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 will 1 – 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.
Eric Parker is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, where he is writing his dissertation on the Cambridge Platonist, Peter Sterry. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children.
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