Plotinus, Augustine, and the Confessions

The Neoplatonic understanding of reality is that the world and each thing in the world is an ontological procession or exit from the One-beyond-being –that is, the super-essential Good or Beauty– into difference and multiplicity (the One generating first Intellect, Intellect generating Soul, etc.), and that each thing returns or reverts to what it is an expression of, and participates in, by way of its own unity, its own nature. Proceeding is often likened to a fall, and reversion to an ascent. Insofar as anything exists, it remains within the generative cause from which it proceeds, no matter how far it exits into multiplicity.

In his Confessions, the parable of the prodigal son plays a central role – not only as a means of figuratively summarizing Augustine’s understanding of his own life, but as expressive of the procession or exit of the whole world; yet Augustine stresses the element of falling in the whole procedure: we fall, and are wasted in the fall; we exit, but do not return; like the prodigal, we exit and exit and exit: we go off in a far country, wasting our native dignity, and do not wake up to return to ourselves, our right minds, and remember the Good of our native homeland, God.

The way that Augustine reads his life within this mirror of this parable, and the way that he gathers up his memories in thanksgiving to God so as not to abandon them within the dissolution of the exit, are exemplary of the way that he seeks to unify his own life by gathering himself back to his essential unity and his native homeland, or rather, to seek the hidden unity being wrought by God in the wasteland of his fractured self.

We shall aim first to outline some elements of the procession and reversion in Plotinus, the reasons Plotinus gives for the soul’s fall, the means of its return, and a major disagreement within the tradition of pagan Athenian Neoplatonism that takes its cue from Plotinus. It will then look at the same themes in Augustine’s Confessions, to place the same themes of that work’s narrative in its philosophical context.

1. Plotinus

Being, Intelligibility, Limit, Difference

The Platonic tradition is customarily divided into several periods, one of which is the Neoplatonic period (typically dated from Plotinus, A.D. 204-270). One of the basic elements of the Platonic tradition generally, and Neoplatonism specifically, is that to be is to be intelligible. Being and knowledge are form, of the forms. All things, insofar as they are, have the character of being understandable, intelligible. This intelligibility, the truth and clarity of things, may not be immediately available –our understanding may be muddy because our mind is obscured for various reasons, or because our attention is given to only a part of what is occurring within the soul[1]– but it is possible to purify the soul through philosophy (both reasoning and praxis). Because the real is intelligible, thought can think reality, can think being (rather than just impressions or interpretations of impressions); because reality is intelligible, discourse can arrive at truth (rather than being a power struggle or an indulgence in superfluous interpretation); because discourse and praxis can arrive at truth, the practice of clarifying our thoughts is more than opining and rhetoric, and the practice of sorting out and perfecting our lives is more than arbitrary artistic fancy. (If the real were not intelligible, were something other than what is given to thought, then thinking grasps only at images, and discourse is nothing but a power tactic by which we push and persuade others toward this-or-that goal through either the force of our speech or its deceptive beauty).  Thus, there is no being, no thing, that is not available to the intellect (at least, to the purified intellect).

Intelligibility means shape, boundary, limit:

each [being] has its form: what has being cannot be envisaged as outside of limit; the nature must be held fast by boundary and fixity [V.1.7, MacKenna] [2]

Limit means plurality and difference: if there are not many things, there is nothing, no thing, to perceive. If my daughter cannot be differentiated from the room, from her beverage cup, from the stacks of books about me or from the computer I type at, etc., she cannot be known as any thing – what or who then is she? De-fining things means making them finite, drawing a line between them and all the things they are not. Without plurality, there is formlessness, no-thing. Eric Perl notes this:

Determination [i.e., having a specific form or content] and therefore intelligibility depends on distinction: any being, any form, any thought-content, is this one definite being, this idea, only in virtue of its distinction from other forms, other ideas, other beings. Where there is no otherness and therefore no multiplicity, there can be neither thinking nor being […] Being as intelligible is thus intrinsically relational: each being is itself, and so is a being, only in relation to other beings. [3]

Each thing is intelligible, delimited, and unitary, even if the thing is a multiplicity (everything in the sensible world is a multiplicity). Because each is one, each is a manifestation of the One, and participates in it. (If this sounds like a leap, we’ll cover more of this, below.) The One overflows (so to speak – Plotinus knows that he is employing a metaphor for something that is not the agency or event of a being within time). The One overflows, and establishes all things as this or that thing.

Overflow from the Formlessness and Fecundity of the One

In Plotinus’ cosmology, the world is a cascade of overflows of and from the fecundity of the One. Bare unity has no value (but neither is the One bare, though it is simple: the one is infinitely fruitful in a positive sense, not a numeric aloneness and minimality). The One indeed needs nothing that it generates after itself, but is nonetheless productive as far as it can go in unfolding itself, flowing out as the first of three “principles”, or hypostases: first the One itself, then Intellect, and finally Soul (which produces nature).

As we move from the One to Intellect and then Soul, we move to increasing differentiation and multiplicity. The One or Good is undifferentiated over-full no-thing-ness. Intellect or Being is “not merely one”, but “one and many” [4] or one-many. The hypostasis of Soul is “both many souls and one” [5], or one-and-many, where differentiation is greater. Finally, nature is a product of Soul. (Nature is an image of Soul, for matter inclines to Soul, is found within Soul, so that it can acquire intelligible shape from Soul’s contact with Intellect – nature is not a hypostasis.) These three hypostases, or principles, are not exclusive: each principle remains logically (not spatially) “in” the principle that generates it, so that “just as in nature there are these three…so we should think that these are also present in us.” [V.1.10, Corrigan] It is important to note that Intellect here is a principle, not a particular intellect, just as Soul here is a principle, not a particular soul, though particular intellects and souls derive logically from their parent principle.

If this all sounds extravagant, it must be kept in mind that “Plotinus thinks these [principles] are necessary to account for our ordinary experiences.” [6] He is not suggesting them out of superstition, or because he has an overactive imagination (his language is quite imaginative, but he repeatedly sounds notes of caution to the hearer/reader not to take his language too literally). Plotinus would attempt to demonstrate that one cannot say that being is coterminous with intelligibility without this triad of principles: these principles make explicit what is assumed by us in ordinary truth-knowing, truth-telling or truth-seeking.

The overflow of the One is thus a “metaphor” [V.2.1, MacKenna], but an important one, because unity is logically prior to being: things “depend upon unity to be individual things rather than unity upon individual things.” [7] That is, if “oneness” is only an abstraction from our experience of oneness, and if our experience of this oneness is not an actual apprehension of the real oneness of and in a thing, then the unity of things only exists in our interpretation. If the unity of things were only a mental shortcut, then the intelligibility of things is not what they are, but is merely a gloss that cannot even really approximate the thing being interpreted. The “overflow” of the One is thus not to be taken as descriptive of a temporal or spatial movement, but of the logical and ontological dependence that all things have upon the One in order to be the unity that they are. (If the reader feels I am taking us too far afield in discussing the specifics of “overflow”, I would remind her that Augustine announces his Plotinian inheritance by sounding the non-biblical word “overflow” twice in the opening of his Confessions: “Do heaven and earth contain you because you have filled them? Or do you fill them and overflow them because they do not contain you? Where do you put the overflow of yourself after heaven and earth are filled?” [8] [Confessions I.iii]) To talk about the “overflow” of the One is to talk about the participation that all things have in the One by virtue of existing, and their reversion to the One in their own further unification:

