Monday, April 21, 2008

The Problem with a Loving God in Neoplatonic Monotheism

This past Thursday I had the pleasure to attend a talk by Reverend David Meconi, SJ titled Traveling without Moving: Love as Ecstatic Union in Plotinus, Augustine and Dante. Father Meconi, assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University, delivered a very nice speech that began with the classical Greek idea of love as presented in Sappho and then moved through how that idea influenced three very notable thinkers, Plotinus, Augustine, and Dante, and how that idea of love was deficient in each of the earliest presentations do to their incipient Neoplatonism in a manner that was corrected by in the poetry of Dante. In Plotinus, love is defined as traveling without moving, the human being becoming defied by love for love itself. Augustine picks this up by defining saying that we move not by walking but by loving the other but only to the extent that our love for the other is love for the other because of the divine principle within that other. Dante perfects this notion of love being true motion by saying that the human heart is where love really occurs and where this motionless motion deifies the lover by his or her love for the beloved, changing both lover and the beloved in a new kind of person, a unity of souls. For those interested in the history of ideas, the talk was certainly intriguing. Yet it itself overlooked two key factors: the rediscovery of Aristotle in western Europe and the influence of Islamic mysticism, especially with regards to the Sufi interpretation of Persian love poetry.

Meconi began his talk by describing the Greek understanding of love epitomized by the poet Sappho. This understanding of eros understands love to be simultaneously both sweet and bitter, consisting of the lover desiring the beloved (the sweetness) combined with the understanding that the lover is not the beloved (the bitter). The lover, in this view, desires to be the beloved as an epic line of Sapphic poetry says that in the sun the lover melts and oozes into the pores of the beloved. To love something, according to the Greeks, is then to desire to be that something while, at the same time, being frustrated that one is not that something.

Plotinus, the third century founder of Neoplatonism, took Sappho's understanding of eros and applied it to the Platonic tradition by which God and the divine forms alone have real existence. Love, in Plotinus, is the motion of an individual soul to its source and reality in the divine. The divine, in the Platonic tradition, is the only real good. What is material can never itself be good but can only be like what is good. Consequently, as Meconi pointed out in his talk, Plotinus necessarily divides eros into two types: heavenly and worldly. Heavenly love is a chaste love, is beauty itself. Worldly love, satisfied with emotion and complacent with the beauty in the images of forms rather than the beauty of the forms themselves, is a secondary sort of love that weighs down the soul and prevents it from becoming deified.

In this view, we seek love because we are not content with ourselves. Those of us that seek out worldly love, however, are deluded as we look for love in individual beings rather than seeking out love itself. The true lover must be alone to seek out true love qua love rather than being distracted by materiality. Material eros, at best, can only be like love but can never be love. As such, it can only serve to bind us further to material existence rather than help us to return to God. Love itself is a good, but love of another material being obscures from us the vision of God. In the end, love in this system leaves us with the inability to love our neighbor. Love for one's neighbor, a central part of Christianity, becomes a hindrance to salvation rather than salvation itself.

The next step towards an authentic view of love according to Meconi lies in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who according to his own memoir was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, translated the ideas of love presented by Plotinus into a system with a trinitarian God and, in doing so, allowed for a very important expansion of the idea of what love is. Whereas Plotinus viewed God as a single person, Augustine viewed God as three persons. The prototype of love, the triune Godhead, then, admits of a love of persons for other persons that cannot be admitted to in a purely Neoplatonic system where God is a single monad. Love in the Plotinian system is necessarily an auto-erotic love, God can only love Himself. But if God consists of three persons, as in the Holy Trinity of Augustine, the love of the three persons of the trinity for each other allows for a genuine love of one person for another. More specifically, the trinitarian system of Augustine breaks down love into three parts: lover, love, beloved. The lover is the Father; the love is the Holy Spirit; the beloved is the Son. All three parts are necessary for love to be complete.

