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Augustine and “Forms” / “Ideas”

De Diversis Quaestionibus Octoginta Tribus, 46

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 Relevant books
 available at Amazon

Many Augustine translations
and studies with links to Amazon

A selection below

Peter Brown biography


Allan Fitzgerald


Henry Chadwick
a short indroduction


William Harmless.
Extracts from several of Augustine's main works


Henry Chadwick's translation of "Confessions"


R.W.Dyson's translation of "The City of God"


R.P.H. Green's translation of "On Christian Teaching"


Gareth Matthews' translation of "On The Trinity" (books 8 - 15)


Plato is said to be the first to have used the name "ideas". It is not, however, the case that, if this terminology did not exist before he established it, then the actual entities which he called ideas did not exist, or that they were not understood by anybody. Perhaps they were referred to by a different name by different people. For when something is not known and has no acknowledged name, then it can be referred to by whatever name is preferred. For it seems very unlikely that there were no wise people before Plato. Nor is it likely that they had no understanding of what Plato, as has been said, referred to as ideas, whatever they might be. Indeed, there is such significance in them that nobody can be called wise unless they have understood them. It is credible that, even beyond the Greek world, there were wise people among other nations. Plato himself bore witness to this, not only through his travels in pursuit of perfecting wisdom, but also through what he said in his own writings. So, if there were indeed such wise people, we should not think that they were ignorant of the ideas, although they perhaps referred to them by a different name. That is enough said about the name. Let us now look at the reality which must, above everything else, be examined and known. It is clear that, as far as terminology goes, when someone has understood a particular reality they may refer to it by whatever name they choose.

So, in Latin, we are able to speak of "ideas" as "forms" or "figures", using a literal translation. If, however, we were to call them "reasons", we depart from a strict translation. For, in Greek, "reasons" are called "logoi", not "ideas". If, however, somebody chooses to use this manner of speaking, they will not stray from the true essence. For the "ideas" are certain primary forms or stable and unchanging reasons underlying things, which were not themselves formed and are thus eternal and remain forever constant. They are contained in the divine intelligence. And while they neither come into being nor perish, nevertheless, it is said that in accordance with them is formed both everything which can come into being and perish, and everything which does come into being and perish. In truth, the soul is denied the potential to see them unless it is a rational soul in that area where it excels, namely pure thought and reason. It can then see them as though through its own internal and intellectual aspect or eye. We are not talking about any and every rational soul, but those which are holy and pure. Only these, it is claimed, are fit for this vision. That is the kind of soul which has the exact eye with which these things are seen, healthy and sincere and serene, and like those objects on which it intends to gaze. Who however who is God fearing and trained in true religion (even though they might not yet be able to discern these thing) - who would dare to deny, indeed might they even proclaim, that all that exists, namely whatever is contained in its own order with its own particular nature, so that it exists, that all this has been generated with God as its originator? Would such a person not also say that all living things are alive because they were created by and have their origin in God, and that the general soundness of creation and the very order by which changeable things continue in their temporal courses by a reliable control, are held fast and directed by the laws of the highest God? When this is established and given who would dare to say that God created everything irrationally? Even if it is not possible for this to be rightly said or believed, it still remains true that everything has been established through reason. The rational purpose for the creation of human beings is not the same as that for horses. It would be absurd to think such a thing. So all individual things are created with the reasons appropriate for them. Where should we consider that these reasons exist, except in the very mind of the Creator God? For the Creator was not looking at something established externally, so that God might create what God created in accordance with that. It would be sacrilege to think such a thing. Now if these reasons through which everything to be created or which has been created are contained in the divine mind, and nothing at all can be in the divine mind unless it is eternal and unchangeable; and if Plato calls these "principal reasons" "ideas" - not only are they ideas, but they are themselves real and true because they are eternal and they remain so, unchangeable. Through sharing in them it comes about that anything exists, whatever its manner of existence. But the rational mind, among all those things created by God, surpasses everything. And it is closest to God when it is pure. Insofar as it is united to God in love, to that extent, while somehow bathed and illumined by that intelligible light, it discerns those reasons, not through physical eyes, but through its primary aspect, in which is its excellence, namely its intelligence. When it discerns those reasons it is supremely blessed. These reasons, as has been said, may be called ideas, forms, species or reasons. It is granted to many to call them what they like, but it is granted to few to see what is real and true.





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original Latin text
Augustine and Platonism
Migne Latin
Patrologiae Latinae Cursus Completus
Patrologia Latina


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