Plotinus was the last great Hellenic philosopher active during the rise of Christianity just as Christianity was just beginning to supersede the pagan Hellenic world. It remains to be known how much engagement he had with Christianity, though it is undeniably the case that latter Christians were familiar with his work. His only surviving work, The Enneads, was composed by his student Porphyry—himself radically anti-Christian—and was influential on Christian figures, the most important being Saint Augustine.
There remains an outstanding question as to the significant influence that Plotinus had over Augustine. In his famous work, St. Augustine’s Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul, Robert J O’Connell writes that Augustine’s account of the “Fall of Man” and the journey of man’s soul after the Fall, “is more faithfully Neo-Platonic and more specifically Plotinian than heretofore commonly acknowledged.” O’Connell’s work sparked a flurry of new Augustinian scholarship to address this question. Going back to Bertrand Russell, or even to the Renaissance Catholic humanists, there has always been an acknowledged debt from Plotinus to Augustine to Catholic theological anthropology. In fact, this is one of the other major bones of contention between the Latin West and Greek East in Christian theology. However, O’Connell was the first scholar (himself a Jesuit priest) to assert the essentiality of Plotinianism to understanding Augustine, that is, without Plotinus there would be no Augustine, or without Plotinus, we cannot understand Augustine.
The Emanation and Fall of Soul in Plotinus
To understand the odyssey of soul from Plotinus to Augustine we must necessarily start with Plotinus.
I do not wish to get into the details of the many aspects of Plotinus’ thought, other than to start with the basics that Plotinus’ metaphysics is simultaneously concentric and hierarchal. Everything emanates outward from the One, and everything “descends” downward from the One simultaneously. The One emanates Nous, or Intellect, from which emanates Soul.
Soul subsequently continues to create matter from this process of emanation which goes downward before reverting (reorientation) to ascent, or, more properly, wanting to ascend back to which it came. This ultimately means that Soul seeks reunification with the One through the Intellect as the gateway, bridge, or mediator, back to the One. The allure of Soul is, essentially, erotic, in its desire to return to its primordial origins in the One. In this connectivity of One, Intellect, Soul, and intelligible matter (erotic corporeality), the wholeness of life and cosmos are united in a hypostasis of emanation. The “great chain of being” is so thoroughly interlinked through generative emanation that even matter, though the lowest emanation, still has connectivity (roots) back to the One from the generative hypostasis of One-Intellect-Soul-Matter.
Matter is important to Plotinus’ schema insofar that the generative emanation of souls from Soul take on their distinctiveness in matter. Matter exists as a creation of Soul for souls to inhabit. While matter allows for sweet fragrance and beauty to become realized through sensation, it is ultimately insufficient for the soul, now aware of itself and the seat of the I. The I, which is soul manifested in particularity, seeks to ascend back from whence it came (to the One) which would, on one hand, leave behind matter but also divinize matter (as it brings matter up with it to the One). The generative process begun from the One ends with Soul creating matter, for matter does not have the power to create on its own and only has the potential to be realized by the in-dwelling of soul. Matter is realized through sensation, from consciousness, which Soul possesses. Realized matter, with the indwelling of Soul, becomes the soul which is particular, unique, and individuated in the world.
The crisis of Soul in Plotinus is once the descent of Soul is complete, and the reorientation of Soul to the One commences, or tries to commence, matter serves as a weight to keep Soul contained to it. Matter, in this wonderful experience born now from having received Soul to actualize it and allowing it to experience sensation, does not want to give up this wonderous state of experience. Thus matter desires to preserve itself, in some sense, by remaining tethered to the world of corporeal experiences which are beautiful, pleasant, and ever-stimulating. While matter enjoys this new reality of potentiality actualized, soul yearns for restoration with the True Source of Beginning: The One, which is the ultimate beauty and goodness. (Here, for instance, we should see parallelism with young Augustine in Carthage.)
There now exists a wrestling match, so to speak, between matter and soul in this actualized reality of realized matter indulging in corporeal sensation and the cries of soul seeking to reunite with the One. Soul has brought life, awareness and sensation, to matter and the newfound actualized potentiality of matter is the distinctiveness of souls. This is the animating life-force in all matter; the distinct life spirit unique to the matter which Soul has brought to life. Matter, though, having been brought to life through sensational awareness, desperately clings to what it now possesses at the exclusion of soul’s impulse for reunification.
