This was because the association of Augustine with Neo-Platonism was important to both the possibility and the actuality of his conversion to the Christian faith. In Milan when Augustine lived there, besides Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics and Sceptics (Augustine briefly became a Sceptic), there were still Aristotelians, generally called Peripatetics, and various Platonists, generally called Academics. The Academic school became sceptical, and a breakaway group who rejected scepticism and who wanted to revive the doctrines of Plato called themselves the Old Academy. In fact their doctrine was not pure Plato but a combination of Plato with parts of Aristotle.
Later there developed a school of Platonists which scholars now describe as Neo-Platonism. It combined the doctrines of Plato with some of those of Aristotle. Neo-Platonism is considered the last of the great pagan philosophies. It was developed by Plotinus (205 - 270) in the century before the birth of Augustine. Plotinus lived a simple and isolated life, and refused to give formal philosophical lectures. It was his disciple Porphyry who revised the brief written notes of Plotinus. He organised them into groups of nine, hence they are called the Enneads.
Augustine recognised Neo-Platonism as the closest pagan philosophy to the beliefs of Christians. This was mainly because its followers were not materialists as Epicureans and Stoics were, but held that there are immaterial or spiritual realities. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, in his preaching gave Augustine exposure to the allegorical and Platonising interpretation of the Scriptures. To the fascination and satisfaction of Augustine, the scholarly Ambrose presented his faith as a radically other-worldly Neo-Platonic philosophy.
This impressed Augustine, who had not been impressed by the literal interpretation of Scripture that had been practised by his mother, Monica. Augustine was awakened to the philosophical life by reading Cicero, but the Neoplatonists most decisively shaped his philosophical methods and ideas. To them he owed his conviction that beyond the world of the senses there is a spiritual world. Augustine began serious study of Neo-Platonism in Milan soon after he first met Ambrose. This reading may have included writings by Plotinus (205 - 270) himself.
As Plotinus wrote in Greek, however, Augustine possibly relied on Latin translations because he did not read the Greek language very easily himself. Certainly, by the time he wrote the Confessions, Augustine had read some Plotinus and become much influenced by his style and arguments. This is evident in the Confessions, both in the persistent series of questions with which Augustine pursues a difficult problem [as in Confessions 1.3.3-4.4], and in occasional flashes of exhortation [as at Confessions 1.18.28]. Neo-Platonism influenced in Augustine his entire concept of God and of Creation. In the Neo-Platonist view, all things (including souls) had an infinite, timeless, and unchangeable God as the cause of their existence. Neo-Platonists held that everything existed only to the extent to which it participated in God. Plotinus taught that a person must turn inward to find God, who is identical with the inner reality of the soul.
For Plotinus the soul, at its core, was divine. But Augustine, despite his lasting regard for the wisdom of Plotinus, held back at this point because he felt compelled by his Christian belief to insist upon there being a distance between the Creator and the creature. This separation of God and the human person - so that God is no longer understood as being the philosophical core of the person - is now taken for granted in the Christian West. But this was a move by Augustine which came to separate the anthropology of western Christian religion from that of the Christian East (more thoroughly based on Plato).
On the subject of evil, the stance of Neo-Platonism was cherished by Augustine. According to this doctrine, evil has no actual existence. Things are only "evil" or "wicked" according to a hierarchy of being in which some things are closer to the supreme and infinite God than others things are. For Neo-Platonists it would be possible to categorise things as being either "good" or "less good" and not "evil" at all. For Neo-Platonists, evil arises only as a relative quality, i.e., things lower down the hierarchy have less complete being than things higher up, and so are imperfect or "evil" by comparison. This was for Augustine a great change from the Manichean theory of good and evil being equally existent - a duality that he accepted when he had been a Manichean in Carthage, in Rome, and briefly - but less so - just after he had arrived in Milan. This view, in which the goodness of individual things varies but everything is part of a whole from the point of view of God, allowed Augustine to answer Manichean challenges about the source of evil. Augustine stated that it had been the books of the Neo-Platonists that enabled him to accept the Gospels and the teachings of the Church as both intellectually coherent and of value personally. Augustine integrated well his Neo-Platonic philosophy with Christian theology and spiritual tradition. Good examples of this are his development of the idea of interiority as both a philosophical and a spiritual term, and his emphasis on the reality of the inner life.
These are a blending of both his Platonic heritage and the Scriptural tradition. As well, his Neo-Platonist background allowed Augustine to be a "bridge" in another important sense as well. Not only did he bridge the intellectual tension between classical philosophy and Christian theology in the way outlined above, but also he helped to reconcile the more theological expression of the Christian faith as found in Milan with the more devotional Christian religion that operated in the rural areas of North Africa. In this way, assisted by his intellectual contact with the Neo-Platonists and with Ambrose in Milan, Augustine succeeded in bringing together parts of the classical philosophy of his youth and the popular - and almost anti-intellectual - Christian faith of his quite provincial congregation in Hippo. In doing so, he created a theology that has remained basic to Western Christian religion, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, ever since.
During the years around his conversion. In the 380s and 390s, Augustine’s writings were heavily dependent on a fundamentally Platonic view of the world (world view), of human nature (his anthropology) and human destiny (Christian life). In the Milan of Bishop Ambrose he had encountered a form of Christianity deeply coloured by the conceptual structures of Platonist origin, and had no conflict between his newly-accepted views of the world, of the soul and of good and evil that were grounded in Neoplatonism. A tension began to open in the mid-390s, however, when his deepened understanding of the Scriptural writings of Saint Paul questioned the compatibility of the Platonic and Pauline conceptual frameworks. Although Augustine then made a huge shift in his spiritual and intellectual mindset, Platonic philosophy still remained an important underpinning within his writings. AN1105