s thought.
In terms of the metaphysical picture, Augustine must reject the crucial Platonist notion that the perfect, intelligible reality can never be realized in the imperfect, sensible world. Because the doctrine of the incarnation states that God—the perfect—took on a body, that which is supposedly imperfect—perfection was fully expressed in the material order. As a result, we now have another mode of access to the truth—we do not have to engage with mystical meditation that the Platonists required since we can now look at the historical Jesus.
What sort of shift does this make in Platonic thought? Well, in thinking ourselves up wards to the one, the intelligible reality which that reveals, is an abstraction (Good, Truth, etc.). Since the historical Jesus was a person, that Truth and Goodness is no longer an abstraction, but a person, someone represented in the material order; morally, our perfection does not come from purifying the body and denying the mind, but from entering into a relationship with a person. All of this shows, of course, that Augustine’s platonic inheritance is an extremely complicated matter (as Augustine confirms when he places it at the center of his Confessions), on which wholly revises the Platonic outlook.