There are important things to note about this “Fall of Soul” in Plotinus’ work. The fall of Soul is benevolent. There is nothing malevolent about it or ontically corrupting as in Christianity. There is nothing deceitful or self-appropriating as in the Christian account. Moreover, the marriage of Soul with Matter was meant to bring heightened life, or awareness, to the unrealized potential of matter prior to the indwelling of Soul with Matter.
Furthermore, why Intellect, Soul, and Matter should emanate from the One and be united in hypostatic unity with it is mysterious because the One is self-sustaining and needs nothing that flows from it. The One, in this sense, is not “Love” (as God is conceived of in Christian theology) though the One and Dyad are united in love actualized as persons. “It is sound, I think, to find the primal source of Love in a tendency of the Soul towards pure beauty, in a recognition, in a kinship, in an unreasoned consciousness of friendly relation.”
This doctrine of the One as self-sustaining and whole, and not needing anything from creation, became a standard understanding of divine impassibility in Western Christianity. However, the strict Plotinian account is more a creatio ex Deo, creation from God, or from the One, rather than creatio ex nihilo; yet the One doesn’t need anything from its emanations, it is purely sufficient on its own. Even the eminent Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards inherits this long tradition when he writes, “The notion of God creating the world, in order to receive anything properly from the creature, is not only contrary to the nature of God, but inconsistent with the notion of creation; which implies a being receiving its existence, and all that belongs to it, out of nothing.” The One, like God, does not create the cosmos to gain anything from the cosmic order which it creates (or created). The One needs not what has emanated from it to gain anything in return; yet we still have creation, beauty, and love out of what has been emanated.
From this emanation of the One and the emergence of Love in Soul, Plotinus now sets up the dialectic of love. As he closes the Fifth Ennead he writes, “Thus Love is at once, in some degree a thing of Matter and at the same time a Celestial, sprung of the Soul; for Love lacks its Good but, from its very birth, strives towards It.” Because Love is a quality of lacking, in Plotinus, Love is essentially erotic in nature (following Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium). Love strives for what it doesn’t have or strives because of what it lacked beforehand.
Matter loves because Love does not originate in matter. Love has been, to crudely put it, impregnated into matter through the indwelling of Soul to Matter since Love has its origin in Soul. Love is naturally lacking in matter which is why matter clings desperately to the realized world it now finds itself.
Celestial love from the highness of Soul, however, does not find its fulfillment in the lower ends (matter) which it is now united with. The love animating Soul, however, is also moved by a lacking for it seeks a return to its ultimate Source which will quench it: The One mediated through the Intellect. The love of the soul, which is now incarnate in matter, desires to return to its Source. In the Augustinian rendering, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee.” Yet the love of matter pleasurizes itself in this world of “the flesh” which it has become aware of rather than simply doing. The doing activity of matter without sensation is a dead corpse. The doing activity of matter with sensation, with awareness, with consciousness, is a lively creature of realized potential thanks to the indwelling of Soul leading to the soul of each living thing.
In sum, soul wishes to ascend back to the One which is where, and only where, the erotic love of the soul can be satisfied. However, matter, now alive because of the soul it possesses, seeks to enjoy as much of the beautiful world enlivened to it from the Descent of Soul. This love, which is erotic in realized matter is because love doesn’t originate in matter, seeks to have what it naturally lacks. Thus the frenzied activity of animated matter seeks out love in all things as this manifesting of love was previously not part of its being until the indwelling of Soul. That Soul creates matter and now occupies it is a crucial part understanding the difference between the continued “downward” descent of the fallen soul in Augustine against the essentially latitudinal activity of the imprisoned soul in Plotinian matter.
The Fall of the Soul in Augustine
The sharpest distinction between Augustine and Plotinus can be seen in their differing understandings of the “fall” from which the soul finds its predicament.
