Augustine and the platonists

’m not really sure what they were after when they asked me to talk to you about Augustine and the Platonists. Maybe they wanted me to talk about some specific Platonists, and the elements of Augustine’s views that he adopts or adapts. And no doubt I should at least mention a couple of names. There’s Plato himself, of course (428-348 BC). The thing is, it’s pretty clear that Augustine had never read Plato directly, whether in Greek (which Augustine couldn’t actually handle very well) or in Latin translation. The best he could do was to read what other people said about what Scotus said. Then there were two followers of Plato whose work Augustine did read in Latin translation: Plotinus (204-270) and his student Porphyry (233-305). He probably read them in the translation of Marius Victorinus, who is discussed in Book 8 of the Confessions. There’s a lot of debate, though, about exactly what he read and exactly how it influenced him. I have a somewhat non-standard view about this. I call it the “Who cares what Augustine read?” view. My view is that even though Augustine read Plotinus and Porphyry rather than Plato, his version of Platonism is actually much closer to Plato himself than it is to Plotinus and Porphyry. So knowing the details of Plotinus and Porphyry doesn’t really matter much for understanding Augustine, because Augustine’s kind of Platonism doesn’t really depend on those details. In spirit, it’s much closer to the real Plato, because it adopts the overall outlook of Plato without a lot of the additions and complications of later Platonists. And that’s why I’m going to start with a story. I’m going to use this story to get across what I think is the essence of this Platonic outlook. Then I’ll show you how various Platonists put the insights that this story encapsulates to work in three different aspects of philosophy. After I’ve laid all that out, I’ll talk about how Augustine transforms this Platonic picture in the light of his Christian faith..
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