The Not-So-Platonist Augustine

I’ve started reading The City of God again, but I doubt I’ll be able to finish it before spring semester starts. I’m on book 13, so I’m over half-way, which is encouraging for a 1,000 page book. Anyways, in book 13, chapter 16, Augustine is defending his understanding of the fall and I came across this line that is worth quoting.

Now the philosophers against whose attacks we are defending the City of God, that is to say, God’s Church, think that they show their wisdom in laughing at our assertion that the separation of soul from body is to be reckoned among the soul’s punishments. Their reason for this is that, in their view, the perfect bliss of the soul comes only when it has been completely stripped of the body and returns to God, simple and alone, and, as one may say, naked.

On this point, if I had found nothing in their own writings to refute this notion, I should have to engage in a more laborious argument to prove that it is not the body as such, but the corruptible body, that is a burden to the soul. Hence the scriptural statement which we quoted in the last book, ‘The corruptible body weighs down the soul (Wisd. 9:15).’ The addition of ‘corruptible’ shows that the writer meant that the soul was weighed down, not by any kind of body but by the body as it became as a result of sin and the punishment that followed. Even if he had not added this epithet, we ought still to have given this meaning to the statement, as the only correct interpretation.

Augustine, City of God, tr. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 2003), 524-525.

Okay, I know Augustine was heavily influenced by Platonist philosophy, but this quote shows that he did not merely appropriate it and give its principles Christian names. He critiqued it and modified it in light of the Christian message. In this case, Augustine critiques the platonic idea that the body is a prison in light of the resurrection. Our sinful body is a prison of some sorts, this this does not mean that Augustine is against a physical or bodily existence. Yet, more than just Augustine, there seems to be many who think that the Early Church just imported foreign philosophical concepts blindly. I think that if one examines the actual writings of the Church Fathers, one sees a more complex picture. Sure they used the philosophy of their day (as if we do not do the same?), but they changed it and modified it. Indeed, they were doing something completely new.

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8 thoughts on “The Not-So-Platonist Augustine

    • That is ironic. Though, I need to add a correction for the sake of intellectual honesty. Upon actually finishing the section (I was a bit excited when I came upon this section), it appears that Augustine misunderstands Plato on the issue of the separation of the soul from the body. Nonetheless, I think my point as a whole still stands. The people who misunderstand what the Church Fathers are saying do so because they do not distinguish between corruptible body and glorified body.

      How was Camp?

  1. Pingback: The Not-So-Platonists Neoplatonists « A Word About Words

  2. hold the phone about Augusttine not being Platoist by the phrase in (Wis 9:15) ‘The corruptible body weighs down the soul’ did you know Augustine was dead when the book of wisdon was written!!! Yup seems wis 9:15 was witten by the catholic church and printed as the New American Bible in 1991, how could poor Augustine be quoted with this lol

  3. Rick: I’m really not sure if I’m supposed to take this comment seriously. Wisdom of Solomon is usually placed sometime between 100 BCE – 100 CE, well before Augustine. Origen and many other early Christian writers before Augustine quote it, and according to the index in the back of GNT (4th ed) of “Allusions and Verbal Parallels,” there may be traces of it in the NT. If you are saying that only Wis. 9:15 is a later addition (1991?!), then you would have to explain why the New English Translation of the Septuagint (based off of the critical edition of the Septuagint) has the verse as well. I must ask, where in the world did you get this idea?

  4. Also, the verse referenced really has no bearing on my point about Augustine’s platonism. It’s what Augustine says about the verse that matters, not the verse itself.

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