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General Characterization

Neoplatonism was the dominant philosophical current in late antiquity, and it had a lasting influence in the Middle Ages when it was adopted by Christian and Muslim thinkers. The term Neoplatonism was coined in the late eighteenth century and was used (in a rather pejorative sense) to distinguish authentic Platonism (as found in Plato's dialogues) from the later systematization and transformation(s) it underwent in the third through fifth centuries, starting with Plotinus.

By using the term Neoplatonism, historians of philosophy wanted to dissociate themselves from the perspective that for centuries had determined, if not distorted, the interpretation of Plato. Yet Plotinus would have been surprised if he had known he would once be called a Neoplatonist. He never intended to be anything other than a faithful interpreter of Plato's doctrines, coming, as he saw it, after centuries of neglect and distortion during which Stoicism and Aristotelianism had set the philosophical agenda, and true, that is, dogmatic, Platonism had, as it were, gone underground in order to survive. This is also how Augustine presents the history of the Platonic Academy in his Against the Academics : "Once the clouds of errors had been dispelled, Plato's face, which is the most pure and bright in philosophy, shone forth, above all in Plotinus. This Platonic philosopher is considered to be so similar to Plato that one could believe that they had lived together; but as there is so much time between them, one should think that Plato revived in him." (XVIII 41). One and a half centuries later, Proclus, in his Platonic Theology hails Plotinus and his followers Porphyry, Iamblichus, and all others following him, until his master Syrianus (d. 437CE), for having restored Platonism in its original splendor.

plotinus's renewal of platonism

What then was so innovative in Plotinus's interpretation of Platonism to praise him so lavishly and to consider him as the founder of Neoplatonism? Plotinus came after two centuries of Platonic revival (in handbooks since Karl Praechter (18581933), this period is commonly called Middle Platonism). This does not mean that Plato had ever been neglected during the Hellenistic period. His dialogues, however, seem to discuss problems without arriving at a definite solution, they use dramatic scenery and mythological stories, and do not always provide concordant views. It may have seemed impossible to find in the works of Plato a systematic philosophy that could compete with that of the Stoics. This could explain why a skeptic, nondogmatic interpretation of the dialogues prevailed for a long time. In the schools of the early Roman Empire, however, Plato was rediscovered as a dogmatic author, and Platonists attempted to systematize his views in handbooks and explain them in commentaries. Many innovations attributed to Plotinus are already present in the Platonists of the first centuries (such as Atticus, Alcinous, and Numenius of Apamea). Recent research has questioned the distinction between Middle and Neoplatonism and stressed once again the continuity of the Platonic tradition. In fact, the debate over the right interpretation of Plato's philosophy had already started in the Old Academy. Neoplatonism is in many respects a development of tendencies already present in the early school and even in the later dialogues of Plato himself as well as in his unwritten doctrines, in particular, in the speculations about the derivation of all beings from first principles. This continuity should not, however, make us underestimate the innovative character of Plotinus's philosophy.

The later tradition has always seen the doctrine of the three hypostasesSoul, Intellect, the One (or the Good)as the most characteristic feature of Neoplatonism and has credited Plotinus with the first clear statement of this theory. Yet most elements of the doctrine are to be found in previous philosophers, as Plotinus himself admits, and, of course, in Plato's own work. With all Platonists, Plotinus strictly distinguishes the sensible from the intelligible realm. The sensible world is not a hypostasis, that is, it is not an independently subsisting reality, but depends for its being entirely on incorporeal principles that derive ultimately from the ideal Forms. Only what is incorporeal and intelligible can have hypostatic reality. Within this realm we have to distinguish between Soul, Intellect, and the One, which constitute an ascending series. This theory could strike one as a needless complication of reality and not as its explanation. From a Neoplatonic view, however, these three hypostases are essential steps in the ultimate explanation of all that exits.

Neoplatonism is, in fact, the most radical answer to the question that motivates Greek philosophy since Thales: What are the first principles of all things? To explain a complex reality such as this cosmos means to reduce it to the more simple elements from which it originates. To explain the multiple, Plotinus argues, is to reduce it to its ultimate principle of unity (anagôgê eis hen ). Whatever exists, exists thanks to its unity. For without unity a thing has no essence, no being, falls apart: A house would no longer be a house but a mere heap of stones; a living being not an organism but flesh and bones; the soul not a soul but a bundle of emotions, memories, thoughts, and so on. Unity, then, is much more fundamental than essence or form. For being depends on being one. As Plotinus puts it, being is a trace of the One. Neoplatonism does not primarily offer a theory of being, an ontology as can be found in the Aristotelian metaphysics, but a doctrine of what is one and what ultimately explains unity and is therefore rather a henology. Proclus's Elements of Theology start with the proposition that "every multiplicity in some way participates in unity". It is not itself, however, the One, but a unified manifold, having unity as an attribute, and is therefore posterior to the One upon which it depends. For that reason no being can ultimately be explained by a principle of unity that is intrinsic to it. Unity that is participated in depends upon a transcendent principle of unity. Thus the living organism is one thanks to the soul giving life and unity to the body. The One must be identified with the Good, since it is the proper function of the One to hold together all things and maintain them in existence, which is also the function of the Good. For to hold a thing together and make it one is to give it its perfection and well-being whereas dispersion is the cause of its destruction and evil. Therefore, all things pursue unity as the good because they all strive to continue to exist and shun division as evil. Therefore, the One is to be identified with the Good, and the origin of the procession (proodos ) of all things is also the end of their return (epistrophê ).

