How Did Neoplatonism Influence St. Augustines Philosophy?

ABSTRACT:  St. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 a. d. He died after the Sack of Rome in 410 a.d. and before the fall of the Roman empire in 476 a. d.   He adopted Neo-Platonism in his defense of the faith, due to its similarities between God and the One, Jesus as the Neus, and so on down the great chain of being.  The Great Chain of Being made no distinction between God and His creation.  In Augustines philosophy the material world is viewed as evil. Thus, man must strive by asceticism and mysticism to rise on the chain of being above the material, above the self, above the demons, all the way up to God. 

His “City of Man” was the secular world on the lower end of the chain of being and his “City of God” was the final restoration of all things to God outside of history at the end of time. Thus, he was “amillennial” in eschatology and believed strongly in the Sovereignty of God directing the world toward the ultimate City of God in the afterlife.  This perspective caused his followers to withdraw from the world into desert caves, tops of poles, and into monasteries during the entire 1st millennium.

I. Introduction

A. overview of St. Augustine’s life and historical context:

For better and for worse, St. Augustine, born in 354 A.D. in North Africa, played a pivotal role in shaping Christian theology during the Patristic era of the church. His life spanned a tumultuous period. It included the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 A.D., and witnessed much of the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire to 476 A.D. Augustine’s journey from a dissolute youth to a renowned theologian is a remarkable story.  His conversion in 386 A.D. after reading Cicero’s Hortensius, is crucial in understanding his engagement with Neoplatonic ideas.

B. Introduction to Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism, a philosophical system founded by Plotinus (204-270 a.d.), heavily influenced Augustines philosophy and theology. Key Neoplatonic concepts include the idea of “the One” as the ultimate source of all existence. All subsequent realities emanate from this divine principle. Augustine incorporated these ideas into Christianity, with a parallel between the Neoplatonic “the One” and the Christian God the Father. In addition, Augustine identified the Neus (Intellect) with Christ. Emanations from above correspond with the Holy Spirit. Thus, he sought to reconcile philosophical principles with his Christian faith and use these parallels to persuade unbelievers.

There are those who excuse Augustine’s fascination with Neo-Platonism as merely an apologetic tool. That is, he used it to illustrate and perhaps verify the creative activity of the Trinity to his contemporaries.  However, his several descriptions of mystic encounters with the Divine Spirit suggest more. There was an active commitment to, and engagement with, Neoplatonism as a way of life, not a simple passing acquaintance or apologetic tool. 

C. Augustine and Neo-Platonism

Augustines philosophy displayed both theological strength and weakness in his embrace of Neoplatonism. This synthesis of Neoplatonism and Christianity left a profound impact on Christianity for the next one thousand years and more.  That includes its impact on Christian philosophy, eschatology, and communal practices throughout the 1st millennium formative period in church history.

II. Neoplatonism and Augustine’s Apologetic

 A. Similarities of Neoplatonism and Christian Theology:

Augustines philosophy was a synthesis of Neoplatonic concepts and fundamental tenets of Christian theology. The Neoplatonic idea of the One, the ultimate source of all existence, paralleled Augustine’s understanding of God. Augustine, in his “Confessions,” reflects on the ineffable nature of God, akin to the Neoplatonic notion of “The One” as beyond comprehension. In addition, the Neoplatonic concept of emanation, corresponds to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son to permeate all creation.  This aligns with Augustine’s understanding of the divine Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as a procession of divine realities.

B. The Great Chain of Being In Augustines Philosophy

The Neoplatonic idea of the Great Chain of Being, with its lack of distinction between Creator and creation, deeply influenced Augustine’s theological perspective. Augustine, in “The Confessions,” contemplates the material world’s fallen state, embracing the Neoplatonic view of the material as inherently flawed. This perspective permeates his theology, shaping his concept of original sin and humanity’s need for salvation. Augustine’s synthesis of Neoplatonism and Christianity laid the groundwork for further departures from orthodoxy in the years ahead.

Augustine’s adaptation of Neoplatonic ideas was not without challenges. Critics argued that the Neoplatonic emphasis on the ineffable One and the strict hierarchy of realities diminished the distinctiveness of Christian doctrine, particularly the Incarnation. Even more importantly, it obliterated the Creator-creature distinction, opening the door for man, or collective man, to aspire to Divinity. 

This intricate interplay between Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology illuminates Augustine’s intellectual journey and the impossibility of bridging these two disparate realms. If the Creator-creature distinction is erased or blurred, it opens the door for the civil magistrate to aspire to godhood and govern accordingly.

