Augustine’s foremost interlocutor in the final books of Part I of City of God is the Neoplatonist (and in Augustine’s mind, neo-sophist) Porphyry. Porphyry was already dead by the time Augustine wrote City of God, but Porphyry was one of the last intellectual critics of Christianity in the world of Late Antiquity. Christian tradition held that Porphyry was a Christian turned blasphemer, but there is no evidence of Porphyry ever being a Christian. That said, Porphyry does demonstrate a strong familiarity with Christian (and Jewish) Scripture and ideas in his critique of Christianity (Adversus Christianos).
Porphyry and the Limits of Philosophy
The critique of Porphyry, which is the culmination of the culture critique in the first ten books of City of God, is aimed at Porphyry’s neo-Sophism. The sophists, in Augustine’s criticism, were philosophers who placed themselves at the center of the world (cf. Protagoras) and, in doing so, lived by the “way of man” instead of the “way of God” and therefore were incapable of coming to know truth because of their pride. Augustine’s criticism of Porphyry is only understandable from this perspective. That is, Augustine sees Porphyry as the ultimate hypocrite. Porphyry claims to be a philosopher, which means he is claiming to be interested in truth and the fundamental nature of reality. Yet, Porphyry contradicts himself on multiple accounts. He praises theurgy, then denies it.[i] In the presence of the mob he speaks to their flattery; in the presence of more learned men he abandons theurgic mysticism.[ii]
Porphyry’s story is really one of tragedy from the purview of Augustine’s irony. As Augustine states, “Porphyry was in subjection to those envious powers, and was at the same time ashamed of his subjection and yet afraid to contradict them openly, he refused to recognize that the Lord Christ is the ‘principle,’ and that by his incarnation we are purified.”[iii] As already mentioned in detailing Augustine’s praise of Platonism, Platonist metaphysics affirmed the reality of Christian metaphysics—this is why many prominent early church fathers were Neoplatonists. Some went as far as suggesting, like St. Justin Martyr, that the advent of Platonist philosophy in Greece was God’s way of preparing the Greeks for the reception of Christianity. But rather than follow Platonist philosophy to its fruition—acceptance of Christianity—Porphyry rejects Christianity because of his tragic pride.
At one level Porphyry is a slave to other philosophical and theurgic powers. At another level Porphyry personally benefits by being part of these subjected powers, “You have made yourself the preacher and the angel of those unclean spirits who pretend to be gods of the ether; and they have promised you that those who have been purified in their ‘spiritual’ soul, by theurgic art, although they cannot, indeed, return to the Father, will have their dwelling among the gods of the ether, above the levels of air,” Augustine says to Porphyry.[iv]
By being the slave of theurgic mystics and demons, Porphyry is unfree which leads to his contradictory statements. Among the more learned who reject theurgy he agrees with them. Among those who believe in theurgic mysticism he is “their preacher.” Porphyry wants to be the measure of all things like Protagoras, but he is really a subjected little man serving false forces or ignorance (demons). He is prideful because he is important when he preaches false theurgic teaching. He is broken in his letters to more esteemed writers and philosophers because he does realize the errors of his ways and wants to seek a more truthful way of living. However, he is unable to break free of his condition and remains enslaved to those subjected theurgic forces because he serves himself and power rather than others and truth (as he portends himself as doing).[v]
Porphyry is a noble soul in error insofar that he does seek wisdom but fails to recognize the incarnation of Wisdom (who is Christ). Porphyry instinctively knows, from his teacher Plotinus, that the purification and salvation of man must be universal—that is, available to all—but asserts no philosophy has ever successfully produced such a system. Augustine argues that Porphyry deliberately keeps himself blind to the fact that the system he is looking for is Christianity, “Now Porphyry says – towards the end of his first book On the Return of the Soul – that no doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul; no such way has been produced by any philosophy (in the truest sense of the word), or by the moral teaching and disciplines of the Indians, or the magical spells of the Chaldeans, or in any other way, and that this universal way had never been brought to his knowledge in his study of history. He admits without any doubt that such a way exists, but confesses that it had never come to his notice.”[vi] But, as Augustine goes on to state, Porphyry was alive when that universal way for the liberation of man’s soul and salvation came into the world, “for the liberation of the soul, which is simply the Christian religion,” was revealed in Porphyry’s lifetime.[vii]
What can we make of Augustine’s criticism of Porphyry? At one level Augustine considers the case of Porphyry to be a tragedy. Here is a philosopher, a learned man, a Platonist, a student of Plotinus, who claims to be seeking wisdom and knowledge, and with that virtue and truth. Here is a philosopher who is seeking liberation from bondage, the freedom offered by the truth (“the truth shall set you free,” cf. John 8:32). Here is a philosopher who knows God is necessary for Truth since God is Truth. Here is a philosopher who, in accepting the Platonist doctrine of principles and emanations, already has a primitive understanding of how the doctrine of the Trinity works in Christianity. Yet, despite all of this, Porphyry refuses to accept the inevitable and exhaustive logic of his own schooling and searching: Christianity. Instead of embracing what he seeks he turns away from it. As such, he becomes a sophist rather than a learned and wise man. He subjects himself to slavery rather than freedom. He refuses to accept the incarnate God and embraces the demons as his god.
