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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Augustine and the Platonists

Several commenters have tried to claim that "God" as used in Plato is something totally different than "God" as used by Christians. So, let's see what Augustine found in the pagan followers of Plato:
Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there. -- Confessions, Book VII
So, in short, the entire Christian view of God, except for the incarnation and the atonement.

27 comments:

  1. Well there's also the Trinity and the idea that the Platonic conception of God is rather impersonal.

    Some Christians will seize on the different belief and call heterodoxy, but if Plato (or Aristotle) can derive the existence of God and Divine attributes using reason, then Plato is speaking of the same God the Christians speak of. After all, the Incarnation and Trinity were revealed truths rather than derived truths.

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  2. Good point, traumerei. I was just noting the differences Augustine was pointing out

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  3. So if you explained Augustine's views in this context to a random sample of self-identified Christians, they would agree with the equivalency of that definition of God and their own?

    Or is this another case of assuming way more nuance to your intellectual confederates' beliefs than actually exists?

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  4. Gene,

    You'll want to be careful when comparing what Augustine thought Plato said to what Plato actually said. Though Augustine read Greek (and probably better than he leads on in "Confessions"), he had little access to Greek philosophy in Greek and only slightly more of it in Latin. We know he only read about half of Plotinus' "Enneads" and those he read were from the Latin translations. As for Plato himself, the only Latin translation floating around at the time would have been Calcidius' translation of the "Timaeus" and then only about 3/4 of it. (up to about 53c of the Stephanus numbering). In short, as is the case with most medieval philosophers regarding Plato, Augustine's concept of Plato was certainly within the confines of the tradition, but not Plato himself.

    What you should show, something I think is possible, but would require the time and attention of a specialist, is that there is a direct continuity from Plato's thought to Plotinus and from Plotinus to Augustine. A direct line from Plato to Augustine would be anachronistic, and would require you to misread one or the other.

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  5. Yes, Stephen, good point. That's why I said "the pagan followers of Plato," and why Augustine said "Platonists" rather than "Plato."

    "What you should show, something I think is possible, but would require the time and attention of a specialist, is that there is a direct continuity from Plato's thought to Plotinus and from Plotinus to Augustine."

    I think this has been done. See, for instance, Voegelin's Order and History. But it is a commonplace among historians of thought that Christianity is "the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem." I am only trying to make this point at the "pop" level for the benefit of my blog commenters who don't believe it.

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  6. The use and acceptance of classical philosophy in Christian thinking is pretty mixed. Those Christians with a dim view of the Scholastic enterprise might agree with Tertullian in asking "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

    That would probably be the prevailing view among modern American Christians. It probably wasn't too long ago when the West viewed itself as the inheritor and champion of Christianity and the classical tradition. Those days, as the necessity of your original post suggests, are over.

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  7. "Those Christians with a dim view of the Scholastic enterprise..."

    Well, Augustine was waay before the Scholastics.

    "That would probably be the prevailing view among modern American Christians."

    Yes, but historically speaking, they are factually incorrect. Their own views have way more debt to our classical heritage than they know.

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  8. I often wonder how much blame Platonism bears for the quirky concept, popular among many Christians, that the final resting place of the saints is a wholly spiritually "heaven," devoid of anything material.

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  9. PSH, I think you meant to write "how much praise."

    :-)

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  10. The Christian hope, at least in its biblical form, is for bodily resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos. See Romans 8:18-15. That was certainly the hope of Second-Temple Judaism. The neo-Platonic view flirts with Gnosticism.

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  11. Yeah, I'd probably ignore my previous comment if I were you, too.

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  12. "Well, Augustine was waay before the Scholastics."

    By "those" I meant contemporary Christians (although it'd be hard to find contemporary Christians who are even aware of the Scholastics).

    Those that are often carry the old prejudice of the Dark Ages and outmoded classical ideas.

    But it's true, Christian theology had adopted the Greek philosophical framework and mindset very early (at least in the East) - certainly by Nicaea in any case.

    Who are these commenters anyway?

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  13. The one where I said that if you were correct, a random sample of Christians would agree that this is what they meant by God, suggesting that you are not correct, and which you then disallowed from appearing.

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  14. It might be in the SPAM filter. One of my comments seems to have been lost, as well.

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  15. Never saw it, Silas, so I certainly did not "disallow" it! I'll check the spam bucket.

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  16. In any case, Silas, what you claiming is that Augustine didn't really understand the Christian conception of God, an extraordinary claim, since he was the foremost creator of the concept, after scripture!

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  17. I'm saying that the modern tradition called "Christianity" is so different, at least in what they call "God", that you really can't just equate their conception of god with that of Augustine's era.

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  18. Silas, I think if you had been able to talk to Pope John Paul II, who had PhDs in theology and philosophy, you would not have found his understanding of God that different than Augustine's. But the understanding of the "Christian in the street" was never, in Augustine's day or John Paul's, a high philosophical conception. I think this is the real distinction you are getting at.

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  19. Fair point, then. Only 99% of Christians are deluded about God.

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  20. "I'm saying that the modern tradition called "Christianity" is so different, at least in what they call "God", that you really can't just equate their conception of god with that of Augustine's era."

    The Augustinian conception of God was based on the Gospel of John -- at least the quote in Confessions was lifted pretty much verbatim from what we would now call: John 1.

    So, the modern day Christian would agree completely with Augustine -- as long as the Christian was familiar with John's gospel. The Christian may not grasp the philosopical crossover, but how many modern people (myself included) really understand the philosophical underpinnings and foundations of things?

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  21. "The Christian hope, at least in its biblical form, is for bodily resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos."

    PSH, if you promise not to tell Bernard Gui, I will admit that my orthodoxy is sometimes in question.

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  22. "So, the modern day Christian would agree completely with Augustine -- as long as the Christian was familiar with John's gospel."

    Unfortunately, phel, when you completely and conclusively refute Silas, he just refuses to appear in the thread ever again!

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  23. "So, the modern day Christian would agree completely with Augustine -- as long as the Christian was familiar with John's gospel"

    Well I wouldn't go that far. There's very little that can be predicated universally of the "modern day Christian". That agreement, however, would be a kind of litmus test for the sort of Christian I'd want to associate with.

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  24. "Fair point, then. Only 99% of Christians are deluded about God."

    Not "deluded," Silas. Merely in possession of a less developed concept.

    Would you use a survey of high-scholl physics students as a sound basis upon which to critique the concepts of modern physics?

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  25. "Well I wouldn't go that far."

    Well, Traumerei, after I re-read what I wrote, I wouldn't either. There are many areas where I don't agree with myself from day to day :), so complete agreement with another person is not likely, at least not for any sustained period of time.

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  26. "There are many areas where I don't agree with myself from day to day :)"

    Beautiful! I am in the same boat.

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