In our search for an ultimate explanation, we will find always higher levels of unity until we arrive at the One itself. The whole sensible cosmos is one complex living organism wherein all things are connected in a chain of causes and linked by mutual sympathy, as the Stoics said. But what explains the unity and coherence of this world cannot itself be a material principle, such as the Stoic active principle, but has to be an incorporeal world soul. As Plato argued in the Timaeus, the soul is an intermediate between the sensible and the intelligible, the temporal and the eternal. But because it is incorporeal, the soul, at least the rational soul, is never entirely cut off from the intelligible world, not even when it is incarnated in a body. The soul, however, is not itself the origin of the specific forms and of the organic structure incorporated in this world. Whatever the soul (as demiurge or creative cause) conveys to this world derives from the ideal Forms contemplated by it. In fact, all production results from contemplation. If one subtracts from this sensible world matter, mass, spatial differences and time, coming to be, corruption and death and only understands what is essential and eternal in it, one finds a wonderful organism, an articulated system of specific forms, eternal objects of thought. This is the intelligible world, true reality and divine Intellect, as one perfect science that comprehends in itself all being known in its essential structures. Although comprehending all forms eternally and at once, this self-thinking Intellect or Intelligible Being cannot be the ultimate explanation of the universe, as Aristotle thought. For it is characterized by the multiplicity of the Forms and by the duality of thinker and object of thought. This leads Plotinus to a provocative conclusion that seems to go against the grain of philosophy itself: "For thinking itself does not come first either in reality or in value, but is second and is what has come into being when the Good [already] existed." (V 6, 5, 56). This Good is, as Plato famously said, beyond (epekeina ) thinking and being. It desires nothing, needs nothing. It is just One. Because it is nothing, it can be the origin of all things, not because it creates or produces them, but because they all come forth from its overflowing simplicity. Characteristic of Neoplatonism is this double transcendence: that of the Intelligible with respect to the sensible and that of the Good with respect to the Intelligible.

a spiritual experience

The amazing success of Neoplatonic philosophy, also beyond the limited circle of pagan philosophers, cannot be explained solely by elements of the doctrine. What made it so attractive was that it not only offered a theoretical understanding of reality, but also promised a way to ascend to the first principle of all, bringing the soul back to its own origin. Philosophy begins with the Delphic maxim know thyself, which is understood as an exhortation to return into thyself. "Go back into yourself and look," says Plotinus (I 6, 9, 7). This epistrophê, or return, of the soul upon itself is also the beginning of the return to the intellect and the One from which the soul proceeded. For within itself the soul does not only discover its own essence but also has access to the intelligible world to which it belongs essentially. Plotinus tells us of his personal experience: "Often I have woken up out of the body to my self and have entered into myself, going out from all other things. I have seen a beauty wonderfully great and felt assurance that then most of all I belonged to the better part; I have actually lived the best life and come to identity with the divine" (IV 8, 1, 1ff.). The truly wise person therefore "has already finished reasoning and turned to himself: all is within him" (VI 5, 12 1718). The three hypostases, Soul, Intellect, the One do not solely exist in nature : We find them in ourselves, at least if we first discover that we are a self. Through a moral life we have to gather our self from the fragmentation of the daily needs of the body, which distract our attention toward the outside. We are more than souls taking care of our body. We belong to the intelligible world, or rather, each of us is the intelligible world, and in our deepest self, we are one, one with one another, one with the One cause of everything.

The different hypostases of reality are not just three levels of reality; they are different levels of spiritual existence, or different modes of being self. Neoplatonic philosophy is not just a theory about unity, for such a theory could never succeed on its own. It is an exhortation to find the one by becoming one and simple, eventually giving up reasoning and explanation, just being one, or even going beyond being, by reaching an ecstatic experience. This unification with the One is not an alien supplement, not a denial of philosophy, but a realization and radicalization of what always was the intention of philosophy: to reach the first principle; to overcome the distinction of knower and object known.

neoplatonism: the fulfillment of hellenic culture

Neoplatonism is not just an effort to offer a comprehensive understanding of the Platonic doctrines scattered all over the dialogues. It also integrates within this Platonic perspective the whole philosophical tradition starting with Pythagoras. Aristotle himself is seen as essentially a Platonic thinker, at least if purified of the distortions of some later Peripatetics. Without a full knowledge of the Aristotelian logical writings and his treatise On the Soul it is not possible to understand the subtle Neoplatonic theory of knowledge. Aristotle's analyses of substance, matter and form, potency and act, quality and quantity, the different forms of causality provide the conceptual framework in which Plato's arguments are construed. To the Neoplatonists we owe the great commentaries on Aristotle, which made possible the reception of his philosophy by the medieval thinkers. When Neoplatonism took over the intellectual hegemony, after five centuries of being dominated by Stoicism, it also adopted many Stoics doctrines, in particular (part of) their ethics, and their views on providence and fate. Thus, they secured it an influence beyond antiquity. In short, Neoplatonism not only comes at the end of ancient philosophy, it integrates, in a way, the whole philosophical tradition in all its richness and diversity, making a synthesis of what had been for a very long time opposing schools.

In contrast to Plotinus, the later Neoplatonists became increasingly interested in the wisdom transmitted through the ancient religious traditions, not only the Hellenic religion (as it was known through Homer and Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) between the Orphic revelations), but also the arcane doctrines and rituals of the barbarians, in particular, the Egyptians and Chaldaeans. Of particular interest for the later development of the school were the so-called Chaldaean Oracles. These oracles offer, in epic hexameters, a mythical theogony and cosmogony of Platonic inspiration. They are supposed to have been revealed by the gods to a certain Julian the Chaldaean and his son, the theurgist (c. 16080 BCE). The term the-urgy (divine work) indicates certain ritual actions, which connect those who practice them with the gods. From Iamblichus onward, the Chaldaean Oracles gained a considerable authority comparable only to that of the sacred texts of Jews and Christians. This positive attitude toward the diverse religious traditions did not, however, include Christianity. Porphyry and Iamblichus wrote polemical treatises against the Christians and, following them, the emperor Julian, called the Apostate (331363), even started persecuting them. They considered Christianity as a threat for the whole of Hellenic culture with its tradition of education, literature, religious practices, and philosophy. The intolerant attitude of the Christians made it impossible to integrate their views together with the other religious traditions in one comprehensive Platonic theology. The growing opposition against Christianity may explain why Neoplatonic philosophy itself, from Iamblichus onward, became increasingly theological in its project. The Christian authors liked to point to the contradictions within the pagan philosophical tradition. They perceived all schools to have divergent opinions, which would almost naturally lead to skepticism. In response to this the Neoplatonists made an attempt to systematize and reconcile the most diverse doctrines from an overall Platonic perspective, integrating in it all that was valuable in the mythological and religious traditions. Just like the Christians they had their own sacred books (which were wonderfully in agreement with Plato's wisdom), and their theurgical practices could be seen as a rival to the sacramental practices of the Christians aiming for the salvation of the soul.

