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. Continue reading