[…] the One, so to speak, overflows and its overfullness has made another, and what has come to be turned back to it and was filled and in looking to it this came to be intellect […] [V.2.1, Corrigan]

Intellect, the second principle in Plotinus’ triad, is Being, and the first being to emerge from the One’s overflow. Thus, it is the most unified, but only because it “turn[s] back to [the One]”, knowing itself as other than the One, beginning the process of subsistent differentiation. [9] All things desire the unity in and by which they subsist as the thing they are: in this sense, all beings are self-reflexive, returning to their source through themselves. [10] This is the case for Soul as much as for Intellect: “That which soul must quest [i.e., the One, the Good, Beauty], that which sheds its light upon [Intellect], leaving its mark wherever it falls, surely we need not wonder that it be of power to draw to itself, calling back from every wandering to rest before it.” [VI.7.23, MacKenna] (The reader will note that Augustine sounds the same theme at the outset of his Confessions, and with almost the same language: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”) It is the One that unifies as the Good and as Beauty: things are one insofar as they participate in the One, and return to it in loving it: “beauty is that which irradiates symmetry rather than symmetry itself and is that which truly calls out our love.” [VI.7.22, MacKenna] Plotinus here suggests that we naturally love the unity from which we come, and that our love for this unity can only alight upon something insofar as that thing is unified, insofar as it is one thing, intelligible, brought together by the Beauty that composes it as a unity. [11] If to be is the same as to be intelligible, and intelligibility requires unity, then to be is to be unified, more or less:

All beings are beings by the one, both as many as are primarily beings and as many as are said to be included in any sense at all among beings. For what could anything be, if it were not one, given the fact that if deprived of the one which is said of them, they are not these things? For neither does an army exist, if it is not one, nor a chorus or a flock if they are not one. But not even do a house or a ship exist if they do not have the one, since the house at any rate is one and the ship, and if they cast it off, then neither is the house any longer a house nor the ship a ship. [VI.9.1, Corrigan] […] if each loses the one, then it will not exist at all. [VI.9.2, Corrigan]

As we move further away (logically, not spatially) through Intellect/Being to Soul and then to Soul’s image-making in nature, things become less unified:

Of the things which are said to be one each is one in the way it also has what it is, so that things which are less beings have the one less and things which are more beings have the one more. [VI.9.1, Corrigan]

In speaking of more and less “beings” (or “being”), we should not think that the One contracts, or is diluted in the overflow: the One does not become something else by this overflow – so Augustine, employing biblical language for a Plotinian theme, notes that “When you are ‘poured out’ upon us, you are not wasted on the ground.” [Confessions I.iii]. (We should note how much trouble it is to speak circumspectly of the One-beyond-being-and-limit when speech is wrapped up in both being and limit: the One never is or was a “thing”; indeed, it never “is” nor ever “was”.) To repeat: in overflowing, the One satisfies no need, nor suffers any change. The One is changeless. This overflow is not something that has a temporal origin, nor do the effects of this overflow ever have a temporal beginning: Plotinus’ cosmos is eternal [IV.3.9]. The One “creates” eternally and logically, without change of any sort, without either reflexive and unthinking necessity or any kind of special acts of choice or activity (both freedom and necessity are determinations of the overflowing One):

There is, accordingly, from the first principle [the One] to ultimate [matter that receives form and identity through Soul] an outgoing in which unfailingly each principle retains its own seat while its offshoot takes another rank, a lower, though on the other hand every being is in identity with its prior as long as it holds that contact. [V.2.2, MacKenna]

The One generates Intellect without changing; Intellect generates Soul without changing; yet Soul’s projection/manifestion of the world is a bit trickier, and seems, possibly, to involve some change. On one hand, Soul seems not to change at the highest level, but to manifest the world as a sort of radiation from itself while it immovably attends to Intellect. On the other hand, Soul seems to have a precarious situation of risking non-being if it looks to the material world of bodies that radiate from it, rather than backwards/upwards to its origin [see esp. III.9.3]. [12] (For Augustine, change is certainly possible for individual souls, as only God is unchanging: “In you are the constant causes of inconstant things. All mutable things have in you their immutable origins. In you all irrational and temporal things have the everlasting causes of their life.” [Confessions (9)]) In Plotinus, Soul projects something like a lower extension or “part” of itself in producing body: “soul makes not by remaining, but having been moved [by intellect] she generated an image” [V.2.1, Corrigan].

Matter itself is where real potential change occurs, and yet matter is nothing in itself, but pure potentiality. Matter only becomes something under the guidance of soul moving it toward the One (it “brings the one to others, being herself also one by virtue of something else” [VI.9.1, Corrigan]). Soul projects upon formless matter images of the forms she receives from Intellect. However, as soon as matter-as-potential becomes something actual, the actuality is form, not matter: “matter has been unable to take on any colour from the things that wanted to sink into it, but remaining in relation to something else it exists potentially in relation to what is next” [II.5.5, Corrigan]. Matter adds to the loveliness of the world by allowing Soul, individual souls from Soul, to actualize otherwise unrealized potential: “had they [i.e. particular souls] remained quiet in the incorporeal world, [they] would have been of no use since they would not have come into actualization” [IV.8.5, Corrigan]. Soul, Plotinus explains, although partless, contains a multiplicity of powers [VI.9.1]: some of these powers are not actualized unless the One overflows, in and as Soul, to nature. Intellect is differentiated, but “always inseparable and not divided”. Soul is undivided, too, so long as she turns to Intellect, her source; she is divisible only insofar as she can “stand off” from her parent (Intellect) to be “divisible about bodies”, though she can never be entirely separated from Intellect, and in this sense, to this degree, she is indivisible [IV.1.1, Corrigan]. This is the “undescended” part of the soul, according to Plotinus, which is necessarily undescended if it is to reason about what is good and just. (Later Platonists, such as Iamblichus, thought that there was no undescended part of the soul, and that each soul, in its involvement with matter, was so encaverned by materiality that it needed the appearance of a god to recover it to its dignity and restore it to unity. Augustine, as we shall see, follows Iamblichus rather than Plotinus – that is, he holds that there is no part of the soul that remains undescended, and that it is entirely, like the prodigal, “wasted in riotous living” [Luke 15:13].)

Matter-as-pure-potential adds value to the world by allowing for the actualizing of certain powers of Soul, just as the initial overflow from undifferentiated unity into Intellect adds value (again, without the One having lacked anything before). The One is the Good and the Beautiful, and the “production” of being and beings by the One-beyond-being exhausts the totality of possible beings up to the threshold of true nothingness (which is strictly impossible in Plotinian monism, and cannot even be thought except as a sort-of-thing, which is not nothing). That is, the “overflow” of the One moves as far as it can, to maximize beings, goodness, value:

[…] it is necessary that there not be one alone – for all things would have been hidden having no shape in that one and not even would a single real being have existed if that one had stayed in itself […] what is earlier always remaining in its own seat, but bringing to birth, as it were, what comes after it out of a power unspeakably immense as great as was in those earlier beings, which could not stand still as if it had drawn a line around itself out of selfish jealousy but had to go on always until all things have come to the farthest possible limit because of a boundless power that extends to all from itself and that cannot allow anything to be without a portion of itself. For there was certainly nothing that prevented anything whatever from having a portion of the divine nature insofar as it was possible for each to participate. [IV.8.6, Corrigan]

(Note, above, the clearly implied liberality or charity of the One, in its “overflow”, when it is contrasted with the “selfish jealousy” it would otherwise have had if it did not “overflow”: this is precisely the kind of language that Augustine will later use, with a twist, in his description of how human being’s seek to secure their own unity through their rapacious acquisitiveness in Confessions I.xix-xx.)

