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A mystical philosophical system initiated by Plotinus of Alexandria in 233 C.E. that combined the Platonic philosophy of ancient Greece with later Gnostic spiritual cravings. Although to some extent founded on the teachings of Plato, it was undoubtedly sophisticated by a deep mysticism, which in all probability emanated from Greece. To a great extent, Neoplatonism colored the thought of medieval mysticism and magic. Plotinus, its founder, commenced the study of philosophy in Alexandria at the age of 28. He early experienced an earnest desire to reach the truth concerning existence, and to that end made a deep study of the dialogues of Plato and the metaphysics of Aristotle. He practiced severe austerities and attempted to live what he called the "angelic" life, or the life of the disembodied in the body.

He was greatly drawn to Apollonius of Tyana by reading his Life by Philostratus. The union of philosopher and priest in the character of Apollonius fired the imagination of Plotinus, and in his Pythagorean teachings the young student discovered the elements of both Orientalism and Platonism, for both Pythagoras and Plato strove to escape the sensuous and to realize in contemplative abstraction the tranquility, superior to desire and passion, that made men approach the gods. However, in the hands of the later Pythagoreans and Platonists, the principles of the Hellenic masters were carried off into popular magical speculations. Many of the Pythagoreans joined the various Orphic (mystery religion) associations, becoming little more than itinerant vendors of charms.

It is probable that even before he left Alexandria Plotinus began to absorb some of the gnostic mysticism circulating throughout the Mediterranean Basin. But everywhere he also found a growing indifference to religion as known to the more ancient Greeks and Egyptians. By this time, the pantheons of Greece, Rome, and Egypt had become fused in the worship of Serapis, and this fusion had been forwarded by the works of Plutarch, Apuleius, and Lucian. The position of metaphysical philosophy at this time was by no means a strong one. In fact, metaphysical emphases had given place to ethical teachings, and philosophy was regarded as a branch of literature, or an elegant recreation. Plotinus persuaded himself that philosophy and religion should be one, and that speculation should be a search after God. It was at this time that he first heard of Ammonius Saccas, who shortly before had been a porter in the streets of Alexandria, and who lectured upon the possibilities of reconciling Plato and Aristotle.

"Skepticism," stated Ammonius, "was death." He recommended men to travel back across the past, and out of the whole bygone world of thought to construct a system greater than any of its parts. This teaching formed an epoch in the life of Plotinus, who was convinced that Platonism, exalted into a species of illuminism and drawing to itself like a magnet all the scattered truths of the bygone ages, could alone preserve mankind from skepticism. He occupied himself only with the most abstract questions concerning knowledge and being.

"Truth," according to Plotinus, "is not the agreement of our comprehension of an external object with the object itself, but rather, the agreement of the mind with itself. For the philosopher the objects we contemplate, and that which contemplates are identical; both are thought." All truth is then easy. Reduce the soul to its most perfect simplicity, and we find it is capable of exploration into the infinite; indeed it becomes one with the infinite. This is the condition of ecstasy, and to accomplish it, a stoical austerity and asceticism was necessary.

The Neoplatonists were thus, like the Gnostics, ascetics and enthusiasts. Plato was neither. According to Plotinus, the mystic contemplates the divine perfection in himself; all worldly things and logical distinctions vanish during the period of ecstasy. This approach has some similarity with the stages of yoga meditation.

Plotinus regarded the individual existence as phenomenal and transitory, and subordinated reason to ecstasy where the Absolute was in question. It is only at the end of his chain of reasoning that he introduces the supernatural. He is first a rationalist, afterwards a mystic, and only a mystic when he finds that he cannot employ the machinery of reason. The following letter of Plotinus, written about 260 C.E. , embodies his conclusions:

"Plotinus to Flaccus. I applaud your devotion to philosophy; I rejoice to hear that your soul has set sail, like the returning Ulysses, for its native land that glorious, that only real countrythe world of unseen truth. To follow philosophy, the senator Rogatianus, one of the noblest of my disciples, gave up the other day all but the whole of his patrimony, set free his slaves, and surrendered all the honours of his station.

"Tidings have reached us that Valerian has been defeated and is now in the hands of Sapor. The threats of Franks and Allemanni, of Goths and Persians, are alike terrible by turns to our degenerate Rome. In days like these, crowded with incessant calamities, the inducements to a life of contemplation are more than ever strong. Even my quiet existence seems now to grow somewhat sensible of the advance of years. Age alone I am unable to debar from my retirement. I am weary already of this prisonhouse, the body, and calmly await the day when the divine nature within me shall be set free from matter.

"The Egyptian priests used to tell me that a single touch with the wing of their holy bird could charm the crocodile into torpor; it is not thus speedily, my dear friend, that the pinions of your soul will have power to still the untamed body. The creature will yield only to watchful, strenuous constancy of habit. Purify your soul from all undue hope and fear about earthly things, mortify the body, deny selfaffections as well as appetites, and the inner eye will begin to exercise its clear and solemn vision.

"You ask me to tell you how we know, and what is our criterion of certainty. To write is always irksome to me. But for the continual solicitations of Porphyry, I should not have left a line to survive me. For your own sake, and for your father's, my reluctance shall be overcome.

