Encounters With God in Augustines Confessions: Books VII-IX (Bk.VII-IX)

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What does it mean to say being is intelligibility and intelligibility is being? Contrary to the ways of manual philosophy, we should not start at the top of the metaphysical hierarchy, we can only do that once we understand how we got there. We must start with ourselves, as the enduring dictum demands: know thyself.


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Surprisingly, Plotinus takes it all rather seriously, almost always starting with our basic experience. It is important to understand that Plotinus reasons from empirical experience to the soul; the soul is not a premise, but a conclusion to rigorous philosophical reasoning. As a preliminary, despite countless misconceptions, the soul is not a foreign homunculus inhabiting a machine for a joy ride. It is the principle of life for a body. To be horribly tautological, soul animus is that which makes a body animated: alive, self-moving, and so on.

When looking out into the world, we ask what distinguishes this body from that body. Why is this body motionless and that one capable of self-motion?

Why do rocks remain still and squirrels happily gallivant? It cannot be body per se that accounts for the difference, and so there must be some additional principle to account for the differentia , and that difference Plotinus calls soul. However, since we encounter different kinds of animated bodies, there must also be different kinds of soul. For example, some are only capable of nourishment, others of locomotion, and still others rationality.

We can ask the same question: what accounts for these differing activities? Again, it cannot be soul per se that does the differentiating. For rational souls go to and fro in their reasoning, running from premises to conclusions and back again. Intellect, on the other hand, is thought-thinking-itself; it is the all-at-once possession of the content of thought, a union between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking. But the intellect is itself conditioned, not in terms of a differentia question for there can only be one intellect , but in terms of a more precise causal question regarding its unity.

Intellect is not simply one, but, as we said, the unity of thought-thinking-itself. Again, they are conclusions, not assumptions. Now hopefully you can see that the whole system is governed by metaphysical causal questions. Plotinus looks out into the world and is intent to discover how things come-to-be in their plenitude and complexity, and, like all of the ancients, is especially concerned to know what grounds all of reality.

Like any science, it is the question of aitia , of causes and their corresponding principles.


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To use Aristotelean language, if anything moves from potency to act, then it must be moved, or changed, by something already actual, what is known as the principle of causality. So, in the example above, when we ask what-is-it that gives some beings the activity of self-motion, we have to find some being that is actually, full-stop, self-moving in the relevant sense, and in this case that is soul. Of course, soul is not pure actuality, it need not be actual in every way, it only needs to be actual in its way of being.

In other words, its proper activity is what accounts for what-it-is, and this activity is self-motion, or life. Because to be rational is in some sense to be divided.

Not only does rationality move linearly—or discursively, as said above—but it comes-to-know things. It is an actualized intellection; it does not possess within itself the object of its thought. Therefore, reason can admit non-thinking and falsity. There can be moments where it forgets, or does not even possess the content of its knowing. Here is how the perennial problem of skepticism arises. For skepticism can only emerge when there is a dichotomy between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking.

Only then can the meaningful question be raised of how we have adequate access to the objects of knowledge, or how we can even know when we have attained adequate access. Thus, since soul qua rational is an actualized intellect, there must be something that is properly intellectual.

It must be thought-thinking-itself, which is the same conclusion Aristotle arrives at with his Unmoved Mover. If that is so, this reality will not be an actualized intellect but simply be intellect. It can never admit falsity or non-thinking, otherwise we would have to push the causal question further until we discovered that which is truly intellect. In short, if we are to have any meaningful hope that we do in fact know things, there must be a reality which is already that union between thought and thinkable in its very being.

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Skepticism may be a reality for us, but it is not indicative of reality as such. If we are to avoid nihilism, there must be some primordial union, or communion, between being and thought. Intelligibility is reality, nihilism is not. This chasm between intelligibility and nihilism is precisely what is at stake.

From the SparkNotes Blog

Platonism is the bastion of intelligibility; that is its core metaphysical maxim. To say so is to take seriously the question of causality. Inasmuch as things come-to-be, they demand an explanation for their being at every level. This vision is how Plato, and Plotinus after him, posit a theory of forms. Forms are not ethereal hexagons. Au contraire, that other reality is more real than this one, not less.

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However, that discussion will have to wait, for here is where we must stop for now. I admit that what I have said thus far is only a vision, and due to its brevity it must inevitably leave out important features, but I have tried to provide some of the basic philosophical contours that ground that vision. If we are to think more carefully about the relationship between Christianity and Platonism, it is here we must begin.

That is the core of Platonism, the central postulate that holds together everything else. That causal insistence, in turn, demands that the principle of being be pure Intellect, or thought-thinking-itself, the level of reality that grounds the maxim that to be is to be intelligible. Since what it is is thinking, and what it thinks is itself, the intelligibles are its own being, and since the intelligibles are what is given to thought and what is thinkable, being is intelligibility and intelligibility is being.

They are simply convertible. We could say much more about this principle, and in fact we must. For once we begin to unpack it, we will see that Intellect, too, as eluded above, is conditioned, and that same causal insistence must take us further to the infamous Plotinian One. Therefore, we raise the mind by causal insistence, we find the meaning of being to be intelligibility, we see that intelligibility inevitably points beyond itself, and so when we return back to being, inspired and renewed, we must rethink our language, rethink ourselves, and come to see things as they truly are—charged with the grandeur of God.

Kenyon also has a book on the same topic, Augustine and the Dialogue , recently released from Cambridge Press April See his Augustine: A Biography. To see its implications in the thought of Dionysius, see his short book Theophany , but for a more sustained introduction to its use throughout the classical tradition, see his book Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. Finally, you can find similar ways of thinking in some 20th c. While he is discussing Thomas Aquinas, and not Platonism per se, I think the same distinction applies.

Fr. Malcolm & St. Augustine’s “Confessions”: Outline Week 2

For Aquinas, on the other hand, abstraction is in fact the opposite. As Turner explains, it is the difference between thinking of a space filled with various pieces of matter, material and texture, having no governing or unifying principle, to seeing that same room as a living room, and all of the mental content that follows from that meaning: a place where you read, socialize, play games, etc.

I look forward to more such articles. Thanks, Alex! Like Liked by 3 people.

Saint Augustine (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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