Book 7 Overview
Although Augustine has been using Neoplatonic terms and ideas throughout the Confessions thus far, it isn't until Book 7 that he reaches the point in his autobiography when he first reads Neoplatonic philosophy. This is a watershed moment for the young Augustine, who finds in Neoplatonism a way of reconciling his long pursuit of philosophy with his new and serious faith in the Catholic church. The union of this philosophy and this theology will guide his work (including the Confessions) for the rest of his life.
Book VII Summary & Analysis
Augustine begins with another appraisal of his philosophy at the time, paying particular attention to his conceptions of God as a being and of the nature of evil (the two concepts that Neoplatonism would alter most for him). The problem of picturing God remained central. Having rejected Manichee dualism, Augustine was finally trying to imagine God as "incorruptible and inviolable and unchangeable" rather than as some kind of limited, partly impotent substance.
He still, however, has no conception of spiritual substance (a substance that is not matter and does not exist in space). He pictured God as "a secret breath of life" or like sunlight, when he shouldn't have been "picturing" him at all. "My eyes are accustomed to such images," he writes, and "my heart accepted the same structure. Augustine couldn't get around the idea that anything not occupying space could still have existence. (He notes that even the power of thought itself, if he had considered it, would have served as an example).
Similarly, although Augustine now thought of Manichee dualism as "an abomination," he still had no solution to the problem of evil. He even reached the point of suspecting (after listening to other Catholics) that human free will causes evil, but was left with the question of why humans can choose evil at all. How could it even be an option to choose something other than God, if God is omnipotent?
This problem, too, Augustine now attributes to improper visualization. He thought of God like an immense ocean, with the world as "a large but finite sponge" within it. Thus, he asked, "how [did] evil creep in?" And if matter itself was evil (as the Manicheans taught), why did God create it?
After a brief discussion of astrology (which, in a conversation with a prominent astrologer called Firminus, he finds as improbable as ever), Augustine turns to his Neoplatonic experience. Picking up a Neoplatonic text, he read what seemed to be almost another version of Genesis. The book (he doesn't name it) struck Augustine as thrillingly similar to Genesis, and authoritatively contrary to Manichee dualism.
Having briefly touched on his excitement about what he found in this text, Augustine almost immediately turns to what he didn't find there: namely, he didn't find any reference to Christ as God in human form. The Neoplatonists back up the idea of God as the cause of the existence of all things (as well as the assertion that the soul is not the same thing as God), but they mention nothing about the idea that "the Word was made flesh [i.e., Christ] and dwelt among us." (This sudden attention to the absence of Christ from these texts may be an attempt to pre-empt criticism from purist Catholics. Throughout the Confessions, Augustine is careful not to show unmitigated enthusiasm for philosophy in and of itself).
Augustine also makes two other criticisms of Neoplatonism here: it fails to give any praise to God, and it is tainted by polytheist tendencies. These problems notwithstanding, the young Augustine was inspired enough by his new reading that he had a powerful vision of God. Turning inward as the Neoplatonists advised, Augustine "entered and with my soul's eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind."
Perhaps for the first time, this wasn't a visual kind of light. It was "utterly different from all other kinds of light. It transcended my mind, [but] not in the way that oil floats on water." There was no false imagery in this vision, but no imagery at all ("this way of seeing you did not come from the flesh"): Augustine was finally able to "see" God with his mind instead of his mind's eye. What he "saw," he writes, "is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being." This is indeed a very Neoplatonic vision, and it allowed Augustine finally to understand God and creation as part of the same spectrum of relative Being (with God as the pinnacle and Augustine "far" from him).
In this moment, Augustine also finally understood the nature of evil: namely that, "for [God] evil does not exist at all." All elements of the world are "good in themselves," but may appear evil when there is "a conflict of interest." Further, Augustine saw that human "wickedness" is not a substance "but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life." This, too, is a Neoplatonic position: nothing can be truly antagonistic to God (the cause of all existence), but human free will allows a turn away from him.
Unfortunately, Augustine's inward view of God proved to be transient, a "flash of a trembling glance." Augustine blames the weight of his sins (especially his "sexual habit") for pulling him back down out of the vision. He also gives attention to another obstacle that prevented him from "enjoying" God for more than a moment: he had not yet put his faith in Christ, "the mediator between God and man."
Augustine attributes this hesitation to follow Christ to a lack of humility, without which knowledge only goes so far. Christ, writes Augustine, "detaches [those who accept him] from themselves." At the time of his Neoplatonic vision, however, he seems to have taken on the Neoplatonic idea of Christ "only as a man of excellent wisdom" who was chosen by God (though in Book 5 he claims the opposite error of believing Christ to be wholly divine).
"Of these Neoplatonic conceptions I was sure," writes Augustine, "but to enjoy you I was too weak." An answer presented itself soon after, however, when Augustine began to read the apostle Paul. Here he again finds strong affinities with Neoplatonism, but also the element of grace and humility lacking from those more strictly philosophical texts. "I...found that all the truth I had read in the [Neo]Platonists was stated here together with the commendation of your grace [i.e., praise to God]."