"External objects present us only with appearances. Concerning them, therefore, we may be said to possess opinion rather than knowledge. The distinctions in the actual world of appearance are of import only to ordinary and practical men. Our question lies within the ideal reality which exists behind appearance. How does the mind perceive these ideas? Are they without us, and is the reason, like sensation, occupied with objects external to itself? What certainty could we then have, what assurance that our perception was infallible? The object perceived would be a something different from the mind perceiving it. We should have then an image instead of reality. It would be monstrous to believe for a moment that the mind was unable to perceive ideal truth exactly as it is, and that we had not certainty and real knowledge concerning the world of intelligence. It follows, therefore, that this religion of truth is not to be investigated as a thing external to us, and so only imperfectly known. It is within us. Here the objects we contemplate and that which contemplates are identicalboth are thought. The subject cannot surely know an object different from itself. The world of ideas lies within our intelligence. Truth, therefore, is not the agreement of our apprehension of an external object with the object itself. It is the agreement of the mind with itself. Consciousness, therefore, is the sole basis of certainty. The mind is its own witness. Reason sees in itself that which is above itself as its source; and again, that which is below itself as still itself once more.

"Knowledge has three degreesOpinion, Science, Illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition. To the last I subordinate reason. It is absolute knowledge founded on the identity of the mind knowing with the object known.

"There is a raying out of all orders of existence, an external emanation from the ineffable One [ prudos ]. There is again a returning impulse, drawing all upwards and inwards towards the centre from whence all came [epistrophe]. Love, as Plato in the Banquet beautifully says, is the child of Poverty and Plenty. In the amorous quest of the soul after the Good, lies the painful sense of gall and deprivation. But that Love is blessing, is salvation, is our guardian genius; without it the centrifugal law would overpower us, and sweep our souls out far from their source toward the cold extremities of the Material and the Manifold. The wise man recognises the idea of the Good within him. This he develops by withdrawal into the Holy Place of his own soul. He who does not understand how the soul contains the Beautiful within itself, seeks to realize beauty without, by laborious production. His aim should rather be to concentrate and simplify, and so to expand his being; instead of going out into the Manifold, to forsake it for the One, and so to float upwards towards the divine fount of being whose stream flows within him.

"You ask, how can we know the Infinite? I answer, not by reason. It is the office of reason to distinguish and define. The Infinite, therefore, cannot be ranked among its objects. You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty superior to reason, by entering into a state in which you are your finite self no longer, in which the Divine Essence is communicated to you. This is Ecstasy. It is the liberation of your mind from its infinite consciousness. Like only can apprehend like; when you thus cease to be finite, you become one with the Infinite. In the reduction of your soul to its simplest self (aplosis), its divine essence, you realize this Union, this Identity [enosin].

"But this sublime condition is not of permanent duration. It is only now and then that we can enjoy this elevation (mercifully made possible for us) above the limits of the body and the world. I myself have realized it but three times as yet, and Porphyry hitherto not once. All that tends to purify and elevate the mind will assist you in this attainment, and facilitate the approach and the recurrence of these happy intervals. There are, then, different roads by which this end may be reached. The love of beauty which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher; and that love and those prayers by which some devout and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection. These are the great highways conducting to that height above the actual and the particular where we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul."

Plotinus appears to have been greatly indebted to Numenius for some of the ideas peculiar to his system. Numenius attempted to harmonize Pythagoras and Plato, to elucidate and confirm the opinions of both by the religious dogmas of the Egyptians, the Magi, and the Brahmans, and he believed that Plato was indebted to the Hebrew as well as to the Egyptian theology for much of his wisdom. Like Plotinus he was puzzled that the immutable One could find it possible to create the manifold without self-degradation, and he therefore (from Plato) posited a being whom he calls the Demi-urge, or Artificer, who merely carried out the will of God in constructing the universe.

Expressed in summary, the mysticism of Plotinus is as follows: One cannot know God in any partial or finite manner. To know him truly we must escape from the finite, from all that is earthly, from the very gifts of God to God himself, and know him in the infinite way by receiving, or being received into him directly. To accomplish this, and to attain this identity, we must withdraw into our inmost selves, into our own essence, which alone is susceptible of blending with the Divine Essence. Hence the inmost is the highest, and as with all systems of mysticism introversion is ascension, and God is found within.

Porphyry entered the school of Plotinus when it had become an institution of some standing. At first he strongly opposed the teachings of his master, but soon became his most devoted scholar. He directed a fierce assault on Christianity, and at the same time launched strictures at paganism, but both forces were too strong for him.

Porphyry modified the doctrine of Plotinus regarding ecstasy by stating that in that condition the mind does not lose its consciousness of personality. He called it a dream in which the soul, dead to the world, rises to a species of divine activity, to an elevation above reason, action and liberty. He believed in a certain order of evil genii, who took pleasure in hunting wild beasts, and others of whom hunted souls that had escaped from the fetters of the body, so that to escape them, the soul must once more take refuge in the flesh. Porphyry's theosophical conceptions, based on those of Plotinus, were strongly and ably traversed by the theurgic mysteries of Iamblichus, to whom the priest was a prophet full of deity. Criticizing Porphyry, Iamblichus stated:

"Often, at the moment of inspiration, or when the afflatus has subsided, a fiery Appearance is seenthe entering or departing Power. Those who are skilled in this wisdom can tell by the character of this glory the rank of divinity who has seized for the time the reins of the mystic's soul, and guides it as he will. Sometimes the body of the man subject to this influence is violently agitated, sometimes it is rigid and motionless. In some instances sweet music is heard, in others, discordant and fearful sounds. The person of the subject has been known to dilate and tower to a superhuman height; in other cases, it has been lifted up into the air. Frequently, not merely the ordinary exercise of reason, but sensation and animal life would appear to have been suspended, and the subject of the afflatus has not felt the application of fire, has been pierced with spits, cut with knives, and been sensible of no pain. Yea, often, the more the body and the mind have been alike enfeebled by vigil and by fasts, the more ignorant or mentally imbecile a youth may be who is brought under this influence, the more freely and unmixedly will the divine power be made manifest. So clearly are these wonders the work, not of human skill or wisdom, but of supernatural agency! Characteristics such as these I have mentioned, are the marks of the true inspiration.