C. The Great Chain of Being in Neoplatonism

The Neoplatonic concept of the Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical structure that attempts to explain the emanation of realities from the ultimate source, the One. This cosmic hierarchy unfolds in a series of descending levels, each representing a different order of reality. While the specifics can vary slightly among Neoplatonic thinkers, generally, the Great Chain of Being includes the following levels:

1. The Creator

a. The One (or The Good) stands at the summit of the hierarchy, representing absolute unity and the source of all existence. It is an ineffable, transcendent principle beyond human comprehension.

b. The Nous (Intellect): Following the One is the Nous, often referred to as the divine intellect. The Nous emanates from the One and contains the divine archetypal forms or Ideas. In Christian terms, this level finds parallels with the Logos or the Word of God.  For Augustine, this connection between the Nous and Christ is self-evident.

c. The World Soul (Psyche): The World Soul emerges from the Nous and is responsible for the unity and coherence of the material world. It serves as an intermediary between the divine and the material, imparting order and harmony to the cosmos.  This corresponds to the Holy Spirit in Christian theology.

2. The Creature

d. Spiritual Realms and Celestial Bodies: various spiritual realms and celestial bodies exist beyond the World Soul. These realms are inhabited by spiritual beings, often associated with angels or divine intermediaries in Christian thought. These include archangels, angels, and demons.

e. Human Soul: The human sould holds a unique position within the material world. It is thought to be a divine spark that originates from the World Soul or the Nous, and through the process of reincarnation or ascent, it can return to its divine source.  Note the possibility of introducing Hindu reincarnation into Christianity via the Neoplatonic backdoor.

f. Material World: The material world is the lowest level in the Great Chain of Being. This encompasses everything tangible and perceptible, from inanimate objects to living organisms. In Neoplatonism, the material world is considered the least real and the most prone to imperfection.

Each level in the Great Chain of Being represents a step further away from the pure unity of the One and closer to the complexity and multiplicity of the material world. Augustine incorporated these Neoplatonic ideas into his theology and his apologetic. He tried to adapt them to fit Christian doctrines. He thus emphasized the fallen nature of the material world and the need for spiritual ascent towards divine unity.

The correspondence of neo-platonism to the Hindu religion is unmistakable, suggesting some interchange with Plato at an earlier date. It is sobering to consider the importation of the Hindu caste sytem and elements of reincarnation into the heart of primitive Chrisitanity via the venerable St. Augustine.

C. Demons and Angels in the Great Chain of Being:

In the Neoplatonic cosmology, demons and angels find their place within the intermediary realms of the Great Chain of Being, situated between the spiritual realms and the material world. While Neoplatonism itself doesn’t provide a detailed taxonomy of these beings, it lays the groundwork for their existence and positioning within the cosmic hierarchy.

1. Angels

Angels (Spiritual Beings): Positioned in the higher echelons of the spiritual realms, angels and archangels are often considered as intermediaries between the divine and the material. These beings are associated with purity, goodness, and serve as messengers or agents of divine will. Neoplatonic thinkers, including later Christian philosophers, drew upon this concept to articulate the hierarchical order of angelic beings, each with specific roles and functions in the cosmic harmony.

2. Demons

Demons (Fallen Beings): The Neoplatonic framework accommodates the idea of spiritual entities that deviate from the divine order. While not explicitly outlined in Neoplatonism, the notion of fallen beings resonates with the hierarchical structure. Demons are entities that have fallen from higher spiritual realms due to disobedience or rebellion. This fallen state places them closer to the material world, embodying a departure from the divine perfection envisioned in the Great Chain of Being.  As such, they stand in opposition to the ascent of man in the Great Chain of Being.

D. Demonic Obstacles on Great Chain of Being

Augustines philosophy, drawing on Neoplatonic ideas, incorporated these concepts into his theological framework. In his works, such as “City of God” and “On Free Choice of the Will,” Augustine sees angels as messengers of God and demons as entities that have turned away from divine order. The hierarchical arrangement of angels and demons in Augustine’s thought reflects the Neoplatonic influence on Christian demonology and angelology during the 1st millennium.

Augustine struggled to reconcile Neoplatonic thought with Christian doctrine. Angels and demons within the Great Chain of Being offered a framework to comprehend the complexities of the spiritual realm related to the physical.  The problem of such an integration, especially as an apologetic method, is that by employing it as a proof of divine revelation we thereby elevate it to an authority above revelation.

1. Distraction and Temptation

Demons, according to Augustine’s adaptation of Neoplatonic ideas, are considered agents of distraction and temptation. In his work “Confessions,” Augustine reflects on his own struggles with earthly desires and distractions. He often attributes these challenges to demonic influence. Demons, as beings closer to the material world, may employ allurements and worldly enticements to divert individuals from their spiritual ascent. Augustine emphasizes the necessity of overcoming these temptations through discipline and devotion to God. 

