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The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 7, Sections 13–27 (Neoplatonism Frees Augustine's Mind) | Summary

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Summary

In Section 13, Augustine finally reads some books by the Neoplatonists and finds they expound "precisely the same doctrine" to be found in the Gospel of John. He then quotes at length from the beginning of John's Gospel, which says that everything was made through "the Word"; the human soul "bears testimony to the light" but is not the light; Jesus Christ, the Word, "illumines every human person who comes into the world." In Section 14, Augustine also recalls John's reference to the Incarnation of God, saying the Word was made flesh. This idea is a particularly Christian one, as well as the idea that God humbled himself to suffer and die to redeem humanity. Augustine also emphasizes the equality of the Father and the Son and that Jesus is co-eternal with the Father. In Section 15, Augustine praises God for allowing him to take from the "Athenians" (the Neoplatonists) the truth about God's transcendent being.

In Section 16, Augustine narrates his first vision, in which, under the guidance of God, he enters "the innermost place of my being." With the "vision of my spirit ... I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken, transcending my mind," he says. This light was not ordinary but the very light that had made him; he was below it because "by it I was made." However, his vision is partial, and he says God shows him "that which I might see" but "was not capable of seeing." He describes himself as being far away from God in a "region of unlikeness" yet seeming to hear God's voice: "I am the food of the mature; grow then, and you will eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food: you will be changed into me." He briefly wonders if truth is "a nothing," since it is "not spread out through space, either finite or infinite," and God answers, "By no means, for I am who am," which echoes God's statement to Moses in the Book of Exodus. Augustine now knows without a doubt that God is transcendent.

Augustine also sees in his vision that the material world does not fully exist, in the sense that it is not eternal and unchanging like God. Furthermore, he has an insight about the nature of good and evil. In God, evil has no being. Augustine says that "Villainy ... [has] no substance, only the perversity of a will twisted away from you, God, ... toward the depths—a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad."

In Section 23, Augustine finds himself unable to hold on to his vision and falls out of it, which he ascribes to his "perishable body" that "weighs down the soul ... its earthly habitation oppresses a mind teaming with thoughts." He now summarizes for himself and the reader what happened to him in sequence, reiterating that "to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength." He concludes in Section 25 that to gain the strength he needs to enjoy God, he must embrace Christ, the mediator between man and God. Previously he has thought of Jesus as an exceptional man, but a man still. He now understands that he is "Truth in person." After his vision, he begins reading Saint Paul's writings and further clarifies that any truth realized by man is through a gift of grace from God. Moreover, through the grace of Jesus, humanity's debt to God is paid.

Analysis

Augustine is finally introduced directly to the Neoplatonists, and scholars agree that he read the works of both Plotinus and his main student Porphyry. As a result, Augustine tries Neoplatonic contemplation and is granted a vision. These passages in Book 7 from The Confessions are perhaps among the most variously interpreted by scholars. Some Catholic scholars minimize the importance of this first vision because it occurs before Augustine's conversion. Augustine himself gives due credit to the Neoplatonists in Book 7, but he also faults them for being ignorant of the "teaching that the Word was made flesh." Some scholars say that Augustine fails in his attempt at Neoplatonic contemplation because he cannot hold onto the vision. Some readily equate this vision with the descriptions of ecstatic mystical states found in East Asian (Hindu and Buddhist) texts, ignoring the distinctions Augustine makes between Neoplatonism and Catholicism.

The Augustinian scholar Henry Chadwick notes in his introduction to The Confessions that Plotinus gave Augustine "a model and a vocabulary for a mystical quest directed to the union of the soul with God in a beatific vision." Chadwick says Augustine is disappointed by the brevity of the vision and that he is still full of pride and lust when he returns to his normal state. But this response is, in fact, not so different from the experiences of mystics in both Christian and non-Christian traditions. More than one spiritual text notes that it is only after repeated experience of unity with God that the personality is purified. Perhaps the interpretation recently offered by Kenney makes the most sense in understanding how Augustine viewed what had happened to him. In Kenney's view, Augustine successfully engaged in Neoplatonic contemplation, "certifying the cognitive benefits of contemplation, accessible to Catholic Christians." But he does not equate such an experience with salvation. Augustine notes that his soul cannot maintain a transcendent state, says Kenney, because of its moral condition, and it must embrace Christ as mediator. Only when the soul accepts its weakness and need for God's help, says Kenney, can it attain salvation. Moreover, Kenney says Augustine disagrees with the Neoplatonists with regard to the condition of the soul, which is that it cannot be fully restored to transcendent being while in the material world.

As a result of this vision, Augustine learns definitively that God is transcendent, not immanent, and he receives insight into the transient nature of the world, which makes it appear unreal when compared to the reality of God. Moreover, he finally understands that evil is not a separate "thing" or separate deity. Rather, he discerns that all of God's creation is good, and it is only when a person turns away from good that evil occurs, due to a perversion of the will. Thus, he defines evil as an absence rather than a presence. Augustine is also able to use the knowledge he has gained through his vision to realize that Neoplatonists and the Christians are sometimes talking about the same thing, as when John says God is the Word and the Light. He is also able to see where the Neoplatonists fail, in his view, to acknowledge that the Word was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

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