"Now, there are, O Agathocles, four great orders of spiritual existenceGods, Demons, Heroes or Demi-gods, and Souls. You will naturally be desirous to learn how the apparition of a God or a Demon is distinguished from those of Angels, Principalities, or Souls. Know, then, that their appearance to man corresponds to their nature, and that they always manifest themselves to those who invoke them in a manner consonant with their rank in the hierarchy of spiritual natures. The appearances of Gods are uniform, those of Demons various. The Gods shine with a benign aspect. When a God manifests himself, he frequently appears to hide sun or moon, and seems as he descends too vast for earth to contain. Archangels are at once awful and mild; Angels yet more gracious; Demons terrible. Below the four leading classes I have mentioned are placed the malignant Daemons, the Anti-gods.

"Each spiritual order has gifts of its own to bestow on the initiated who evoke them. The Gods confer health of body, power and purity of mind, and, in short, elevate and restore our natures to their proper principles. Angels and archangels have at their command only subordinate bestowments. Demons, however, are hostile to the aspirant, afflict both body and mind, and hinder our escape from the sensuous. Principalities, who govern the sublunary elements, confer temporal advantages. Those of a lower rank, who preside over matter, often display their bounty in material gifts. Souls that are pure are, like Angels, salutary in their influence. Their appearance encourages the soul in its upward efforts. Heroes stimulate to great actions. All those powers depend, in a descending chain, each species on that immediately above it. Good Demons are seen surrounded by the emblems of blessing, Demons who execute judgment appear with the instruments of punishment."

We thus see how in the process of time the principles on which the system of Plotinus rested were surrendered little by little, while divination and evocation were practiced with increasing frequency. Plotinus had declared the possibility of the absolute identification of the divine with human naturethe broadest possible basis for mysticism. Porphyry took up narrower ground and contended that in the union which takes place in ecstasy, we still retain consciousness of personality. Iamblichus diminished the real principle of mysticism still farther in theory, and denied that man has a faculty, eternally active and in accessible, to passion; the intellectual ambition so lofty in Plotinus subsided among the followers of Iamblichus into magical practice.

Proclus was the last of the Greek Neoplatonists. He elaborated the Trinity of Plotinus into a succession of impalpable triads, and surpassed Iamblichus in his devotion to the practice of theurgy. With Proclus, theurgy was the art that gave human beings the magical passwords that carried them through barrier after barrier, dividing species from species.

Above all being is God, the Non-Being, who is apprehended only by negation. When we are raised out of our weakness and on a level with God, it seems as though reason were silenced for we are above reason. In short we become intoxicated with God.

Proclus was an adept in the invocation rituals of every people in the world, and a great magical figure. With the advance of Byzantinism, he represented the old world of Greek thought, and even those who wrote against him as a heathen show the influence he exercised on their doctrines. Thus Dionysius attempted to accommodate the philosophy of Proclus to Christianity, and greatly admired his asceticism. The theology of the Neoplatonists was always in the first instance a mere matter of logic. They associated universals with causes. The highest became with them merely the most comprehensive.

As has been said, Neoplatonism exercised great power among the scholiasts and magicians of the Middle Ages. In fact most of what medievalism knew of Plato was through the medium of the Neoplatonists. In Germany in the fourteenth century it became a vivifying principle, for although its doctrine of emanation was abandoned, its allegorical explanation and its exaltation of the spirit above the letter was retained, and Platonism and mysticism together created a party within the churchthe sworn foes of scholasticism and mere lifeless orthodoxy.


Brehier, Emile. The Philosophy of Plotinus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Gerson, Lloyd P. Plotinus. London: Routledge, 1994.

Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus; or, The Simplicity of Vision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Mead, G. R. S. Essay Written as a Preface to a New Edition of T. Taylor's "Select Works of Plotinus." London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1895.

Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Plotinus Amid Gnostics and Christians: Papers Presented at a Plotinus Symposium held at the Free University, Amsterdam, on January 25, 1984. Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1984.

Rist, J. M. Plotinus: The Road to Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Turnbull, Grace, ed. The Essence of Plotinus. New York: Greenwood Press, 1934.

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Neoplatonism is a modern term that refers to the philosophical movement that dominated the intellectual life of the Roman Empire from the third to the sixth centuries c.e.; its most prominent representatives were the pagan philosophers Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. These thinkers strove to elucidate ambiguities in Plato's philosophy with insights drawn from Neopythagoreanism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism in order to establish a thorough summation of ancient learning. As such, Neoplatonism was the last flowering of pagan philosophy, which flourished until it was supplanted and to a certain degree absorbed by Christian theology. Christian thinkers who were deeply influenced by pagan Neoplatonism are often regarded as Neoplatonists as well, most significantly Augustine of Hippo, the Greek Fathers known as the Cappadocians, Boethius, and the author called Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The term is often applied to movements during the Middle Ages and Renaissance that were informed by Neoplatonic doctrines. All Neoplatonists, regardless of religious orientation, shared a belief in the superior quality of immaterial reality and regarded Plato as the greatest of ancient philosophers.


Neoplatonism initially had a negative connotation. Enlightenment historians developed the term to dissociate the Platonists of the late Roman Empire from Plato, believing that they had distorted his philosophy beyond all recognition by their eclecticism. Jacob Brucker (Historia critica philosophiae, 17421744) branded them "the Eclectic Sect" before A. F. Büsching (Grundriß einer Geschichte der Philosophie, 17721774) dismissively suggested the appellation "new Platonists" (neue Platoniker ). Edward Gibbon similarly disparaged the philosophy of the "new Platonicians" (History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776). The prefix neo did not appear in English until the 1830s. Yet the idea of Neoplatonism is, in certain ways, unsatisfactory. It implies a sharp break with the thought of preceding generations, whereas considerable continuity is evident; moreover, the Neoplatonists did not regard themselves as innovators but as elucidators of the true philosophy established by Plato. The word is now simply a term of convenience denoting a late phase in the reception of Plato's philosophy.