What prevents Porphyry from accepting the obvious? Pride. Porphyry loves himself too much and is also too internally conflicted (to admit the errors of his ways, unlike Augustine who rejected the errors of his youth) to accept the reality that he is not center of the universe. For if Porphyry accepts Christianity that means he would have to leave behind his life’s work attacking Christianity and admit he was wrong—something he cannot do. By accepting Christianity, which places Christ—Universal Wisdom and Wisdom incarnate—at the center of the Cosmos, Porphyry would be dethroned from his lofty position as enslaved preacher of theurgic powers. This is something Porphyry cannot do.
Augustine’s criticism of Porphyry is suddenly a tale we are all familiar with. The man who considers himself “God’s gift” or the most important person in the world is the man who is truly blind. Porphyry’s self-centeredness prevents him from seeing the truth that he does, earnestly, seek. It is rather a sad story when you consider it from Augustine’s point of view; and as we conclude Augustine’s critique of Porphyry (and with it, Hellenic philosophy) we see “Augustinian irony” coming into full bloom.
Like Plato, Augustine’s writings are filled with irony. I have already touched on Augustine’s irony in the above sections. Here I would briefly like to summarize Augustinian irony from within his cultural criticism.
Concerning the irony of the Romans, Augustine sees the Romans in noble error. But this is made even more tragic all things considered. The Romans want happiness, peace, and virtue, but they glorify a city and empire of poverty, war, and immorality. The Roman critics of Christianity claim that a return to the old gods will bring back the happy, peaceful, and virtuous times of Rome; Augustine goes to great lengths (by citing predominately pagan Roman authors) that this mythic glory age of Rome never existed under the old gods. Instead, the Romans are so blind to the reality that Christianity is the religion that offers them happiness, peace, and virtue, and that Christianity is the ultimate religion of the Roman heart. For it is Christianity’s anthropology which allows for happiness, and it is Christianity’s doctrines and compassion which will lead to peace and virtue. Furthermore, Christianity’s promotion of patriotism: duty to family, community, and nation, is the fullest embodiment of the patriotism which the Romans claim to praise. (One of Augustine’s disciples, Orosius, expounded on these themes in his own History Against the Pagans.)
As it relates to the Roman critics of Christianity, Augustine shows how these critics are ignorant of their own history. The ignorant are often the greatest critics of Christianity.
Concerning the irony of the philosophers, Augustine goes to great lengths to show how the philosophers—noble as their endeavors are—often ends in failure because of incompleteness. Christianity stands to offer the complete picture, but few want the complete picture (like Porphyry). This is ironic because the philosophers claim to want to know the whole truth but when encountering the whole truth (offered in Christianity) they balk at it and return to their sophistry because the philosophers don’t want to cease being the centers of the universe. That is, the philosopher qua philosopher is a philosopher in the pursuit of wisdom. The philosopher ceases being a philosopher when he has achieved wisdom. Rather than embrace the contented, happy, and wise life at the end of the tunnel the philosopher retreats into the dark tunnel to continue walking aimlessly because he would rather do that than enjoy the bliss and virtue he claims to want because there is more thrill “in the journey” than at the end of the journey. The end of philosophy is complete wisdom and virtue; but according to Augustine the philosophers aren’t interested in what they claim to be seeking but are only interested in their inflated egos and the praise given to them “for their discoveries.”
What is Augustinian irony? Where Platonic irony is tied to Plato’s satire, Augustinian irony is tied to Augustine’s tragedy. Where Plato saw the sophists as despicable humans deserving to be lampooned, Augustine sees humans as fallen creatures desperately wanting truth and virtue but consistently falling short of their longings. Augustine’s irony is tragic because he sees the deep yearning in the hearts of the Romans and the Greek philosophers (and even in Porphyry) but how these Romans and philosophers can’t accept the yearning of their heart (in accepting Christianity) and would rather continue their downward descent toward hell. Augustine’s irony is an irony of tragedy—and this is where his irony differs strongly from Plato’s whose irony was an irony of satire.[viii]
[i] See City of God, 10.9-11.
[ii] Ibid., 10.11.
[iv] Ibid., 10.27.
[vi] Ibid., 10.32.
[viii] I have written on the nature of irony in Plato’s Republic as an integral component to understanding the political philosophy of The Republic. Cf. “Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic,” January 16, 2018, VoegelinView. <https://voegelinview.com/savagery-irony-satire-platos-republic/>