At the end of antiquity, in particularly in the Athenian school, Neoplatonism had thus become the ideological justification of the old pagan culture wherein all the wisdom of the Hellenic tradition was integrated: the theology of Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato himself, and also Aristotle and the Stoics.

Historical Survey

the legacy of plotinus

Plotinus undoubtedly set off the Neoplatonic movement, though it is difficult to call him the founder of a school. His philosophy was in a way too original, too much linked to his own spiritual experience. Plotinus is provocative and daring in his expression, as he himself admits, as when he says that the soul is never fully distanced from the intellect. From a scholarly point of view, much in what he says remains unclear: How can the One be beyond all things and still be the power of all things ; how can the One bring forth a multiplicity; what exactly is the role of the soul in the production of the World; and so on. Particularly challenging was Plotinus's philosophical appropriation of religion. The philosopher is the true priest who can ascend within himself to the divine principle of all. He has no need to go to temples, the gods "will come to him" (Vita Plotini, 10). Enough questions to stimulate further debate in the later school for over two centuries.

It would wrong, indeed, to see Neoplatonism as a unified movement: There was considerable divergence within the school, with conflicting interpretations of Plato; different views on essential points of the doctrine, such as the status of the One and the explanation of the procession of all things; the relation between the Intellect and the intelligible and the status of the Ideas; the role of the demiurge in the creation of the sensible world; the function of demons and other intermediary beings; the nature of the soul and its relation to the intelligible world; and above all, the role of theurgy. Nevertheless, all shared a common doctrine, the three hypostases: the transcendence of the One, the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible, the return upon the self as the origin and the end of philosophy.

The following survey shall sketch the main lines of the historical and institutional development of Neoplatonism, referring to the relevant entries in this Encyclopedia for more in-depth studies of major figures.

the first generation after plotinus

After his arrival in Rome, Plotinus soon attracted to his lectures students and devotees who often belonged to the high Roman society. We are well informed about the intellectual climate in this close circleabout the texts that were read and the topics they discussed, about the interaction in the groupthanks to the Life of Plotinus written by his close disciple Porphyry as an introduction to his edition of the works of his master. As Porphyry tells us, Plotinus for a long time refused to write down his lectures. Only at the age of forty-nine, at the insistence of his students, did he start scribbling down his arguments. It took Porphyry a great effort and a long time to make the texts ready for publication. The Enneads, as they were called (they consist of six groups of nine essays), were published about thirty years after the death of the master. This edition made the reputation of Plotinus and gave his thought a wide circulation beyond the circle of his immediate disciples. Soon a Latin adaptation of the work was made (probably a selection), which attracted enthusiastic readers among young intellectuals in Milan, as the example of Augustine shows. Porphyry also wrote a systematic introduction to Neoplatonic philosophy, the "Pathways to the Intelligible," making abundant use of material from Plotinus. Without the effort of Porphyry, the philosophy of Plotinus, this original individual, would never have had such an immense influence on the development of late antique and medieval thought. Porphyry defended the harmony of Plato and Aristotle (this is the title of one of his lost works) and contributed to the reception of Aristotle's works in the Neoplatonic curriculum as an introduction to the study of Plato. He wrote two commentaries on Aristotle's Categories and a short Introduction (Eisagôgê ) to the study of categories, which soon gained the authority of an Aristotelian treatise.

In a famous treatise (the concluding part of which is known as Ennead II 9 [33]), Plotinus attacked some Gnostic Christians and defended the beauty of the Cosmos against their dualistic views. Porphyry in his Against Christians launches a direct attack against the Christians. This anti-Christian outlook would also be that of the later school. Despite his anti-Christian polemics, Porphyry has a great interest in the diverse religious traditions as a source of wisdom. He is the first philosopher to pay attention to the Chaldaean Oracles and is fascinated by the theurgical rituals as a means to achieve the salvation of the soul (that is, the return of the soul to God). But, maybe under the influence of Plotinus, he adopted a more intellectual interpretation of religion, which led him to question theurgy and other aspects of the Egyptian religion (for which he would be criticized by Iamblichus). Hence, Porphyry limits the efficacy of theurgical practices to the lower degrees of salvation (those concerned with the purification of the pneumatic body and the lower soul) while demanding strictly philosophical means for achieving the union with the One.

