Part III: : St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

In book VII of the Confessions, Augustine recalls his indebtedness to the “Platonists” for helping him gain the ability to apprehend God as non-corporeal. As Augustine himself explains, he had held that that which was not extended did not exist; hence, whatever is must be in some way material. However, after his reading of the Platonists, he realized that there is an entire realm of immaterial beings to which he had previously been blinded.

“For as my eyes were accustomed to roam among material forms, so did my mind among the images of them, yet I could not see that this very act of perception, whereby I formed those images, was different from them in kind. Yet my mind would never have been able to form them unless it was itself a reality, and a great one” (p. 159)

In other words, what the Platonists helped Augustine to realize was that the power by which one conceptualizes is itself not extended. That is, Augustine reflects on reflection itself and concludes that the mind is not extended but immaterial. This breakthrough when applied to God allows Augustine to move beyond corporeal categories, which in turn enables him to gain insight into understanding God’s omnipresence. If God is immaterial, then he is not extended in space. If God is also all-powerful, (which for Augustine is undisputed), then by virtue of his power, God is omnipresent. As a result, one of Augustine’s major intellectual roadblocks has been removed.

Interestingly, however, Augustine seems to indicate that it was only by God’s grace that he was enabled to see these truths of the Platonists. Not only was Augustine directed to positive aspects of the Platonists’ teachings, he was also given insight by God as to the shortcomings of the Platonists. A famous passage in Confessions VII is worth lingering on, as it is both puzzling and illuminating. Here Augustine says that he read in certain books of the Platonists (though not in the exact same words, yet the same concepts were taught) that

“[…]in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; he was God. He was with God in the beginning. Everything was made through him; nothing came to be without him. What was made is alive with his life, and that life was the light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to master it; and that the human soul, even though it bears testimony about the Light, is not itself the Light, but that God, the Word, is the true Light, which illumines every human person who comes into this world; and that he was in this world, a world made by him, but the world did not receive him. But that he came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him; but to those who did receive him he gave power to become children of God; to those, that is, who believe in his name—none of this did I read there” (p. 170).

What is odd about this passage is that Augustine quotes almost word for word from the Fourth Gospel and states these concepts are also found in the Platonists. On the one hand, one might interpret Augustine’s comment as his correlating, e.g., Plotinus’ teaching on the Divine Mind with St. John’s teaching on the Word, or his differentiating the human soul from the Light with Plotinus’ idea that the human soul is distinct from the World Soul. Yet, on the other hand, when combined with other passages quoted by Augustine, which he claims were also found in the Platonists, it seems a bit of a “stretch” that what Plotinus and other Neoplatonists had in mind have any deep resonance with what Scripture seems to emphasize about Christ. For example, Augustine also quotes from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, and claims that in the writings of the Platonists he read that

“the Son, being in the form of God the Father, deemed it no robbery to be equal to God.” Regardless of whether what we have here is anything more than a formal similarity between the Platonists and St. Paul, Augustine is clear that he did not, however, encounter in the works of the Platonists Christ’s self-emptying and his taking the “form of a slave,” nor his “being made in the likeness of men” and humbling himself in obedient submission to the point of death, “even death on a cross” (p. 170).

Augustine goes on to enumerate other teachings of the Christian faith not found in his reading of the Platonists—that God the Father raised Christ from the dead and exalted him, that every knee should bow and confess him as Lord, that Christ died for the wicked, that these things are hidden from the “wise,” and that Christ forgives sins. Then with Romans 1 in the background, Augustine highlights the ethical and epistemological implications of “those who are raised on the stilts of their loftier doctrine,” i.e., the philosophers (p. 171). Of these Augustine says, “even if they know God, they do not honor him as God or give him thanks; their thinking has been frittered away into futility and their foolish hearts are benighted, for in claiming to be wise they have become stupid.” Continuing the Romans 1 motif, Augustine explains how the so-called wise men became idolaters. Regarding these idolatrous acts, Augustine states, “these I found there [in the writings of the Platonists], but I did not eat that food. […] I disregarded the idols of the Egyptians, to which they paid homage with gold that belonged to you, for they perverted the truth of God into a lie, worshipping a creature and serving it rather than the creator” (p. 172). Here we note Augustine’s ability to discern “Egyptian gold” from “Egyptian idols.” Yet, in spite of this intellectual progress, he, by his own admission, had yet to fully embrace Christ the mediator with his whole being. This “totus homo” conversion comes in book VIII, to which in the next post.

Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.

One thought on “Part III: : St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word”

  1. Book VII is one of my favorites in Augustine’s Confessions. It doesn’t come through as strongly in your post that bare Platonism left Augustine spiritually and/or intellectually frustrated. The Platonic attempt to transcend sensual embodied existence is described as a vain attempt (VII:xxi). It is only when Augustine finds the Word made flesh in the Christian gospel that he is able to contemplate the word. The Good Word must descend to flesh, if it is to be believed in, hoped in and loved (VII:xxviii-xxxi). This descent of the Word allows Augustine to then see God in the things which are made without falling into the error of the polytheists of VII:ix.

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