Love, Will, and the Intellectual Ascents

In Tarmo Toom (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine's Confessions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 154-174 (2020)
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Augustine’s accounts of his so-called mystical experiences in conf. 7.10.16, 17.23, and 9.10.24 are puzzling. The primary problem is that, although in all three accounts he claims to have seen “that which is,” we have no satisfactory account of what “that which is” is supposed to be. I shall be arguing that, contrary to a common interpretation, Augustine’s intellectual “seeing” of “being” in Books 7 and 9 was not a vision of the Christian God as a whole, nor of one of the divine persons, each of whom is equally God, according to Augustine. This becomes clear when we attend to the fact that Augustine is appropriating a specific meaning of “that which is” or “being” used by Plotinus in his account of the lover of Beauty. This resolution, however, leads to a second question. Is there anything distinctively Christian about any, or all, of Augustine’s ascents? On the one hand, it would be odd if there were not, given that the Confessions are addressed to the Christian God. On the other hand, upon close inspection we find that the allegedly specific “Christian” characteristics that modern commentators have identified in the ascents of conf. 7 and 9 also occur in the Neoplatonists. I will argue that there is in fact one important difference between Augustine and the Neoplatonists here that has not been pointed out in these prior interpretations.

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