Desire, Knowledge, Divine Knowledge, Self-Knowledge

So being and intellect are one, and to know something is not to receive sense impressions of a thing (sensation is the lowest part of soul, its “scout” while intellect is the soul’s “king” [V.3.3]) but to enter into a differenced union with it. Thus, it is fair to say that knowledge is a kind of union between intellect and intelligible. As John Deck notes, “knowledge becomes truer as knower and known become more identical”. [13] Plotinus writes about this union of knowing and known on the metaphor of seeing:

[…] seeing subject and seen objects must be present as one thing. [The seen objects are not representations of something else, but are possessed in the seeing by the seer even before the act of differentiating such-and-such a seen from other seens.] […] the object known must be identical with the knowing act (or agent) […]. Thus we find that the Intellectual-Principle, the Intellectual Realm, and Real Being constitute one thing […]. [V.3.5, MacKenna]

This may remind the reader of Plato’s doctrine of recollection in the Meno, and it implies something similar: each intellect has all forms within itself (it seems like the unity that each particular intellect possesses is something like a stem cell of all forms, so to speak), and knows other intelligible forms through its own resources, like coupling with like, same in intellect communing with same in the intelligible. Despite this union, the union is one of ineliminably different parties. Since knowledge is not merely external contact but a real seeking and finding and possessing in unified-difference or differenced-unity, the One neither knows nor has need of knowing, and knows all things by a kind of self-contact:

Knowledge is, as it were, a finding by one who has sought. That which is altogether without difference [the One] itself remains towards itself, and seeks nothing about [περι] itself. [V.3.10, Deck]

If “identity is the ideal of knowledge, and duality only its condition”, then the One cannot know, unless “the self-identical synthesis of the One can be a super-knowledge in a positive sense.” [14] The One is “without difference”, yet we, like all things that are after the One, are each differenced unities. What is behind the unity of each in the manifold of intellect? –unity itself – or rather, a trans-unitary unity, “the One”. We noted before that without plurality, the manifold-in-unity of thought, there is formlessness, no-thing. This is the case for the origin of all things, the One:

The First must be without form, and, if without form, then it is no Being; Being must have some definition and therefore be limited; but the First cannot be thought of as having definition and limit, for thus it would be not the Source but the particular item indicated by the definition assigned to it. [V.5.6, MacKenna]

This denial will be noteworthy when we move into Augustine, for it lies behind his doxological outpouring of titles such as “incomprehensible” [Confessions I.iv], and at first glance sits uncomfortably with his naming God as “being in a supreme degree” [Confessions (10)] and “most beautiful of all Beings” [Confessions (12)], until we notice seeming contradictions such as that God is “the one from whom every kind of being is derived” [Confessions I.vii (12)]. [15] Augustine might very well be taking a middle-Platonist approach to God here, but I suspect that the answer to this seeming contradiction is more likely to be found in the nature of the gap between God and the world (and humanity), according to Augustine, and his corresponding take on the nature of signs as bridging this gap wrought by sin. (That is a future post.) At any rate, Plotinus is much clearer about qualifying his language: “The First must be without form […] it is no Being; Being must have some definition” –but if the One has no form, how can it be known? –can intellect know it?

[the One] is not intellect, but prior to intellect; for intellect is something of beings, but that is not something, but prior to each thing, nor is it a being; for being has as it were a shape of being, but that has no shape, even intelligible shape. For since the nature of the One is generative of all things, it is none of them […]. [VI.9.3, Perl]

Intellect knows form, ultimately yearning after the Form of the Good in all things, and coming back with only formless light, or else the Beautiful and Good under the aspect of a being. The One is not a number, not a thing, not a being; it does not exist, but is (so to speak) the light or the medium by which anything that exists is, by which anything is given –existing– as intelligible, and by which anything is intellected:

[The act of vision in Intellect is like the act of ocular vision.] This medium [of the light] is itself perceptible to the eye, distinct from the form to be seen, but the cause of the seeing; it is perceived at the one stroke in that form and on it and hence is not distinguished from it, the eye being held entirely by the illuminated object. [V.5.7, MacKenna]

So Perl: “To apprehend any being is both to see the One, as presented, and not to see the One itself at all.” [16] We noted just above that the One is not to be confused with numeric unity, or with the number ‘one’: “The One does not bear to be numbered in with anything else, with a one or a two or any such quantity; it refuses to take number because it is measure and not the measured” [V.5.4]. (Augustine says something similarly phrased about God’s years as one “Today”, from which is “derived […] the measure and condition of [our] existence” [Confessions (10)].) Nonetheless, though the One is not an object to be desired, all things desire the One: the Intellectual directly, Soul by returning to its parent Intellect, and matter by Soul. In seeking to know things, or in desiring any good, we desire the unity by which we are, in which we participate and which meets us everywhere. This unity is the ground of our seeking the super-essential, the Unity-beyond-multiplicity (MacKenna’s “the Transcendent”):

“[Intellect], in the act of knowing the Transcendent [i.e., the One], is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not (fully realized) Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex. If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity”. [V.3.11, MacKenna]

(Augustine, using Pauline rather than Plotinian language, says that he was taught something resembling this mediation of what is super-essential by that which has essence, being, boundary – taught this by “the books of the Platonists”: “learning from them to seek for immaterial truth, I turned my attention to your ‘invisible nature understood through the things which are made’ (Rom 1:20)” [Confessions VII.xx (26)].) Everything after the One has unity only to the degree that it participates in unity: the multiplicity of manifold beings involves the constant risk of dissolution, disunity, and so a different sort of nothingness than that analogically predicated of the One.


We saw before that the One is generative of all things: a thing’s unity is foundational for its intelligibility and its being. Each thing exists because it is one [VI.9.1, Corrigan]. The One thus overflows into and as all things because it contains all things, not as a jumbled container of objects, and not as the distinct things or selves they are, nor even intellectual or conceptual objects, but simply, as the undifferentiated and super-saturated formlessness:

How is it the principle of all things? Thus, in that it preserves them, making each one of them be; and in that it established them. How then? By possessing them beforehand [V.3.15, Perl].  But it has been said that thus it will be a multiplicity. But it possessed [them], therefore, in such a way that they are not distinguished; they are distinguished in what is second, in the expression [V.3.15, Perl]

Perl concludes: “The One thus “encompasses all things” [V.5.9] or, more precisely, is the “encompassment of all things” [Vl.8.I8]. (It is not unlike the temporal stream that Augustine attempts to repair in his gathering-up of his memories, in his attempt to approximate the Eternal Now of God.) It is from this One that we come, and to which we long to return under the aspect of our origin: “everything longs for its parent [principle] and loves this, and most of all when they are alone, parent and offspring” [V.1.6, Corrigan].

