Augustine not only deals with cultural criticism in examining the history of Rome and Roman culture, he also engages in intellectual criticism as well—taking up a critique of Roman religion and Hellenic philosophy (namely Platonism and Stoicism, the two great intellectual influences over him). Augustine is well known for having been influenced by Platonism (specifically Neoplatonism) and Stoicism (through Cicero). While having, in a sense, synthesized Platonism, Aristotelianism (through Neoplatonism), and Stoicism into Christianity—or showing where these Hellenic schools of thought were compatible with Christianity—Augustine did not give a free pass to Hellenic philosophy despite his debt to it.
Augustine’s criticism of Hellenic philosophy centers on the prideful nature of philosophy in general, the dim view of the passions (or desire) represented by the Stoics, and a confrontation with one of Christianity’s most notable ancient critics: Porphyry (a student of Plotinus and the man responsible for publishing Plotinus’ Enneads which Augustine read). At the same time his appraisal of Hellenic philosophy includes a generally very positive view of Platonism, especially anything relating to Plato and Plotinus—for, in Augustine’s mind, the spirit of Platonism was to find the truth.
Augustine’s Praise for Platonism
In critiquing Christianity’s pagan critics, especially Roman religion, Augustine already began to praise Plato by remarking if the Romans were interested in Truth and virtue, they should have built a temple to Plato instead of the lying, jealous, and immoral gods who were worshipped in the Roman pantheon.[i] Augustine praises Plato and Plotinus for several reasons. First was their commitment to the idea of absolute truth over and against epistemological relativism and nihilism. Second was the spiritual or transcendental character of their philosophies which leant itself nicely to the service of Christianity. Third was the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation and theology which recognized, as Augustine highlighted in his criticism of Porphyry, a primitive understanding of the Christian Trinity. Incomplete and not fully Christian, to be sure, but Plotinus’ theological emanation of the One, Dyad, and Nous, was read to be a primitive (pagan rationalist) glimpse of the Trinity. As such, it also showed the limits of reason rather than the expansivity of reason. (Reason can only get you so far.)
Augustine, like many of the non-sophist philosophers of antiquity, maintained that the telos (natural end) of humans was happiness. “That all men desire happiness is a truism for all who are in any degree able to use their reason.”[ii] There are several important features of Augustine’s anthropology to note in order to understand his general praise of Platonism, and to a lesser extent Aristotelianism and Stoicism—though he is not without his moments of considerable criticism of all three of these ancient philosophical schools. Augustine’s anthropology argued that the human being was both a rational and desiring animal; man is endowed with a rational soul (logos; the intellect) but also tremendous phenomenological desire (eros). The unity of logos and eros in the human is what made man like God (since God, conceived of in Christianity is Logos and Eros; Reason and Love; Truth and Desire). Furthermore, Augustine believed that man was made in love for love, in wisdom for wisdom, and with reason to know his nature which would lead to his felicity when living in accordance with his nature. Insofar that Platonism maintained, in a basic sense, all these anthropological characteristics Augustine saw Platonism as a dim or primitive form of Christianity. As Augustine said in De Doctrina Christiana, “Truth wherever it is found belongs to [God]” (because God is Truth and the source of Truth so, syllogistically speaking, this means truth has to belong to God).[iii] Platonists also maintained that the Supreme God was the Logos; Stoics and Aristotelians also maintained similar doctrines in their philosophies of God but made the mistake of being materialist whereas Platonism was immaterialist.
Because the Platonists believed man’s natural end was happiness, that he had an immortal rational soul capable of knowing the good, true, and beautiful, and because the Platonists—moreover than the Aristotelians or Stoics—held the erotic in a positive purview, Augustine saw Platonist philosophy and anthropology (if we can call the limited reflections on man from the Platonists anthropology—which is properly the gift of Christianity to philosophy) as near to Christianity. After all, it was Augustine’s Platonism that moved him to Christianity.