the syrian school of iamblichus

The Syrian Iamblichus stayed for some time as a student with Porphyry in Rome. He had, however, diverging views on many issues and did not hesitate to attack Porphyry in writing. Having returned to his native Syria at the end of the third century, he set up his own school at Apamea. While Porphyry's influence remained mostly limited to the Western part of the Empire (including the Latin tradition), Iamblichus left a definitive stamp on the development of Neoplatonism in the Greek world, both through his metaphysical speculations on the first principles and his passionate defense of theurgical practices. Whereas Porphyry, interpreting Plotinus, intended to see the One as the summit of the Intellect, Iamblichus emphasizes even more the transcendence of the first principle, putting the Ineffable even beyond the One. Within the intelligible realm, he further distinguishes the purely intelligible from the intellectual level. And whereas Porphyry, following Plotinus, identified the supreme part of the soul with the intellect, Iamblichus insists that the soul is a separate ontological entity, intermediate between the intelligible and the sensible and therefore lower than intellect. Situated between the soul and the intellectual gods, the classes of demons, angels, and heroes have an important mediating function. All this announces a tendency that will become dominant in the later development of the school: the introduction of ever more intermediaries in the procession from the One to the multiple to make the transition from one level to another less abrupt. It is also Iamblichus who introduces the distinction between a non-participated and a participated status of a principle (such as soul or intellect). He also develops the triadic schema of remaining, procession, and reversion and applied this and other structures to different ontological levels. Iamblichus seems to have developed all important principles that support the architecture of Neoplatonic metaphysics. He also deserves credit for having established the educational canon of Plato's dialogues as well as their reading order and for having developed the exegetical principles for the interpretation of Plato, the most important of which being the determination of the right scope or intention of a dialogue. Iamblichus also initiates the Pythagoreanizing trend in Neoplatonism. He considers Pythagoras as the real founder of the philosophical tradition in all of its branches and as the model of the philosophical life. Plato himself, so Iamblichus believes, was the most eminent exponent of that tradition. Iamblichus's Pythagorean leanings also explain the heavy emphasis on mathematics as the most universal science, having applications in all possible branches of philosophy, not only in physics, and astronomy, but also in ethics and theology. For his attempt to fuse Pythagoras and Plato into one mathematicalmetaphysical system, Iamblichus could find inspiration in Neopythagorean authors of the first centuries CE, such as Nicomachus of Gerasa (c. 60120 CE).

Even more important for the future development of the school is Iamblichus's novel attitude to religious rites. He could not agree with Porphyry's reserved rationalistic attitude toward religious practices and theurgy in particular, as is evident from his anonymous reply to the latter's Letter to Anebo (an Egyptian priest). Iamblichus's reply, since the Renaissance known under the title On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, is a comprehensive defense of religious practices, magic, and sacrifices:

It is not thought that links the theurgists to the gods: for otherwise what should prevent the theoretical philosopher from enjoying a theurgic union with the gods? But this is not the case; theurgic union is attained only by the perfective operation of ineffable acts worthily performed, which are beyond all understanding, and by power of the unutterable symbols, which are intelligible only to the gods.

By thus insisting on the necessity of the practice of theurgic rites to accomplish the union with the gods, Iamblichus rejects, as E. R. Dodds notes, "the whole basis of the Plotinian intellectual mysticism" and "opens the door to all those superstitions of the lower culture which Plotinus had condemned in that noble apology for Hellenism, the treatise Against the Gnostics." (Dodds 1963, p. XX with quotation of De myst. II 11).

Some of Iamblichus's students devoted a lot of attention to the philosophical justification of magical and esoteric practices. They set up a school in Pergamum that seems to have gained some reputation when one of its students, Julian, became emperor. Julian drew upon Neoplatonic philosophy in his attempt to restore pagan rituals and traditions against the increasing influence of the Christians. Sallustius (fl. fourth century CE), who published a small introductory manual of Neoplatonic theology On the Gods, was probably a member of the same school.

the athenian school

The philosopher Plutarch of Athens (d. 432) gave a new inspiration to the Platonic Academy in Athens, which from then on adopted the philosophical style of Iamblichus. Although they no longer taught in the original building of the Academy, the successive heads of the school in Athens proudly considered themselves to be the "diadochoi," successors of Plato. Of Plutarch we have only indirect and fragmentary evidence. Proclus attributes to him an important role in the search for the right interpretation of the Parmenides. As a young student, he read with him Aristotle's treatise On the Soul and Plato's Phaedo. One would like to know how Plutarch attempted to reconcile the opposing views of Plato and Aristotle on the nature of the soul and its immortality, and on the origin of knowledge (anamnesis vs. abstraction).

After Plutarch's death in 432, Syrianus, a native from Alexandria, became the new head of the school. Of Syrianus we have only a commentary on some books of the Metaphysics in which he is often very critical of Aristotle. He recognizes Aristotle's great contribution in logic, ethics, and natural philosophy, even in theology. But, as he says, Aristotle's attack on the doctrine of the first principles of Pythagoras and Plato (an in particular, the doctrine of the Forms) is so unfair and shows so much misunderstanding that he felt compelled to defend the truth by showing Aristotle's arguments to be invalid (In Metaph. 80, 4-81, 14.)

When Syrianus died (c. 437), he was succeeded by Proclus who was born from a Lycean family still faithful to the old religion and had come from Alexandria to study philosophy in Athens. After a short term with Plutarch, Proclus continued his philosophical education under the guidance of Syrianus: "In less than two years Proclus read with him all of Aristotle's treatises on logic, ethics, politics, physics, and the theological science which surpasses them all. When Proclus was suitably educated through those studies which, so to speak, are a kind of preparatory initiation, or lesser mysteries, Syrianus led Proclus to Plato's mystagogy." (Marinus, Life of Proclus, §13).

Because of the loss of most of Syrianus's, work, it will never be possible to determine which ideas and doctrines Proclus inherited from his master and which ones he contributed himself. But it is evident that Syrianus had a profound influence on Proclus, as the latter gratefully acknowledges: "It is he who has granted us the privilege of partaking in the philosophy of Plato as a whole and who has communicated to us what he had received in secret from those senior to himself, and, above all, who joined us with himself as co-celebrants of the mystical truth of the divine principles." (Theol. Plat. I 1, p. 6.16-7.8 ed. Saffrey-Westerink, transl. J. Dillon). As is clear from this text, Proclus understands his Platonic education not just as a transmission of a philosophical doctrine but as a revelation of a mystical truth coming from the gods through Plato, and even as an initiation in a mystery cult and a participation in a ritual practice of life.