The key is “alone”: silence is needed to facilitate the ascent. Although silence and solitude are necessary, most people are lost in things, in noise, and thus they forget. (Augustine writes about such noise, about “the noise of human speech” and “the tumult of the flesh” that veil the proclamation of nature that it was made – and nature’s proclamation must itself fall silent for the inaudible and very personal and direct “word” of God’s address that comes not through creaturely mediation [Confessions IX.x (24-25)]. Augustine also assimilates trained orators to this noise, and the silent witness of the conscience against the madness of un-returned human society is the earthly analogue to “God, dwelling on high in silence”: see [Confessions I.xvii (29)].) In Augustine, the conscience is deep-seated, silently bearing witness beneath the noise of the crowd, but is not voiced by anyone unless they announce it. (This is consistent with Augustine’s highly anti-Plotinian assertions in the De Doctrina Christiana denying the ineffability of God, affirming that God accepts the tribute of human voices, and proposing a theory of signs by which the gap between God and the world is bridged. The gap here between the conscience and the noise of life is similar: to be present, it requires signs, for otherwise the gap between us and our dislocated consciences hides it.) For Plotinus, however, whether we are awake or asleep to the Good, it has a sort of gentle presence that is always-already the desire of people:

[…] people have forgotten that which from the beginning till now they long for and desire. For all things reach out to [the Good] and desire it by necessity of nature, as if divining that they cannot exist without it. And the apprehension of the beautiful and the astonishment and the waking up of love are for those who are already, as it were, knowing it and awake to it. But the Good, since it is long present to awake a desire natural to it, is present even to those asleep and does not astonish those who at any time see it, because it is always there […] [V.5.12, Corrigan]

The Good is always there, and we might say, with Augustine, that God “stir[s] man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” [Confessions I.i. (1)] and that “you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself” [Confessions I.v. (5)]. Yet in Augustine, our natural state seems to be “restless”, not minimally attuned to a presence, but aware of an absence; the chasm between the longing and what is longed for can only be bridged when God “come[s] to [one’s] heart and intoxicate[s] it”. This is quite different from the perpetual contact with one’s parent principle in Plotinus, something that obtains, at least by some thin thread, even in extreme estrangement from it.

How can one be alone with one’s “parent principle”? If one is drowning in a sea of multiplicity, if one is constantly stretched out towards those bodily and material things that come after Soul, and which are only potential –as close to non-being as can be– then one must turn away from the flood of those unclear sensations to what is clear, must turn away from what is exterior and muddy to what is interior and luminous. Veiling itself from other things, and turning inward, one will discover the light beyond light within

Intellect, veiling itself from other things, and drawing itself together inward in seeing nothing will look, not at one light in another, but at light alone and pure itself in itself suddenly appearing from itself, so that Intellect is at a loss how it appeared, from outside or within, and when it has gone away will say “it was within and yet it was not within.” [V.5.7, Corrigan]

It is by turning inwards that one can focus on the higher “voice” of the parent principle if they wish, tuning out the lower noises:

Just as if someone was waiting to hear the sound of a voice he wanted to hear and withdrew from the other sounds and woke up the ear to catch what is the best of sounds when it comes, in the same way consequently here too, letting perceptible sounds go, except insofar as is necessary, we must keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear sounds that are from above. [V.1.12, Corrigan]

The later Neoplatonic tradition stemming from Plotinus would not see the condition of the soul so optimistically: can one still hear the unifying and unitary voice after one’s soul is bound to body and entirely descended into the multiplicity of matter? Iamblichus would say “no.” (Augustine would also say “no”, and even plays on the call of the voice. So God’s overflowing descent does not imperil him, because, unlike our souls, he is unchanging: “When you are ‘poured out’ upon us, you are not wasted on the ground. You raise us upright. You are not scattered but reassemble us.” [I.iii (3)] This reassembly requires a personal address – requires Augustine’s equivalent to the voice above: “Speak to me so that I may hear […] After that utterance, I will run and lay hold on you.” [I.v (5)]) Hearing the voice, Plotinus writes, and released from enslavement to the nothingliness of worldly diffusement that follows upon too much involvement with the world of body and the world of sense, one may find oneself carried to the One by a “surge”:

It is there that one lets all study go; up to a point one has been led along and settled firmly in beauty and as far as this one thinks that in which one is, but is carried out of it by the surge of wave of Intellect itself and lifted on high by the swell, as it were, one saw suddenly, not seeing how, but the vision fills his eyes with light and has not made him see something else through it, but the light itself was what one sees. [VI.7.36, Corrigan]

How is it that we fail to arrive at this vision? –how does one fail to be “lifted on high by the swell”?

The Descent and Fall of the Soul

The problem would seem to lie, for Plotinus, in the nature of Soul. Soul is “something divine and of a different nature like all the nature of soul”, and so is “said to be outside of the entire heaven”, but not spatially: “we must not look for a place in which to seat it, but we must make it outside of all place.” Place exists in Soul, rather than Soul in a place: Soul generates place. For Soul to move into differentiation, for Soul’s various powers to be actualized (instead of remaining undifferentiated as mere potentials), this requires place, requires body, so that it might be differentiated, mutually related, actualized. [IV.3.9] Though the principle of Soul descends from the second principle, Intellect, “part of the soul remains in the intelligible” [V.1.10, Corrigan], undescended, even though Soul, productive of the world of sense, so often loses herself in things.

While “human souls […] in governing their inferior, the body, must sink deeper and deeper into it if they are to control it”, nonetheless the individual soul is able to enter “into association with that complete soul” “as long as it does not secede and is neither inbound to body nor held in any sort of servitude, so long as it tranquilly bears its part in the governance of the All”, for “not every form of care for the inferior need wrest the providing soul from its own sure standing in the highest.” Thus, “commerce with the body is repudiated for only two reasons, as hindering the Soul’s intellective act and as filling it with pleasure, desire, pain; but neither of these misfortunes can befall a soul which has never deeply penetrated into the body, is not a slave but a sovereign ruling a body of such an order as to have no need and no shortcoming and therefore to give ground for neither desire nor fear.” In short: there is no need for the soul to become enslaved to the body, which “is of itself in a state of dissolution, always on the way to its natural terminus, demanding much irksome forethought to save it from every kind of outside assailant, always gripped by need, requiring every help against constant difficulty […]. [IV.8.2, MacKenna]

If this sounds optimistic, the state of an individual soul that leaves the Soul-principle for embodiment sounds anything but:

So it is with the individual souls; the appetite for the divine Intellect urges them to return to their source, but they have, too, a power apt to administration in this lower sphere; […] there comes a stage at which they descend from the universal to become partial and self-centred; in a weary desire of standing apart they find their way, each to a place of its very own. This state long maintained, the Soul is a deserter from the totality; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weakened, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole, it nestles in one form of being; for this it abandons all else, entering into and caring for only the one, for a thing buffeted about by a worldful of things: thus it has drifted away from the universal and, by an actual presence, it administers the particular; it is caught into contact now, and tends to the outer to which it has become present and into whose inner depths it henceforth sinks far. [IV.8.4, MacKenna]

With this comes what is known as the casting of the wings, the enchaining in body: the soul has lost that innocency of conducting the higher which it knew when it stood with the All-Soul, that earlier state to which all its interest would bid it hasten back.

It has fallen: it is at the chain: debarred from expressing itself now through its intellectual phase, it operates through sense; it is a captive; this is the burial, the encavernment, of the soul.

