I have reached an impasse on my Augustine paper.  My marginalia in the Fellowship of the Ring are collecting dust in the darkness of an unheated dorm room, eight hundred miles away.  Facebook, and my copy of M. C. Escher’s complete works, have been distracting me all day.  And now, when I force myself to return to writing the Augustine paper, I find myself reading the blogs again.

I am impressed with what a master’s program involves.  I’m not talking about the number of credits, or the amount of writing (I flattered myself as an undergraduate that I was used to that), but the sheer responsibility for the written word.  That, more than anything else, makes me lose my stomach for writing my Augustine paper.

Consider the fact that my paper involves trying to determine whether Augustine incorporates or breaks with Platonism over the traditional paradigm for the “ascent of the soul.”  (This is the ascent Plato talks about in the Symposium—love leads you to contemplate first beauty in one material form, then many beauties, then beauty in souls, then practices, and finally Beauty Itself.  The final rapturous vision of Beauty results in the multiplication of beauties… kids, don’t try this at home.)  Plotinus does some interesting things with this blueprint of Ascent in his Enneads, especially I.6, and then Augustine describes what are apparently two or three attempts at Ascent in the Confessions (a couple of them before his conversion, one afterwards).

As an undergraduate, I would simply have done a comparison between these three books, decided that Augustine swallowed the Platonic paradigm hook, line, and sinker (except for Plato’s pederasty, and with certain modifications of Plotinus’s ecstatic language) and called it a day.  Now I’m finding out, however, that that is not a quite respectable way of going about things.  For starters, Augustine probably never read Plato’s Symposium.  For another thing, a lot of the Platonism Augustine was exposed to came from Ambrose, and we’re not quite sure what kind Platonism that would have been.  (Did Ambrose know that Plato’s original Ascent had pederastic overtones?  Or that Plotinus introduced something new when he added introspection as the sine qua non of Ascent?)  Ambrose does an incredible reworking of Plato’s analogy of the soul as a charioteer in the Phaedrus, but Plato’s famous analogies might have been simply “in the air” at the time, or they may have been repeated in epitomes or summaries, and it would be a fallacy to assume that Ambrose or Augustine actually had a copy of Plato in front of him.

So this is the kind of thing I have to deal with as I set out to determine (1) whether Augustine broke with Platonism, and (2) what kind of Platonism he would have broken with, in Milan, in the late 300’s.

Why would this be important?  I wondered about that at the beginning.  It seemed like such niggling drudgery to constantly check one’s generalizations against the meager specifics Augustine actually gives us about his intellectual inventory in the Confessions.  But now, as I slodge through this paper, I think that the reason for the minutia may be humane.  It’s all in the interest of getting inside Augustine’s head and granting him a fair hearing.  If he didn’t know about Plato’s pederasty (I don’t think he did), then he couldn’t have seen himself “breaking with” a practice whose existence he was oblivious to.  If he only read Enn. V.1, and drank in all that dreadfully mysterious rhetoric about the One (called “Father”), the Logos, and the Nous, without having access to the rest of the Enneads to clarify what Plotinus thought about these “Persons” (hypostases), then he could easily have mistaken Plotinus’s account for a traditional Christian explication of the Trinity.  Yes, mistaken.  Plotinus was neither Trinitarian nor Christian.

In the end, I think what my masters degree will force me to do is to take Augustine’s words, and the words of all those fine chaps who lived in days other than our own, with a severe charity.  Charity because one always wants a sympathetic hearing; severe because we interpreters do not dare to make a man say either more or less than he said.  “I testify to everyone who hears the words of this book:  if anyone adds to them, the Academy shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from them, the true scholars will take away his part from the Academy.”

Amen.  Now back to my Augustine paper.

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