Although there are disagreements about the details, commentators on the Confessions seem to agree that Augustine had various mystical experiences of a roughly Plotinian sort before his conversion to Christianity, and that his vision at Ostia was the same sort of experience, although considerably changed by his Christianity. Mandouze, for example, says that "there was no difference in nature at all" between the Milan ascent of 7.17.23 and the Ostia ascent of 9.10.24-25 (Mandouze 1968, 697). And although O'Donnell rejects this position as "extreme" and dismisses Mandouze's arguments for it as "wrongheaded,"1 his own account is not, in the end, so different. The ascent at Ostia, he says, "was better than what [Augustine] had found through the Platonic books: not different, not uniquely better, not a denial of the excellence of Platonic mysticism, but better. This is high flattery for Platonism, combined with a final regretful suspension of allegiance and transfer of that allegiance to Christianity" (O'Donnell 1992, 3:128).
For my own part, I can't say that I would be terribly flattered if I were Plotinus. Augustine takes great care to describe the vision at Ostia in such a way as to deflate the pretensions of the Platonists; his aim is precisely to effect "a denial of the excellence of Platonic mysticism," and I find no regret in his "transfer of allegiance." I would go further, in fact, and insist that Augustine recounts only one mystical experience in the Confessions: the vision at Ostia. To insist on describing his reflections at Milan as "ascents," with all the overtones of Plotinian mysticism conjured up by that word, is to be false to the way in which Augustine describes what happened in Milan, false to his sober estimate of the limitations of Platonic philosophy, false to his very different description of the vision at Ostia, and false, above all, to his beliefs about the indispensable importance of Christ as Mediator. To state my thesis boldly: in Milan Augustine was doing natural theology; at Ostia he was hanging out with Jesus.
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