After this narration, Plotinus resumes his optimism about the individual soul’s capacities with a suddenness that may give some readers whiplash:

But in spite of all it has, for ever, something transcendent: by a conversion towards the intellective act, it is loosed from the shackles and soars – when only it makes its memories the starting-point of a new vision of essential being. Souls that take this way have place in both spheres, living of necessity the life there and the life here by turns, the upper life reigning in those able to consort more continuously with the divine Intellect, the lower dominant where character or circumstances are less favourable. […] [IV.8.4, MacKenna]

If the reader notes that Plotinus says that the individual soul’s memories are “the starting-point of a new vision of essential being”, we should not think that this is anything like Augustine’s preoccupation with memory, but a transformation not totally unlike that which occurs through Platonic recollection: the soul “remembers”, metaphorically speaking, her nature, and withdraws from too much involvement in what Augustine might call “corruptible things”, in the world of sense. For Plotinus, the possibility of this forgetfulness of the embodied soul’s high origin is why she receives a “command to separate” –again, not in spatial terms– “in terms of her not inclining to the body and [not] having mental images and of alienation in relation to the body, if in some way one could lead the rest of the form of soul up and take together to what is above that part of the soul that is seated here, which alone is the craftsman and fashioner of body and has its concern with the sphere of the body.” [V.1.10, Corrigan]

The ground for the soul’s return is that part of it which remains undescended –undescended, no matter how deeply caverned and enslaved the soul becomes to matter– in the light of which it engages in reasoning “about what is just and noble”, “a reasoning that seeks to determine if this particular course of action is just and if this is noble”. Because our “soul sometimes reasons about these things and sometimes does not, there must exist in us an intellect that does [not] reason, but always has the just”. [V.1.11, Corrigan]

2. Iamblichus

Whether the Soul Can Ascend Again of Its Own Powers

Whether the soul had an undescended part was, as I mentioned, contested. This is the first of two problems that seem clearly to lie in the background of some of what Augustine says on the weakness of the soul, its perpetual exit.

J.M. Rist outlines the first problem:

Stated briefly, the difficulty is as follows. If I commit crimes, or more generally act immorally, I develop bad habits. I begin to descend the slippery slope. How do I check my fall and manage to start climbing up again? […] One of the explanations of the fact that we can improve is that we are never wholly corrupt, or even wholly damaged. Our inner self like a pearl in an oyster, or, in Plato’s account, like the sea-god Glaucus who retains his identity though encrusted with refuse and debris, remains intact […]. [17]

If the soul has an undescended aspect, though, this is, as Rist mentions, “a necessary but not, however, a sufficient condition for moral improvement.” Plato seems to hold that the pressures of a good society will “compel us” toward virtue, but that without a good society, someone like Socrates might only be attainable “by divine dispensation.” Plotinus does not think that the gods will save those who do not save themselves:

It is ridiculous for people to do everything else in life according to their own ideas, even if they are not doing it in the way which the gods like, and then be merely saved by the gods without even doing the things by means of which the gods command them to save themselves [III.2.8, Armstrong]

After Plotinus, both Porphyry and Iamblichus –Augustine knew and read Porphyry, though it is not clear that he’d ever read Iamblichus– claimed that the soul does not have an undamaged section from which to rebuild one’s life. Porphyry didn’t think that the soul needed as much help from the gods as Iamblichus did. Porphyry thought that religious rites “could do two things: purify the astral body and thus by-pass the first stages of the purification of the soul. The philosopher, however, has no need of this, as philosophy can better achieve these means. Iamblichus, however, maintains that “thinking, by itself, could not enable a man to be integrated with the One, any more than it enables him to behave or act rightly. Being integrated and behaving are matters of action, of performance, not just of having ideas.” [18] Even Plotinus, it should be noted, says that the intellect still waits for the One “as the eye waits for the rising of the sun [V.5.8]; we cannot make the sun rise, though we are said to be present to the One when we wish.” [19]

A second problem is that the means of Plotinian ascent are very difficult. Augustine picks up on this in Confessions VII.xvii (23), as did Origen and others before him. The path of Plato’s Philosopher-kings is a path few are equipped to follow. Is the rest of humanity damned to an enslavement to matter in the largely encaverned condition of their soul’s descent, unfit to ascend through philosophy?

Thus, two serious problems with the Plotinian account preceded Augustine’s attempt at following the Plotinian path.

 3. Augustine

Augustinian Weakness

Augustine even uses the language of weakness, following this Iamblichean trajectory: “of these conceptions I was certain; but to enjoy you I was too weak.” [Confessions VII.xx (26)] In fact, in that passage [VII.xx (26)] Augustine cites the very Platonic Wisdom of Solomon: ‘the body, which is corruptible, weighs down the soul, and our earthly habitation drags down the mind to think many things’ (Wisd. 9:15). The body scatters the mind – scatters it contrary to its nature.

Imprisoned: Procession as Exile with No Return

If the body scatters the unity and integrity of the mind contrary to its nature, we might find ourselves noting the analogy between this and the parable of the prodigal son, where the youngest son of a father asks for his inheritance — implying that, while still alive, the father is dead to the son, since it is the future post-mortem inheritance that the son is asking for in advance (cutting off the son from the parent principle by his own choice, an audacious, arrogant and prideful move, signaling, effectively, the death of God to the prodigal by his own choice). The son then goes off into a far country, and wastes the money he rapacious reaped from announcing his father’s death to him. He ends up living and eating with swine, the archetypal unclean animal in Jewish thought. The son looks at his estate, remembers his former splendor in his father’s house, and thinks that the poorest servant there is in better condition than the king of swine. The son, humbled, returns in humility to his father’s house. In many ways, this is typical of the whole of the Confessions, which sees the dissolution of the soul as a fall from its native dignity into the divided exterior multiplicity of matter, and its restoration as its return to interiority (wherein is God) and to unity. The parable of the prodigal son, in fact frames the whole section from the beginning of the Confessions [I.xviii (28)] to just before meeting Simplicianus and hearing about Victorinus [VIII.iii (6)].

Augustine waffles on whether the soul pre-exists in a Plotinian fashion, and displays a very certain uncertainty:

What, Lord, do I wish to say except that I do not know whence I came to be in this mortal life or, as I may call it, this living death? I do not know where I came from. [ (7)]

Tell me, God, tell your suppliant, in mercy to your poor wretch, tell me whether there was some period of my life, now dead and gone, which preceded my infancy? Or is this period that which I spent in my mother’s womb? [ (9)]

Nonetheless, like the prodigal, Augustine describes the state of the soul in this world as dissipated.

I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust. [I.iii (21)]

There are a flood of examples one could find for this, examples that show a Plotinian model without an undescended part of the self, immersed in the external world of bodies, shut outdoors from one’s own mind, dissipated from a natural unity into an unnatural multiplicity,

I turned from unity in you to be lost in multiplicity [II.i (1)]

loving what divides and dissipates the soul rather than the face of God, which unifies it.