As we know from his biographer (and successor) Marinus (c. 440c. 500), Proclus's whole life was devoted to teaching and writing. He wrote commentaries on the Platonic dialogues that were part of the Neoplatonic-school curriculum. The course started with the reading of the Alcibiades I, a dialogue about self-knowledge, which was regarded as an introduction to philosophy. The curriculum culminated in the explanation of the two major dialogues of the Platonic corpus, which were considered to incorporate the whole of Plato's philosophy, namely the Timaeus (about the generation of the physical world), and the Parmenides (about the procession of all beings from the One). The commentaries of Proclus are masterpieces in their genre, as they not only offer a systematic interpretation of the text but also provide a wealth of information about the discussions within the Platonic tradition. In addition to his commentaries, Proclus owes his reputation to his two great syntheses of Neoplatonic philosophy, the Elements of Theology and the Platonic Theology.

In the Elements of Theology, Proclus demonstrates in a geometrical way the most fundamental theorems of the theological or metaphysical science as he understands it. The first part examines the fundamental principles that govern the structure of all reality, such as the relation between the One and the many; cause and effect; whole and parts; transcendence and participation; procession and reversion; continuity and discontinuity. In the second part he expounds the procession of the divine principles (henads, intellects, souls). The Elements of Theology is without doubt his most original work, not so much because of its content (which offers the standard doctrine of the Athenian school) but because of its extraordinary attempt to develop the entire Neoplatonic metaphysics from a set of axioms. It also had a tremendous influence, in particular through the Arabic adaptation that was made in the ninth century in the circle of Al-Kindi (805873). In the middle of the twelfth century, this Arabic treatise was translated into Latin. The Liber de Causis, as it was named, circulated as the work of Aristotle and thus obtained a great authority in medieval scholasticism. The systematic character of the Elements and its rigorous method make it the best introduction for the student not only to Proclus's own thought but also to Neoplatonism in general.

Proclus was convinced that the truth about the gods had been revealed in many different waysin obscure oracles, myths, and symbols. It was his ambition to prove the harmony between Plato and the other sources of divinely inspired wisdom, in particular, the Chaldaean Oracles and the Orphic poems. In his view only a genuinely philosophical approach could offer the conceptual framework for such a comprehensive interpretation. One finds such a framework in the Parmenides if one adopts the theological interpretation of this dialogue developed first by Syrianus. The Platonic Theology, written at the end of Proclus's life, is the perfect realization of this theological projecta pagan Summa of theology.

It is difficult to evaluate the originality of a thinker who, in most of his works, proclaims to be nothing but a faithful follower of his master Syrianus. But it is Proclus who put his mark on the subsequent development of Neoplatonism in Byzantine, Arabic, and Latin medieval thought. His huge influencemuch greater than that of Plotinuscould extend itself mainly through two important indirect channels of transmission: the Arabic adaptation of the Elements in the Liber de Causis, and the Christianization of his Platonic theology by Dionysius the Areopagite. The latter author pretends to be, and was for centuries believed to have been, the Dionysius mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles who became Christian after the preaching of Saint Paul on the Areopagus (Acts 17:34). This authorship gave this work an almost apostolic authority both in Byzantium and in Latin Europe. Although the real identity of this author still remains unknown, he probably was a Syrian Christian who followed classes in Athens at the end of the fifth century (he may even have been a direct disciple of Proclus). In his works, and in particular in his treatise On the Divine Names, he expounded the Christian doctrine of the transcendent God, of the Trinity, and of creation and incarnation in terms of Proclus, eliminating references to the pagan religion and substituting the Christian sacred writing for the Chaldaean Oracles.

Among Proclus's fellow students under Syrianus were Hermias, who would return to his hometown Alexandria and start teaching there, and Domninus of Larissa (c. 420480), who had a predominantly mathematical interest and was criticized by Proclus for his unorthodox interpretation of Plato.

On the further history of the Platonic school in Athens at the turn of the fifth century, inside information is provided by Damascius, the last head of the school, in his Life of Isidore (Isidore [fifth century] was his predecessor). Thanks to his energetic reforms and inspiring teaching, the Academy would revive one last time. Damascius is known, among other things, for his commentaries on the Philebus and the Parmenides, but above all things, for his treatise On the First Principles (De principiis ). This work concludes a period of a thousand years of philosophical speculation on the first causes. Damascius has no ambition to develop a system that would surpass that of his predecessors. His own thought is primarily aporetic: He raises critical questions in the margin of the doctrine of the principles as it had been developed in the Neoplatonic tradition and confronts it with all sorts of difficulties. When he risks a solutionand on many issues he can be very original (for instance, his doctrine on time)he again calls it into question by raising new aporias. The most fundamental aporia is discussed at the beginning. Is the first principle itself a part of the whole of which it is the principle? The first, it seems, is neither principle nor cause nor does it fit in any other category used to explain relations between beings: It is an ineffable nothing we have to postulate beyond the one whole. This ineffable is even beyond the One, which is the first principle of all things. More than any other Platonic philosopher, Damascius is aware of the precarious nature of all rational discourse when dealing with questions that go beyond the limits of what can be experienced. About the first principles we can only speak by making use of analogies and indications. His sharp critical mind does not, however, lead him to skepticism. If a philosophical explanation remains tentative and fragile, there is also the mythological tradition and religious practice, to which Damascius remains very devoted. In many ways his work is a wonderful swan song of pagan Hellenism.

