In Book VIII of City of God, Augustine takes up a discussion regarding the Platonic philosophers. He gives a fascinating genealogy of the philosophers (which he takes from Plato) who were in the line of succession up to Aristotle. In this post I want to review what he said there, consider some of the implications, and then consider what Augustine had to say regarding Plato himself.

The Ionic School

Below is an overview of what Augustine wrote about each of these. This is taken from chapters 2-4.

  • Thales of Miletus (died circa 545 BC) investigated the nature of things and thought all things came from the first principle – water. He “set nothing of the nature of divine mind.”
  • Anaximander (died circa 545 BC), his successor, believed in an infinite principle of things which generated all things in innumerable worlds which would each dissolve and regenerate (this sounds like planetary reincarnation). Like Thales, there was no divine principle.
  • Anaximenes (died circa 526 BC) succeeded Anaximander and he believed all things sprang from the air, including any and all gods.
  • Anaxagoras (died circa 428 BC), one of his disciples, thought a divine mind was the cause of everything. “All the various kinds of things were produced out of an infinite matter consisting of homogeneous particles, but by the efficiency of a divine mind.”
  • Diogenes [of Apollonia] (died after 425 BC), another of his disciples, believed a “certain air was the original substance” of all things and that air “was possessed of a divine reason”.
  • Archelaus (died 5th Century BC), the disciple of Anaxagoras, believed all things “consisted of homogeneous particles” which “were pervaded by a divine mind, which perpetually energized all the eternal bodies, namely, those particles.”
  • Socrates (died circa 399 BC) was said to be the disciple of Archelaus. He believed the causes sought by those prior to him were “ultimately reducible to nothing else than the will of the one true and supreme God” only understood by a pure mind. This led to the emphasis on morals.
  • Plato (died circa 347 BC) was the disciple of Socrates. Augustine stated that to Plato all other philosophers must give their place. “Why discuss [theology] with the other philosophers?” They should “give place to the Platonic philosophers, who have recognized the true God as the author of all things, the source of the light of truth, and the bountiful bestower of all blessedness.”

As we can see over a 200 year period of the line of succession from Thales (the founder of the Ionic School of Philosophy – as opposed to the Italic School, founded by Pythagoras), the philosophical reasoning was continuing to be developed in its progression from having no thoughts about a divine principle to arriving at Socrates and Plato’s (and Aristotle following them) understanding of one god.

One could say that natural theology, as it should be called, was a true work in progress as the greatest philosophers of the day were arriving at, through their reason, an ultimate cause of all things. To be sure, these philosophers eventually arrived at a single god being the cause of all things. But to summarize things, this progression can be seen as the following chain of thought regarding a first principle/cause: water > infinite number of vague principles > air > a divine mind producing all from homogeneous particles > air possessed of divine reason > a divine mind energizing homogeneous particles > the Socratic belief of a will of one God > the Platonic belief of one God being the author.


Continuing this trajectory, let us also direct our attention at some statements that Aristotle made about God. Since much of the discussion of Natural Theology has Aquinas’ use of Aristotle as its epicenter, we should keep in mind exactly where the philosophical reasoning of Aristotle led him.

Aristotle would state the following in his two works Politics and Nicomachean Ethics:

The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. And therefore Homer has appropriately called Zeus ‘father of Gods and men,’ because he is the king of them all. For a king is the natural superior of his subjects, but he should be of the same kin or kind with them, and such is the relation of elder and younger, of father and son.

Aristotle, Politics, Part XII

And this is most manifest in the case of the gods; for they surpass us most decisively in all good things. But it is clear also in the case of kings; for with them, too, men who are much their inferiors do not expect to be friends; nor do men of no account expect to be friends with the best or wisest men. In such cases it is not possible to define exactly up to what point friends can remain friends; for much can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases. This is in fact the origin of the question whether friends really wish for their friends the greatest goods, e.g. that of being gods; since in that case their friends will no longer be friends to them, and therefore will not be good things for them (for friends are good things).

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapter 7

In the above two quotes, we see clearly that Aristotle was not led by his philosophical reasoning to an understanding of monotheism. Even when we look at the result of his discussion of motion and a first mover, he said that “The first mover, then, exists of necessity; and in so far as it exists by necessity, its mode of being is good, and it is in this sense a first principle.” All of his reasoning, under-girded by the work of those before him, led him to say that there had to be a first mover because something had to first be moved. The fact of motion necessitated an ultimate mover. Aquinas sources this and applies it to God. Below is an excerpt from the section regarding the first mover from Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

The first mover, then, exists of necessity; and in so far as it exists by necessity, its mode of being is good, and it is in this sense a first principle. For the necessary has all these senses-that which is necessary perforce because it is contrary to the natural impulse, that without which the good is impossible, and that which cannot be otherwise but can exist only in a single way.

On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature. And it is a life such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy for but a short time (for it is ever in this state, which we cannot be), since its actuality is also pleasure. (And for this reason are waking, perception, and thinking most pleasant, and hopes and memories are so on account of these.) And thinking in itself deals with that which is best in itself, and that which is thinking in the fullest sense with that which is best in the fullest sense. And thought thinks on itself because it shares the nature of the object of thought; for it becomes an object of thought in coming into contact with and thinking its objects, so that thought and object of thought are the same. For that which is capable of receiving the object of thought, i.e. the essence, is thought. But it is active when it possesses this object. Therefore the possession rather than the receptivity is the divine element which thought seems to contain, and the act of contemplation is what is most pleasant and best. If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more. And God is in a better state. And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God. …

It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things. It has been shown also that this substance cannot have any magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible (for it produces movement through infinite time, but nothing finite has infinite power; and, while every magnitude is either infinite or finite, it cannot, for the above reason, have finite magnitude, and it cannot have infinite magnitude because there is no infinite magnitude at all). But it has also been shown that it is impassive and unalterable; for all the other changes are posterior to change of place.

Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book XII, Part 7

From the section above, I want to highlight the impersonal traits that Aristotle is led to attribute to the substance, which he refers to as God, that is the first mover. “It” exists and is good and is a first principle. “It” is an impassive and unalterable substance. Life belongs to this God because “the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality”.

One can see from Aristotle’s persistent belief in polytheism that even though he reasoned that there was a single substance he called God who was the first mover that he was actually suppressing his knowledge of God. Such knowledge as was plain to him and even shown to him by God. Yet Aristotle did not honor him as God. In his claiming to be wise he ultimately exchanged the glory of God for idolatry.

In my next post, I will continue where we left off with Augustine’s discussion of the Platonists and then review some specific things regarding Plato.

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