I was swept along by vanities and travelled right away from you, my God. […] To be far from your face is to be in the darkness of passion. To live [in dissipation as the prodigal] in lustful passion is to live in darkness and to be far from your face. [I.xviii (28)]

This spilling of a single and unifying love into the multitude of divisive things, less worthy than God, still bears traces of a thirst for one’s source and natural unity:

My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings. [I.xx (31)]

This dissipation is reinforced by a whole culture of worldly habit and custom:

torrent of human custom! […] How long will your flowing current carry the sons of Eve into the great and fearful ocean […]? [I.xvi (25)]

Even more citations might be found with little effort. [20] In our fragmented state, we perversely delight in the inordinate love of the fractions that divide us:

sin is committed for the sake of all these things and others of this kind when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law (Ps. 118:142). [II.v (10)]

And so on. [21] Augustine’s language about this deathly state becomes, at times, less invested in the Hebrew Bible’s language about She’ol, and takes its cue from the parable of the prodigal more strongly, with a touch of the Synoptic Gospels’ story of the unchainable demoniac in the necropolis:

The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for all that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned. There is no rest where you seek for it. Seek for what you seek, but it is not where you are looking for it. You seek the happy life in the region of death; it is not there. How can there be a happy life where there is not even life? [IV.xii (18)]

Augustine grants that all desire happiness, just as Plotinus would say that all desire the Good, usually under the aspect of various goods:

The desire for happiness is not in myself alone or in a few friends, but is found in everybody. […] Even if one person pursues it in one way, and another in a different way, yet there is one goal which all are striving to attain, namely to experience joy. [X. xxi (31)]

Unlike Plotinus, however, as we saw above, in Augustine this desire for joy is so fundamentally deceived about its object if it seeks it in external things that it will waste itself in the region of death, from which it will not be able to extricate itself. The Plotinian Good is here Joy: “[God] is the joy of those who are true of heart (Ps. 63:11)” [II.v (10). The enslaved soul is responsible for its own enslavement, consents to it, even if it was somehow, for some reason, of this character from birth, externally-oriented.

Like the prodigal, the prison Augustine found himself in was of his own doing: “I was responsible for the fact that habit had become so embattled against me; for it was with my consent that I came to the place in which I did not wish to be.” [VIII.v. (11)] Augustine “was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of [his] own choice. The enemy had a grip on [his] will and so made a chain for [him] to hold [him] a prisoner.” The weight of his choices had formed a prison made of the “old” will, from which his “new” will, born from a crescendoing desire for union with God, cannot escape. Interestingly, this conflict between the old and new wills produces “discord” which Augustine said “robbed [his] soul of all concentration.” [VIII.v (10)] The reader must admit that the concern for unity-of-will and concentration of soul here bears a striking resemblance to similar Plotinian concerns, as the soul only reverts to the degree it has unity. Self-division is a problem to the point that the “mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance.” [VIII.ix (21)] When God “gather[s] [Augustine] together” it is “from the state of disintegration in which [he] had been fruitlessly divided.” [II.i (1)]

In fact, most of the passages that describe the character of the soul’s enslavement sound Plotinian. He describes his pre-conversion state as “far from [God] ‘in the region of dissimilarity’” [VII.x (16)], which sounds like a far distance from the One in the One’s overflow very much like matter. Similarly, just as in Plotinus soul can either incline inwards/backwards to its “parent” or outwards/forwards to its images, Augustine writes that:

I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things, rejecting its own inner life (Ecclus. 10:10) and swelling with external matter. [VII.xvi (22)]

Augustine says that this describes him, for as he was searching for the truth, the “inarticulate sufferings” of his heart were groaning before God unknown to him, and this should not have been (he should have known his heart):

That was inward, while I was still in externals. It was not in a place; but I was fixing my attention on things contained in space, and there I found no place to rest in, nor did those external things receive me so that I could say ‘It is enough and it is well’. [VII.vii (11)]

He is in such exile that he cannot even find a place, here associated with rest. Even as a child, adults, on whom he is dependent, are already involved in training him for a life in exile from his interiority, for they are exterior, and language, for him, becomes caught up in a desire to secure power through mastery of his environment – of whom the adults are a part:

My desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. [ (8)]

Matter cannot satisfy him, does not “allow [him] to return” by way of submission to it, for his only sustenance, his true food and drink, is (as in Plotinus) the principle upon which he depends: God. We must hunger for the food by which we return, and are not dissipated:

To meet my hunger, instead of you [acquaintances and their tomes] brought me a diet of the sun and moon, your beautiful works – but they are your works, not you yourself […] my hunger and thirst were not even for the spiritual creation but for you yourself, the truth ‘in whom there is no changing nor shadow caused by any revolving’ (Jas 1:17) [ (10)]

[I] heard as it were your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully-grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me. [VII.x (16)]

These and other texts [22] indicate the need to return. But how?

The Liberating Divine Call

Enslaved and dissipated, the soul can only rise to God and feast this way if it is called: it is too weak to bootstrap itself up to purity after the manner of Plotinus, but is in a more Iamblichean state of damage that one cannot repair on one’s own:

Who will enable me to find rest in you? [I.v (5)]

The house of my soul […] is in ruins: restore it. […] who will clean it up? [I.v (6)]

Perhaps one can dispose one’s heart to hear the call (and this is uncertain, for it is not clear how a world-oriented, externally-disposed soul animated by the libido dominandi —the desire for mastery– rather than humility and love, can even turn to consider its true home in God until it is called). Perhaps; but the call is necessary in order to repair one’s state of dissolution, and finally find the joy one seeks:

Speak to me so that I may hear. See the ears of my heart are before you, Lord. [I.v (5)]

Bring me to a sweetness […] Enable me to love you […] [I.xv (24)].

This call also includes divine laws-as-commands, when they are filled with the power of a voice, a summons, a call, such as Augustine felt when with Alypius in [VIII.xii (29)]:

Your laws have the power to temper bitter experiences in a constructive way, recalling us to yourself [I. xiv (23)].

The call can come mediately from external things, or immediately and internally:

you cried aloud to me through the gifts which you bestow both inwardly in mind and outwardly in body. [ (7)]

This is because the call, a living voice, is a word that is not temporal, but eternal, and filled with limitless life: it is divine, it is God:

But what is to be compared with your word, Lord of our lives? It dwells in you without growing old and gives renewal to all things. [IX.x (23)]

He who for us is life itself descended here and endured our death and slew it by the abundance of his life. In a thunderous voice he called us to return to him, at that secret place where he came forth to us. [IV.xii (19)]

On the pre-Christian occasions when Augustine succeeds at the vision of God, his way to achieving this is to withdraw inward. He learned this from “the Platonic books […which…] admonished [him] to return into [him]self”, “enter[ing]” the “innermost citadel” where his “soul’s eye” “saw […] the immutable light higher than [his] mind” which “made [him]”  – and yet, in a non-Plotinian Iamblichean twist, he was able to enter into himself only because he had been “given power to do so” [VII.x (16)]:

I found the unchangeable and authentic eternity of truth to transcend my mutable mind. And so step by step I ascended from bodies to the soul which perceives through the body, and from there to its inward force, to which bodily senses report external sensations […]. [Augustine’s reasoning power] withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it was flooded. [VII.xvii (23)]

Such a flood of light provides the ground for recognizing what is stable – not an undescended part of the soul, but an influx of divine light, a participation in God:

On this ground it can know the unchangeable, since, unless it could somehow know this, there would be no certainty in preferring it to the mutable. [ibid.]

But prior to his conversion to Catholic Christianity, Augustine cannot remain there in the vision of God’s light, because he does not “possess the strength to keep my vision fixed. My weakness reasserted itself” [VII.xvii (23)], he writes. Thus, Augustine returns to exile, wandering.

