Biography 25.2 (2002) 377-379
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Augustine, the future bishop of Hippo and doctor of the Church, was baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan in 387 at the age of 33, after his return to the Catholic faith following nine or more years as a Manichee and several more under the influence of Academic skepticism. That the past century of Augustine scholarship has been concentrated upon the character of the events leading up to his baptism, and his intellectual development before and after it, might well surprise most readers who, like their predecessors over the centuries, have assumed that the account Augustine gave of the events in the Confessions needs only a careful reading in order to be understood. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, however, a series of lively debates concerning the influence of Plotinus's Enneads upon Augustine's conversion and intellectual development has helped us to see more clearly the main features of the intellectual development of the greatest of the Western Fathers of the Church.
Phillip Cary's book argues persuasively that Augustine invented the concept of the self as a private interior space—which is, of course, not a space— from which each of us looks out upon the world, and into which each of us can withdraw in solitude. Before giving a careful study to Cary's thesis I would have thought his claim to be clearly wrong, since in some sense Plotinus had anticipated Augustine. But Cary has convinced me otherwise. He emphasizes Augustine's early dalliance with the idea that the soul was quite literally divine, a common feature of ancient philosophy, and his gradual realization that the soul is not the creator, but a creature, because it is subject to change. Many less venturesome readers of Augustine will, I suspect, [End Page 377] doubt that the future bishop and doctor of the Church really considered at the time of his conversion that the soul was divine, but Cary takes his reader through considerable textual evidence that favors his thesis, and makes us realize that the sharp distinction between creator and creature drawn by the Council of Nicaea was only gradually brought into clear focus in Augustine's mind. Whereas for Plotinus, when the mind turned to the intelligible world, it turned to a public and divine world to which the soul belonged, at least in its highest part, for Augustine, once he had sharply distinguished between God and the soul, the mind first turns inward to the interior self, and only then turns upward to God. And though for Augustine, God—the truth—is or at least can be common and public so that all can share in it, the interior self of each of us is private and proper to each of us, and can be shared with others only indirectly and with difficulty, if at all.
The claim is often made that Augustine was most heavily under the influence of Plotinus at his conversion, and gradually moved away from his early enthusiasm for the great Neoplatonist. Cary, on the contrary, argues that Augustine was less Plotinian at the time of his baptism, and gradually appropriated more of Neoplatonism in the years after his baptism up to the time of the writing of his Confessions. Here too I think that Cary is right. At the time of his baptism, Augustine had not absorbed as much of Plotinus's thought as he had after another ten years. Thus the account of his intellectual development that he gives in Book 7 of his Confessions is not an account of a series of brilliant insights he attained over a few weeks at Cassiciacum, but the presentation of a philosophical synthesis that he came to after another ten years of reading and reflection on the books of the Platonists and the Christian faith.
Cary's comparison of Augustine's...