The renaissance of the Academy under Damascius may have been one of the reasons for its closing by a decree of the emperor Justinian (c. 482565) in 529. The decree is one of the multiple measures of the emperor against pagans: They were formally excluded from all official positions, including teaching. According to the historian Agathias (536582), Damascius, together with Simplicius, Priscianus the Lydian, and other philosophers went into exile at the court of King Chosroes (?579) in Persia. After two years Chosroes concluded a peace treaty with Justinian, which contained a clause about the exiled philosophers: "They were free to return to their country and live quietly by themselves without being compelled to accept any belief against their conviction or to renounce the creed of their fathers" (Agathias, II, 2832 ed. Keydell, transl. Westerink). Whether they returned to Athens or Alexandria or stayed in other places remains uncertain.

alexandrian school

Alexandria had always been a city with a dynamic intellectual life, and it remained so in late antiquity though Christian theological debates now dominated the scene and church authorities set restrictions to the teaching of pagan philosophy. A notorious case, symbolic of the changing times, is the lynching of Hypatia in 415 by a Christian mob. Educated by her father Theon (335405), Hypatia had become an outstanding mathematician. What her philosophical interests were are unknown, but among her admiring disciples was Synesius (c. 370414), author of On Dreams of Neoplatonic inspiration, who also shows an interest in the Chaldaean Oracles even after he had become a Christian bishop.

The first to introduce Neoplatonic philosophy in Alexandria was Hierocles (c.400460 CE), who studied in Athens with Plutarch. He is the author of a commentary on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras and a treatise On Providence. In the introduction of the latter work, he criticizes "all those who try to break up the unanimity of Plato and Aristotle". Thanks to his master Plutarch, he was educated in a tradition that harmonizes the thought of both great philosophers and goes back to Ammonius (c. 175243 CE), who was teacher of Plotinus in Alexandria: "This man, Hierocles says, was the first to bring the teachings of Plato and Aristotle into one and the same view and to transmit a philosophy without factions to all his students." This hermeneutical approachdifferent from the more polemical attitude to Aristotle of Syrianus and Procluswould be continued in Alexandria by the following generations of philosophers and find its magnificent expression in the great commentaries on Aristotle of Simplicius.

The leading Neoplatonic philosopher in Alexandria was another Ammonius (c. 440526) who had come from Athens with his father Hermias. In his youth Ammonius followed courses with Proclus, and he would adopt the basic principles of the latter's Neoplatonic synthesis. Of Ammonius, however, we possess only commentaries on Aristotle, one of which he wrote himself (on De Interpretatione ), others of which were published in the form of lecture notes by his students. Since most of his teaching was devoted to the explanation of Aristotle's logic and (meta-)physics, the typical Neoplatonic doctrines (the three hypostases; the procession of all things from the One; the structure of the intelligible world; the ascent and mystical union of the Soul) are rarely discussed and explained. Had we also had Ammonius's commentaries on Plato, the picture might have been somewhat different. But it may also be the case that Ammonius intentionally avoided controversial subjects as he noticed the growing number of Christian students in his audience. The Alexandrian School was a much more open system of education than the Athenian Academy, which had in its last phase become somewhat of an esoteric group. However, from the extant texts, it emerges that Ammonius had more interest in explaining the structure of the physical world than in elucidating the architecture of the intelligible world.

Scholars have often said that the Alexandrian School represents a different kind of Platonism from that of Athens:

In Athens the speculative, mystical, theurgic, and religious elements predominated; and that school remained to the end a stronghold of paganism. In Alexandria scholarly interests and a noncommittal exegesis of texts prevailed. The Platonism that the Alexandrian School professed was in some respects closer than that of the Athenian School to the pre-Plotinian version; thus, the doctrine of the ineffable One and the mystic union with it had no prominent place. Thus, the "baptizing" of Greek philosophyincluding the stress on those parts of the Aristotelian philosophy that were metaphysically neutralso often considered characteristic of the medieval period, was to a certain extent anticipated in Alexandria; after the Arab conquest it was perhaps replaced by 'Islamizing'."

Thus writes Ph. Merlan in the first edition of this Encyclopedia, following the views of Praechter. Recent studies (in particular, by Ilsetraut Hadot), however, tend to minimize the differences between the two schools. There were indeed very close relations, even family relations, between the members of both schools, and there was a lively intellectual exchange. All members were educated in the same tradition. The fact that some doctrines are less prominent in the extant works of the Alexandrians can be explained by the fact that only their work on Aristotle have come down to us. A close reading of the works of the Alexandrian philosophers shows that they had fundamentally the same views on the most important metaphysical issues (such as the distinction between the demiurge and the absolute One) as their colleagues in Athens. And yet it cannot be denied that there are important differences between the two schools and that the view of Praechter and Merlan contains some truth. First, as noticed, there is the harmonizing, not polemical, approach to Aristotle. One may even go so far to say that the Alexandrians were primarily interested in presenting a Platonized Aristotle. Second, though Hadot may be right in denying that the Alexandrian thinkers return to a pre-Plotinian form of Platonism, they tend to simplify considerably the highly complicated Proclean system. Third, the philosophy of the school of Ammonius is less connected with openly pagan beliefs. The project of a comprehensive Platonic theology seems to be alien to them. According to Damascius (who speaks about it with contempt), Ammonius had concluded a pact with the patriarch Athanasius. We do not know what concessions he made to preserve the freedom of teaching in the school. Maybe he promised not to discuss certain doctrines contrary to Christian faith, such as the eternity of the world or the preexistence and reincarnation of the soul.

