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Home » Theology » “Confessions” by St. Augustine » The Philosophy of Plotinus and His Influence on Augustine and Christian Theology – excerpts from Diogenes Allen’s “Philosophy for Understanding Theology”

The Philosophy of Plotinus and His Influence on Augustine and Christian Theology – excerpts from Diogenes Allen’s “Philosophy for Understanding Theology”




  1. Plotinus mostly draws from Plato’s dialogues which stress that our proper life is to be found by a knowledge of another realm (the Phaedo, Phaedrus, and the Symposium, and parts of Timaeus and Republic).
  2. For Plotinus the soul is divine and the object of life is to understand how we may restore the soul to its proper place.
    1. This can only be done by a comprehensive knowledge of reality and our place in it.
    2. Unlike Christianity, humans have the power to gain a satisfactory knowledge of all reality, including divine things b/c we are divine by nature
      1. Thus, access to divine things is possible w/o a revelation
    3. Philosophy is a complete account of reality that is at the same time a guide to life – to a life that is beyond the sensible world
      1. To know that reality, like Plato, requires purification or virtue, and not just mental ability
  3. What must we know to live properly according to Plotinus?
    1. There is a unifying principle behind the multiplicity of the visible world that is intelligible.
    2. The supreme principle is Mind and the world of Forms is its thoughts.
    3. The unity b/w the Supreme Mind and the Forms still exhibit a duality and not a unity; so above Mind and the Forms is the One.
      1. Following Plato, Plotinus’ One is beyond being and nothing can be said of it literally, not even that it is, but he also calls it Good, like Plato who said the Form of the Good is above all the other Forms and is beyond being.
      2. The name of the One is Good.
        1. Parmenides had a notion of unity as absolute and unqualified oneness.
  4. There are degrees of reality; the less unity, the less reality. So we move downward in that sense from the One.
    1. The One overflows of itself by descending level by level to the physical universe
      1. It’s like the image of the sun radiating light
      2. The One by its very nature radiates realities
        1. It doesn’t become less by this radiation, so this outpouring has no beginning or end.
    2. The order and structure of the universe is unchanging and static, but not dead.  It is full of life, and life at its highest is a life of intense, self-contained, contemplative activity, of which the life of movement, change, and production of things on the physical level are faint images.
    3. There is a ‘flow’ within the universe which consists of a downward movement from the One and an upward movement back to the One.
      1. How does this movement happen?
        1. For Plotinus, there are three main ‘hypostases’ or individual divine substances which make up the intelligible universe:
          1. The One
          2. Mind
          3. Soul
        2. The Mind emanates outward from the One automatically and has the potential to know
          1. By its activity of contemplation, the world of Forms arises; this happens b/c Mind seeks to be united with the One from which it has emanated or radiated
          2. The world of Forms that is generated by Mind is the way the One or Good is known by Mind.
          3. The absolute unity is known at the level of Mind as the multiplicity of the Forms
            1. The Forms have a high degree of unity at this level, and Mind in knowing its object becomes like it, so Mind is its own thoughts
            2. But this isn’t the absolute level of unity
        3. The Forms represent the One on the level of the contemplative mind.
          1. Mind or Nous timelessly emanates or radiates from the One as potency (ability to know) and timelessly Mind actually knows the One as the multiplicity of Forms.
          2. Mind cannot grasp the One in its unity, on its own level, w/o losing itself. It can only receive the One only in plurality
  5. The third great hypostasis is Soul
    1. It also contemplates or thinks but it is distinguished from Mind b/c its thought is discursive, that is, its thoughts are successive (or proceeded by reasoning or argument rather than intuition).
    2. Mind’s contemplation or thought is intuitive and for Plotinus, like Plato, the highest knowledge is intuitive
    3. The Mind has a vision of the truth all at once in a flash, rather than having thought after thought
      1. Thus, the unity is higher at the level of Mind than at the level of Soul
    4. The Soul is the cause of the sense world and represents the intelligible world to the sense world
    5. Although distinct from Mind, at the top of its range Soul reaches the realm of Mind, and with Mind it can rise in self-transcendence to union with the One.
  6. The three hypostases are distinct and hierarchically arranged, but they aren’t cut off from each other.
    1. The One and Mind are always present to the Soul which is important for the return of human beings to the intelligible world
  7. The life of Mind is at rest. It is the life of thought in eternal, immediate, and simultaneous possession of all possible objects in knowing the Forms all at once.
