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Augustine’s Platonic Eroticism

Phillip Cary offers an informative summary of Augustine’s appropriation of the Platonic concept of love or eros (ἔρος) – the Symposium (a dialogue “περὶ τῶν ἐρωτικῶν λόγων”) is perhaps the most famous dialogue in this regard – and its relationship to his theology of grace and freedom of the will1 – for those who are interested in further examination of his argument I have supplied Cary’s extensive footnotes below the quoted text:

Augustine did not know firsthand Plato’s great treatments of love, but he did know Plotinus’s. The latter’s treatise “On Beauty” (Ennead 1:6) is his favorite piece of philosophical writing, judging by how often he quotes and alludes to it throughout his career. 2Together with other Plotinian writings such as the treatise “On Intellectual Beauty” (Ennead 5:8), 3 it provided him with a powerful alternative to the rationalistic account of human motivation he had inherited from the Stoics. Whereas for the Stoics all human motivation stems from the mind’s assent, 4for Augustine it is all the outcome of a faculty of will whose every act is to love. And Platonist love, while deeply allied to reason, does not work like rational assent or judgment. We do not fall in love by judging it would be best, as if that were a decision within our power to make. Yet once we are in love, we freely assent to what love desires, because our loving has become the center of our will. Falling in love determines rather than is determined by our free choice, and every happy lover welcomes this and finds it to be an enhancement rather than an impairment of human freedom. 5Thus Augustine’s Platonist eroticism allows him to interpret Paul’s doctrine of grace in ways that have often been thought to threaten free will, but that Augustine thinks reinforces what free will is for: “The choice of the will is not taken away by being helped,” as he puts it. 6Or as he also says, echoing Paul, “Do we by grace make free will void? Not at all! Rather, by grace we establish free will.” 7

The experience of grace for Augustine is very much like falling in love. It means being overtaken by a kind of delight that is not in our power to choose but that, once it overtakes us, causes us to choose its object gladly and wholeheartedly.8It is a choice we never regret, because unlike earthly loves it leads to a happiness we can never lose. The delight in Truth given by the inward teaching of grace leads us to enjoyment of what every soul necessarily seeks: for the one thing that is necessary about free will is that it is a will for happiness, 9 and the only thing that can make us truly happy is that which makes us eternally happy (so that a truly happy life is necessarily, as the Bible puts it, an eternal life).10So the inward teaching that gives us enjoyment of eternal truth fulfills our deepest desire, leading our restless heart to the only thing that will give it eternal rest.11When delight in God overcomes us, we have found our one true love. That is why we always welcome the love for God when it is “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit,” a key formulation of the effect of grace that Augustine develops from a startling phrase in Paul.12We cannot regret what makes us eternally happy, and we cannot ultimately resist it. This does not mean grace compels us to do anything against our will, but rather that it changes our will, making us willing where before we were unwilling 13—so that we find it delightful to do what before was burdensome. God makes this inward change in us not by the external force of coercion, but by the inner power of his own beauty. If even earthly beauty sometimes overwhelms us with delight, how can we resist the divine Beauty that is the very substance of unending Happiness? 14So the gift of grace, poured out deep within our hearts by the Spirit of God himself, does precisely what coercion cannot: it moves the will rather than the body. For free will is indeed freedom from coercion but not freedom from true Beauty. The latter would make no more sense to a Platonist than an eye being free from the light.

  1.  Phillip Cary, Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul, (Oxford: 2008), 15-16
  2. See Cary, Augustine’s Invention, chapter 3 , “Some Plotinian Readings.”
  3. For the influence of this treatise on Augustine, see O’Connell, Early Theory, chapter 8.
  4. See Forschner, chapter 8, and Annas, chapters 4 and 5 . Augustine will resort to an account of choice that is more Stoic than Platonist when he wants to emphasize human freedom; see chapter 2 , “Assent or Delight?” and chapter 3 , “Augustine’s Evasiveness.”
  5. For this line of reasoning in Augustine, see esp. In Joh. Evang. 26:2–7, discussed in Cary, Outward Signs, chapter 8, “Spiritual Eating.”
  6. Ep. 157:10.
  7. De Sp. et Litt. 52, mimicking what Paul says in Rom. 3:31 about faith and Law.
  8. Peter Brown alerted a whole generation of scholars to the importance of the theme of delight (delectatio) in Augustine of Hippo, pp. 148–149. Delight was central to Augustine’s understanding of love and beauty as early as De Musica 6:29–33. So Carol Harrison (pp. 267–268) is right to point out that delight is a theme that appears in Augustine’s work long before Ad Simp., but I do think there are developments in Augustine’s use of this theme that she does not notice: in particular, the psychological fact that delight is not in the command of the will does not become prominent until the early Pauline exegeses, and the association of delight not only with love but with faith is a distinctive new development in Ad Simp.; see chapter 2 , “Assent or Delight?”
  9. “We all certainly will to be happy,” says Cicero at the beginning of his lost treatise Hortensius (quoted in Augustine’s De Trin. 13:7), which is the book of philosophy from which Augustine first learned his burning love for divine Wisdom (Conf. 3:7–8). Cicero’s dictum becomes the foundation of Augustine’s psychology of will, as can be seen in his numerous quotations and allusions to it (e.g., De Beata Vita 10, C. Acad. 1:5, De Mor. Eccl. 4, De Lib. Arb. 1:30, 2:28, De Mag. 46, Conf. 10:29, Ep. 130:10 and 155:6, Civ. Dei 10:1). The ultimate source of Cicero’s dictum is Plato’s Euthydemus 278e, which is the beginning of an exhortation to the love of wisdom (ibid. 278e– 282d) that served as the model for Aristotle’s exhortation to philosophy, the Protrepticus, which was in turn the model for Cicero’s Hortensius.
  10. The identification of the classical conception of happiness with the
    biblical term “eternal life” (because a truly happy life must be an eternal life, so that beata vita is necessarily aeterna vita) is central to Augustine’s synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian faith, and found all over his writings, sometimes defended by elaborate argument; see e.g., De Div. QQs 83, 35.2, Civ. Dei 14:25, De Trin. 13:11, Sermon 150:10, Ench. 20.
  11. Hence the famous saying in Conf. 1:1, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
  12. The medieval doctrine of “infused charity” (or translating more literally
    from the Latin, “love poured in”) originates with Augustine’s interpretation of Rom. 5:5: “The charity of God is poured out [diffusa est] in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is given to us” (translating from Augustine’s quotation in Prop. ex Rom. 60).
  13. See chapter 4 , “Converting Paul’s Will” and “God Turns Hearts.”
  14. In one sense God simply is happiness: as the soul is the life of
    the body, “so God is the happy life of the soul” (De Lib. Arb. 2:41). More precisely, since happiness is “joy in the Truth” (Conf. 10:33), seeking true happiness means seeking God (ibid. 10:29)—for of course God is Truth (ibid.10:35).

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.