Facets of the Philosophers' Stone
Plato, Plotinus, and St. Augustine recognize the desire of humans to attain immortality, to find the elements of the universe which are eternal and become one with them. They disagree over the method for achieving this, and the disagreement is the result of how each of the three men view the interaction between matter and the higher order behind it.
The philosophers compared here all agree that there is an eternal reality, unobserved by the senses, which transcends the world of particulars. Only reason detects this reality; faculties which are more closely allied with the material world (i.e., the senses and passions) divert people from the truth. Unlike Plato, however, Plotinus and St. Augustine accept matter as being part of the "glorious plan" by which everything is maintained; matter is itself an idea, albeit of the lowest form. Plato's reality is distinct from the material world, which is imitative of the truth but falls short of possessing it.
A particular quality of truth is its desirability, and fortunately it is possible for all people to attain it. Al least that is what Plotinus and Plato say. By withdrawing to the reason within oneself, forsaking the sensual and irrational which taint a human soul, they claim a person may reach truth. St. Augustine asserts that while a soul may know "eternal things as things to which it should cling fast... it has not at the same time the power to do so". People know what to look for, but they are not strong enough to overcome the distractions of this world. If they could turn themselves wholly to the "contemplation of truth", then there is no reason they could not succeed.
The relationship of the material world to reality and the extent to which people may attain the latter is reflected in each philosophers' attitudes concerning art. For Plato, art itself is devoid of truth and it hinders one's quest for truth by emphasizing the irrational. Art may indirectly lead people to Beauty and Truth by encouraging a live of beauty which eventually comes to transcend form. Still it is mind, not art per se, which shows the way to reality. Plotinus, by contrast, states art may possess truth. Not merely imitations of an imitation, the arts "go back to the Reason-Principle from which Nature itself derives". Art is very important in the search for Truth since it provides people with insight to it. This attitude toward art is consistent with the notion that matter is itself an idea. Truth and matter are not foreign to each other, and starting with the lower order of ideas (material form), it is possible to eventually transcend to the higher order by application of one's intellect. St. Augustine, like Plato, considers art (i.e., worldly beauty) a diversion from the contemplation of truth:
Any love of the lower beauty defiles the soul - St. Augustine
Any speck of truth that may be present in art is too obscured to provide a way to Truth by itself. The material world is still part of the "Divine fabrication" though, and having some degree of order, is not wholly worthless in the search for God. The trick, which St. Augustine believes few can accomplish, is to live within the confines of one's "penal mortality" without succumbing to its accompanying temptations and illusions (i.e., without desiring anything but the higher Truth of God). In this last respect his view is very similar to both Plato and Plotinus. Reality is not what most people think it is. Plotinus, Plato and St. Augustine all hold that the physical world is subordinate to a higher order which can only be detected by the faculty of reason. They reach different conclusions regarding the relationship between matter and reality, however, and how a person may best relate to them.