2. False Wisdom and Knowledge

Augustines Philosophy warns against the deceptive nature of demonic influence, especially in the pursuit of knowledge. Demons, portrayed as fallen beings with knowledge of the spiritual realms, might mislead individuals with distorted or false wisdom. Augustine, in his debates with Manichaeism, a belief system with dualistic elements, argues that false doctrines are propagated by demonic forces to hinder the soul’s ascent. We must rely on discernment and divine guidance in the intellectual and spiritual journey. 

We have a negative example of this in the life of Francis Bacon during the reign of Elizabeth I. Bacon and his studio of writers received scientific revelations from what they described as “good angels” by means unacceptable to the generally Christian culture in which they lived.  They concealed this esoteric influence with Christian language within the Rosecrucean framework of the Shakespeare plays. The evidence at that Francis Bacon is the author of the Shakespeare plays is compelling.

3. Encouraging Material Attachments

The material world, considered lower on the Great Chain of Being, is often associated with the influence of demons. Augustine notes that demons may encourage attachments to material possessions, relationships, and worldly success. Thus, they divert attention from the pursuit of higher spiritual realities. This inclination toward materialism impedes the soul’s ascent, trapping individuals in the lower realms of existence. Therefore, Augustine’s writings, including “The City of God,” emphasize the transient and illusory nature of material pursuits compared to spiritual progression. This leads to detachment from the world or social and political concerns.

4. Fostering Pride and Egoism

Demons may exploit human vulnerabilities, such as pride and egoism, to hinder spiritual ascent. Augustine, drawing on Neoplatonic ideas, argues that demons, being fallen spiritual beings, may amplify individualistic tendencies. Thus, they foster a sense of self-importance and autonomy. This egocentric mindset obstructs the humility required for spiritual growth. Augustine’s exploration of the human psyche in “Confessions” and other works underscores the dangers of succumbing to pride, which he associates with demonic influence.

In Augustine’s synthesis of Neoplatonism and Christianity, the role of demons in hindering the ascent on the Great Chain of Being is closely tied to their capacity to exploit human weaknesses. In this way they lead individuals away from the pursuit of divine truths. Augustines philosophy encourages believers to be vigilant, recognizing the subtle ways in which demonic influence can impede their spiritual journey.

III. Aestheticism and Mysticism

A. Augustines Philosophy of Spiritual Ascent

Augustine’s integration of Neoplatonic thought into Christian theology emphasizes the ascent of the soul toward divine unity. Augustine’s philosophy involves a spiritual journey that transcends the material world. It draws inspiration from Neoplatonism’s notion of ascending the Great Chain of Being. In his autobiographical work “Confessions,” Augustine chronicles his own struggles and spiritual evolution. Augustine’s relentless pursuit of spiritual ascent became a cornerstone of his theology, influencing later Christian mystics and ascetics.

B. Ascetic Practices in Overcoming the Material World

Thus, Augustine sought to facilitate ascent on the Great Chain of Being. His philosophy promotes ascetic practices to overcome the allure and entanglements of the material world. Asceticism involves rigorous self-discipline and renunciation of worldly pleasures to purify the soul. Augustine’s own experiences, including his abandonment of a hedonistic lifestyle, suggest special virtue in ascetic practices. His advocacy for asceticism is evident in writings like “On Christian Doctrine.” There he discusses the proper use of temporal goods and the disciplined pursuit of knowledge to aid the soul’s ascent.

C. Mystical Experiences As Communion with the Divine

Augustine’s theological framework also incorporates mystical experiences as a vital component of the soul’s ascent. He drew inspiration from Neoplatonic mysticism. He asserts that direct communion with the divine is attainable through contemplative prayer and spiritual ecstasy. Augustine describes his own mystical encounters in “Confessions.” For example, in the famous garden scene he hears a voice saying, “Take up and read.” This transformative experience signifies a direct encounter with the divine. It reinforces Augustine’s belief in mysticism to forge a connection with God.  He and his mother Monica also share such an experience shortly before her death in Ostia near Rome. 

D. Challenges and Criticisms of Asceticism and Mysticism

1. Asceticism & Mysticism in Augustine

While Augustine’s promotion of asceticism and mysticism suggests a path for spiritual growth, it is not without challenges. Critics argue that an exclusive focus on ascetic practices leads to an unhealthy rejection of the material world. In so doing they neglect the inherent goodness of creation. Additionally, the subjective nature of mystical experiences raises questions about their reliability and universality. Augustine’s own struggles with asceticism is seen in his conflicts with the Donatists.