Before Neoplatonism

The Academy founded by Plato went through two major phases. The Old Academy (387c. 250 b.c.e.) emphasized metaphysics, whereas the New Academy (c. 150c. 110 b.c.e.) took a skeptical turn and focused on epistemology. The fall of Athens in 86 b.c.e. apparently ended the school, and circa 80 b.c.e. a former member, Antiochus of Ascalon, took the opportunity to found his own "Academy," which revived a dogmatic approach. This development marked the beginning of a phase known as Middle Platonism (c. 80 b.c.e.c. 250 c.e.), which reaffirmed the centrality of metaphysics and coincided with a turn toward mysticism. In attempting to clarify Plato, the Middle Platonists did not hesitate to borrow ideas from rival schools of philosophy. Although this approach has traditionally been described as "eclectic," John Dillon recommends avoiding the term, since it implies an arbitrary recombination of ideas based on personal preference rather than a thoughtful reformulation made in light of ongoing philosophical discussion, which was surely the motivation behind both Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic adaptations.

Middle Platonists divided reality into three parts: God, the Ideas, and matter. God was subdivided into three hierarchical levelsthe Primal God, Mind, and Soulas outlined in a second-century Platonic handbook by Alcinous. The Ideas, or Platonic Forms, were identified as the thoughts of God. This metaphysical framework was further developed in Neoplatonism.


Plotinus (205270) is commonly regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He studied in Alexandria before founding his own school circa 244 in Rome, where he devised a comprehensive philosophy that has been preserved in the Enneads. For Plotinus, philosophy was not exclusively an effort of reasoned argument, since he equated the love of wisdom with assimilation to God, which is possible only through mystical ecstasya state Plotinus himself experienced. Discursive reasoning merely assists in attaining this higher end by clarifying what constitutes reality.

Plotinus's ontology reflects his mystical vision. Adapting the Middle Platonists' threefold division of God, Plotinus called the highest level of divinity, or first hypostasis, "the One"a perfect unity, infinite and unknowable. Its super-abundant goodness impels it to emanate existence in a cascading chain of being. As the source of all existence, the One itself actually transcends being. Hence the highest being is the divine Mind, which is emanated directly by the One. This second hypostasis, in which the Ideas are located, further emanates a third hypostasis, which is called Soul as it contemplates the intelligible realm and Nature as it previews what it will produce. Time and the physical world thus emanate from Soul/Nature. The process of emanation ends when being is so attenuated that a limit is finally reached. This lowest stage of emanation is matter, which exists only potentially. Inasmuch as being is linked with goodness, matter's virtual absence of being is seen as the source of evil. Although matter is not substantially evil, since it ultimately emanates from the One, nevertheless evil resides in its state of privation.

Human souls, like the third hypostasis, are divided into a higher part that perceives the intelligible world and a lower part that cares for a material body. The individual soul falls into degradation when it is excessively concerned with material things and forgets its true identity. Philosophy reminds the wayward soul that it is an immaterial substance and thus opens the way for salvation, whereby the enlightened soul chooses to return to the intelligible world, from which it can ascend to the bliss of union with the One.

Later Neoplatonists

Plotinus's legacy was preserved by his pupil, Porphyry of Tyre (c. 232c. 304), who wrote a biography of the master and published his tractates under the title Enneads. Porphyry's own writings include a manual of Plotinian metaphysics (Sentences ) and commentaries on various texts, including Homer's Odyssey (On the Cave of the Nymphs ) and Aristotle's Categories (Isagoge ). Porphyry took a religious view of the philosophical enterprise and, while denouncing Christianity as an irrational cult, introduced into the Neoplatonic canon the second-century Chaldean Oracles, Platonic texts that he regarded as true revelation.

These writings also inspired the Neoplatonist Iamblichus (d. c. 330), who founded what is sometimes called the Syrian school. Iamblichus did not share the optimistic Plotinian view about the ease of salvation; he supplemented philosophy with theurgyrituals invoking the divine powers for aid. His innovations were adopted by the schools in Alexandria and Athens, the other major centers of Neoplatonism. The inclusion of traditional pagan elements in Iamblichus's system made it attractive to Emperor Julian (331?363), who promoted Syrian Neoplatonism in his attempt to revive paganism.

The foremost representative of the Athenian school was Proclus (410?485), who wrote two influential works of systematic metaphysics, the Elements of Theology and Platonic Theology. He was head of a revived academy, which remained a bastion of paganism, and attacked the Christian doctrine of creation. The Alexandrian school, however, was diverse; it included some Christians, one of whom, John Philoponos (c. 490570), wrote a rebuttal to Proclus's attack. The Alexandrian school displayed a keen interest in Aristotle, and Philoponos is often regarded as an Aristotelian rather than a Neoplatonist, although his independence of mind makes either characterization questionable. Other noteworthy Neoplatonists were the Athenians Plutarch (d. c. 432), Syrianus (d. c. 437), Damascius (d. after 538), and Simplicius (d. 560) and the Alexandrians Hypatia (d. 415), Hierocles (fifth century), Ammonius (d. after 517), and Olympiodorus (d. after 565).

