Plotinus, Augustine, and the One God

by Alexander Earl

In my previous article, “In Defense of Christian Platonism,” I introduced the contours for defending a substantive relationship between Christianity and Platonism; the two are irrevocably entangled, and any attempt to separate them will inevitably lead to disaster.1 Such a danger rests in the central metaphysical maxim of Platonism that to be is to be intelligible. However, one might object that any system of thought can claim a belief in the cosmos’s intelligibility without thereby becoming a soi-disant Platonist. That may be true if Platonism is thought of as reducible to its historical contingencies, but I aver that the core of Platonism is actually in its philosophical maxims and the consequences that follow from them, not necessarily any of its idiosyncratic expressions—though, to be clear, that does not mean those expressions are dispensable; I simply aim to express the fundamental point as a certain kind of vision of reality that is not necessarily dependent on the tendencies of the grammar that might scaffold it.2 Regarding this maxim, we gleaned some of its content by following Plotinus’s reasonings from empirical experience, to soul, to intellect. By using the principle of causality—that actuality always precedes potentiality—Plotinus first distinguishes between those bodies that are animated (self-moving) and those that are inert. He continues this investigation by reflecting on the different kinds of bodies possessed of self-motion, and discovers that certain self-movers are so by the use of a rational faculty. But reason, which moves discur­sively and entails a separation between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking, must be grounded in an intellectual reality that just is the possession of its own content of thought.3

I. Intellect

But what exactly does this claim entail? What does it mean to say intellect is thought-thinking-itself? Unsurprisingly, Plotinus says it best:

Since, then, there is soul that reasons about just and beautiful things, and reasoning that inquires whether this is just or that is beautiful, there must also be some stable justice, from which there comes to be reasoning at [the level of] soul. Or how else could it reason? And if soul sometimes reasons about these things and sometimes does not, there must be in us intellect, which does not reason discursively but always possesses justice.4

Stephen R. L. Clark, commenting on this passage, explains that “this identifies the need, in any reasoning, for premises. If our premises are wrong, so will all our reasonings be.”5 Clark continues by asking an intuitive follow-up: “where do we get right premises?”6 If prior to any right reasoning we need an apprehension of right premises, and those right premises were right before we recog­nized them, then, Clark concludes, there must be “some further permanent rightness” that acts as a standard for all our judgments.7 To avoid an infinite regress, that permanent rightness will have to be a rightness self-possessed, so to speak; that is, it cannot be a rightness discovered, which involves moving from potentially to actuality qua coming-to-know the standard—again, invoking the principle of causality—which will entail that the case in question is just another instance of something under the standard, instead of the standard itself. Plotinus, in countering other 3rd century Platonists about the status of the forms relative to intellect, argues that

If one grants that the objects of thought are as completely as possible outside Intellect, and that Intellect contemplates them as absolutely outside it, then it cannot possess the truth of them and must be deceived in everything it contemplates. For they would be the true realities; and on this supposition it will contemplate them without possessing them, but will only get images of them in a knowledge of this sort. If then it does not possess the true reality, but only receives in itself images of the truth, it will have falsities and nothing true.8

In other words, if the forms, or the intelligibles, are outside of intellect such that it thinks them as something external to itself, then that intellect will only have impressions, or images, of those intelligibles instead of knowledge of them. Thus, it is an actualized intellect. To repeat, something under the standard, but not the standard itself.9 If, therefore, there is to be a standard for reasoning—and we should hope there is, otherwise all our reasoning is for naught—then the infinite regress will have to terminate in something that is intellect full-stop, not an actualized intellect, but actually intellect. Per Plotinus:

If we are to use the word in its true sense, we must take this intellect to be, not that in potentiality or that which passes from stupidity to intelligence—otherwise we shall have to look for another intellect before it—but that which is actually and always intellect. But if it does not have its thinking from outside, then if it thinks anything it thinks it from itself and if it has anything it has it from itself. But if it thinks from itself and derives the content of its thought from itself, it is itself what it thinks. For if its substance was other [than its thinking] and the things which it thought were other than itself, its substance would itself be unintellectual: and, again, potential, not actual. Therefore one must not be separated from the other.10

Therefore, the reality that grounds all reasoning must be thought-thinking-itself, or as Plotinus says, “all together are one, Intellect, intellection, and the intelligible.”11 Perhaps these points can be better understood through the characteristic beauty of St Augustine of Hippo in his rapturous Confessions, where he narrates how Platonism freed him from the confines of Manichean materialism:

I asked myself why I approved of the beauty of bodies, whether celestial or terrestrial, and what justification I had for giving an unqualified judgment on mutable things, saying ‘This ought to be thus, and that ought not to be thus’. In the course of this inquiry why I made such value judgment as I was making, I found the unchangeable and authentic eternity of truth to transcend my mutable mind. And so step by step I ascended from bodies to the soul which perceives through the body, and from there to its inward force, to which bodily senses report external sensations, this being as high as the beasts go. From there again I ascended to the power of reasoning to which is to be attributed the power of judging the deliverances of the bodily senses. This power, which in myself I found to be mutable, raised itself to the level of its own intelligence, and led my thinking out of the ruts of habit. It withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it was flooded. At that point it had no hesitation in declaring that the unchangeable is preferable to the changeable, and that on this ground it can know the unchangeable, since, unless it could somehow know this, there would be no certainty in preferring it to the mutable. So in the flash of a trembling glance it attained to that which is. At that moment I saw your ‘invisible nature understood through the things which are made (Rom. 1:20).12

In this passage, we have the rational ascent from bodies to intellect, the recognition of the need for standards of judgment for the operation of reason, and an example of one such standard, that the “unchangeable is preferable to the changeable,” since only by unchanging and eternal truth can there be the possibility of changing and temporal reason in the first place. However, Augustine says something rather fascinating at the end of this passage; in a “flash of trembling glance” he attained to that which is. Moreover, he was able to do so by moving from “the things which are made” to the invisible nature that made them. Is Augustine suggesting that the intellectual reality under discussion is the first principle of all reality? Is he also suggesting a kind of rational demonstration for this reality by inquiring into the created order?

II. The One

In order to get answers, we have to ask whether intellect can be the first principle. Plotinus emphatically responds: no. But why? Plotinus points us to the priority of oneness (or the principle of prior simplicity):13

It is by the one that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings and those which are in any sense said to be among beings. For what could anything be if it was not one? For if things are deprived of the one which is predicated of them they are not those things. For an army does not exist if it is not one, nor a chorus or a flock if they are not one. But neither can a house or a ship exist if they do not have their one, since the house is one and so is the ship, and if they lose it the house is no longer a house nor the ship a ship. So then continuous magnitudes, if the one was not with them, would not exist; at any rate, if they are cut up they change their being in proportion as they lose their one. And again the bodies of plants and animals, each of which is one, if they escape their one by being broken up into a multiplicity, lose the substance which they had and are no longer what they were but have become other things, and are those other things in so far as each of them is one.14

A pedagogical tool I often use with students (and it was one which was once used on me) is to ask them to give an example of something that is not one. Typical answers can range from something as simple as a pair of shoes to witty appeals to some quantum phenomenon. In any case, as Plotinus shows, the moment someone says anything, such as the aforementioned pair of shoes, that person has described one thing. The pair of shoes is one pair of shoes. Take away a shoe and you no longer have one pair; it is “cut up” and “broken into a multiplicity,” thereby it “loses its substance” and its parts “have become other things.” It is no longer a single pair of shoes, but a single shoe, which itself has a certain oneness that is due to the combination of the laces, leather, sole, and so forth. If we continue its decon­struction and begin to remove these component parts it will no longer be a shoe, but just laces, which in turn is made up of parts, and so on and so on. Thus, a thing is what it is by its being this one thing and not something else, but to be the one thing that it is entails a combination of other things, which in turn have their one, and yet, despite this combination, it is not a mere aggregate of ones or an unintelligible heap, but somehow has an intelligible look (or form); it has coherence as this one thing. How does the priority of oneness apply to intellect? Intellect is in fact a composite since its oneness is an actualized oneness; for although intellect is one, in that it thinks itself, it is also double, in that it thinks something, namely, itself. Plotinus’s criticism relies on the intention­ality of thinking in that there is a necessary distinction between the act of thinking and the object of thought, and only with both can you have thinking proper. As Plotinus explains, “if it was intellect it would have to have an object of thought, and if it was thinking in the primary sense it would have to have its object in itself.”15 So we have two important points regarding intellect. First, in order for it to be intellect its object of thought must not be outside it such that its thought is actualized by something external, and, second, in order for intellect to be thinking it must be double as act of thinking and object of thought: “it must therefore be one and a pair.”16 This criticism entails that there must be a principle before intellect that actualizes its unity.