So, as Meconi points out, our love can only be true if it is between persons rather than for an abstract form of love qua love as in Plotinus. Rather than the love of created beings being a mistake, Augustine thought that love of the other person was a rung on the ladder to to the love of God himself. But this is only true of the love of certain beings in Augustinian thought. If a created being loves a created being below itself on the divine hierarchy, it will draw itself down. The love of earth, for example, will make the lover into earth. But the love of other persons, persons created in the image and likeness of God, makes the lover into God. Love of the other, according to Augustine, deifies the individual rather than weighing the individual down.

But, as Meconi points out, certain affinities between Augustine and Plotinus remain. For Augustine, while every opportunity to love the other is an opportunity to love God, every opportunity to love the other is also a temptation. Unless the love of the other points to God, it is the love of creation rather than the love of the Creator. Augustine himself wrote that it was not his mother who cared for him but God working through his mother. Consequently, it is not the love of others as individuals that points to God, but the love of God in other individuals. A man who loves his wife for who she is as anything other than the image of God has fallen into temptation and, loving the creature rather than the Creator, has become an idolater of sorts. In the Augustinian version of Neoplatonism, created beings are still unable to love other created beings except inasmuch as they are loved because they reflect God. The love of one's neighbor as one's neighbor, in this way of thinking, is an invitation to idolatry rather than an echo of the love of God.

The antidote to this way of looking at the love of creatures, according to Meconi, presents itself in the form of the poetry of the early fourteenth century poet Dante Alighieri who defined love, amore, as the union of the soul between the lover and the loved. In this view, not only do we all desire to be love, but we all long to be loved `the most' as it is only where we are perfectly loved that we find our own perfect individuation. It is our very love for other creatures qua creatures that transmute us into saints and our love for particular individuals is transmuted into universal love. This is most clearly seen in that it is Dante's love for Beatrice, not his love for God, that gives him wings. Here Dante takes a step not taken by Augustine or Plotinus, the human person participates in his own salvation.

But Meconi also observes that Dante clearly warns that this creaturely love needs be chaste. In the second ring of hell, populated by courtly lovers whose sole damning crime is to love each other, at first presents a puzzle to Dante. Only once Dante begins to grasp that these lovers are traitors to true love because their love is not truly for the other but turned inwards. These lovers don't desire the other for the sake of the other but because of the way that the other makes them feel. True love, the unity of the soul of two persons, isn't merely becoming the other but becoming a new kind of person with the other. The deification brought about this love isn't to cease being a human person as it is in Plotinus and Augustine but is to become a new kind of person.

Unfortunately, I don't think the line from Augustine to Dante is as clear as the line from Plotinus to Augustine. As mentioned above, Augustine himself admits to Neoplatonism prior to his conversion to Christianity and it is clear from his writings that there is a sense in which he never abandoned that school of thought. But while it would be a very difficult argument to make that Dante was unaware of Augustine, it also isn't clear that Dante is either any sort of Neoplatonist or that Dante drew heavily on the work of Augustine. Admittedly, I may not see the connection due to my relative ignorance of the Dantean corpus. But it is also possible that Dante drew on sources other than Augustine and that if there is a connection to Augustinian though it is a negative connection. After all, unlike most of the Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Dante, Augustine does not appear in the Paradisio.

One possible missing link can be found in Thomas Aquinas. Writing in the midst of the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle by the west, Aquinas inherited an Aristotelian system of metaphysics rather than the Platonic model that underlies Augustine. In Aristotle, what is material can, itself, be good as it reaches the fullness of its final form. This closes the tremendous gap of the Platonic model of Plotinus and Augustine where what is created can only be like what is good. Even though Augustine, as a matter of dogma, accepted the goodness of creation, it seems to me that his theory of love betrays something of an inconsistency. The love of others, in Augustine, is only genuine inasmuch as it is directed not at the individual but at the divine within the individual. Augustine's metaphysics puts his acceptance of dogma at odds with his writings on love.

