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Emanationism explains the origin and structure of reality by postulating a perfect and transcendent principle from which everything is derived through a process called emanation (Greek aporroia, probolē, proodos ; Latin emanatio ), which is comparable to an efflux or radiation. Emanation is timeless and thus can be called a process only figuratively. It leaves its source undiminished, so that the source remains transcendent; but as the process continues, each of its products is less perfect.

In these three respects emanationism is opposed to evolutionism because evolution is a temporal process in which the principle itself is involved (immanent) and in which an increase in perfection is usually conceived. Emanationism is also opposed to creationism, according to which the principle creates the rest of reality (from which it differs absolutely), either out of nothing or by transforming a preexisting, chaotic matter into a cosmos. There is some affinity between emanationism and pantheism, except that the latter teaches the immanence of the principle in its product. Some philosophers characterize emanationism as panentheism.

Emanationism forms an important part of several philosophic and religious doctrines, though it is somewhat elusive in the latter.

Philosophic Emanationism

A theory of emanation can be found to a certain extent in the philosophy of Plato and the Old Academy as presented by Aristotle. Out of two highest principles (usually called the One and the Indefinite Dyad), ideas, in some way identified with or comprising mathematicals (numbers; geometrical entities, i.e., point, line, plane, solid) evolve; out of solids, the physical world evolves. But the nature of the process (for which Aristotle used the term genesis ) remains unclear. The Stoa, Neo-Pythagoreanism, and Philo contributed some ideas to emanationism, but the philosophy first appears in full clarity in the system of Plotinus. His supreme principle, because it is transcendent, ineffable, and absolutely simple (One), must "overflow," just as what is mature must beget. The first product of this overflowing is intelligence (nous ), which roughly corresponds to Plato's idea. From intelligence emanates psyche (corresponding to Plato's mathematicals) which becomes, by degrees, less and less perfect, more and more multiple. From the psyche emanates matter that, when "illuminated" by the psyche, becomes the physical world.

Often, although not always, Plotinus describes emanation as a necessary, involuntary, "natural," and therefore blameless process, somewhat like a point of absolutely intense light that emits a cone of light without any loss of its own substance. As the cone of light expands in volume, it grows dimmer, finally passing into complete darkness, on which the light produces images as on a screen. But just as the ontic status of darkness is ambiguous (Is it a minimum of light or its complete absence and therefore not its product?), so the status of matter in Plotinus is never quite clear.

The emanationism of Plotinus was taken over by all Neoplatonists, but among them, Proclus deserves particular mention. By subdividing Plotinus's emanative steps, Proclus made the process more continuous; and to the "vertical" emanation he added something like a "horizontal" one, fully articulating the realms of intelligence and psyche. From Neoplatonism, emanationism passed into the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish philosophies of the Middle Ages (Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, John Scotus Erigena, Nicholas of Cusa, al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, the book of Zohar), often with pantheistic or creationistic modifications. In modern times, evolutionism has obliterated the emanationist philosophy.

Religious Emanationism

In religion, emanationism appears in many Gnostic systems, most conspicuously in Pistis Sophia (Faith-wisdom) and in some writings of Valentinus. But in neither of these is it the exclusive principle explaining the origin of everything outside the highest principle. Furthermore, emanation appears in these writings as the result of some reflection and will. It produces, not abstract principles, as in Plotinus, but a host of mythological charactersthe first products of emanation according to Valentinus are thirty Aeonsperforming a cosmic drama. In addition, what remains entirely in the background in Plotinian theory becomes prominent in Gnosticism; namely, that some acts of the will, which produce emanations, are the result of error or shortcomings. The physical world is created by one of the products of emanation, the Demiurge (identified with the Mosaic creator, the Platonic divine craftsman). The Demiurge is evil himself, and his creation, the world, is an evil place in which man finds himself entrapped and from which gnosis shows the elect ones a way to salvation. Although soteriology plays some part in Plotinian theory, it does not occupy a central place in the system. According to Plotinus, the efflux is balanced by a reflux, which takes place pari passu with the efflux. For humankind, the enactment of this reflux remains the most important task; and every person is, by nature, capable of performing it. Gnostic emanationism is ultimately motivated by a feeling of complete hostility to and estrangement from the material worlda feeling that the emanationism of Plotinus, in spite of some ascetic and pessimistic strains, explicitly refuses to countenance.

See also al-Fārābī; Aristotle; Averroes; Avicenna; Erigena, John Scotus; Neoplatonism; Nicholas of Cusa; Pantheism; Plato; Plotinus; Proclus; Pseudo-Dionysius; Valentinus and Valentinianism.


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Philip Merlan (1967)

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