Ancient Christian Neoplatonism

Since Neoplatonists and Christians shared many common beliefs, the latter sometimes borrowed insights from the former, in spite of the polemic between them. Among the Latin Fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354430) remarked in his book On True Religion (chap. 7) that one need only change a few words to make Christians of the Platonists. The Greek Fathers, especially the fourth-century Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), were similarly responsive to Neoplatonism, since men such as Origen (185?254?) had already brought Middle Platonism into the Greek theological tradition. Neoplatonism waned, however, as the Roman Empire disintegrated. The emperors after Julian firmly championed the Christian religion, and in 529 Justinian closed the doors of the Academy. Neoplatonism's continuing influence would depend on the tolerance of religious thinkers.

Medieval Neoplatonism

The reception of Neoplatonism during the thousand years of the Middle Ages is an immensely intricate subject, complicated by the mediated nature of the transmission (largely through theological assimilations) and by the division of the Mediterranean world into rival cultural spheres. Hence Neoplatonic adaptation developed differently among Greek and Latin Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

In each culture, enthusiasts tried to reconcile Neoplatonism with their religion. Most extraordinary was the Christianization of Proclus's philosophy circa 500 by a Byzantine using the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite, the first-century convert of St. Paul (Acts 17:34). This assumed name lent his writings an air of authority that was undeserved yet guaranteed their dissemination. The texts provided instruction in the "affirmative" and "negative" theologiesmethodologies for achieving mystical union with God through the use and suppression of symbolic language. The affirmative theology describes what God is by way of analogy, but since God is ultimately unlike anything that exists (for God is beyond being), the alternative theology is required to transcend the limitations of language by negating the analogy. This contemplative process of description and denial prepares the soul for ecstatic union by correcting its misapprehensions about God. The Pseudo-Dionysian texts were translated into Latin and studied in western Europe, where they inspired the ninth-century Neoplatonic system of John Scotus Eriugena (c. 800c. 877).

Greek Christians were the only group able to read the Neo-platonic texts in the original language, yet this direct access actually increased the difficulty of using the old pagan philosophy in the theologically charged atmosphere of the Byzantine Empire. Philosophers who attempted to further the patristic effort at assimilation sometimes endured accusations of heterodoxyas did Michael Psellos (1018?1096?) and John Italos (c. 10231085). Arabic culture was at times more tolerant. Muslim thinkers were impressed with Greek philosophy and tended to equate it with its final, Neoplatonic form. Even Aristotle seemed a Neoplatonist, perhaps due to Neoplatonic commentaries that minimized his differences with Plato but also due to the misattribution of certain Neoplatonic texts, such as the Theology of Aristotle (extracts from Plotinus) and the Book of Causes (extracts from Proclus). The most prominent Muslim Neoplatonist was Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 9801037), whose works were favorably received before Al-Ghazali (10581111) wrote a critique that prompted a phase of intolerance. Jewish thinkers were also impressed with the Greek heritage, most notably Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron, c. 1021c. 1058), whose Fountain of Life featured Neoplatonic doctrines. Neoplatonism was the main philosophical influence on the Kabbalah of thirteenth-century Provence.

Neoplatonism in the Latin West

Compared with the other three traditions, Latin Christianity was slower in absorbing Neoplatonism, largely due to a paucity of sources, yet it became the most vibrant by the end of the Middle Ages. After Augustine, the principal Neoplatonic thinker was the Roman philosopher Boethius (c. 475525), who brought Porphyry's Isagoge to a Latin audience and presented many Neoplatonic ideas in his own Consolation of Philosophy, which became a standard schoolbook. Two commentaries were also significant in the medieval schools: one on Plato's Timaeus by Calcidius (third or fourth century, considered by some a Middle Platonist rather than a Neoplatonist), another on the Dream of Scipio (an excerpt from Cicero's Republic ) by the fifth-century Macrobius. The latter provided a concise summary of Plotinian metaphysics, which occasioned a controversy in the eleventh century, featured in Manegold of Lautenbach's Book against Wolfhelm.

A cultural revival during the twelfth century led to renewed interest in old texts and an influx of new translations. After thinkers such as Peter Abelard, William of Conches, Thierry of Chartres, and Bernardus Silvestris fruitfully reexamined the Calcidian Timaeus, their successors discovered that the newly arriving translations of Aristotle's treatises had more to offer the scholastic enterprise of systematic theology than did the less direct dialogues of Plato, of which only the Meno and Phaedo were added to the Latin corpus. However, since Aristotle came to the West via the Arabs, he was initially read as a Neoplatonist. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) was instrumental in correcting this error when he identified Proclus as the source for the Pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Causes after reading a Latin version of the Elements of Theology translated in 1268.

Although Aquinas was principally Aristotelian in outlook, his teacher, Albertus Magnus (c. 12001280), was partial to Neoplatonism and inspired a Neoplatonic approach in three other Dominican friars: Dietrich of Freiberg (c. 1250c. 1310), whose interest in the Neoplatonic metaphysics of light inspired him to study optics; Meister Eckhart (c. 1260c. 1328), the controversial mystic; and Berthold of Moosburg (c. 1300after 1361), who wrote an extensive commentary on Proclus's Elements. Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) later drew upon these thinkers, as well as the twelfth-century Platonists and earlier sources, in constructing his own Neoplatonic worldview outlined in Learned Ignorance (1440), a reaction against the Aristotelianism dominant in the universities. Petrarch (13041374) had already urged a return to Plato, and this tendency within Italian Renaissance humanism culminated in the work of the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (14331499), whose translations and studies of the complete Plato, Plotinus, and other Platonic authors were influential throughout Europe for centuries.

See also Christianity ; Microcosm and Macrocosm ; Platonism ; Scholasticism .


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Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Morewedge, Parviz, ed. Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

O'Meara, Dominic J., ed. Neoplatonism and Christian Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Tatakis, Basil. Byzantine Philosophy. Translated by Nicholas J. Moutafakis. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003.