Augustine’s emphasis on asceticism and mysticism exposes a conflict between Neoplatonic emotional aspirations and Christian obedience. The tension between the material and the divine, the disciplined pursuit of virtue, and the transformative power of mystical encounters define the ascent on the Great Chain of Being. This shaped the contours of Christian spirituality for centuries to come.  It is not far to a form of works righteousness, in which our spiritual performance garners favor with God.

2. Asceticism & Mysticism in New Testatment

In these matters Augustine appears to be at odds with the Apostle Paul. Paul issues a rather sharp rebuke of both mysticism and aestheticism in Colossians 2:16-23.  “Therefore, let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink, or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.  Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind…

“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using — in accordance with the commandments and teaching of men?  These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

IV.  Cities of Man and God

A. Dualistic Nature of Augustines Philosophy

1. The City of Man

Central to Augustines philosophy is the dualistic concept of the “City of Man” and the “City of God.” The “City of Man” represents the secular world, entangled in the fallen nature of the material realm. Augustine draws on Neoplatonic ideas to depict this city as a lower manifestation on the Great Chain of Being. It is immersed in temporal concerns and separated from the divine. In contrast, the “City of God” symbolizes the ultimate restoration of all things to God. It transcends history and exists outside the confines of the material world. Augustine’s dualism reflects Neoplatonic distinctions between higher, spiritual realities and the lower, material realm.

Augustine’s dualism had a profound social impact.  While Augustine’s philosophy provides a powerful theological framework, it has faced criticism for it’s negative societal implications. For Augustine there is a stark division between the City of Man and the City of God. This world and the next have little in common. This fostered a withdrawal from the world during the 1st millennium. This perspective, some argue, contributed to a disengagement from civic responsibilities in favor of monastic seclusion during the 1st millennium. This did not shift substantially until the Papal Revolution of 1075.

2. The City of God

Augustine’s philosophy of dualism divides the world into two distinct and opposing realms. His dualism is deeply influenced by Neoplatonic thought, which he incorporated into his Christian worldview. Thus, the central dualistic theme is the dichotomy between the “City of God” and the “City of Man.”

In Augustine’s dualism, the “City of God” represents the higher, spiritual realm. It symbolizes the eternal and divine order, transcending the material world and existing outside the constraints of time and history.  The City of God embodies the ultimate destiny and restoration of all things to God. It is the culmination of the soul’s ascent on the Great Chain of Being, reaching unity with the divine.

We cannot agree with Augustine’s assessment, which is symptomatic of his amillennial interpretation of Scripture. John the Baptist said that the Kingdom of God was at hand, in preparing the way for the Messiah. Jesus Himself said that if He by the finger of God cast out demons you know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. In other words, He established His kingdom with His victory over the powers of darkness at His first advent. His declaration of victory was, “It is finished.” After that He ascended to assume His throne and dominion forever (Dan. 7:13,14).

3. Augustine’s Dualism

On the opposite end of the dualistic spectrum is the “City of Man.” This realm represents the secular, material world marked by sin, imperfection, and temporality.  The City of Man is characterized by earthly pursuits, worldly desires, and a fallen state. It exists within the lower levels of the Great Chain of Being, entangled in the complexities of the material realm.

Augustine’s Dualism includes material-spiritual duality, temporal-eternal duality, and a passive-aggressive eschatological duality. Influenced by Neoplatonic ideas, Augustines philosophy sees a fundamental duality between the material and spiritual aspects of existence. The material world is considered flawed and marked by sin, while the spiritual realm represents the pursuit of divine perfection. 

This conflicts with God’s 7th Day evaluation of His material creation as “very good.”  The dualism in Augustine’s thought extends to the temporal and eternal dimensions. The City of Man is bound by time and history, subject to the rise and fall of civilizations. In contrast, the City of God exists beyond temporal limitations, representing the eternal reality of divine unity.  This further conflicts with Jesus final great commission to “make disciples of all nations” in the here and now.

4. Medieval Monasteries

By the same token, we should not totally dismiss the contribution of the monasteries during the Middle Ages.  Although they encouraged retreat from the world, they were in many ways, the world.  Christians looked to the monasteries for health, education, and welfare. These are functions too often assumed by modern civil governments today.  In addition, they led in worship of God and they ensured transmission of the Scriptures and other important books. This was accomplished in their Scriptoriums before the advent of the printing press.