Truth, Not Intelligibility

Augustine does not pursue a Plotinian theology built up from a model of intelligibility and overflow: although for Plotinus intelligibility is stability (one might call to mind the Platonic line that the world is a “moving image of eternity”), Augustine’s concern is with truth-as-stability-and-changeless-abiding, rather than intelligibility per se, which he does not think is available in a state of pride, which twists all language. Truth and stability are had internally through communion with the stable God, whereas the external world, beautiful as it is, is unstable. Where to turn when we are thrown out into the world as externally-oriented? Understandably, we see Augustine praise truth and stability:

the elements out of which a unity is constituted […] never exist all at the same moment. […] far superior to these things is he who made all things, and he is our God. He does not pass away; nothing succeeds him. [IV.xi (17)]

Look where [God] is – wherever there is a taste of stability and truth. [IV.xii (18)]

In part, this is not surprising, given his language about the pride of the Platonists, and his emphasis on human weakness. Searching after truth so frequently goes astray into so much pride, and discourse is, at bottom, perverted by a desire for power, so that he sees the exile and return in terms colored by what can only be described as political dynamics. Look at the way he describes the character of language:

[…] already at the last stage of my infant speechlessness I was searching out signs by which I made my thoughts known to others. [ (10)]

Those thoughts are acquisitive of external things:

I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. […] it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly, not to endure a share going to one’s blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life exclusively on that one food. [I.vii (11)]

The external signs of language are somewhat empty and powerless,

I myself acquired this power of speech with the intelligence which you gave me, my God. By groans and various sounds and various movements of parts of my body I would endeavor to express the intentions of my heart to persuade people to bow to my will. [I.viii (13)]

These signs are not divine in the young Augustine’s mouth, but were “the signs of [his] wishes” [ibid.]:

I bring no charge against the words which are like exquisite and precious vessels, but the wine of error is poured into them for us by drunken teachers. [I.xvi (26)]

That those thoughts are acquisitive is the fault of a mind that is enslaved to matter and body – the fault is not body (the body is beautifully well-ordered from the Author of form [I.vii (12)]), which cannot resist the imperiousness of a disordered mind that is enslaved to the involvement with the multiplicity of external things:

There is never an obligation to be obedient to orders which it would be pernicious to obey. So the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind. [I.vii (11)]

It should be noted that language springs up on the soil of this kind of acquisitiveness, so that it is infected, at the root, with the desire for mastery. Even the infant, when it does not get its way, “use[s] tears” and “attempt[s] to strike [others] and to do as much injury as possible” [I.vii (11)]. This is not the soil on which to look to investigate being through language and thought in a Plotinian fashion. Such things as language and thought must first be purified by humility and the descent of the unchanging Light into the “interior palace” of the heart from which one is in exile through involvement with external things.

Still, God and his commands are rational: God may “for a time conceal the reason for [his] authoritative verdict” [III.ix (17)], but there are always reasons, and they are not about power.

Procession and Return – Return Through Humility and Love

Augustine does speak of God’s establishment of all things in a way that has strong Plotinian resonances:

You are before the beginning of the ages, and prior to everything that can be said to be ‘before’. You are God and Lord of all you have created. In you are the constant causes of inconstant things. All mutable things have in you their immutable origins. In you all irrational things have the everlasting causes of their life. [ (9)]

And of God’s descending, in humility, to us in our poverty, which has a strong tone of procession:

[…] the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride […] [I.xi (17)

This humility is received in like turn, by the humble: this is very different from the “pride” of the libido dominandi –the desire for mastery– that prevails in the world of external concerns. Humility is necessary for Augustine’s Plotinian ascent. So he exhorts his reader:

Come down so that you can ascend, and make your ascent to God. [IV.xii (19)]

Without humility, ascent is not possible:

To possess my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough. […] They are no longer to place confidence in themselves, but rather to become weak. They see at their feet divinity become weak by his sharing in our ‘coat of skin’ (Gen 3:21). In their weariness they fall prostrate before this divine weakness which rises and lifts them up. [VII.xviii (24)

The desire for mastery closes the soul within worldliness and breaks the chain of being by which a Plotinian would expect to be able to return to the parent principle. Given the pervasive problem of the desire for mastery, and the impotence of the soul to pull itself up to nobility once it has fallen –and it is thrown into the world fallen– one can see why the Platonists were accused of “presumption”, opposed to the “confession” that comes from humility. [VII.xx (26)]

And so the return of things to God:

He is very close to the heart; but the heart has wandered from him. ‘Return, sinners, to your heart’ (Isa. 46:8 LXX), and adhere to him who made you. Stand with him and you will stand fast. Rest in him and you will be at rest. Where are you going to along rough paths? What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. [IV.xii (18)]

But this is within the context where all things are in a kind of exile, and where they pursue their own health by means of a false desire for mastery, a false unity:

I lived and thought and took care for my self-preservation (a mark of your profound latent unity whence I derived my being). An inward instinct told me to take care of the integrity of my senses, and even in my little thoughts about little matters I took delight in the truth. [I.xx (31)]

Yet this self-care quickly becomes self-pride in the external-looking mode of creatures:

Which has the result that in “self-concerned pride a false unity is loved in the part.” So creatures “risk […] losing everything, through loving [their] private interest more than [God], the good of all that is.” [III.viii (16)]

This private interest corrupts so that the motile forces of the soul in Plato, the incensive and the concupiscent, are thrown off-course, and corrupted:

[The chief kinds of wickedness are] the lust for domination or from the lust of the eyes or from sensuality [III.viii (16)]


The vast amount of material that Augustine has adopted from Plotinus is quite remarkable. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that there are some radical shifts in the character of self-knowledge between the two thinkers. For Plotinus, self-knowledge is a kind of formless simple abiding in one’s interiority that is more expansive than the external, but also simple –there are no memory palaces there for the simple[23]– and one can never be an object to oneself, for the soul is not divided in its truth to look at itself as an object. There are differences, likewise, in the means of return. Augustine may say “what is nearer to me than myself?” [X.xvi (25)], but Augustine’s finding of himself and his origins and destiny in God within the mirror of the biblical text, and the way that, for him, self-representation facilitates knowledge of oneself rather than alienating one from oneself: these are serious differences from Plotinian self-knowledge.

In the end, Augustine’s adoption of Neoplatonic elements was slowly mitigated over the course of his life, and the way in which they were received transmuted them into a significantly new creature. We should likely consent to the judgment of Etienne Gilson (as reported by John O’Meara), that “Augustine inhibited Neoplatonic influence in the West rather than transmitted it”.[24]


a prayer upon leaving one’s home:

Eternal Goodness, our True Home,
all things have their beginning in their exit from you,
and all things look to you as to their proper end;
let us not be lost in the exit,
tarry with the swine, and eat swine’s food,
but call us, purify our minds with the light of our Homeland,
and we shall return to your house as prodigals.


[1] See Ennead V.1.12

[2] At the first example of this form of abbreviation, I should explain it: these are references to the Enneads of Plotinus, and the translation/translator I am drawing from. Enneadic references are in the form III.3.3 – the first Roman numeral being the number of the Ennead, the next Arabic numeral being the number of the Tractate within that Ennead, and the final Arabic numeral being the chapter or section number within that Tractate. References to MacKenna are to Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: The Enneads (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1992); references to Corrigan are from Kevin Corrigan, Reading Plotinus: A Practical Introduction to Neoplatonism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2005); references to Perl are to Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2014). Corrigan’s translation, like Perl’s, both follows and closely resembles the translation by Armstrong (widely regarded as the best in English), which I unfortunately did not have access to when writing this. The reader should be warned that Perl and Corrigan, following Armstrong, adopt different translation strategies than MacKenna, who is prone to capitalize much more, and to render Greek words like “nous” not as “intellect” but as “Intellect-Principle”, &c.

