Archive for June 6th, 2008

Plotinus and Augustine

This is a break in the usual blog entries to bring part two of the Islam and the West series, still focusing first on the development of ‘the West.’ For part one, go to Paul and Rome, and for more info click the “Islam and the West Series” link under “Pages.”

The Roman Empire was perhaps the most vibrant and successful multicultural cosmopolitan society in history. For centuries it managed to foster peaceful trade and relations between many peoples within the Empire, tolerating diversity. In the third century Plotinus (204-270), one of the most important philosophers for the Western tradition, lived and wrote, though many have never heard of him.

In the post Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age I noted that current religious traditions emerged from what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, when human thought took a great leap forward in contemplating the meaning of the individual in the world. Plotinus lived just after that epoch ended, in Rome, the one place where one could learn and read of Plato, early Christian thought, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and other philosophical traditions. In some ways he transcends what we now see as the boundaries of Eastern and Western philosophy, unifying these ‘axial age’ traditions into a brand of philosophy called neo-Platonism.

Since getting deep into his philosophy would take pages of work, and I’m not a philosopher or an expert, I’ll summarize. Plotinus believed that the transcendent essence of the universe is “the One,” from which our world emanates. The One is not a creator, and in some sense is all that is, since for Plotinus the material world is an illusion, a lower order reflection of the One. The One has no real attributes; even attributing ‘existence’ to it lessens it. It does not think, is beyond our comprehension, and represents truth, the Platonic ideal. Our goal in life is spiritual connection to The One, achieving that by recognizing that as part of the World Soul, we need to connect to the true essence of reality through virtue. The material world is illusionary and a trap – we get ensnared in it and lose ourselves, unable to find happiness because we are distancing ourselves from our true connection to the One.

The pure spiritualism of this philosophy appealed to a playboy turned Christian, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). Augustine’s neo-Platonist Christianity creates the basis for what the Church would become, and therefore western culture in general. Augustine’s most powerful book Confessions is, in essence, a love story. He tells of how he was lost in what Plotinus would call the world of material illusions, seeking meaning and release in alcohol, sex, power and violence, until he fell in love. His lover was none other than Jesus Christ and the Christian God. Suddenly his old life was meaningless, he saw it had been empty and futile, dooming him to despair because any pleasure and gain derived from the material world was fleeting and transient. Only the love of God could provide eternal happiness and real satisfaction. For example, Augustine would tell of how in his days of wealth and power he’d look down on the hapless drunk, feeling superior. But, he noted, the drunk was better off than he was. The drunk would wake up the next day and know alcohol had not made him happy, Augustine would keep on believing that power and wealth was the key to success in life.

The power of Augustine’s writings set up the basis for Christian theology, as his neo-Platonism would overtake the numerous other competing theological views of the early Christian world. The notion of the Trinty, for instance, is a Platonic tripartite division of reality. The One from Plotinus was replaced by “God,” and instead of us being natural emanations from The One, we are creations of God. Instead of a kind of unity with the One as our ultimate essence and that to which we aspire in experience, we are separate from God, and aspire to a true love relationship with God. Augustine maintains the other worldly idealism of Plotinus, evident in his rejection of worldly goods and honors as a means towards happiness. Only a deep and abiding love relationship with God – Augustine defines it as ‘falling in love,’ – can bring happiness, everything else fades away and offers only a short term illusion of satisfaction.

This Platonic view of Christianity created for the early Christian church the capacity to survive the fall of the Roman Empire. Followers of Augustine would leave the vulgar world of every day life for well protected monasteries high in the hills, preserving knowledge, books, and information from destruction, keeping alive in their faith and practice the essence of Roman civilization. If not for Augustine and the early Christian church the West might have been lost forever as Rome collapsed. Even though Rome fell, Christianity would survive, and the barbarian hordes who destroyed Rome would take it as their faith, allowing the early Church to define European customs and traditions.

Following Augustine, these customs and traditions were built on an other-worldly view on the meaning of life. Thus the desire for progress was put aside in favor of stability and tradition. To us in the modern world this represents the dark ages, a time where for centuries Europe was backwards and stagnant. Yet given the violence and breakdown of civilization at the time, it probably was the one way that western civilization could be saved.

One issue for the next blog in this series (probably in a week or so — most blog entries aren’t part of this series) is the question of war. Christians before Augustine were generally pacifists, and Augustine’s other worldliness suggests pacifism – if this world is truly meaningless, then killing to preserve life is irrational, life in this world isn’t worth breaking God’s commandment not to kill. Augustine himself would be the one to tackle that issue.

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)