The Sea-Journey Metaphor and Augustine’s Critical Appropriation of Platonism in His Early Works

In the dedication of De Beata Vita, Augustine employs an extended sea-journey metaphor for his quest to find himself at home with the truth—that is, to come to rest in the true philosophy (De Beata Vita 1.1-1.4). In my paper, I argue that Augustine’s use of the sea-journey metaphor is further evidence of Augustine’s appreciative but critical appropriation of Neo-platonic ideas beginning from his very earliest dialogues, as argued by John Peter Kenney (Contemplation and Classical Christianity), Carol Harrison (Rethinking Augustine’s Early Theology) and others.

This “sea-journey” metaphor for the life of the individual seeking to come home to the Truth appears with regularity in Augustine’s early writings (note also Contra Academicos 1.1.1, 2.1.1, 3.2.3). The metaphor is a common one in ancient philosophy, used by both Plato and Cicero, but I will argue that for Augustine the immediate influence for the metaphor is probably Plotinus (Enneads 1.6.8). Augustine expands upon and uses the metaphor in a variety of ways throughout his later corpus, and the pattern of use settles into two broad categories: that of the journey back to the homeland in order to clarify the use/enjoyment distinction (Contra Academicos 3.2.3; De Doctrina Christiana 1.4.4) and that of the dangerous sea of the world, which can be crossed only with the divine aid offered in Christ (Confessions 1.16.25; On the Psalms 10.9; 46.4, 104.33). The fact that Augustine uses this metaphor over such a broad stretch of his writing career provides an opportunity to gain insight into the continuity-amid-change of his relationship with his philosophical sources.

I will argue that over time, the ideas that Augustine drew from Neoplatonism were increasingly invested with new layers of meaning provided to him by his increasing engagement with the Latin Bible in the context of his preaching and theological reflection, but the basic framework of a journey home to the Truth assisted by the grace of God remains consistent throughout. The sea-journey metaphor therefore demonstrates that Augustine had engaged elements of Plotinus’ soteriology, but from a very early stage began to shift them into the register of a catholic Christian anthropology. This places even Augustine’s earliest works in line with the trajectory of later development evidenced, for example, in Kenney’s and Thomas Clemmons’ respective chapters on Plotinus and Porphyry in the recent volume Augustine and Tradition. By contrast, this thesis presents evidence against the account in Peter Brown’s biography and the side of the debate over the role and extent of Platonism in Augustine’s early works held to varying degrees by (among others) Harnack, O’Meara, and van Fleteren.

5 thoughts on “The Sea-Journey Metaphor and Augustine’s Critical Appropriation of Platonism in His Early Works”

  1. Worth the journey on the sea
    The sea journey metaphor is developed extremely well here and it is not highly developed in scholarship. The role of philosophy as cause and evidence of the metaphor’s meaning is portrayed well. Engages other research, highlights an important element of an important father, and lays out a thesis with clarity. This is just plain interesting.

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