Augustine on the Difference between Christianity and Platonism

I might discern and distinguish what a difference there is between presumption and confession,— between those who saw whither they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way which leads not only to behold but to inhabit the blessed country.
(Confessions VII)

In his Confessions, Augustine writes that it was God’s pleasure that he studied Platonism before being touched by Him though the Scriptures. Of all philosophies, Platonism is one that most approximates Christianity, so the former serves to prepare his mind for the latter. But more importantly, familiarity with both enables him to discern the preeminence of Christianity over philosophy.

Plato teaches that true virtue of Man is to become righteous like God, but how such virtue can be acquired he does not say (though he intimates it is a gift of God); Christ proclaims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

For this is the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. For it is as man that He is the Mediator and the Way. Since, if the way lieth between him who goes, and the place whither he goes, there is hope of his reaching it; but if there be no way, or if he know not where it is, what boots it to know whither he should go? Now the only way that is infallibly secured against all mistakes, is when the very same person is at once God and Man, God our end, Man our way
(City of God XI)

The difference between Platonism and Christianity is not merely that of interpretation, but the difference between perception/speculation on one side, and reality/true knowledge on the other. To use a Biblical imagery, there is a great gulf fixed between them. It is the difference between death and Life. Though philosophy may delight man with a magnificent picture of truth and beauty, it is nevertheless dead, and so the greatest philosophical Idea cannot be compared with the least life-giving word of God.

Had I first been moulded in Thy Holy Scriptures, and hadst Thou, in the familiar use of them, grown sweet unto me, and had I afterwards fallen upon those volumes, they might perhaps have withdrawn me from the solid ground of piety; or, had I stood firm in that wholesome disposition which I had thence imbibed, I might have thought that it could have been attained by the study of those books alone.
(Confessions VII)

If Augustine had come across Platonism after having been familiar with Christianity, it might have withdrawn him “from the solid ground of piety”, for the former does present an attractive image of the reality with which a Christian is familiar, as images projected on the wall might deceive people into thinking they are real; however, since he started with Platonism, he was well aware of its limitations, and knew that it was but a shadow, and therefore did not mistake the shadow for substance, i.e., the Truth to be found in Christ alone.

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4 thoughts on “Augustine on the Difference between Christianity and Platonism

  1. Hmm …. I like your musing on being exposed to Plato before Christianity vs. the opposite, and the different effects. I’ll have to think about that.

    A projected image …… I hear Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in that, which I was exposed to by reading The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. Funny how unlikely works can be connected.

    I read your Confessions post (I’ve added a link to it on my Confessions blog post) and received good insight from it, so thank you. I especially enjoyed your concentration on the themes in the last 4 books, which I completely didn’t get the first read and then they started to become a little more clear the second. I am a little scared of City of God now though, but I will get to it one day.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I was exposed to Platonism after Christianity, so I can attest to how easy it is to be drawn away from the Word by philosophy. But this post is a response to some articles I read recently that criticize St. Augustine’s Christian doctrine as Platonic not Biblical, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

      If you ever get to read Augustine again, let me know, I’d be more than happy to “read along”. 🙂

      1. I can understand why Plato would be like discovering a shiny golden coin. I still haven’t read The Republic yet but it’s at the top of my reading pile. It sounds like a curious article. I see Plato in many Christian works, especially from intellectuals.

        Yes, I will let you know if I revisit Augustine. With books like this it’s such an advantage to have a reading partner, either for enlightenment or to simply be puzzled together. 😉

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