Augustine’s understanding of the Fall of Man was that man, Adam and Eve, lusted to control the determination of good and evil (represented by the Tree of Knowledge) for themselves so that they could decide, for themselves—apart from God (the Source of all Goodness and Truth)—what was good and true to derive their own happiness from their own hands. That is, Augustine read the Fall of Man as a rejection of man’s own nature to try to appropriate something that wasn’t his for himself. As mentioned, this notion of self-appropriate is entirely absent in Plotinus.
More importantly for Augustine, man desires happiness. Happiness is consummated through living in accord with the Truth. But in trying to control for himself what was good and true for his own happiness, man comes to rationalize—so to speak—his actions and now lives by false standards he invents. “Woe onto him who calls good evil and evil good.” Concern for Truth and happiness are equally absent in the Plotinian account of the fall of soul. Soul doesn’t fall for having sought to appropriate Truth unto itself, nor did it fall out of any lust to control for itself what would bring happiness to itself.
While it is true in the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) that God did not need to create, for there was nothing compelling God externally to create, God still creates from his nature because God is love. The Fall of the Soul in the Augustinian account is that man rejected, in a sense, his soul, his logos, which is Christ, in lusting to control for himself the knowledge of good and evil so to determine for himself what would bring about his own happiness (by calling evil good and good evil). Whereas in Plotinus Soul creates matter and dwells in it, God creates matter and breathes into matter the anima, the soul, by which man becomes a living soul. Now aware, with sensation and feeling (contra the existentialist theologians who argue that awareness and sensation is the byproduct of the Fall), body and soul are one in the living man. There is no fall of the soul in any of the creative process of God as we find in Plotinus.
The Fall of Man, however, does lead to an anxious, guilt-felt, and wearisome life—only after the fact. Man, divorced from the source of Love and Wisdom, seeks Love and Wisdom to bring rest and happiness to the restlessness and unhappiness he now finds himself. Augustine does not believe that the telos of man (love and wisdom which beget happiness) has changed because of the Fall. Instead, man’s internal heart, his moral compass, his ability to know the truth, etc., have been distorted or disordered because of the Fall. As such, man seeks wisdom and happiness in ephemeral things (corporeality) cut off from the Divine rather than appreciate corporeality as a gift of God (thus properly ordering the appreciation and love of all things God has created).
But does the fallen soul, in man, create a space for itself like in the Plotinian account? To some degree it seems so. And here O’Connell’s work would have been better buttressed if it presented this element of the Plotinian-Augustinian synthesis he articulates.
In the Plotinian and Augustinian account of the soul in its postlapsarian state (irrespective of how the Fall of Soul commences) the soul desires a return to its ultimate Source. It is also clear that in both accounts matter poses a certain threat, or barrier, to the soul from its ascent back to God or the One. The pleasantry of carnal life drags the soul down and keeps it shackled to the world of materiality; the flesh becomes a stumbling block to true happiness which resides with the soul. We are, as Saint Paul said, and as Augustine conceived, “born of the flesh” or conceived of matter. It is equally clear that this living body has erotic longing to that which it lost or never fully possessed (beauty, love, wisdom, etc.). It is also clear that in both accounts that the soul’s reunion with the Divine Source is through mediation with the Nous/Logos, which in Christianity is given particularity and personality in the person of Christ.
However, Augustine’s account of the Fall is even more radical than what we find in Plotinus on this key point. The fallen soul, in a certain sense, “creates” (by negation) a new spatiality for its craven state of existence after Original Sin. In Plotinus the entrapped soul is trapped because of realized matter appreciating a newfound element to its existence which it previously did not have, but Augustine’s depraved soul sinks lower and lower in creating new spaces for its continued descent into the abyss of formless or unordered desire through the destruction of that which exists and occupying the negated abyss which comes from destruction.
We see this through Augustine’s elaboration on the doctrine of sin—not Original Sin—but sin in the normative sense. The fallen soul cultivates new habits in new spaces, literally creating a false space for its own depravity to consummate itself. This is, properly, an anti-creation; a depreciation of creation, a negation of that which is where the fallen soul subsequently occupies momentarily in its self-gratifying depravity. But the fallen soul in its sin “creates” a new spatial plane for its wickedness to manifest itself which causes it to sink lower and lower as it does so. For sin entails the negation of the good; a negation of that which God has created. When Augustine speaks of his depravity and pits of despair in the Confessions, he uniquely uses the imagery of a pit, a cesspool, of sin which he has sunken lower into because of his own lustful will. He has destroyed the good surface and entered a darker abode by the destructive spirit of sin. There is nothing of the like in Plotinus.