But all of Augustine’s spiritual focus is on conquering the inner man. This excludes taking dominion of God’s creation and turning it into a garden. It magnfies the difficulty of the inner struggle and leaves the world to the Devil. Thus, Augustine is in error when he claims that God “did not intend that his rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation, — not man over man, but man over the beasts. And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men…” But God had promised Abraham that kings would spring from his loins. This was a promise that was fulfilled in Christ and those who are in Christ (Gal 3:16).

5. Augustine’s Eschatology

Augustines philosophy of dualism significantly influences his eschatological perspectives. He rejects a, earthly reign of Christ through His people for a symbolic thousand years prior to the second coming. Instead, he envisions the ultimate fulfillment in the eternal City of God. This emphasizes divine sovereignty in directing history toward this final restoration. Augustine’s dualism serves as a foundational element in his escatological framework. It influences how he conceptualizes the relationship between the divine and the material world, the temporal and the eternal, and the fallen state of humanity in need of spiritual redemption.

In summary, Augustines philosophy of dualism results from his Neoplatonic worldview. It introduces a theological paradigm encompassing the Cities of Man and of God. This dualistic worldview profoundly shapes Augustine’s eschatological perspectives. This it influences the broader trajectory of Christian thought throughout the 1st millennium. There is a tension between earthly and eternal realities, as depicted in the City of Man and City of God. This remains a pivotal aspect of Augustine’s legacy in Christian theology, distrating many from the Great Commission to disciple the nations.

B. Implications Augustines Philosophy for Eschatology

As noted, Augustine’s dualism profoundly shapes his eschatological perspectives. As an amillennialist, Augustine rejects the idea of an earthly reign of Christ for a symbolic thousand years. This was, a popular interpretation during his time. Instead, he posits that the ultimate fulfillment lies in the eternal City of God, emphasizing divine sovereignty in directing history toward this final restoration with no human agency.

To put it bluntly there is no hope for Christians to disciple the nations/cultures in the current evil age. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus has issued a command that cannot be fulfilled, in spite of the fact that “all power on heaven and earth has been given to Me.”

Augustines philosophy contrasts with millenarian views prevalent in some Christian circles. These were exemplified by the writings of figures like Lactantius that established a distinctive eschatological framework within Christianity. Lactantius was spiritual advisor to Constantine I and his son Crispus. Thus, in effect he made considerable headway in discipling the newly emerging Christian empire, per the Great Commission of Matthew 28.

C. Evaluation of Augustine’s Eschatological Perspectives

Augustine’s eschatological views, rooted in Neoplatonic dualism, presented a retreatist narrative that shaped Christian thought for centuries. Critics challenged his departure from millennarianism. But, Augustine’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the other-worldly nature of the City of God established a passive theological foundation that resonated across diverse Christian traditions. It appeals to the inherent slothfulness of the natural man. His vision of a final restoration beyond historical events contributed to the development of a pessimistic interpretation of eschatology. Thus, he influenced theologians like Thomas Aquinas and shaped the eschatological landscape throughout the 1st millennium and beyond. 

The more robust eschatology is what we now call Post-millennialism or Preterism. It interprets the one thousand year reign of Christ to correspond symbolically with the present age. It portends the victory of the church in discipling the nations before the second coming of Christ.  This discipleship process occurs gradually over a long period of time, like the leaven grows in loaf of bread. Thus Augustine is in error when he claims that God “did not intend that his rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation, — not man over man, but man over the beasts. And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men…”

V. Impact on Christian Practices, 1st Millennium

 A. Influence on Christian Communities

Augustine’s synthesis of Neoplatonic ideas significantly impacted the formation and practices of Christian communities during the 1st millennium. The concept of the City of God and the City of Man fostered a distinct worldview that influenced how believers perceived their role in society. This dualistic framework prompted many followers to withdraw from secular concerns, seeking refuge in monastic communities and desert hermitages.

The establishment of monasticism, by figures like St. Anthony in the Egyptian desert, reflects the profound impact of Augustine’s Neoplatonic theology on communal practices.  It started from the humble  beginnings of just one man immured in a cave with a servant to provide food.  Devotees began to collect around the cave and the movement soon spread from the desert of Egypt to the city of Alexandria and eventually to the entire Mediterranean world, attracting virtually every social class.  

B. Augustine’s Followers and Christian Communal Life

And so, the legacy of Augustines philosophy found embodiment in the lives of his followers. Monastic communities, inspired by his emphasis on asceticism and spiritual ascent, emerged across the Christian world. The Benedictine Order, founded by St. Benedict in the 6th century, drew heavily from Augustine’s teachings, shaping a communal life focused on prayer, work, and withdrawal from the secular world. The communal practices of Benedictine monasteries, rooted in Augustine’s theological principles, became influential in preserving knowledge, fostering education, and providing a model for Christian communal living throughout the 1st millennium. But there was no real vision for establishing the Kingdom or civilization of God on earth.