  8. The Soul, like Mind, desires to be itself, i.e., to know.
    1. There is a succession to its awareness to know, a continuous series of thoughts. It cannot grasp the truth all at once like Mind can
  9. The Soul is the logos of Mind – that is, an expression, image, or representation of a higher level of reality on a lower level
    1. Reality is an unfolding from the top downward from maximum unity to increasing multiplicity
  10. At the bottom of the descent from the One we reach utter negativity.
    1. The Good or One can only stop communicating itself when it reaches the level where there cannot be any image of goodness at all, or unity, or reality.
    2. ‘Matter’ is seen as quasi-existence, where the Forms (or their logoi) of bodies are like reflections in a formless mirror.
      1. It is a passive receptable in which the Forms are present but it remains totally unchanged and unaffected by the Forms.
      2. It can never be given any positive qualities or brought any nearer to reality or goodness.
      3. Thus the ‘matter’ of the sense world, below the moon, is evil. The heavenly bodies are perfectly formed by their soul
  11. We, who are souls, have knowledge of the sensible world, but only b/c we can know the Forms of Mind. Our knowledge owes nothing to the body or the senses. It comes directly ‘from within’ b/c of our contact and kinship with Mind which illumines us.
    1. The senses at best help us turn our attention inward and upward.
    2. This higher knowledge of the Forms provides our discursive reason with the proper principles for making judgments about sense experience and guiding our life in the body.
  12. Humanity is essentially and always in the lowest of the three divine realms, that of the Soul.
    1. The One and Mind are always present to Soul, and thus always present to our true selves.
    2. But Soul extends from the lower edge of the realm of Mind down through the sense world.
    3. Humanity is therefore double, with a higher soul close to and illumined by Mind and a lower soul.
      1. The lower soul is an expression or logos of our higher soul on the level of the physical world.
        1. We must discipline the lower soul as a prosaic by demanding duty.
        2. When we leave the sense world, if we are philosophical, our higher souls no longer have lower souls.
    4. To get rid of our lower souls, we must gain knowledge.
      1. We are presently b/w our higher souls an our lower souls
        1. Our intellects are stimulated by the action of us from above (whereby we attend to the Forms), and we also receive material from our senses.
        2. We can direct our attention upward or downward.
          1. We can use the illumination of Mind which is always available to us, to expand to universality in the eternal world of truth and real being, or we can concentrate on the petty individual concerns of this world, of our bodies and earthly desires.
        3. Our entire way of living depends on the direction of our attention, and it is the function of philosophy to turn us and direct us upward.
      2. Plotinus often describes ‘turning upward’ as waking from our dreamlike obsession with the needs and desires of our lower selves in the world of sense through vigorous moral and intellectual self-discipline
    5. The philosopher can reach the goal of life, the vision and union with the Good (One) in this world and while he or she is still in the body.
      1. The philosopher who contemplates the Forms is filled with the object of his or her awareness and thus is like them.
        1. His or her soul is like Mind which has the same object for its attention
      2. Union with Mind is achieved by means of this common contemplation.
      3. Particular philosophical souls by being fully informed by the Forms are united with them and so united with each other
  13. For Plotinus, each soul is All.
    1. This sounds like the Hindu notion that release from multiplicity is to be found by recognition and realization that I am All.
    2. Each particular subject’s union with all that it knows on the level of Mind – where the objects are the Forms, which are all the possible ways for things to be – is the same thing as to be identified with All.
    3. Plotinus can thus describe the object of life to be a realization of the soul and its proper relation to the All.
    4. To know thyself is to know thy place in the whole of reality.
    5. From this level of union it is possible to reach the final vision and union with the One or the Good.
      1. For Plotinus this is a mystical experience that might be either one of absorption or of a union in which particularity remains.
    6. We can be united with the Good b/c our intellect perfectly conforms to it and is thus made like it.
      1. This can be achieved by love
      2. Mind which emanates from the One by thinking, also seeks to know the One (to be united by it). Mind thus generates the Forms which are a representation of the One on the level of Mind.
        1. But Mind also loves the One (Good).
        2. This love is the power which enables it to think and by thinking to produce the Forms as the content of its thoughts.
      3. The Mind in love thus attains self-transcendence- as it is w/o the Forms as its content – and is united to the One by love.
      4. The philosopher who has attained the level of contemplation of the Forms by ‘looking upward’ or ‘looking inward’, can by love experience the ecstatic union with the One or Good, being joined to the eternal and unchanging love of Mind for the One.
