The Metaphysical Thought of Plotinus/St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
#1
Disclaimer: I will be speaking with broad strokes unaware of how much depth this topic may reach.

As a student of philosophy, my chief interest is Metaphysics which is the discipline concerned with questions about the ultimate nature of reality. Within Metaphysics I am especially interested in views about the meaning of "Being", i.e. existence/what it means to exist.

I read recently in the book of a contemporary Catholic philosopher (Jean-Luc Marion) who compared the views of St. Augustine (influenced by the Neo-Platonist Plotinus) and of St. Thomas (influenced by Aristotle).

Plotinus had held that the ultimate source of reality "the One" or God was beyond being and in fact was so far removed from us that nothing could be predicated of Him except Unity and Goodness. In a way there is a sense that a person cannot say "God exists" on Plotinus' view and this is not because God is not a reality but because He is beyond being. St. Augustine believed that Plotinus' theory of reality was a good one and reconciled it to Christianity.

St. Thomas, in contrast, equates God with Being (esse). Although for St. Augustine the first of God's names is Love, for St. Thomas the first name is Being, according to this contemporary philospher.

From what little I have read of the philosophical works of both saints I believe that Marion's picture is more or less fair.

My question is, what do the fisheaters think? Was St. Augustine right to agree with the Neo-Platonist Plotinus and say that God is removed and beyond being? Or is St. Thomas closer to the truth when he says God is Being and in fact is pure Being?

I have more questions about the ramifications of either view and of course my own opinion but I believe this is a good starting point.

Thanks for any interest.
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#2
IMO, one cannot even make a stand between the two positions. To do so is to assume an 'outsider' stand, a position that has no reality, unless you are God (the ultimate reality). I think St Thomas's assertion that 'being' is the essence of man is self-evident but whether God's essence is 'being' is an extrapolation. God may just be beyond 'being' as St Augustine extrapolated. If God is a 'non-being' than what is Love? Yet St John asserts that 'God is Love'.
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#3
This is very interesting.  I haven't studied philosophy in several years, but this will be enjoyable for me.  Thanks for posting it.

I think the opinion of St. Thomas is the correct one, although I can understand why Augustine would have favored the opinion of Plotinus.  If God is infinite, He would stand beyond being.  For this to be true, being must be an attribute of finite things (e.g., men).  Being must be, therefore, a finite thing.  It was created, not uncreated.  That seems reasonable enough.

My objection is this:  I do not think defining God's existence outside of being is justified.  That is to say, what is the compelling reason to bifurcate divine being from being?  Did Plotinus give one?

(A side question:  did Augustine ever read any of Aristotle?  Anyone know?)
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#4
I must admit that I am a pretty hardcore Thomist, but I entirely agree with Thomas that the first and most fundamental thing we must talk about with God is the esse.  He is esse subsistens and from His Being all other things are possible.  Characteristics, such as Love, must come secondary to His actual existence.
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#5
St Augustine, being an acclaimed teacher of Greek antiquity himself, would have read the Greats, like Plato and Aristotle. During the time of the Church Fathers, to which Augustine belonged, Greek philosophical thoughts were employed in Christian theology. The ideas of 'being' and 'nonbeing', material and spirit,  were understood then. Augustine emphasized the attributes of God as love, omniscience, etc, over His state as nonbeing. It took the insight of St Thomas, in the Middle ages, to introduce the idea of 'Becoming', thus breaking the intellectual barrier of 'being' and 'nonbeing'. St Thomas based his insight on the Christian revelation of 'God becoming man'. Christian revelations had taken Classical metaphysics to a new height.
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#6
Plotinus is dead wrong in his teaching and if Augustine agreed with him it was probably because he was a pagan as well and had not yet come fully out of his pagan background into Christianity. God identified himself as I AM. This is a direct contradition to Plotinus who argued that God was beyond existence (whatever that means as it it is illogical) and therefore effectively does not exist.Plotinus also garbled such nonsense as God contains no division or multiplicity which is directly contrary to Christian doctrine which teaches that we must not fail to distinguish the three persons of the Godhead. Lest I be seen to disparage Augustine in this I would prefer to see some evidence  that he agreed with Plotinus on these points. He might have borrowed aspects of his teachings and disagreed with many more.

If however there seems to be some disagreement between Augustine and the angelic doctor the we need to go with St. Thomas who truly is without peer in exegesis of the Christian faith. It is the deviations from Thomism which has got us into this frightful modernist mess. As far as I am concerned there is no higher authority in the annals of Christianity (apart from the apostles and Jesus Christ) so if in doubt we should as a habit take the Thomist view.
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#7
While I do not want to say that Augustine is a pagan in his great writings (yes I understand his history, but it is obvious that he rejected both paganism and Gnosticism which is evident in his best writings) I think petrelton makes a very good point.  How does God address Himself?  When Moses asks who He is what does He say?  I AM WHO AM.  Being.  Bam.  St. Thomas is and always will be our greatest theologian.
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#8
There is a proper place for the role of 'negative theology' (apophasis) - what God is not. Trying to be too precis in our ideas of the Mysterium can lead us to an ideology. In this respect, the idea of a 'nonbeing' is not a 'nonexistence' but the 'otherness'. The Church balanced a rigorous logic with an intuition of transcendence in its 'mysteries'.
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#9
(11-07-2009, 08:04 AM)iggyting Wrote: St Augustine, being an acclaimed teacher of Greek antiquity himself, would have read the Greats, like Plato and Aristotle.
I was rather hoping someone knew for certain whether Augustine read Aristotle.  That is, is there evidence from his writings that he read him?  Oh well... I guess it IS safe to assume he did.

(11-07-2009, 08:04 AM)iggyting Wrote: During the time of the Church Fathers, to which Augustine belonged, Greek philosophical thoughts were employed in Christian theology. The ideas of 'being' and 'nonbeing', material and spirit,  were understood then. Augustine emphasized the attributes of God as love, omniscience, etc, over His state as nonbeing. It took the insight of St Thomas, in the Middle ages, to introduce the idea of 'Becoming', thus breaking the intellectual barrier of 'being' and 'nonbeing'. St Thomas based his insight on the Christian revelation of 'God becoming man'. Christian revelations had taken Classical metaphysics to a new height.

Exactly.  The consequences of the Incarnation for our understanding of Divine Being are drastic and, we can confidently say, infinite.  Thus, Plotinus, from the point of view of Catholic theology, must be wrong.  What is infinite is NOT beyond the reach of what is finite because the twain are unified in Christ.  This, as you say, seems to be the basis of the Thomistic opinion.  Plato did not know the Incarnation.  He MAY never have accepted the notion; he MAY never have accepted that infinity could dwell with finity.  We cannot know.

Augustine, however, accepted the view of Plotinus, at least provisionally.  Why?  HE was certainly no stranger to the Incarnation.
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