C. Examining Long-Term Effects on Christian Spirituality:

The impact of Augustine’s Neoplatonic-informed philosophy on Christian practices during the 1st millennium is a spiritual “mixed bag.”  While the withdrawal into monastic seclusion seemed to reflect a dedication to spiritual ideals, it typically detracted from the broader engagement of Christianity with the world. Augustine’s emphasis on asceticism and mysticism, rooted in the Neoplatonic ethic, fostered a form of spirituality that sacrificed worldly responsibilities for the pursuit of higher truths. Jesus prayed at the last supper not that his disciples be taken out of the world, but that they be kept from its evil.

D. Challenges and Diversity in Christian Practices

Withdrawal from the world encouraged by Augustine’s Neoplatonic-inspired theology contributed to detachment from societal issues. While monasticism thrived, other Christian traditions, like the missionary activities of Celtic Christianity or the engagement of figures like St. Ambrose in civic affairs, may have been throttled as a result. Augustine’s influence, while profound, overshadowed the diversity of Christian practices during this period, acknowledging that not all communities adhered to a strictly ascetic and withdrawn lifestyle.

In short, Augustine’s Neoplatonic-informed theology left an enduring imprint on Christian practices for 1000 years. The rise of monastic communities, inspired by his dualistic worldview and emphasis on spiritual ascent, dominated the trajectory of Christian communal life. However, some, like Emperor Charlemagne and Alfred the Great pursued a more aggressive posture toward engagement with the world. 

VI. Augustine’s Influence on Key Figures

Augustine’s profound Neoplatonic-informed philosophy has exerted a lasting impact on key figures in history, shaping the trajectory of Western Christian thought. As his ideas disseminated across centuries, they nudged theologians, philosophers, and scholars, toward a generally passive attitude toward the world.

A. Christian Leaders

1. Patristic Leaders

Augustine’s influence on Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, makes for a fascinating aspect of their historical interaction. Ambrose played a pivotal role in Augustine’s Christian life, and Augustine admired Ambrose’s eloquence and intellectual rigor. While their theology differed on certain points, Ambrose’s emphasis on the sacraments and the Church as a mediator of grace influenced Augustine’s involvement with other Christian leaders.  Augustine’s encounter with Ambrose, particularly in the Confessions, highlights the profound influence Ambrose had on Augustine’s early theological development and spiritual journey.

Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, engaged with Augustine’s philosophy, especially in matters of biblical interpretation and theology. While Jerome’s temperament and scholarly approach differed from Augustine’s, their interactions and correspondence reveal a mutual respect and a shared commitment to intellectual engagement.  Jerome’s correspondence with Augustine reveals a rich intellectual dialogue, with insight into how these influential figures navigated theological diffeernces.

2. Medieval Leaders

Anselm of Canterbury, a medieval theologian, engaged with Augustines philosophy on topics such as original sin and the nature of God. Anselm’s ontological argument, presented in his “Proslogion,” reveals the influence of Augustines philosophical and theological legacy.  Anselm’s exploration of the concept of satisfaction in his “Cur Deus Homo” reflects the Augustinian framework of divine justice and redemption.

One of the most significant figures influenced by Augustine is Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian and philosopher. Aquinas, in his monumental work “Summa Theologica,” engaged with Augustine’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Augustine’s influence is evident in Aquinas’s exploration of divine attributes, the nature of God, and the relationship between faith and reason. For example, Aquinas’s discussion of divine simplicity, draws upon Augustine’s understanding of the divine as incorporeal and non-composite.

3. Reformation Leaders

Martin Luther, a towering figure in the Protestant Reformation, was profoundly influenced by Augustines philosophy. As an Augustinian monk, Luther found solace in Augustine’s emphasis on grace and salvation. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, a central tenet of the Reformation, reflected Augustine’s impact on the theological foundations of Protestantism.  Luther’s commentary on Augustine’s works, particularly “The Bondage of the Will,” demonstrates how Augustine’s ideas influenced Luther’s understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation.

Augustine fought attacks on two fronts: 1) pagans outside, and 2) heretics inside the church. Arian attacks on the nature of God and Christ were subdued at Nicaea (325 A.D.). Later the battle focused on the nature of man. Pelagius, a Welsh monk, denied original sin and taught that God had given man a free will. Therefore, God does not predestinate men to heaven or hell. In other words, God does not choose man, man chooses God. This makes the will of man the deciding factor and superior. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 a.d.