        1. So the final goal can be reached while still in the body on earth.
      5. After death (the breakup of the soul-body complex) the higher soul is permanently in its proper place with no representation at a lower level.
      6. Embodiment (representation at a lower level) is a regrettable necessity of the full outpouring of the One or Good, but we are to seek to live even in embodiment as though we were out of the body, which is to love detached from material and earthly desires.
  14. Plotinus had an intense and immediate sense of the splendor, strength, and solidity of spiritual reality. His writings had a powerful effect on those who studied them.
    1. Augustine pays tribute to their effect on him.       They enabled him to realize that spiritual realities do exist and have priority over sensible ones.
      1. This freed him from adherence to Manichaeism as the best explanation of the universe which had regarded Good and Evil as two independent forces engaged in ceaseless combat.
        1. Both are material; one is material light and the other material darkness.
        2. God is a vast luminous body beyond the sky from whom proceeds an elaborate hierarchy of emanations.
        3. The material world is a kingdom of evil and darkness created by the Evil principle.
        4. Human beings are fragments of divine light imprisoned in bodies, from which they may be delivered after many incarnations by various ascetic practices.
        5. Thanks to Plotinus and also to the preaching of Ambrose which Augustine heard at the time he was becoming acquainted with Plotinus, Augustine was able to realize that God is not material.
  15. Augustine began using the ideas of Plotinus about the three divine hypostases to gain a deeper understanding of God.
    1. The Christian doctrine of creation in particular made it impossible for them to think in terms of degrees of divinity.       There is a sharp division between the Creator and all else in Christianity
      1. One is either fully divine or not divine at all.
        1. The Arians ran afoul of this principle when they tried to retain Jesus the Son as divine but to a lesser degree than God the Father)
      2. So the hierarchy of degrees of divinity – the One, Mind, and Soul – is rejected, as well as Plotinus’ view of the place of human beings on the lower end of the spectrum of divinity of Mind and at the top end of the spectrum of the divinity of Soul.
        1. Human beings are created in the divine image, but we are not divine, and we have so perverted our nature that we cannot be restored simply by knowledge, as in Plotinus, even if we include Plotinus’ program of virtue and detachment from the sensible world in our understanding of knowledge.
          1. In other words, sin and the absolute necessity of God’s grace mark an unbridgeable chasm b/w Christianity and Plotinus, and indeed all Hellenic philosophies and religions which view human nature as essentially divine and merely caught or trapped somehow in the sensible world.
          2. For Christianity, unlike Platonism, the great division is b/w Creator and creature, not b/w the intelligible and the sensible worlds.
  16. For Plotinus, to be is to be in some sense a unity; the more real you were, the more unified you are.
    1. The principle of unity at the top of the scale of reality must itself be absolutely one
    2. It cannot be Mind and Forms b/c they are subjects and objects of attention and involves the duality of subject and object
  17. The transcendence of God is expressible and was expressed by early Christian theologians by use of Plotinus’ second way of speaking of the transcendence of the One (the Good).
    1. Plotinus was influenced here by Plato in the Republic
      1. Plato says that the Form of the Good is above being (ousia).
      2. But Plotinus goes a step beyond Plato; the Good is not a Form at all, and so at times he speaks interchangeably of the One and the Good.
        1. The One-as-Good is the source of all and is more and better than the reality it is the source of. Its excellence is beyond our language and thought.
        2. This comes closer to the Christian concept of God.
    2. For Plotinus, the One-as-Good is beyond all thought b/c it is above the second hypostasis, the highest level of thought.
      1. But in Christianity, the second hypostasis – the Son, the wisdom of the Father – is fully divine.
        1. To speak about the thoughts or mind of God is to be speaking of God, not something less than the ultimate reality.
      2. The reason created realities do not fully reveal God’s nature to us isn’t b/c creature reflect something that is less than the ultimate reality. It is rather b/c creatures are reflections of ultimate reality.
      3. Also, God doesn’t have to create at all. God’s fullness is such that God is complete w/o creatures; but that fullness, as it is in itself, is unknowable to us.
        1. We know of God’s fullness through his revelation as Creator and Redeemer.
        2. God thus surpasses creatures, not only insofar as the goodness, power, wisdom, and other qualities they have are limited versions or reflections of that nature insofar as God has chosen to be related.