In this sense, the fallen soul in Augustine destroys that which exists before it to occupy the abyss, the nothing and nothingness, which briefly manifests itself through this destruction. The “creative” aspect of the fallen soul is a negation of true creativity, a parody of the creation by God, in which it exerts its lust to dominate and lust to “love” in this negated space. This is something that Plotinus never conceived but which Augustine believes is the essential activity of the depraved soul. Divorced from God, the fallen soul ends up destroying the good corporeal reality created by God as an unintentional consequence of its fallenness. In this manner the fallen soul continues to descend downward by obliterating, negating, divine matter in its descent to hell (which is nothingness; a place devoid of all beauty, goodness, and love).
Faithfulness to Plotinus or to Scripture?
Robert O’Connell is certainly right that there is a strong Plotinian element to Augustine’s theological anthropology. He is also right to see how, given Augustine’s influence from Plotinus, Plotinus was a hidden influence on Augustine’s thinking. But there are significant differences between the two, mostly as a result of Augustine’s Christianity which tempers his Plotinianism. It is not the case that Augustine mediates Plotinianism through Christianity, but rather, Augustine mediates Christianity through Plotinianism—taking from the elements of Plotinus which he considers relatable to Christianity and ignoring the elements which are not conducive to Christianity.
We must never forget that it wasn’t long after the rise of Christianity and Christian metaphysics that the Plotinian or Neoplatonic metaphysics collapsed. This wasn’t because Christianity did away with the “old gods” but because Neoplatonic metaphysics was ultimately inconducive to Christian orthodoxy. A truly Neoplatonic, indeed, a truly Plotinian, theology in Christianity would be akin to Arianism. In fact, Arius of Alexandria was a conservative Neoplatonist who structured his theology and Christology from Neoplatonism first, and Christianity second. For Arius’ theology is Neoplatonism mediated through Christianity which is why the Son must be subordinate to the Father. The strict Oneness and hierarchy of Plotinianism demands such radically distinctiveness in hierarchal subordination.
The influence of Plotinus over Augustine is less essential than O’Connell asserts. It is true that Plotinus influenced Augustine, and especially early Augustine. But it is not the case that Augustine was “more faithfully Neo-Platonic…than heretofore commonly acknowledged” or that it would have been impossible for Augustine to develop his systematic treatment of the Fall and the Soul without Plotinus. Augustine was faithful to the Scriptural account as he wrestled with it, but in formulating his systematic treatment of the fall and the yearning of the soul, he certainly took cues from Plotinus finding a helpful ally in Greek philosophy to make sense of the Scriptural account.
With Augustine we achieve the most systematic treatment of utilizing Greek philosophy to explain Christianity rather than accommodating Christianity to Greek philosophy. After all, Augustine regularly accosted the Greek philosophers as far beneath the Patriarchs and Prophets in the City of God and his other writings. Those who seek to maintain Augustine baptized Plato and Plotinus project onto Augustine their own adoration of the Greeks, something which is far more tepid and tempered in Augustine than popularly imagined. To put it simply, Augustine put Scripture before Plato and Plotinus and utilized Plato and Plotinus when he found it helpful—but just like Augustine in the Confessions, he ultimately left the Platonists behind because they did not know the name to whom all creation bows.
 Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul (New York: Fordham University Press, 1989; 1969), ix.
 Cf. Plotinus, Ennead 5.1.
 Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation Concerning The End For Which God Created The World.
 Plotinus, Ennead, 5.9.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.
 It is this distinction which is not fully drawn out, or developed, in O’Connell’s work which many take issue with, and which I, principally, take issue with despite the otherwise remarkable scholarship involved in O’Connell’s work on the Plotinian influence over Augustine’s thought related to Confessions.
 Augustine, City of God, 11.4.
 Augustine, Confessions, 3.6, 3.11.
*This article was originally published at VoegelinView, 7 December 2020.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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