For since the nature of the One is generative of all things it is none of them. It is not therefore something or qualified or quantitative or intellect or soul; it is not in movement or at rest, not in place, not in time, but “itself by itself of single form”, or rather formless, being before all form, before movement and before rest; for these pertain to being and are what make it many.17

If the One is the cause of intellect, which is real being and pure intellect, then that means the first principle of all must be ‘beyond being,’ ‘beyond form,’ and ‘beyond intellect.’ Further, since the One is the cause of all things, then it cannot be all things or any one thing, but must be oneness itself, for it could not cause the totality of all things if it were a thing within that totality. As a result, the One is no-thing, bestowing on intellect its oneness, and in that case its existence. As Plotinus says, “For there must be something simple before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it.”18

III. Augustine’s God

Speaking charitably, given Augustine’s familiarity with Plotinus, it is doubtful that he would make such an obvious metaphysical blunder as to confuse intellect for the first principle (though, to be fair, he made a few in his time).19 Here is not the place to amass the evidence, but we can begin to see why by looking further at Augustine’s own causal insistence in Confessions.

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession (Job 28: 12 f.). I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’ (Ps. 99:3).20

Both this passage and the previous one cited above have something in common: they are reflections on mutability, finitude, and dependence. The theme is constant through­out the Confessions; in fact, Confessions may be typified as one long reflection on the profound tension between our obvious finitude and our insatiable desire for the infinite. As the famous line attests, fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te: you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.21 Such insatiable desire surely drives Augustine’s insistent and frequent questioning. Why do I find things beautiful? How do I judge things as good and true? What is the object of my love? Even more perplexing, he has to wrestle with how he can say with the sun, moon, and stars “he made us,” and yet how know there is a special clause appended to the human case, “for yourself.” This kind of causal insistence inevitably reveals that what I am is mutable. I delight in beauty, yet all the beauty in the world seems to fade; I reason, and yet in order to reason there must be some eternal truth above that reveals its own limits; I love, and yet the immediate objects of my affection do not satisfy, but leave me longing for more. The insatiable desire takes him deeper and deeper into himself, into his memory, into the depths of his own mind, erotically panting and longing, reaching out to find the rest that beckons him, thereby advancing into the ever-increasing paradox of the intimate union between the finite and the infinite, akin to the paradoxical intensity of brightness and darkness in the rings of a mandorla in Orthodox icono­graphy. As Augustine delves into those more abstract and philo­sophical questions regarding memory, time and eternity—all the while providing some of the most profound reflections on human sin and frailty—we unsurprisingly end up with commentary on the book of Genesis. And what do we find? God must be beyond intellect.

Surely it is not false that the only source of all nature endowed with form and matter capable of form is he who is supremely good because he supremely is. They say, ‘We do not deny that.’ What then? Do you deny that there is a sublime created realm cleaving with such pure love to the true and truly eternal God that, though not coeternal with him, it never detaches itself from him and slips away into the changes and successiveness of time, but rests in utterly authentic contemplation of him alone?22

For Augustine, this “sublime created realm” is synonymous with the “heaven of heavens,”23 “realm of intellect,”24 “House of God,”25 and “created wisdom.”26 This intellectual realm is God’s ‘first’ act, and it cleaves intimately to him. In fact, “its delight is exclusively in you. In an unfailing purity it satiates its thirst in you,” for “it has no future to expect. It suffers no variation and experiences no distending in the successiveness of time.”27 Compare this account with Plotinus’s own explanation of the derivation of intellect from the One, and the similarities are uncanny.

This, we may say, is the first act of generation: the One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, overflows, as it were, and its superabundance makes something other than itself. This, when it has come into being, turns back upon the One and is filled, and becomes Intellect by looking towards it. Its halt and turning toward the One constitutes being, its gaze upon the One, Intellect.28

While it would certainly take more work to fully defend Augustine’s conception of God, for our purposes I consider these passages, within the context of the Confessions as a whole, a sufficient demonstration that at least Augustine is aware of the limitations of intellect and the necessity of God to be beyond it as the true creator of all things. After all, the Confessions masterfully ends by describing God as the One and the Good, always working and yet always at rest, the transcendent one beyond human understanding, graciously accessible through the humble petitions of his servants.