Two of the most famous students of Ammonius deserve special mention: John Philoponus and Simplicius. The latter is rightly famous for his voluminous commentaries on the Physics, the De Caelo, and the Categories (the commentary On the Soul is not his work but probably of his colleague Priscianus), which still are of great use to any interpreter of Aristotle. Simplicius attended Ammonius's courses on Aristotle, but he mentions also Damascius as his teacher. This double education situates him somehow halfway between Alexandria and Athens. He is well acquainted with Damascius's metaphysical speculations (on the procession of all things, on time and place), but never forgets the first intention of his work, which is to offer a faithful elucidation of the views of Aristotle in a Neoplatonic perspective. His commentaries also contain rich historical and doxographical information on the Presocratics (of whom he preserves many fragments), on Stoic philosophy, and on the later developments of the Peripatetic and Platonic school. He also quotes long sections from Plato's Dialogues and misses no opportunity to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle in doctrinal matters. When Aristotle does seem to attack his master, so Simplicius argues, his critique only concerns the manner in which Plato expresses his views. For Plato often uses a narrative form and a metaphorical language, which, if taken literally, may lead the reader to erroneous views. To defend the harmony of Plato and Aristotle was for Simplicius also of great strategic importance in his controversy with the Christian Philoponus. The latter liked to exploit the oppositions within the philosophical tradition in order to undermine it.

Philoponus was one of the brightest students of Ammonius. He published several of his lecture courses and continued to comment on Aristotle in the manner of his master. What sets Philoponus apart from the other members of the school, however, is the publication of a treatise against Proclus in which he attacked, from an overtly Christian point of view, the doctrine of the eternity of the world. Philoponus attempts to prove that the world had a temporal origin and that this was also the authentic doctrine of Plato in the Timaeus. In the later versions of his commentaries on Aristotle, he adopts the same polemical attitude whenever he finds Aristotle in contradiction with the Christian understanding of creation.

The publication of Against Proclus in 517 must have provoked quite a scandal in the school, where Philoponus was one of the leading figures. Scholars have advanced many solutions to explain his sudden change from a Neoplatonic to a Christian philosophy. The fact that the publication of the polemical treatise coincides with the closing of the Academy in Athens and with other hostile measures that were taken against pagan philosophers may provide a useful clue. By publishing his book against Proclus, Philoponus probably wanted to distance himself from the allegedly pagan elements in Neoplatonic philosophy. In his later work he is only engaged in theological discussions.

Simplicius says he never met Philoponus and speaks of this newcomer, not really a philosopher, with utter disdain. In his commentary on the De Caelo, he came to the defense of Aristotle and of the old Hellenic pagan view of the cosmos as an everlasting, wonderful expression of the intelligible world.

The successor of Ammonius as head of the school was Olympiodorus (c. 500565). We also have some of his commentaries on Plato, which show that he did not consider himself to be a Christian. For he continued to defend, though with caution and without offending his audience, some views that belonged to the pagan tradition. He upheld polytheism by explaining the lower gods as powers of the first God rather than as many gods.

Olympiodorus's two pupils, Elias and David, who lectured on Aristotle's Organon, certainly were Christians though their belief does not really have an impact on their teaching. The last teacher in the school was Stephanus, who became professor at the newly founded academy in Constantinople (in 610). The transfer of the school (and its library) to Constantinople may explain why so many works of pagan Neoplatonists have survived.

latin neoplatonism

In the western part of the empire, too, we find authors who were influenced by Neoplatonic ideas. Since they all wrote in Latin, they would have a determinative influence on the formation of Medieval Platonism. There are, of course, Christian thinkers, such as Ambrose (c. 339397), Marius Victorinus (c. 280365), and above all Augustine, who all considered Plato closer to Christian faith than any other philosopher. Yet besides them there also was a small group of authors who continued to practice philosophy in the old tradition. Even if they were Christians, their beliefs had almost no effect on their arguments (contrary to what we see happen in Augustine). A good example is Calcidius (late fourth century), who translated and commented the Timaeus and followed Porphyry in many of his interpretations. His work had an immense success in the early Middle Ages. The same is true for the Commentary on the "Dream of Scipio" by Macrobius (c. 400), who quotes also from Plotinus and Porphyry. Also Martianus Capella (early fifth century), author of the much read On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury that offers an allegorical introduction to the seven liberal arts and makes them part of the philosophical wisdom, shows a thorough acquaintance with the Platonism of late antiquity. Last but not the least is Boethius who is undoubtedly a Christian (as his theological work shows). Yet in his practice of philosophy, he does not allow Christian arguments to interfere directly. He is author of the celebrated Consolation of Philosophy, which is profoundly Neoplatonic in its argument, but he also wrote translations and commentaries on Aristotle. It was his ambition to translate and comment on all of Plato's and Aristotle's works and to demonstrate that they are in agreement on fundamental questions. This program situates him in the tradition of Alexandria, with which he was well acquainted. He shows also to be familiar with the works of Porphyry and Plotinus.

Epilogue: Christian Neoplatonism

As we have seen Neoplatonic philosophy from the beginning took a very polemical attitude toward Christianity. Plotinus attacked some Gnostic Christians in his entourage; Porphyry wrote a vehement attack against the Christians, as did Iamblichus and Julian. The latter even used the Neoplatonic philosophy in his policy of restoration of paganism. In the Athenian School Neoplatonism became the ideology of pagan religion in its multiple guises. When Christianity became the dominant religion, philosophers had to be more cautious and could only make indirect criticism. Proclus and Damascius just ignored Christian thought and looked down with contempt upon the Christian establishment. The Christian authors, of course, attacked paganism, but were, on the other hand, surprisingly positive toward Neoplatonism, which they considered to be the philosophy that came closest to the Christian Weltanschauung. This is the case for Augustine in the west and for Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus in the East. The reasons for this fascination are manifold: the other-worldness of Neoplatonism; the emphasis on the transcendence of God; the nondualistic doctrine of creation (procession); the spiritual antimaterialistic interpretation of the world; the immortality of the soul; the access to the divine through the soul's return upon itself. The differences were no less evident, in particular, the doctrine of incarnation, personal providence, and the belief in resurrection. Whereas Christian thinkers were often deeply influenced by Neoplatonic thought, the pagan philosophers, on the contrary, showed no influence from Christianity: They absolutely ignored it. There was no interaction between Neoplatonism and Christianity, only a strong influence in one direction.