Wallis, R. T. Neoplatonism. 2nd ed. London: Duckworth; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995.

Robert Ziomkowski

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NEOPLATONISM. Early modern Neoplatonism was a complex, syncretic phenomenon. It revived the thought of late antiquity but had deep roots too in the Greek Fathers, in medieval Augustinian spirituality, and in late scholastic Aristotelianism; it was also indebted to the Plato-Aristotle controversy among Renaissance Byzantines, notably to the speculative (and probably heretical) ideas of George Gemistos Pletho. Keyed to the revival of interest in, and renewed access to, Plato's texts that began with such early fifteenth-century humanists as the Florentine chancellor Leonardo Bruni, it culminated in the work of four distinguished if very different philosopher-theologians: the Greek émigré Cardinal Bessarion (14031472), the German conciliarist Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus (14011464), the Florentine cathedral canon, scholar, and teacher Marsilio Ficino (14331499), and his "fellow Platonist," the eclectically brilliant Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola (14631494), who ended his brief life as a devout follower of Savonarola.

Strictly speaking, Neoplatonism is the Platonism that originated with Plato's monistic third-century interpreter, Plotinus, and that attained its most scholastic elaboration in the work of the fifth-century Proclus. Dominated by metaphysical concerns, it was based on Plato's middle and later dialogues, preeminently the Parmenides, Timaeus, Sophist, Philebus, Republic, and Phaedrus, and on passages and arguments elsewhere, particularly in the Symposium, that addressed these concerns. From the onset, however, Plotinus and his followers claimed to be expounding not only Plato's Platonism but also the doctrines that Plato had learned from Pythagorean teachers, themselves the inheritors of proto-Platonic doctrines from the remotest Orphic, Egyptian, and Persian-Chaldaean pasts. All this came to be thought of by the Renaissance Neoplatonists as an ancient theology, a perennial gentile wisdom, bestowed and sanctioned by God, that was parallel to, and consonant with, the wisdom revealed to the Hebrews via Moses and the prophets, and that had been perfected in Christ, the new Zoroaster, the new Orpheus, the new Plato. This was not simply a declaration of faith. They could turn to the opening of St. John's Gospel and his First Epistle with their meditations on the descent of the Word, to various passages in St. Paul's Epistles, and above all to the treatises of one Dionysius the Areopagite, whom they identified with St. Paul's Athenian disciple (mentioned in Acts 17:34), but who was, we now realize, a late fifth- or early sixth-century follower of Proclus. These treatises incorporated many features of Proclus' Neoplatonic scholasticism, and propounded a dialectical theology centered on negation and analogy that was deeply indebted to the late ancient Neoplatonic interpretation of the second part of Plato's Parmenides. But their misdating to the first century had the dramatic effect of making St. Paul a Proclian Neoplatonist, and his teaching on the Hill of Mars, an exposition of the mysteries of Plato's supreme exercise in dialectic.

Other misdatings or misattributionsthe notion for instance that Plotinus had been taught by a Christian, Ammonius Saccas, and had been a fellow disciple of the Christian Origenhelped to establish Christ and his disciples as the perfection of Platonism, and to validate Neoplatonism as the Christian philosophy. The seal to this interpretation was Augustine's acknowledgment of the role played by "certain books of the Platonists"in all likelihood Marius Victorinus' Latin translations of extracts from Plotinusin his reconversion to Christianity. Thus Augustine and the Areopagite, the two thinkers who had laid the foundations of medieval theology, were made central to the story of Christian Neoplatonism. Finally, to complicate matters still further, when the study of Aristotle was revived in the West in the thirteenth century, some of his governing notions had already been partially Neoplatonized by ancient commentators such as Themistius, and by Arab misattributions and mistranslations. Variously incorporated into Thomism and Scotism, these hybrids (the notion of participation is an example) persisted into the early modern period, despite scholarly controversy and elucidation. Additionally, parts of Proclus' works were already known in the medieval period (and were rendered into Latin), while those of Plato and Plotinus remained essentially unknown except for the first half of the Timaeus and the lemmata in Proclus' commentaries; this ensured a Proclian take on many issues that also persisted. It was a tangled situation that obviously lent itself to the revival of the ancient search for a Neoplatonic subordination of Aristotle to Plato, and of both to Christianity.

This was largely the work of Marsilio Ficino (14331499). Earlier humanists had already translated some of the dialogues, including the Republic, into Latin, but Ficino published the definitive Neoplatonic rendering of the entire canon in 1484 and went on to translate Plotinus' Enneads and a number of other dependent texts, and to furnish them with extensive, penetrating commentary. An original philosopher, teacher, medical theorist, and priest, he embraced the missionary goal of Neoplatonizing Christianity. In particular he argued on Neoplatonic grounds for the soul's immortality in the hope both of strengthening the faith of the intellectual elite and of initiating them into the mysteries (the psychology) of the soul's ascent into mind, into unity, into the highest of all metaphysical principles, the One. This captured the imagination of influential secular and religious figures, patrons, and artists throughout Europe, especially in Italy, France, and Hungary (though whether he was ever the head of a Platonic academy in Florence in any sense other than a circle of friends and admirers is doubtful). His arguments in Platonic Theology (1482) even contributed to the soul's immortality being declared an article of faith at the Lateran Council in 1512.