The Platonist commitment to truth and virtue were the primary reasons for Augustine’s praise of Platonism.[iv] But it was also the Platonist doctrine of emanation, especially as it related to Platonist mystical theology (or cosmology) that Augustine also strongly praised as being an accurate description of the Trinity as far as weak-minded rationalism (given the reality of the Fall for Augustine which we will explore later in this article) was concerned.[v] Lastly, Augustine saw Christianity and Platonism in agreement in their respective cosmologies insofar that the Cosmos was intelligible and embedded with intelligibility.[vi] (The intelligibility of creation was an essential aspect to Plotinus and is found in the Genesis account where God gives a commandment, or law, to creation to “bring forth life after its own kind”; the difference between Christian cosmology and Platonist cosmology was the role of love in creation.)
Nevertheless, Platonism can only go so far. For Augustine, the truths of Platonism point to Christ and Christianity. For even the Platonists are filled with certain errors like seeing the body, or flesh, as the seat of evil rather than corrupt intellect.[vii] Basically, the virtues of Platonism and the hope of Platonism points to, and is fulfilled by, Christ. Yet, of all the philosophies, Platonism was nearest to Christianity.
Augustine’s Critique of Hellenic Philosophy
In Book IX (Books IX and X contain Augustine’s examination of Hellenic philosophy, as well as parts of Book XIV) Augustine begins his criticism of Stoicism and Aristotelianism (Peripatetic philosophy), with some scattered critiques of Epicureanism and Cynicism too. Although it is, again, widely known that Augustine was influenced by Stoicism (namely Cicero and Epictetus) and Aristotelianism (through Neoplatonism), this doesn’t stop Augustine from offering criticism of the parts of these philosophies he finds deficient—especially as relating to the human person. The Platonists and Aristotelians he notes, subject the passions to domination (subjugation) to rationality.[viii] This is not altogether bad, but it is deficient because Augustine’s Christian anthropology does not have mind over matter or reason over passion, but mind equal to matter and reason equal to passion. (The harmony of logos and eros; “spirit and flesh.”) But Augustine’s main critique of Stoics deals with their philosophy of the erotic and implicit solitary character (slipping into the sin of pride).
For Augustine, the Stoics—despite their worthiness in other realms—are deeply wrong about the passions. This is part of the broader voluntarist-intellectualist debate that would reemerge in the Medieval world between the followers of Augustine and the followers of “Thomism” and Scholasticism. While the Platonists and Aristotelians leave room for the passions (though subjugated to reason), the Stoics hold the most damning view of the passions altogether. The Stoics view the passions as evil; for it is the passionate man who is the irrational and unwise man. The task of Stoic virtue was not merely the mastery of the passions (as in Platonism or Aristotelianism) but the elimination of the passions altogether. As Augustine says, “Others, the Stoics among them, refuse to admit that passions of this kind can conceivably befall a wise man.”[ix] That is, the wise man and virtuous man (which Stoicism aims to create in man) is the man who never has the passions hold sway over him because he has completely eliminated passion from his body. The good only exists within the soul (rational intellect) in Stoic thought.
The negative view of the body (and erotic) implied in Stoic anthropology is something Augustine cannot accept given his Christianity which holds the body in high regard. In fact, the body is so sacred and the erotic so sacred in Christianity that this is the real reason for “restrictions” on the body in Christian ethics. It is not restriction because the body is bad, but boundaries placed on the body for its dignity and sacrality because the body is dignified and sacred; to demean and cheaply abuse and discard the body through libertinism would be reflective of an anthropology that sees the body as little more than an instrument of use. To have boundaries placed on the body is because the body is sacred and dignified and humans should not cheaply augment, abuse, or “use” their bodies at whim. (This is the most sophomoric error in understanding Christian anthropology; that Christianity views the body as bad—that was “Christian Manicheanism” and “Christian Gnosticism” but not Catholic Christianity or Orthodox Christianity which actually has the most affirming corporeal anthropology not only in the ancient world but still the most positive corporeal anthropology in the modern world.)