IV. The Neoplatonic Argument for God

Thus far my attempt has been to continue the causal insistence begun in my last article to further flesh out the metaphysics of Neoplatonism, as well as show how that metaphysics is bound up with Christian theological reflection, for which my partner has been Augustine. It is worthwhile at this point to try to distill the argument for the One. According to Plotinus, if God is truly to be God, the cause and sustainer of all, then he must be absolutely simple, beyond intellect, and so beyond being. The argument has been present throughout our reflections—though not articulated formally—and it can take any number of starting points. It is not a controversial claim to say that all of the traditional arguments for the existence of God are really just one argument from different vantage points, and the Neoplatonic argument is one such vantage, and it is that iteration I find the most compelling. As mentioned earlier, there is a persistent reflection on our finitude, mutability, and dependence in Augustine, and as we can see now, this reflection is constantly active in Plotinus as he tries to account for the nature of beauty, bodies, rational souls, and their corresponding conditions. At the height of any causal inquiry, one question remains pivotal: what gives composite things their unity? The question is pervasive and exhaustive, for it applies to the lowliest shoe to the highest reality of intellect qua thought-thinking-itself. The question cuts across all material and metaphysical entities; more accurately, any being whatsoever, since to be a being ultimately involves having the character ‘one’ in order to be ‘this’ being instead of ‘that’ one. At the very least, your ‘one’ gives you identity, but that identity is defined by contradistinction; thus, you are at least two as a composition of identity and difference. To speak piously, our ‘one’, our ‘unity’, is always the free gift of the God who not only makes us to be, but places us in a web of relations that constitute that very being.

A common confusion, however, is to think of this causal activity as linear rather than hierarchical. In Edward Feser’s recent book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, he explains that

What makes a hierarchical series of causes hierarchical, then, is this instrumental or derivative character of the later members of the series. The desk will hold the cup aloft only so long as it is itself being held up by the floor. If the floor collapses, the desk will go with it and the cup will fall as a result. The members of a linear series are not like that. The air conditioner is on because you turned it on. Still, once you’ve done so, the air conditioner will keep cooling the room even if you left the house or dropped dead.29

When we are conceiving of the unity of any thing, we can think of it in two ways. Consider a chair as an example. There is the unity of the chair which is caused by the craftsman producing it as he combines the plastic, cloth, and screws (clearly an Ikea chair, perhaps craftsman is too strong here), and then there is the question of how the chair retains its unity after the craftsman’s initial unifying activity has ceased. In the former kind of causal sequence, the craftsman does not need to continue to act on the chair for it to retain its unity. We can say that the craftsman initially causes the chair to be by unifying its disparate parts, but after he has done so, much like the air conditioner in Feser’s example, the craftsman could drop dead and the chair would not crumble to the ground with him. This kind of causality is not the kind of causality we are concerned with. Instead, our interest is in the second way a thing is unified, which asks how it continues as a unity after it is initially caused. How is it unified here and now, at this moment? In order for the chair to stay unified, there are a variety of causes (what Feser terms concurrent causes) that have to constantly act on it at every instant, such as the gravity of the earth, the laws of friction, and so on.

So, what’s the point? There’s no issue with linear causes going on to infinity; the chain of linear causes can defer back to some prior agent on and on and on without remainder. There need not be a first member of such a series. For all we know, such an infinite chain could be infinitely cyclical, and so be perfectly self-contained (this fact is why something like the Big Bang is essentially irrelevant to the question of God). However, a hierarchical series cannot go on infinitely, otherwise there is absolutely no explanation for how some thing is, here and now, at this moment. For a hierarchical series—which applies to everything that is composite, and so to every single being—if there is no first member, then there is absolutely no explanation for how things are currently actualized.30 Everything would be the product of sheer fortuitous magic. The inexorable assembly of brute facts of an absolutely inane variety. Per my last article, the cosmos would reduce to nihilism, as any thing at any moment could be any way without the slightest explanation. Since, obviously, that is quite contrary to our experience, the unity of any being, and even being as a totality, requires a first member that is not liable to the vicious infinite regress of causal questions regarding composition. Therefore, in order to terminate the regress, there must be a first member which is not composite in any way, and so not liable to such a causal question. Feser, helpfully, provides us with a more formal argument:

(1) The things of our experience are composite
(2) A composite exists at any moment only insofar as its parts are combined at that moment
(3) This composition of parts requires a concurrent cause
(4) So, any composite has a cause of its existence at any moment at which it exists
(5) So, each of the things of our experience has a cause at any moment at which it exists
(6) If the cause of a composite thing’s existence at any moment is itself composite, then it will in turn require a cause of its own existence at that moment
(7) The regress of causes this entails is hierarchical in nature, and such a regress must have a first member
(8) Only something absolutely simple or non-composite could be the first member of such a series
(9) So, the existence of each of the things of our experience presupposes an absolutely simple or non-composite cause.31

