Saint Augustine came from a family of a pagan father and a Christian mother. As a young man he studied rhetoric from the Carthage, which he excelled in so much so that he would teach it later at the Thagaste. Raised as a Christian when he was a child, Augustine later abandoned his Christian faith and remained without religion for a short stint before converting to Manicheanism. He led a hedonistic style of life spending most of his time in sexual escapades with concubines. He eventually reconverted to Christianity while teaching rhetorics at Milan having been influenced by bishop Ambrose, an experienced rhetorician. The confessions that he wrote describe in detail the transformation he underwent. The new Augustine immersed himself in studying Philosophy and Theology, and was particularly influenced by the works of Plato, Plotinus, the Stoics, among other philosophical schools of thought. This paper is an analysis of Augustine’s confessions as influenced by stoicism and Platonism.
Augustine’s Influence from Stoicism
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Stoicism was a cosmopolitan movement that emerged from Athens at the dawn of the 3rd C. B.C.E. It somehow coincided with the end of communal existence that characterized the city-states from which the classical philosophers philosophized. The movement realized the importance of instilling in the minds of men the fact that one has no home either here or there but rather only in the world itself (1). The reason being, this collapse of communal existence brought anxiety where people began to feel much lonelier and the cosmos loomed much larger.
The central theme of the stoics was the consideration that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment and that a person who mastered moral and intellectual perfection would not be a victim of such emotions. The concern with the active relationship betwixt nature determinism and human freedom and therefore it is virtuous to maintain a will, which is in harmony with nature.
Augustine’s idea of rationes seminales(seminal reasons) as the primary sources of all individual beings was found in the works of the stoics among other philosophers such as Aristotle, Democritus and Anaxagoras. In fact, Anaxagoras was the original author of this idea in which he identified four elements without motion unless they were activated by a thinking rational essence. Like the stoics, Augustine was perturbed by the reality that things were coming into existence that were not previously existent. In Augustine’s confessions, he equated this rational essence to the Spirit of God that animated the objects in the universe.
Borrowing heavily from the central idea of the stoics, Augustine held that the essence of a being was internal and not external to it, and therefore, it is the source of activity in a thing. This essence, he observed, brought to perfection the potentiality of a thing by reducing it to action. The active power to bring actuality is within this essence. In his confessions, Augustine acknowledged that he had been looking for something that would quench his thirst of knowing the author of the universe and that would satiate all his cravings. He could not find it either in human knowledge or from the Manicheans but the Truth was within himself for he only needed to turn inside his soul to find what he had been scouring for externally (2).
The above argument was almost a carbon copy of the stoics’ thought. The latter did distinguish between active and passive matter and postulated the existence of fire as the soul of the world existing in passive matter. This soul, according to the stoics, is the seed of the universe, containing all the reasons or plans of all changes; and the germ of all future forms that are to evolve. Fire (God, according to Augustine) as active principle, informs and moves the matter, which is the passive principle (3).
Augustine’s Transition to Platonism
Platonism is a philosophical thought system of Plato, or simply put as Platonic realism. The central theme in this thought system is the existence of two worlds, namely; the world of forms and the material world. Plato had argued that the things that we see in this universe are nothing but shadows of those that are found in the world of forms. Consequently, the material things, as he referred to them, are mutable, particular, finite, imperfect, et cetera; whereas those which they reflect in the world of forms are immutable, universal, infinite, perfect, among others. Plato further postulated that the existence of the world of forms was the work of a demiurge who was in itself separate from it.
Augustine was not a stranger to the works of Plato and therefore, he seized the opportunity to use them selectively to curry his works. The concept of external ideas that Plato had expounded became useful to Augustine in explaining the origin of the universe. He argued that the ideal forms of Plato had an external existence in the mind of God. God, contemplating the ideas, created the seminal reasons out of nothing (ex nihilo) by an act of his will in the likeness of these external ideas. As such, the seminal reasons have form only insofar as they are dependent upon the ideas in God’s mind (3).
Augustine called these external ideas the Wisdom of God or the Word of God and not simply ideas akin in nature to Platonic forms. In the Platonic fashion, he drew a distinction between the external ideas and the seminal reasons, arguing that the seminal reasons physically exist in matter. These seminal reasons, he continues, are related to both the external ideas through participation, and to God’s will through their dependence on God’s will for their causative power. In so doing, Augustine postulated a closer and complementary relationship between the seminal reasons and their fraction in the Word of God; and less of the link between Plato’s ideas and the elements that participated in them.
It seems rather obvious that Augustine equated Plato’s demiurgewith God for it was from the former that the ideal form originated. God as the author of the external ideas was no doubt the author and sustainer of the universe according to Augustine. The concept of human weakness or propensity to err was explained by Augustine using the idea of physical matter. Human body is a composite of spirit (form) and physical matter and given that the physical matter dominates, man is imperfect, finite, and mutable. All these qualities can only chance when the physical matter ceases to exist leaving the form alone. In this scenario, man (pure form) belongs to the Platonic world of forms. This line of reasoning Augustine related well to the concept of death, heaven, and eternal life.
Death of a human being reasserts his mutability as well as his finiteness even though it only occurs to the physical matter that formed the body mass. The body thus belongs to the material world characterized by all sorts of limitations.The ‘spirit’ or ‘form’ ascends to the ideal world with all the imaginable perfections. The Christian doctrine of death as the beginning of eternal life in heaven borrows almost entirely from this Platonic reasoning, and perhaps it could have been Augustine who introduced it given that he became an apologist and a doctor of the Church.
Having reconverted to Christianity, Augustine devoted his time and intellectual energies in studying philosophy and theology. The transformation that he experience after reading Cicero’s Hortensius impelled him to research more and illuminate his belief with reason. He encountered the philosophical thoughts of the stoics and Plato that proved resourceful. From stoicism he borrowed the idea that the essence of a thing was internal and not external to it, and hence, it is the source of activity in that thing. He used this to explain how he discovered the Truth he had been searching for within himself. Moreover, the stoics’ idea of seminal reasons as based on an essence of spirit that gives life to things, informed him of his versions of rationesseminalis with the Spirit as this essence. Similarly, he borrowed from Plato’s idea of the world of form and the material world to explain the concepts of heaven, eternal life and human weakness. Moreover, he liked Plato’s demiurge with the Christian God insofar as creation was concerned
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