Augustines philosophy reverberated strongly in the Protestant Reformation, notably in the theology of Luther. Luther drew extensively on Augustine’s teachings in his critique of the Catholic Church and the formulation of key Protestant doctrines. The emphasis on salvation by grace alone, a central tenet of Luther’s theology, finds roots in Augustine’s understanding of grace as the primary catalyst for human redemption.  Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, a cornerstone of the Reformation, coincides with Augustine’s emphasis on the preeminence of divine grace in overcoming human sinfulness.

4. Catholic Leaders

Augustine’s influence extends beyond the Protestant Reformation and also reflects Catholic theology to some extent during the Counter Reformation. The Council of Trent, responding to Protestant challenges, turned to Augustine’s writings, particularly in formulating responses to issues of original sin, grace, and sacraments. Augustines philosophy continues to inform Catholic theology at certain points of agreement with the Protestants.  The Council of Trent’s affirmation of the Augustinian understanding of original sin and the necessity of grace is drawn from Augustine’s theological legacy, although it is misapplied in the context of a system of works righteousness. That is, a system in which righteousness is said to be imparted rather than imputed.

5. Existential Leaders

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Augustines philosophy took on new dimensions, particularly in existentialist thought. Figures like Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre engaged with Augustine’s introspective and existential themes. Augustine’s emphasis on the interior life, the nature of the self, and the tension between free will and divine sovereignty resonated with existentialist thinkers.

Thus, it contributed to the existential turn in modern philosophy.  Kierkegaard’s exploration of subjective truth and the individual’s relationship with God derive in part from Augustine’s introspective writings, especially in “Confessions.” This is the danger of Augusine’s fascination with mysticism. It tends to define holiness in terms of mystic subjectivity rather than obedience to God’s law.

B. Civil Government Leaders

1. Theodosius I

Augustine’s magnum opus, “City of God,” engaged with the Roman political context of his time, responding to the fall of Rome in 410 A.D. His discussions on the role of the state and the City of God helped shape the political thought of church leaders and Roman officials grappling with the challenges of the barbarian invasions.  This influenced later Christian political theorists such as Thomas Aquinas, in their reflections on the relationship between church and state.

Theodosius I, (379–395 AD) also known as Theodosius the Great, was a significant Roman Emperor during Augustine’s early adulthood. He was emperor during the time of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, which declared Nicene Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, emphasizing the Nicene Creed’s orthodoxy. 

Augustine’s “City of God” was written in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. In this work, Augustine addressed the impact of the event on the Christian community, defending Christianity against accusations that the fall of Rome was a result of abandoning traditional Roman gods. Theodosius I’s support for Christianity contributed to the evolving relationship between the Roman state and the Christian Church. He influenced Augustines philosophy on the role of the City of God in the earthly city.

2. Honorius

Emperor Honorius (395–423 AD) was the Western Roman Emperor during the later years of Augustine’s life. The sack of Rome in 410 AD by the Visigoths occurred during Honorius’s reign. Augustine, in “City of God,” responded to the event, addressing its implications for Christianity and arguing against the traditional Roman understanding that the abandonment of pagan gods had led to the city’s downfall.  Augustine’s letters sought to guide and counsel the Roman General Boniface on matters of governance and the moral responsibilities of a Christian leader within the context of the collapsing Roman Empire.

While Augustine did not have direct interactions with these emperors, their policies and the broader historical context influenced his theological and political reflections. It contributed to Augustine’s evolving perspectives on the City of God and the earthly city. Justina, the wife of Emperor Valentinian I and mother of Valentinian II, played a notable spiritual role in the Roman Empire during Augustine’s time. She tolerated and protected Arianism, a theological position deemed heretical by Nicene Christianity:

3. Justina

Justina was known for her sympathy towards Arianism, a theological stance that denied the full divinity of Christ as defined by the Nicene Creed. Arianism had gained some prominence and imperial support during the 4th century. Justina’s religious inclinations and her influence on her son Valentinian II contributed to a more tolerant atmosphere for Arian Christians.  In 375 AD, Justina and her son Valentinian II requested the consecration of an Arian bishop in Milan, leading to tensions with the Nicene Bishop Ambrose. This event reflects Justina’s support for Arianism within the imperial court and her attempts to influence ecclesiastical appointments.