At face value Stoicism and Christianity would seem compatible. Christianity understands, as Stoicism understands, that the passions can lead to the human doing things (with their body) which is unbefitting of human dignity and virtue. Stoicism, as Augustine remarks, is the philosophy of spirit (not passion) instead of flesh.[x] (Do take note that in Christian and ancient philosophy, the spiritual was associated with the rational and the fleshly or carnal with the bodily; where Augustine appraises Stoicism as being spiritual he is referring to soulful or rational and not about the passions or erotic which is located in the carnal or fleshly aspect of man.) But this is where the similarities end and the differences become more manifest.
The lack of dignity and virtue, for Stoicism, is precisely because humans are hamstrung by the passions or erotic in of itself.[xi] The lack of dignity and virtue, for Christianity, is because body and soul are not unified in harmony. It is not the fault of the passions (or the flesh) for the denigration of the body and virtue in Christian anthropology. It is the fault of reason for not knowing the reality of the sacredness of the body and passions (and it is here that the Stoics err and even the Platonists and Aristotelians also err; though the Platonist and Aristotelian error is more tolerable than the Stoic error concerning this issue of human anthropology).[xii] The Stoics are guilty, from Augustine’s point of view, of taking the fallen state of man as normative and seeing sin as identical with the passions and so the answer to man’s woe is not God but the elimination of the passions altogether. It is a form of works righteousness, a self-righteousness, a self-congratulatory pride in their own power to overcome sin without Divine assistance. The Stoics wish to live, then, according to the flesh, but see themselves superior to the hoi polloi who indulge in their self-gratifying and fleeting passions.
Furthermore, Augustine critiques the Stoic criticism of compassion as a form of weakness (because compassion is sentimentality ergo the passion ruling over the mind).[xiii] Augustine is not critiquing the Stoic philosophy of sacrifice and acceptance of suffering (something he, and other Christian church fathers, found to be very compatible with Christianity). However, Augustine charges the Stoics as essentially lacking charity and love with their hyper rationalism. Man is not purely intellect (as the Stoic philosophy logically implies) but is intellect and passion (as the Platonists and Aristotelians understand despite their privileging of intellect over passion. Sentimentality is not weakness but man’s great strength; the passions are our humanness in other words. For Augustine, the role of the passions offer Christians a training in virtue; to directly orient their sentimental passions to the highest good in life (Truth, mercy, and virtue) which the passions aim for but need orienting with from reason.[xiv] The anti-passionate and anti-sentimental views offered in Stoicism do not offer, in fitting Augustinian irony, a training in virtue and dignity as the Stoics think but a training in self-righteousness and faux dignity (or incomplete dignity).
Augustine also criticizes Epicureanism (the ancient philosophical school that denied the immortality of the soul, the primacy of reason in the human, and advocated for sensual hedonism or physical pleasure as the Highest Good in life). Like with Stoicism’s hyper rationalism, Augustine is repulsed by Epicureanism’s hyper carnality. Where the Stoics erred in seeing man as primarily spiritual (mind or soul), the Epicureans erred in seeing man as solely fleshly or carnal. Augustine’s anthropological criticism is premised on account of his pluralistic account of man stemming from biblical anthropology: Man is a combination of flesh (body) and spirit (mind), and man’s virtue and dignity comes not in the coerced mastery of the mind over matter but the harmony and unity of flesh and spirit. Stoic man is deficient because he eliminates his passion; Epicurean man is deficient because he denigrates his body in sensual pursuits; Christian man—the total man (homo totus) for Augustine—orders his passions through his soul and directs it to the Highest Good (God; namely, Truth and Love) and lives in accord with his true nature (flesh and spirit) where body and soul are united as one. Insofar that Hellenic philosophy failed to understand this, Hellenic philosophy can only show man the truth of Christianity but is not, in of itself, the truth.
[i] See City of God, 2.14.
[ii] Ibid., 10.1
[iii] See De Doctrina Christiana, 2.15.
[iv] See City of God, 8.4-11.
[v] Ibid., 10.23-24.
[vi] Ibid., 8.6; 11.9.
[vii] Ibid., 14.5
[viii] Ibid., 9.4.
[x] Ibid., 14.2.
[xi] Ibid., 14.8; 14.15.
[xii] Ibid., 14.2.
[xiii] Ibid., 9.5