Platonism and St. Augustine

Platonism and St. Augustine

Sean Jacob Alcordo, Contributor

Before we can even talk about how Platonism influenced St. Augustine’s theology, we have to dive into what Platonism actually is. Plato believed in two different worlds, the world of “forms,” and the “sensible” world. Think about the great artworks kept in museums. There are the wonderful originals kept safe so they won’t deteriorate over time, and there are copies made that the public may view. As close as these recreations can be to the original, they never quite match the same quality. Take the fresco painting Ecce Homo(Behold the Man) by Elias Garcia Martinez for example. As you can see, the original has great detail and can easily be held in a higher regard than the amateur restoration. Using this as reference, Plato would see the original as a part of the world of forms. This is what the sensible world is based upon. The sensible world is made up of only shadows of these perfect forms, and although maybe not to such a dramatic degree, the sensible world is merely an imperfect recreation.

(Photos via BBC)

One more significant point about Platonism is the role of the soul. Rather than being a mere component of what makes a person, it is separate from the body. Instead of controlling the body as may be commonly thought, the soul is actually imprisoned by the body, keeping it from reaching the world of forms. The soul, according to Plato, actually existed with the form of Good before it was trapped within the human body. He argues that there must be a distinction between the material and immaterial things in the world. Material things, such as the world around us, is visible and mortal, eventually coming to an end. Immaterial things however, are invisible and immortal. Plato argues that the body is material, yet the soul is immaterial. It must live on even after the body dies.
Now, we can talk about how Plato’s teachings have influenced St. Augustine. Although some see it fair to call Augustine a Platonist, it is more accurate to call his teachings separate from Platonism, rather than a mere subspecies of it. Augustine believed in the rational soul and that it held control over the sensual desires and passions. However, Augustine was a strong Christian, along with following Plato’s teachings. He believed that the soul could be taught to be wise by turning it towards God, the Supreme Being and the Supreme Good. Augustine first believed that the soul was a part of God that had fallen to the sensible world, but in his later writings, he replaced this view. He believed that the soul represented a middle position in the hierarchy of God, originating in the divine, but not quite divine itself. To act immorally and against the order of things would move the soul further and further from God, and he called this Moral Depravity.

To go further, he believed that due to this hierarchy, the soul was superior to the body, and as such, it could not be acted on by the body. However, with this came several issues. If the soul was immortal, immaterial, and superior to the body, how did it come to be imprisoned in the body? Plato explains this in two ways. Either the soul had fallen to the sensible world due to some error that it committed, or it had been sent into the world in order to spread life and order. Augustine has his own three theories of the soul. The first being creationism, where God creates a new soul for each living being; traducianism, where the soul is transmitted from the parents to the child; and preexistence, which like Plato believed, the soul was sent down voluntarily or by God. Augustine himself never denies any of these three officially, except for the idea that the soul was sent down to a body as punishment, as it was considered heresy during his time.

Augustine also had some differences with Plato’s theory of forms. He does agree with the forms “participating” in the sensible world, however he believes that the forms are ideas in the mind of God, rather than a mere world parallel to ours. However, one thing that Augustine strongly disagrees with is the idea of reality merely “flowing” into the sensible world, or emanation. Plotinus, one of the scholars who followed Plato’s teachings believed that “the One” was distant from his creation, and emanation was out of His control. Augustine on the other hand strongly believes that God does not create thoughtlessly, rather God has an intimate connection with his material creations, shaping and designing it to his will. Also, he makes the distinction that God does not make these out of necessity, rather He freely creates, demonstrating His perfection. This brings one major branch off Plato’s ideology. The body is not an evil prison that keeps us from true happiness, for it comes from God. Instead, we should learn to love these bodily things, but we need to learn to love them in the right way, ultimately, for God.

Augustine takes these Platonist teachings, and modifies them for his Christian faith. Although perfection supposedly never existed in the sensible world for Plato, for Augustine it did. He saw these sensible things as a way to direct himself towards God, not to blind ourselves from the true divine reality. God himself took a material form on Earth, and it was perfect. Augustine saw Platonism as a way to begin to catch a glimpse of the reality far above his own. Neoplatonism brought these issues to light, yet it left their followers without an escape from the sensible world. They know the goal, but deny that there any amount of knowledge that will reunite them with The One. However, Augustine was able to acknowledge the reality and find it in his own life, through Jesus.


Works Cited
Augustinian Platonism. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Platonism/Augustinian-Platonism

Richards-Gustafson, F. (2017, November 21). Examples of Poe’s Romanticism. Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://education.seattlepi.com/examples-poes-romanticism-5298.html

Tornau, C. (2019, September 25). Saint Augustine. Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/

Williams, T. (2003, October 23). Augustine and the Platonists. A lecture given to the Freshman Program of Christ College in Valparaiso University, Indiana.