Justina’s patronage of Arianism heightened religious tensions within the Roman Empire. The Nicene and Arian theological positions were deeply entrenched, and ecclesiastical disputes often spilled over into the political arena. This was an age in which men were willing to go to war for their religious beliefs regarding the nature of God. The conflict between Ambrose and Justina over the appointment of an Arian bishop in Milan resulted in public protests and even the threat of violence. Autocratic rulers tend to favor Arianism because it subordinates Christ and leaves a power vacuum which the aspiring ruler is more than happy to fill. Ambrose’s firm resistance to Arian influence serves as an example for weak-kneed church leaders in the 21st Century who are afraid to speak truth to power.

4. Donatists

Augustine, residing in North Africa, was not directly involved in the conflicts in Milan. But he had spent some time in Milan and was aware of the theological and political struggles within the Roman Empire. His writings, including “On Baptism, Against the Donatists,” addressed issues related to heresy and the relationship between the Church and the state. Augustine’s engagement with the Donatist controversy in North Africa demonstrated his concern for orthodoxy and the unity of the Church.

5. Marsilius of Padua

In spite of his isolationist theology, Augustine’s had an impact on just war theory, the nature of political authority, and the pursuit of the common good. The medieval political theorist Marsilius of Padua engaged with Augustine’s political thought in his work “Defensor Pacis.” He relied on Augustine’s passivity toward the state as an argument for subordinating the church to the authority of the state.

In summary, Augustines philosophy extended far beyond theological circles. The shaped the thought and actions of Christian leaders and civil authorities down through the ages. During Augustine’s lifetime (354–430 AD), the Roman Empire saw several emperors, and their reigns were significantly influenced by the political and social landscape in which Augustine was prominent.

VII. Conclusion

A. Recap of Augustine’s Neoplatonic Philosophy

In conclusion, Augustines philosophy represents a dynamic synthesis of classical thought with Christian theology. His Neo-Platonism left an indelible mark on the intellectual landscape of the 1st millennium. He promoted Neoplatonic concepts, such as the Great Chain of Being and dualistic frameworks. These, reflect an attempt to reconcile the philosophical imprint of the classical world with the Christian faith. Augustine’s Neoplatonic lens profoundly shaped his understanding of God, the material world, and the intricate relationship between the two.  The implications were felt for centuries.

In the Great Chain of Being Augustine draws parallels between the Neoplatonic concept of the One and the Christian understanding of the divine. This synthesis is evident in his treatise “On the Trinity.” In it he defines the complexities of the Triune God in terms of the Neoplatonic emanation.

B. Strengths and Weaknesses of Augustines Philosophy

The most we can say about Augustine’s Neoplatonic synthesis is its ability to provide a framework for understanding the divine nature, human nature, and the material world. The Great Chain of Being offers a structured hierarchy, facilitating theological discourse and contemplation. That’s about it.

Weaknesses emerge in tensions between Neoplatonic dualism and Christian doctrines of the Trinity. The strict separation of the City of God and the City of Man raises questions. It encourages Christian retreat from the world and detachment from societal responsibilities.  But the most troubling problem is the failure of the model to draw a distinction between Creator and creature. Thus, it opens the door for the divination of man and the Divine Right of kings. 

In spite of his serious problems with dualism, Augustine provided a clear doctrinal standard for concepts like the Triune nature of God, His sovereignty, and the incarnation.  These set the standard for centuries and enabled him to effectively battle the heresies of Donatism, Pelagianism and Arianism.  Pelagius, contested the extent of human depravity implied by Augustine’s dualistic framework. Augustine’s response to such heresies related to original sin and free will strengthened the church regarding the fundamentals of the faith. 

C. Impact on Christianity in the 1st Millennium

The overall impact of Augustines philosophy on Christianity during the 1st millennium is profound and far-reaching. His Neo-platonic influence reverberates through the development of Christian communities, the formulation of eschatological perspectives, and the shaping of Christian doctrine. Monasticism was inspired by his dualistic worldview and emphasis on asceticism. It became a hallmark of Christian communal life, influencing not only the 1st millennium but subsequent centuries.

For example, the Benedictine Order, founded by St. Benedict in the 6th century, emerged out of Augustine’s Neoplatonic-inspired theology. Benedictine monasteries followed Augustine’s emphasis on ascetic practices and withdrawal from secular concerns. As such, they became centers of learning and preservation of knowledge. In this way, they contributed significantly to the Christian cultural and intellectual heritage.

In conclusion, in spite of Augustine’s positive contributions, his Neoplatonic synthesis has been a hindrance to the Great Commission through the centuries. Instead of a robust and world-conquering faith fully engaged with the culture, Christianity is presented as the loser in history. Only after the consummation of the church age is the City of God to be manifested in all its glory. We can and must reject Augustine’s limp eschatology, while fully embracing his positive contributions in defense of the fundamentals of the faith.


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