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Augustine has the distinction of being one of the very few early Church Fathers whose writings can be found in the Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast (I might have said the only one if I hadn't spotted one time to my amazement, Saint Gregory of Nyssa's very unCalvinist Life of Moses). At the end of his life he argued vigorously for what became the hard Calvinist doctrine of a 'double predestination' - that God had predestined not just the elect for salvation but also the non-elect for damnation, their own personal merits having nothing to do with the matter. But in his early writings, Augustine is nothing if not a NeoPlatonist.

He was certainly an intellectual, a man who delighted in the operations of his own mind, who loved posing and grappling with intellectual problems. Reading the Confessions we can see the young Augustine despising what he saw as the philosophical ignorance of his mother's Christianity. Then he meets Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and is impressed by the conversion of Marius Victorinus, one of Rome's leading NeoPlatonists. He sees that actually Christianity offers great scope for an intellectual like himself. Its very lack of philosophical culture opens up all sorts of opportunities.

So instead of going into the desert to bewail his sins, as any normal candidate for sainthood would do, he retires to a friend's estate, Cassiacum, in North Italy with a group of friends and teenage boys (they include his son, Adeodatus) who idolise him, and there he engages in a series of high spirited and enjoyable Platonic style dialogues with himself playing the role of Socrates (but, unlike Socrates, making sure the dialogues were recorded). This at a time when he was himself a 'catechumen' prior to his baptism and therefore ought to have been receiving rather than giving instruction. His project seems to have been to lay the sound philosophical basis for Christianity that he believes it lacks. (4)

(4) There is no evidence that Augustine knew Greek or that he ever read Plato. His 'Platonism' seems to have been based mainly on Victorinus's Latin translation of Plotinus. Later in the Carolingian court of Charles the Bald, the Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena had access to Greek texts, mainly the authoritative Eastern Christian writers SS Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite. Maximus is writing to confute the view that Gregory of Nazianzus and Dionysius had heretical ideas derived from Platonism. John, in his De Divisione Naturae, manages to turn his arguments into a very impressive NeoPlatonist style hierarchy of values.

I wrote about Eastern Christian ('Orthodox') attitudes to Augustine in an essay, 'On Orthodoxy', first published in the Heidegger Review and now available on this website. (5) I mentioned two writers from within the Orthodox tradition, the perhaps eccentric but nonetheless interesting 'Founder and President of the Kairological Society –  Reality Restructuring Resources Ltd', Nicholas Laos, whom I encountered on Alexander Dugin's 'Fourth Political Theory' website; and a French priest, Patric Ranson, author of a book on the seventeenth century French pioneer of biblical criticism, Richard Simon. Ranson's book is subtitled 'On the illegitimate character of of Augustinianism in Theology'. (6)

(5) Heidegger Review No  2, May 2015,

(6) Patric Ranson: Richard Simon ou du catactère illégitime de l'Augustinisme en théologie, Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, collection La Lumière du Thabor, 1990.

Laos argues that Western Platonism is based on a misunderstanding of Plato's 'ideas': 

'When Plato elaborated the term idea (which is one of the most controversial philosophical terms), he emphasised that seeing, or vision, is the most representative sense of man’s mental life. But the medieval Western philosophers were ignorant of that aspect of Plato’s philosophy, and, therefore, the medieval West was ignorant of the fact that, in the context of Plato’s philosophy, knowledge ‒that is, the mind’s relation to truth ‒ is primarily a spiritual experience, and, hence, it primarily consists in a psychological state and only secondarily in the discovery of causal relations. [....]

'From the perspective of European rationalism, to know means to be able to give an account, and, hence, knowledge reduces to the formulation of causal relations. Furthermore, European rationalism attempts even to know God through causal relations, specifically through the subject’s syllogistic ascent to the most general concept, which the Western philosophical realists (such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas) equate with the divinity. On the other hand, Plato’s theory of ideas implies a different approach to the problem of knowledge, one that is founded on a peculiar mental sensation, or spiritual experience. Thus, from Plato’s viewpoint, an individual participates in the idea of humanity due to psychological relations among human individuals, i.e. because he experiences humanity, and not because he can logically conceive the notion of humanity.' (7)

(7) Nicholas Laos: Civilisation clashes in Europe: the philosophical causes, accessible at

He goes on to argue that the basic error in Western theology was to think that understanding the logic of creation could be a means of understanding the Creator (and that understanding, or knowing the Creator was a matter of logical discourse). Hence, changes in our understanding of the logic of Creation can disturb our understanding of God. By contrast, Laos tells us: 'the genuine Orthodox Christian theologians never feel threatened by or at odds with any scientific theory, since, from the perspective of the genuine Orthodox Christian theology, science is concerned with the investigation of the logoi of the beings and things in the world, and the logoi of the beings and things in the world are not essential attributes of God, but they are God’s wills; therefore, science can prove/disprove nothing essential about God.'

Of course this also helps explain why 'science' (an interest in the logoi of created things) developed in the West, not in the East, at a time when everyone, East and West, would have agreed that the most important task was the knowledge of God.

Ranson's critique of Augustine is very wide ranging (8) but broadly similar to that of Laos in that, in the Augustinian West, knowledge of God is seen as a process of intellectual speculation while in the East it is seen as a Revelation to be gained through ascetic practise (the word 'askesis' in Greek doesn't mean self deprivation, but 'exercise'). The 'dogmas' of the Church are not subject to a process of reasoning; they are practical aids to entering into relations with a Reality that is completely other than the reality of the world perceived in space and time. The dogmas and sacraments of the Church are the means by which that other Reality can be experienced through what the standard English translation of the Philokalia calls the 'noetic faculty' (in Greek the nous). The 'exercise' of the ascetic life is an exercise of this faculty which is quite other than the reasoning faculty but which has become clouded through the process that is represented in the story of the Fall.

(8) The main issue between Augustine and the Orthodox tradition turns on the understanding of grace, an issue that does not concern us here.