Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Philosophy

Neoplatonist to the End? Augustine’s Last Days

Augustine is well known for the degree to which he was influenced by Neoplatonism in the first phase of his career. (It is sometimes assumed–incorrectly–that this makes his early works insufficiently “Christian.”) In the preface to his first completed extant work, for instance–the De beata vita, “On the Happy Life”–he refers in the preface, addressed to the Christian Neoplatonist Manlius Theodorus, to the salutary influence he felt from reading the “books of Plotinus.” Then there is the famous remark about the “books of the Platonists” in Confessions 7.

What is perhaps even more interesting, however, is that this influence continued even as Augustine’s posture become more “dogmatic” and church-oriented than it was in the 380s. In fact, it seems to have continued to the very last days of his life.

To wit: here is Plotinus, from Enneads 1.4.7 Περὶ εὐδαιμονίας, “On Well-Being” or “On Happiness,” expatiating in Stoicizing fashion on the irrelevance of externals for human well-being:

But, people say, consider great disasters, not ordinary chances! What human circumstance is so great that a man will not think little of it who has climbed higher than all this and depends on nothing below? He does not think any piece of good fortune great, however important it may be, kingship, for instance, and rule over cities and peoples, or founding of colonies and states (even if he founds them himself).1 Why then should he think that falling from power and the ruin of his city are great matters? If he thought that they were great evils, or evils at all, he would deserve to be laughed at for his opinion; he would not be a person of serious character if he thought that wood and stones, and, (God help us!) the death of mortals, were a great thing, this man who, we say, ought to think about death that it is better than life with the body! (trans. A.H. Armstrong, slightly modified)

A.H. Armstrong draws attention to an extremely close parallel with a statement about Augustine’s death in Possidius’ Life of Augustine 28. One will often see it noted that Augustine had some of the penitential Psalms hung in his room while he was on his deathbed so that he could meditate on them (31). One will see the following connection commented on less frequently. Shortly before Augustine died, the Vandals and Alans approached Hippo in the course of routing Roman North Africa.

But a short time after this it came about, in accordance with the divine will and command, that a great host of savage foes, Vandals and Alans, with some of the Gothic tribe interspersed, and various other peoples, armed with all kinds of weapons and well trained in warfare, came by ship from the regions of Spain across the sea and poured into Africa and overran it….Now the man of God did not believe and think as other men did regarding the causes from which this most fierce assault and devastation of the foe had arisen and come to pass. But considering these matters more deeply and profoundly and perceiving in them above all the dangers and the death of souls (since, as it is written, “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” and “An understanding heart is a worm in the bones”), more than ever tears were his meat day and night, as he passed through and endured those days of his life, now almost ended, which beyond all others were the most bitter and mournful of his old age….Even the bishops of the churches and the clergy who, by the help of God, did not chance to meet the foe or, if they did meet them, escaped their hands, he saw despoiled and stripped of all their goods and begging in abject poverty, nor could they all be furnished with that by which they might be relieved. Of the innumerable churches he saw only three survive, namely those of Carthage, Hippo and Cirta, which by God’s favor were not demolished. These cities too still stand, protected by human and divine aid, although after Augustine’s death the city of Hippo, abandoned by its inhabitants, was burned by the enemy. Amid these calamities he was consoled by the thought of a certain wise man who said: “He is not to be thought great who thinks it strange that wood and stones should fall and mortals die” (Et se inter haec mala cuiusdam sapientis sententia consolabatur dicentis: Non erit magnus magnum putans, quod cadunt ligna et lapides et moriuntur mortales). (Trans. H.T. Weiskotten)

That “sage” (sapiens) was, of course, Plotinus. This shows, at the very least, that Augustine (1) knew Enneads 1.4 and (2) continued to find Neoplatonic philosophy a source of wisdom and consolation up to the end of his life.

At the same time, we can perhaps perceive a modification to Plotinus’ train of thought above. Even if such calamities as those described by Possidius are not “great” or surprising, Augustine does not greet them with Stoic apatheia. Instead, as Possidius notes immediately afterwards, “Augustine, being exceeding wise (ut erat alte sapiens), daily bewailed all these events.” The next sentence refers to his “griefs and lamentations” (maeroribus et lamentationibus). Notice that Possidius uses the same classical term for Augustine as he had just used for Plotinus: sapiens, “sage” or “wise man.” Not only so, but he adds a modifier not found in the description of Plotinus: Augustine is “deeply” (alte) wise. The repetition of sapiens, together with the unclassical–certainly un-Stoic and un-Neoplatonic–validation of the fittingness of strong affections as a response to external calamity,2 perhaps gestures toward a Christian leavening of classical austerity. That is, in 430, just before Augustine’s death, we seem to catch a glimpse of the replacement of Stoic-influenced Neoplatonic apatheia with Neoplatonic-influenced Christian sympatheia. A whole sea-change of altered outlook might be extracted from such a seemingly minor move.

  1. Recall that Plotinus himself wanted to do this outside of Rome: Platonopolis, a city governed according to the laws (or Laws?) of Plato.
  2. It is true that Augustine laments these disasters for “eternal,” invisible reasons too (e.g. loss of faith, destruction of souls, with the church occupying a place at this borderline between the visible and invisible: see the rest of the linked passage for evidence), but his reasons for lament do not exclude the external and temporal.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.