Though Jacopo Mazzoni and Francesco Patrizi eventually occupied newly created chairs of Platonic philosophy, Neoplatonism never managed to supplant the entrenched Aristotelianism of the universities, even as it attracted influential academic support in France, and eventually in England with such mid-seventeenth-century Platonists as Ralph Cudworth and Henry More. In fact, Ficino's Neoplatonized Latin Plato and Plotinus translations continued to be used well into the nineteenth century (we have Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notes, for instance, on Ficino's Plato); and they contributed to the revival of an interest in Plato's later metaphysics among German philosophers and theologians such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Neoplatonism's greatest impact, however, was on several speculative thinkers outside of, or merely on the fringes of, the universities. These included most notably Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Robert Fludd, men who were variously interested in magic, demonology, the occult, mystical mathematics, harmony and love theory, medical astrology, and the notions of the World Soul and of an ensouled nature. Such a rich medley of interests also accounted, predictably, for Neoplatonism's eclipse during the Enlightenment, and for the often harsh dismissal by historians like Johann Jakob Brucker of its Renaissance proponents. By the same token, the Romantics rediscovered in it a mystical, at times even a pantheistic, tradition that was opposed not so much to Cartesian rationalism as to scientific empiricism, and that had heretical if not explicitly anti-Christian aspects. Arguably indeed Plotinus and Neoplatonism had a profounder impact on early modern Europe, directly and by way of opposition, than the "pure" Plato and the dialogues themselves; certainly a non-Neoplatonic appreciation of the latter only peaked after the educational reforms of the nineteenth century had made an understanding and appreciation of Greek literary prosethe early and middle dialogues are wonderful examplesan integral part of the establishment's patrician education. Even so, poets and theologians continued to turn to Plotinus and his followers, as did a few scholars haunted by the possibility that they were in truth Plato's most luminous interpreters.

See also Cambridge Platonists ; Moral Philosophy and Ethics ; Philosophy .


Allen, Michael J. B. Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the History of Platonic Interpretation. Florence, 1998.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Platonic Renaissance in England. Translated by James P. Pettegrove. Edinburgh, 1953.

Copenhaver, Brian P., and Charles B. Schmitt. Renaissance Philosophy. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Hankins, James. Plato in the Italian Renaissance. 2 vols. Leiden and New York, 1991.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and its Sources. Edited by Michael Mooney. New York, 1979.

Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella. London, 1958.

Wind, Edgar. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. Rev. ed. New York, 1968.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964.

Michael J. B. Allen

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Neoplatonism (nē´ōplā´tənĬzəm), ancient mystical philosophy based on the doctrines of Plato.

Plotinus and the Nature of Neoplatonism

Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed by Plotinus (3d cent. AD). It has had a lasting influence on Western metaphysics and mysticism, although its original form was much altered by the followers of Plotinus. Neoplatonism was a viable force from the middle of the 3d cent. to 529, when Justinian closed the Academy at Athens. Although Plotinus is the central figure of Neoplatonism, his teacher, Ammonius Saccus (175–242), a self-taught laborer of Alexandria, may have been the actual founder; however, no writings of Ammonius have survived. Plotinus left Egypt, settled in Rome in 244, and founded a school there.

The enduring source of Neoplatonist thought is the Enneads of Plotinus, which were collected and published after his death by his student Porphyry, a Phoenician. Plotinus' purpose was to put into systematic form an idealistic philosophy and thus combat the trends of Stoicism and skepticism that had crept into interpretations of the philosophy of Plato. Plotinus rejected the dualism of two disparate realms of being (good and evil, material and transcendent, universal and particular) and set forth instead one vast order containing all the various levels and kinds of existence.

At the center of the order is the One, an incomprehensible, all-sufficient unity. By the process of emanation the One gives rise to the Divine Mind or Logos [word], which contains all the forms, or living intelligences, of individuals. The content of the Divine Mind, therefore, constitutes a multiple reflection of the unitary perfection of the One. Below the divine mind is the World Soul, which links the intellectual and material worlds. These three transcendent realities, or hypostases (the One, the Divine Mind, and the World Soul) support the finite and visible world, which includes individuals and matter. Plotinus sometimes compared the One to a fountain, from which overflowed the lower levels of reality.

The Neoplatonic cosmology also had religious overtones, for Plotinus believed that people potentially sought a life in which the individual soul would rise through contemplation to the level of intelligence (the Divine Mind) and then through mystic union would be absorbed in the One itself. Conversely, a privation of being or lack of desire toward the One was the cause of sin, which was held to be a negative quality (i.e., nonparticipation in the perfection of the One). There are thus two reciprocal movements in Neoplatonism: the metaphysical movement of emanation from the One, and the ethical or religious movement of reflective return to the One through contemplation of the forms of the Divine Mind.

While Plotinus' thought was mystical (i.e., concerned with the infinite and invisible within the finite and visible world), his method was thoroughly rational, stemming from the logical and humanistic traditions of Greece. Many of his philosophical elements came from earlier philosophies; the existence of the One and the attendant theory of ideas were aspects of the later writings of Plato, particularly the Timaeus, and Stoicism had identified the World Soul with transcendent universal reason. What was distinctive in Plotinus' system was the unified, hierarchical structuring of these elements and the theory of emanation.

The Syrian, Athenian, and Alexandrian Schools

The followers of Plotinus took divergent paths. Porphyry, who remained in Rome, made extensive use of allegory in expounding Plotinus' rationalistic thought and attacked Christianity in the name of Hellenic paganism. Lamblichus taught in Rome for a time and then returned to Chalcis in Syria to found a Neoplatonic center there. At this center, and also at others in Athens and Alexandria, the mystical trends of the East, including divination, demonology, and astrology, were grafted onto the body of Neoplatonism.

The central figures at the Athenian school were Plutarch the Younger (350–433) and Proclus, who came from Byzantium to become head of the Academy. The Athenian school culminated in Simplicius, a commentator on Aristotle, and Damascius, who tried to recover the original thought of Plotinus; they were the survivors of the Academy when it was closed in 529. The Alexandrian school of Neoplatonism, which included the woman philosopher Hypatia, was more scholarly but less theological than its Syrian and Athenian counterparts and is important mainly for its commentaries on Aristotle. It survived into the 7th cent., and some Alexandrian Neoplatonists, notably Synesius, became Christians.

