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St. Augustine

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St. Augustine’s Criticism on Plato and Platonism St. Augustine is one of the towering figures of medieval philosophy. Augustine had a huge influence on the modern period with people including Descartes and Malebranche. One of the main focal points in his life comes in 387 AD, when his conversion to Christianity takes place. In Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, he evolved a different approach to thinking. When Augustine writes about the Manicheans, he tends to focus on their materialism, substantive dualism, and their identification of the human soul as a particle of the Light. These three key qualifications from Platonism provide Augustine with a philosophical framework for both the medieval and modern periods. In the Confessions, Augustine gives his most extensive discussion of the books of the Platonists. In the Confessions, he makes clear that his previous thinking was dominated by common- sense materialism. It was the books of the Platonists that first made it possible for him to conceive the possibility of a non-physical substance. It did provide him however with a non- Manichean solution to the problem of the origin of evil. In addition, the books of the Platonists provided him with a framework where he plotted the human condition. According to Augustine the framework for Platonists can account for the difficulties with which life brings about to us, in the same aspect it offers a theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well- being. In this account, Augustine is talking about intent, not about the different types of materialism of the Stoics and Manicheans. The key thoughts of the Neoplatonic ontology are both the resoluteness of its promise and the brilliance with which it complements the world of visible appearances. In the books of the Platonists, Augustine encountered an ontology in which there is a fundamental divide between the sensible/physical and the intellectual/ spiritual. In spite of the dualistic implications, this is clearly not intended to be a dualistic alternative to the moral dualism of the Manicheans and other Gnostics. Instead, the divide is situated within what is supposed to a larger, unified hierarchy that begins with absolute unity and progressively unfolds through various stages of increasing plurality and multiplicity, culminating in the lowest realm of isolated and fragmented material objects served with the senses. For Augustine, God is regarded as the ultimate source and point of origin for all that comes below. Equated with being, goodness, and truth, God is the unchanging point which unifies all that comes after and below within a hierarchy. In his earlier works, Saint Augustine centralizes upon the contrast between the intelligible and the sensible. The sensible world is one of transitory objects, whereas the intelligible realm contains abiding realties. The sensible world is subject to the consumptive effects of temporality, whereas the intelligible realm is characterized by an atemporal eternity wherein we are safely removed from the thought of losing a beloved one. Augustine even seems to suggest that the intelligible realm holds out the prospect of fulfilling our desire for the unity that we seek in friendship and love, a unity that can never really be achieved as long as we are absorbed in the sensible world and separated by physical bodies subject to unavoidable separation. Despite its dualistic overtones, the overall unity of the picture is central to its ability to provide a resolution of the problem of evil. The sensible world is not evil. The problem that plagues our condition is not that we are trapped in the visible world, but it is a problem of perception and will. We are prone to view things materialistically and therefore we are unaware that the sensible world is but a tiny portion of what is real. In ending we have a tendency to focus only upon the sensible, viewing it as a self- contained arena within which all questions of moral concern are to be resolved. Plotinus asserts that the ultimate principle, the One, is itself of such absolute unity and transcendence that, it defies all predication and is itself beyond Being and Goodness. Augustine himself does not comment upon this feature of Plotinus’ thought, and thus one can only conjecture as to his reason for resisting it, but given his repeated emphasis upon the soul’s relation to God, the Plotininan picture may have seemed to him as positing too great a distance between the two, thus raising the doubts about the ability of reason to take us towards our desired destination. The other departure from Neo-Platonism moves in the opposite direction. Rather than the danger of making the spiritual distance between God and the soul too great, there is as well in Neo-Platonism a tendency to bridge the gap in a manner troubling to someone like Augustine, for whom the creator/creature distinction is fundamental. For Augustine, the individual human being is a body-soul composite, but in keeping with his Neoplatonism, there is an asymmetry between soul and body. As a spiritual entity, the soul is superior to the body, and it is the province of the soul to rule the body. This presents a fairly positive conception of the soul-body relation, one that clearly runs counter to the Manichean picture of the soul's entrapment. Matters are somewhat less clear, however, when we turn to the question of how the soul comes to be embodied.
With respect to the soul's “origin,” as Augustine frames the question, there is a strand of uncertainty that runs unbroken from his earliest completed post-conversion work to the Retractationes of 427 C.E. In both works, Augustine professes to be puzzled about the soul's origin, but his uncertainty is clearly evolving, and the absence of certainty on the issue should not be interpreted as neutrality or indifference. It is also important to note that, for Augustine, this evolving uncertainty is itself to be understood against the backdrop of other points about which he never seems to waver after 386. He became adamant, for example, that the soul is to be identified with neither the substance of God, nor with the body, nor with any other material entity. In addition to the status of the soul as both created and immaterial, he also insists upon the mutability of the human soul, a feature that not only serves to distinguish it from its creator but one that he views as necessary to explain the possibility of moral change.
In De Libero Arbitrio , when Augustine first attends to the question of the soul's origin in a manner that focuses upon particular possibilities, he does so as part of an anti-Manichean theodicy intended to show that it is the human soul rather than God that is responsible for the presence of moral evil in the world. Thus, as he later points out in Letter 143 (circa 412 C.E.), he is not concerned to adjudicate between these competing hypotheses, but merely to show that each is consistent with a non-Manichean, Neoplatonizing account of moral evil. Nonetheless, the four hypotheses he does advance are important evidence about how he understands the conceptual landscape and the anti-Manichean polemic notwithstanding, it is instructive that he makes no attempt to choose between or even to offer a tentative ranking of them.
For all the changes that affected Augustine between his initial encounter with the books of the Platonists, he never abandoned this Neoplatonic ontology's distinction between the physical/sensible and the spiritual/intelligible and its hierarchy within which these realms are unified. However, these commitments still leave much room for development as well as for tension and uncertainty. In particular, Augustine's views on original sin and the necessity of grace in the face of the Pelagian controversy raised serious questions about the efficacy of the human will. Complicating the matter further is the question of the soul's origin, a question that has a significant impact on Augustine's philosophical anthropology.

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