      4. Plotinus’ notion of the second hypostasis as Mind and the Forms as its thoughts is used by theologians to give a basis for some knowledge of God through a knowledge of created beings.
        1. The natural world reflects the Mind of God insofar as God is Creator.
  18. Plotinus also greatly influenced the description of the perfection of the soul and the spiritual life.
    1. Both Plotinus and Christian Platonists think of perfection or our final end in terms of our unity with ultimate reality.
      1. For both, unity is achieved by becoming like the highest.
      2. In Plotinus, we become like Mind (b/f we move to the final union with the One) by a knowledge of the Forms.
      3. But as higher souls, we are always close to and ever present to Mind; in other words, our potential to know the Forms is always present in us as part of our nature.
        1. Our restoration (or salvation) is thus simply a move from being potentially like Mind to becoming actually like Mind.
        2. Then with Mind we can move into union with the One
    2. In Christianity we do not have a likeness to God in the sense of being on the lower edge of the divine level of reality, even potentially.
      1. Although we are made in the image of God, we are creatures.
      2. Jesus, however, is divine and human and thus the mediator b/w us and God.
      3. Our relation to God is established by faith and grace, for we are in a state of sin. We are thus raised by Christ to a participation in the divine life.
  19. Because the Christian Platonists think of Christ as similar to Plotinus’ second hypostasis (the divine Mind), they think of our ascent to union with God in a similar manner, namely as occurring by an increasing knowledge of God.
    1. Christ as the Wisdom of God enlightens our minds to give us knowledge of the principles of created nature, both physical and human, as well as God’s actions in history.
    2. For us, to increase in knowledge of Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, is to grow more like what we know.
    3. To increase in our knowledge of the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to move more into their likeness.
    4. The final goal is deification (henosis).
      1. We remain creatures, and so we don’t become God; but we have such a likeness to Christ as human as to be united with the Trinity
      2. We share in the divine life, and this is the reason we were created
    5. The Platonist tradition, even when Christianized by faith and grace, has a tendency to overemphasize the part of an increasing knowledge of God in the soul’s ascent.
      1. The knowledge is highly ‘spiritualized,’ that is, it encourages a steady movement away from the created universe in which we are to learn to love with one another as forgiven creatures.
      2. It also tends to encourage a contemplative life as the Christian vocation par excellence
  20. Plotinus had one clearly unfortunate effect on Christian Platonists.
    1. It relates with Augustine
    2. Plotinus thought of the soul as a substance, that is as able to exist on its own, unembodied.
    3. Augustine, as a Christian, knew that the whole person is not just a soul, but is soul and body (or spirit, soul, and body, if one follows some of Paul’s remarks, but this doesn’t change the point being made here).
    4. Augustine still regarded the soul as a separate, independent, and complete spiritual substance. We are rational souls which have a body we use
    5. We can see this view of the soul as complete in itself in operation in Augustine’s theory of knowledge.
      1. In his refutation of the Skeptics, he relies on our knowledge of ourselves as thinking subjects. This knowledge is not gained through the senses.
      2. Following the Platonists, whenever we make a true judgment, it derives its necessity and universality from some illumination of our minds by the Forms in the mind of God.
      3. Thus, it is from Christ alone, the divine Wisdom, that we gain truth, not only of spiritual matters but about this world.
    6. The stress on soul as a spiritual substance with access to genuine knowledge, in contrast to the information provided by the senses, encouraged Augustine toward an ‘inwardness.’
      1. Like Plotinus, he tends to turn away from the external, material world (even though it is based on the archetypes of the divine mind) and to concentrate on God and the soul.
      2. This indeed tends to etherealize the Christian life.
  21. The Greek Fathers and Augustine drew most extensively on the philosophy of Plato and the Platonists.
    1. But we have seen that other elements, such as Stoicism and Aristotle’s psychology of perception and his notions of potency and act, played important roles in even the most Platonic of the Platonists, Plotinus himself.




[1] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy For Understanding Theology, (Atlanta, GA & Great Britain: John Knox Press & SCM Press Ltd, 1985), 73-91.





  1. […] Allen, Diogenes. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Atlanta, GA & Great Britain: John Knox Press & SCM Press Ltd, 1985. Accessed March 1, 2017.… […]

  2. […] Allen, Diogenes. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Atlanta, GA & Great Britain: John Knox Press & SCM Press Ltd, 1985. Accessed March 1, 2017.… […]

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