The Impact of Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism was an early influence on Christian thinkers. The Christian apologists Clement of Alexandria and Origen had vied with the incipient Neoplatonic tradition for control of the Platonic heritage. The philosophy was firmly joined with Christianity by St. Augustine, who was a Neoplatonist before his conversion. It was through Neoplatonism that Augustine conceived of spirit as being immaterial and viewed evil as an unreal substance (in contradistinction to Manichaean doctrine). The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (see Dionysius the Areopagite) and Boethius display Neoplatonic influences.

In the Middle Ages, elements of Plotinus' thought can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas and John Scotus Erigena, particularly in the identification of the One with God and the Divine Mind with the angels. The system influenced medieval Jewish and Arab philosophy, and G. W. F. Hegel's metaphysics had Neoplatonic ingredients. Neoplatonic metaphysics and aesthetics also influenced the German Romantics (see romanticism), the 17th-century English metaphysical poets, William Blake, and the Cambridge Platonists. Many mystical movements in the West, including those of Meister Eckhardt and Jacob Boehme, owe something to the Neoplatonists.


See R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (1972); R. Baine Harris, ed., The Significance of Neoplatonism (1976); E. R. Doss, Select Passages Illustrating Neoplatonism (1980).

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A philosophy that originated in the third century A. D., modeled on the ideas of the Greek thinker and teacher Plato, and which was revived by scholars, essayists, and poets during the Renaissance. The Neoplatonist school began in the books of Plotinus and his student Porphyry, the author of the Enneads, an important early book of the Neoplatonist school. These scholars of Alexandria sought to explore and clarify Plato's original philosophy, and extend it into new doctrines using Platonism as a foundation. The central belief of Plotinus and his followers was that the universe emanated from a divine, all-pervading Source in the form of lesser beings, and that human spirituality and philosophy strived for a return to that Source. Later students of the Platonic tradition, including Iamblichus and Proclus, added to these writings an element of mysticism and magic, and the idea that semidivine beings such as angels and demons served as intermediaries between ordinary humans and the Source. Neoplatonism can be seen as a synthesis of ancient Greek mythology with the monotheism that was gaining followers throughout the Mediterranean, notably in the beliefs of the early Christians.

Important Neoplatonic philosophers lived in Alexandria, Asia Minor, and Greece; their ideas were a strong influence on Christian writers and church fathers, including Saint Augustine of Hippo, and the medieval philosophers Boethius and John Scotus, as well as medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers. The Neoplatonist doctrines of the soul, the afterlife, and the divine source were incorporated into many aspects of Christian doctrine.

In the Renaissance, many scholars of ancient Greek philosophy studied Neoplatonism, reviving its beliefs as a counter to the strict and orthodox Christianity that had held sway throughout the Middle Ages. This Neoplatonic revival took place in the writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and Giordano Bruno, and was taken up by significant artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Ficino was a scholar of Plato as well as Plotinus who sought to reconcile Neoplatonism and Christianity, and one of the first to translate the works of the ancient Greeks. His writings, in particular commentaries on Plato's dialogues, served as a foundation for new concepts of beauty and romantic love, and the idea that philosophy should be part of any serious work of art or literature. Neoplatonism found a wide following in France, and its adherents included renowned essayists and poets including Marguerite of Navarre, Pierre Ronsard, and Francois Rabelais.

See Also: Bruno, Giordano; Ficino, Marsilio; Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni

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Neoplatonism. The philosophy of Plotinus and his followers, derived (remotely) from Plato. After Plotinus, its most outstanding proponents were Porphyry, Iamblichus (3rd/4th cent. CE), Eunapius of Sardis, and Proclus. The major aim of Neoplatonism was to provide a satisfactory account of the relationship of the One to the many. Between the One at the summit of the hierarchy of beings and the material world, it proposed a series of intermediaries. The progressively less perfect intermediaries are constituted by procession from their respective sources. Through abstractive thought, the soul can return to its source and be mystically united with it.

In this way, God is abstracted into absolute transcendence, and is protected from involvement in the material and evil; and human beings (who have in them some aspect of the divine) can return upwards to God, the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’.

In Islam, falsafah (philosophy) made no particular distinction between Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism, since it was concerned only with the opportunity of philosophy, not its history. The translation of what was taken to be Aristotle began in the reign of al-Maʾmūn (d. 833 (AH 218)), and through these endeavours, Greek philosophy and its texts were effectively rescued for the world, with many texts surviving only because of this Muslim interest. Neoplatonism entered Muslim thought in this way, though often attributed to Aristotle (e.g. when books iv and vi of Plotinus' Enneads were translated); al-Kindī and al-Farābī were key figures in the establishing of this way of thought, though the major figures were ibn Sīnā and ibn Rushd, and ibn ʿArabī on the mystical side.

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Neoplatonism a philosophical and religious system developed by the followers of Plotinus in the 3rd century ad. Neoplatonism combined ideas from Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the Stoics with oriental mysticism. Predominant in pagan Europe until the early 6th century, it was a major influence on early Christian writers, on later medieval and Renaissance thought, and on Islamic philosophy. It envisages the human soul rising above the imperfect material world through virtue and contemplation towards knowledge of the transcendent One.

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Neoplatonism School of philosophy that dominated intellectual thought between 250 and 550. It combined the ideas of Pythagoras, the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle, with strains from Judaism, oriental religions and Christianity. Fundamental to Neoplatonism was the concept of the ‘One’, something that transcends knowledge or existence but from which intelligence and the Soul derive. Neoplatonism's influence persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

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