In order for there to be intelligibility, there must be the absolutely simple One beyond it, and any rejection of this irreducible oneness is subject to the vicissitudes of an encroaching nihilism, for that person inevitably begs the causal question of what causes God’s unity. To deflect is to make God a most convenient brute fact; and it is unclear how the cosmos (or anything else, really) could not just as easily accept the role. Therefore, God cannot have any parts whatsoever, whether metaphysical—there can be no distinction between what-he-is and that-he-is—or material—he most certainly does not have a body of any kind, be it fleshly or ethereal—God is not in time, as if contained by some reality other than himself, nor is he even outside of time, which would curiously suffer the same fate by making God and the cosmos two things alongside one another. In line with Plotinus, Augustine, and Feser, if we are to have any hope in our rational capacities, any hope that the world is intelligible, any hope that our deepest longings can find satisfaction, we should turn our gaze to that great Good, the One, by keeping “the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from above,”32 persisting in our asking, begging for understanding, incessantly knocking on the door of the Logos (Matt. 7:7-8). “Yes indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened.”33


[1] Perhaps, more forcefully, I resist any narrative that makes the relationship between Christianity and Platonism accidental rather than ancillary. In fact, I think if one really is to believe the claims of the Gospel, that Christ was incarnate “in the fullness of time,” then that fullness should include the broad intellectual milieu in which the incarnation occurred. Surely it cannot be merely accidental that a Platonic metaphysics was the lingua franca as Christianity emerged and began its doctrinal reflections.

[2] One such account of Platonism that looks for the fundamentals underneath various idiosyncratic expressions can be found in Lloyd Gerson, From Plato to Platonism. However, Stephen R.L. Clark’s wonderful work, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, demonstrates the indispensability of Plotinus’s particular language and metaphorical usage to the philosophical life he exhorts his followers to.

[3] Alexander Earl, ‘In Defense of Christian Platonism.’ See intro.

[4] Plotinus, Ennead V.1.11, 1-7 (trans. Eric Perl)

[5] Stephen R.L. Clark, God, Religion & Reality p. 68

[6] ibid.

[7] Clark 69

[8] Plotinus, Ennead V.5.1, 51-60

[9] Clark 70

[10] Plotinus, Ennead V.9.5, 1-9 (trans. A.H. Armstrong); c.f. Clark 68

[11] ibid. V.3.5, 45

[12] Augustine, Confessions VII.17 (trans. Henry Chadwick)

[13] Dominic O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads, chapter 4.

[14] Plotinus, Ennead VI.9.1, 1-16

[15] ibid. V.6.2

[16] ibid. V.6.1

[17] ibid. VI.9.3, 40-45 (trans. amended)

[18] ibid. V.4.1

[19] One could provide examples ad nauseum on the question of Augustine’s Platonism. There are developmentalists who see Augustine disavowing Platonism in favor of Christianity, of which Peter Brown’s Augustine: A Biography is perhaps the most popular example, but you can find similar accounts of this divergence in Thomas Wassmer’s (1960) ‘The Trinitarian Theology of Augustine and his debt to Plotinus,’ Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 261-268, and Thomas Williams’s ‘Augustine v. Plotinus: The Uniqueness of the Vision at Ostia,’ Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, pp. 143-152. There are, of course, others who see Augustine as having a relatively positive and consistent relationship to Platonism, such as John O’Meara’s ‘The Neoplatonism of St. Augustine,’ pp. 34-44 in Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, John Rist’s ‘Plotinus and Christian Philosophy’ in the Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Peter King’s (2005) ‘Augustine’s Encounter with Neoplatonism,’ The Modern Schoolman, 82 (2005), pp. 213-226, Adrian Pabst’s Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, and Erik Kenyon’s Augustine and the Dialogue.

[20] Augustine, Confessions X.9 (trans. Henry Chadwick)

[21] ibid. I.1

[22] ibid. XII.19

[23] ibid. XII.8

[24] ibid. XII.9

[25] ibid. XII.19

[26] ibid. XII. 20

[27] ibid. XII.12

[28] Plotinus, Ennead V.2.1

[29] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, p. 23

[30] ibid. p. 20

[31] ibid. p. 80

[32] Plotinus, Ennead V.1.12, 19-20

[33] Augustine, Confessions XIII.53

* * *

Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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