[3] Perl, Thinking Being, 113.

[4] IV.8.3, Mackenna.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Corrigan, Reading Plotinus, 25.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Augustine, Confessions, transl. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford, 2008), 4. All of my translations of Augustine will be from this volume.

[9] “In other passages, Plotinus represents this as the procession of a sort of unformed potentiality that must turn back to the One to be actualized as a distinct entity.” Corrigan, Reading Plotinus, 29.

[10] Corrigan, Reading Plotinus, 30.

[11] This is problematic for Augustine, who says that in eating a stolen pair while full he loved the fall itself, loved nothing, rather than the pair, or the camaraderie of his morally corrupted friends; even Plotinus seems to think that Soul can incline to non-being if it fails to look back/up to its source in Intellect, and looks too much at the material and bodily things that Soul produces, and which are ontologically “after” Soul.

[12] See also the discussion of this ambiguity in Plotinus in Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One, 58-61.

[13] John N. Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1991), 33.

[14] Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One, 34.

[15] Is Augustine on shaky ground, philosophically, or is he making a definite theological move that will leave the later (Thomistic) tradition of the Roman Catholic Tradition exposed to the Heideggerian critique that it is ontotheology, and that Christianity is merely ontic?

[16] Perl, Thinking Being, 126.

[17] J.M. Rist, “Pseudo-Dionysius, Neoplatonism, and the Weakness of the Soul” in From Athens to Chartres: Neoplatonism & Medieval Thought Studies in Honour of Edouard Jeauneau ed. Haijo J. Westra (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 140.

[18] Rist, Pseudo-Dionysius, 142.

[19] Rist, Pseudo-Dionysius, 143.

[20] There are more quotes to this effect:

I loved beautiful things of a lower order, and I was going down to the depths [IV.xiii (20)]

the pestilential life of easy comforts [has] taken us away from you [I.xiv (23)]

[through “sin and the vanity of life”] I was ‘mere flesh and wind going on its way and not returning’ (Ps. 77:39) [I.xiii (20)]

The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway [III.iii (5)]

Here is a runaway slave fleeing his master and pursuing a shadow (Job 7:2) [ (14)]

As an adolescent I went astray from you (Ps. 118:76), my God, far from your unmoved stability. I became to myself a region of destitution. [II.x (18)]

my soul was in rotten health. In an ulcerous condition it thrust itself to outward things, miserably avid to be scratched by contact with the world of the senses. Yet physical things had no soul. Love lay outside their range. [III.i (1)]

[Augustine’s father’s] delight was that of the intoxication which makes the world oblivious of you, its Creator, and to love your creation instead of you. He was drunk with the invisible wine of his perverse will directed downwards to inferior things. [II.iii (6)]

[21] More quotes might be mustered for this:

Why then are you perversely following the leading of your flesh? If you turn away from it, it has to follow you. All that you experience through it is only partial; you are ignorant of the whole to which the parts belong. Yet they delight you. [IV.xi (17)]

In seeking for you I followed not the intelligence of the mind, by which you willed that I should surpass the beasts, but the mind of the flesh. But you were more inward than the most inward part and higher than the highest element within me. [ (11)]

[22] Agan, other citations:

[the alienated human being is] dying for his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking. [I.xiii (21)]

with the mouth of the heard wide open, we drank in the waters flowing from your spring on high, ‘the spring of life’ (Ps. 35:10) which is with you. [IX.x (23)]

[At Ostia, Augustine and his mother Monica were raised up] to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food. [IX.x (24)]

[23] See Sara Rappe “Self-Perception in Plotinus and the Later Neoplatonic Tradition” American  Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. LXXI, No. 3

[24] John J. O’Meara, “The Neoplatonism of Saint Augustine”, in Neoplatonism and Christian Thought ed. Dominic J. O’Meara (Albany: SUNY Press, 1982), 41.

6 thoughts on “Plotinus, Augustine, and the Confessions

  1. Interesting connections.

    “The knowledge or touching of the Good is the greatest thing, and Plato says it is the greatest thing, not calling the looking at it a ‘study’, but learning about it beforehand. We are taught about it by comparisons and negations and knowledge of the things which come from it and certain methods of ascent by degrees, but we are put on the way to it by purifications and virtues and adorning and by gaining footholds in the intelligible and settling ourselves firmly there and feasting on its contents. But whoever has become at once contemplator of himself and all the rest and object of his contemplation, and, since he has become substance and intellect and ‘the complete living being’, no longer looks at it from outside – when he has become this he is near, and that Good is next above him, and already close by, shining upon all the intelligible world. It is there that one lets all study go; up to a point one has been led along and settled firmly in beauty and as far as this one thinks that in which one is, but is carried out of it by the surge of the wave of Intellect itself and lifted on high by a kind of swell and sees suddenly, not seeing how, but the vision fills his eyes with light and does not make him see something else by it, but the light itself is what he sees. For there is not in that Good something seen and its light, nor intellect and object of intellect, but a ray which generates these afterwards and lets them be beside it; but he himself is the ray which only generates Intellect and does not extinguish itself in the generation, but it itself abides, and that Intellect comes to be because this Good exists. For if this was not of the kind it is, that would not have come into existence.” Ennead VI-7-36

    Liked by 1 person

      • You are not alone my friend and perhaps we both have a solid ground for such a unifying force as love.
        In your opinion would you say that Plotinus is a good example of one who had diligently sought ‘first the kingdom of God’? Or would you say his primary goal resided elsewhere?

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        • It is a helpful question, for it highlights differences between Plotinus’ world and work and the symbolic environs of early Christianity. At the same time, it invites comparisons of the similarities of these two worlds.

          “The dominion [or kingdom – though “kingdom” is a bad translation of βασιλεία] of God” is a phrase highly charged with the specific optatives of 2nd temple Judaism. I do not think that this phrase, and the judgment of incomplete creation and the hope that God will finally take up his throne and rule the world in perfect justice and establish incorruptible life — it is clear that this is not something that Plotinus yearns for.

          As I’m typing on my phone while at work, and must necessarily be brief, I would say that the Good and the One of Plotinus is the same as the God worshipped by Christians, or that, at least, the two are trying to get at the same thing, even if, taking a random pair of people (one of whom being a non-Platonic Christian, one a non-Christian Neoplatonist of a Plotinian sort), neither would admit it. I’ll post about this when I get around to summarizing the main trilogy of works of my second Masters degree advisor, Robert Neville, nearly half of which I’ve written, but which I won’t post until I finish the other series that I’ve left hanging. :-D

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you kindly for the prompt reply. It is a joy to read a response that is both direct and to the Point.

            Indeed, it is understandable how such a phrase can be easily misconstrued and you have made clear as to what it is not. Perhaps you could tell us what you personally think it means? The fact that the charge was to seek first the dominion or governance of the God seems to imply that it was of great importance.

            Please avoid a hurried response and may your contemplation be one of sound mind…

            Kind regards,


            Liked by 1 person

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