But this same inconsistency isn't found in Thomas Aquinas or the other late medieval writers who followed Aristotle other than Plato. And in fact, Dante appears to echo Aquinas in some places. For example, Aquinas didn't consider beauty to be a formal (or, consequently, final) cause. In his talk, Meconi observed that Dante taught that while the forms extend from God (the first cause) that beauty extends from secondary causes in the divine hierarchy. This understanding of beauty, along with the appreciation of created beings qua created beings being valid objects of love, seems more in line with the Aquinean understanding of Aristotle than it does the Augustinian understanding of Neoplatonism.

Another possible missing link is the Sufi interpretation of the Persian courtly love tradition. While the hand of Plotinus lies heavy on some of the earliest Sufi poets, by the tenth and eleventh centuries, the courtly love poem with the unrequited love of a lover pining away, never to be sated, for his beloved was frequently used as an image for the desire of the individual to be made one with God. That the love of a created being could point to the love of God seems much closer to Augustine's reformulation of Neoplatonism than the pure Neoplatonism of Plotinus. And with the growing interaction between western Christendom and Islam by Dante's age, it is quite plausible that Dante was exposed to a good deal of the Sufi tradition of love poetry. But again, my own personal lack of knowledge concerning Dante's life prevents me from developing this possibility further. And, to be fair, it would seem that Sufi mysticism necessarily must run into the same problem as Augustine inasmuch as it remains Neoplatonic. An unmoving God that has a singular person (or perhaps it would be better to say a single God that is beyond all personhood) does not make sense as a prototype for love, especially in the Greek tradition where love is the desire of the lover to become the beloved. But on the other hand, the Christian east through which Muslim thinkers discovered Plato never lost Aristotle and by the Islamic thinkers of the tenth and eleventh century such as Ibn Sina and al-Farabi were, indeed, heavily influenced by Aristotle.

But in the final analysis, despite the problem of possibly not showing the entire chain linking Dante backwards through time to Plotinus, Meconi does do a very nice job of pointing out the incompatibility of the Christian idea of love and Neoplatonism. If Meconi is correct, Augustine, in being such an influential figure, put western Europe on the wrong track for close to a millennium with his misguided Neoplatonism. And despite Dante's corrective influence within the Church of Rome, Augustine's influence is still heavily seen in the Calvinism and Lutheranism of the Reformation that, at times, seems to reflect a very Neoplatonic view of matter. (Consider the principle of the total depravity of man outside of the Church that underlies classical Calvinism.) Having accepted the rule of the Holy Scriptures alone, Calvin and Luther still interpreted those same scriptures very much in the tradition of Augustine. Consequently, their understanding of the love of creation is closer to Augustine than to Dante and, like the Church of Rome, they failed to understand what it means to love their neighbor as their neighbor.


Anonymous said...

"After all, unlike most of the Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Dante, Augustine does not appear in the Paradisio."

I don't believe this is correct. Augustine appears at the end of the poem, taking his place in the "heavenly rose" beneath the saints Francis and Benedict.

As for other connections, in his Convivio, Dante makes an explicit appeal to Augustine's Confessions - specifically using Augustine as a source for the idea that life moves fom bad to best. In his Monarchia, Dante claimed that Augustine was the only scribe after the Biblical authors to have received genuine divine inspiration. Finally, in a "The Letter to Can Grande della Scalla", Dante cites Augustine's De quantitate anime as an partial inspiration for the concepts in The Divine Comedy.

The connection between Dante and Thomas Aquinas is equally firm, but I'd hesitate to say it is a "missing link." TA gets nearly an entire Canto in Comedy to rap on about Saint Francis.

Lee Malatesta said...


Thank you for the correction regarding Augustine and the Paradisio. Admittedly, my knowledge of Augustine was weak and I may have misheard or misunderstood Reverend Meconi's presentation regarding Augustine's presence.

My reference to Thomas Aquinas as a `missing link' was meant to suggest that much of where Dante appears to differ from Augustine can be explained by ideas where Aquinas also differed from Augustine, specifically his metaphysics with regard to the relation between form and matter.

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