The integration of Neoplatonic arguments in the explanation of the Christian wisdom give rise to original speculations about creation, the world, the place of humankind, and the relation of soul-body. Some scholars may argue that this Christian appropriation of Neoplatonism is a betrayal of the original spirit of philosophy. But this transformation is in itself a wonderful testimony to the creativity of Neoplatonic thinking. Take the concept of the self, which in Neoplatonism gained a much greater richness than ever before in Greek philosophy. Augustine took over the notion of self-reflexivity but gave it an incredible concrete existential richness, making it a leitmotif of his autobiography (Confessions ). Another example is eschatology. According to the Neoplatonic view, the procession and return are constitutive movements of each being in relation to its cause. Christian thinkers historicized this process: At the beginning of time, all things proceeded from God and will return to Him at the end of time. This interpretation made it possible to give a meaning to history and even to the contingent events of human life.

Thanks to this creative modification, Neoplatonism had a continuing and expanding influence after the death of the pagan intellectual culture. Already prior to Justinian's decision to close the school of Athens, the pagan philosophical tradition had become a rather marginal phenomenon in late antique civilization. Its practitioners were an esoteric group of intellectuals, nostalgic for the past glories of Hellenic culture, practicing magical rituals, and praying to old gods. Pagan Neoplatonism had become an ideology at the service of a disappearing civilization. Once this philosophy became integrated in the Christian culture, and later in the Muslim world, it gained a new importance, which Plotinus could never have foreseen.

See also Alcinous; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Damascius; Gregory of Nazianzus; Gregory of Nyssa; Hellenistic Thought; Homer; Iamblichus; Liber de Causis; Medieval Philosophy; Metaphysics; Numenius of Apamea; Parmenides of Elea; Peripatetics; Philoponus, John; Plato; Plotinus; Porphyry; Proclus; Pseudo-Dionysius; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Simplicius; Stoicism; Thales of Miletus.


For a bibliographical survey of recent studies, see Steel, Carlos, and Christoph Helmig. "Neue Forschungen zum Neuplatonismus (19952003)." Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 29 (2004): 145162; 225247.


Armstrong, Arthur H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Beierwaltes, Werner. Platonismus in Christentum. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Mainz: Klostermann, 2002.

Cleary, John, ed. The Perennial Tradition of Neoplatonism. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1997.

Dillon, John. The Golden Chain: Studies in the Development of Platonism and Christianity. Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1990.

Dillon, John. The Great Tradition: further Studies in the Development of Platonism and Early Christianity. Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1997.

Dillon, John, and Lloyd P. Gerson, eds. Neoplatonic Philosophy. Introductory Readings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004.

Dörrie, Heinrich, ed. Karl Praechter. Kleine Schriften. New York: Georg Olms, 1973.

Dörrie, Heinrich, and Mathias Baltes, eds. Der Platonismus in der Antike. 6 vols. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 19872002.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. The Latin Tradition. 2 vols. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Haase, Wolfgang, ed. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Vol. II/36/12 and II/36/7. Berlin: de Gruyter, 19871994.

Lloyd, A. C. The Anatomy of Neoplatonism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

O'Meara, Dominic. Pythagoras Revived, Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Merlan, Philip. "Alexandrian School." In Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1st edition. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Saffrey, Henri Dominique. Le néoplatonisme après Plotin. Paris: Vrin, 1992.

Saffrey, Henri Dominique. Recherches sur le néoplatonisme après Plotin. Paris: Vrin, 1990.

Smith, Andrew. Philosophy in Late Antiquity. London: Routledge, 2004.

Sorabji, Richard, ed. Aristotle Transformed. London: Duckworth, 1990.

Sorabji, Richard, ed. The Philosophy of the Commentators, 200600 AD: A Sourcebook in Three Volumes. London: Duckworth, 2004.

Wallis, R.T. Neoplatonism. London: Duckworth, 1972.


On individual authors, see the more than fifty volumes in the series Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, edited by R. Sorabji). London: Duckworth. Excellent biographical notes in Goulet, Richard, ed. Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, 4 vols. Paris: Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 19942003.

Athanassiadi, Polymnia, ed. Damascius. The Philosophical History. Athens: Apameia 1993 (on the Athenian school after Proclus).

Armstrong, Arthur H. Plotin. Enneads. VII vol. Harvard University Press 19661988.

Dodds, E. R. Proclus. The Elements of Theology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Hadot, Ilsetraut. Le problème du néoplatonisme Alexandrin. Hiéroclès et Simplicius. Paris: Etudes augustiniennes, 1978.

Hadot, Ilsetraut, ed. Simplicius, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1987.

Saffrey, Henri Dominique, and Alain-Philippe Segonds, eds. Marinus. Proclus ou sur le bonheur. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2001. On the life of Proclus and the school of Athens.

Schibli, Hermann, ed. Hierocles of Alexandria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Steel, Carlos. The Changing Self. A Study on the Soul in later Neoplatonism: Iamblichus, Damascius and Priscianus. Brussels: Academie, 1978.

Thiel, R. Simplikios und das Ende der neuplatonischen Schule in Athen. Stuttgart: Steiner, 1999.

Carlos Steel (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


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 .


Armstrong, A. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Carabine, Deirdre. The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition, Plato to Eriugena. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.

Dillon, John. The Middle Platonists, 80 b.c. to a.d. 220. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Gersh, Stephen, and Maarten J. F. M. Hoenen, eds. The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002.

Goodman, Lenn E., ed. Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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


views updated May 23 2018


NEOPLATONISM is the Platonic philosophy interpreted by Plotinus (205270 ce), systematized in his Enneads and further developed by others through the sixth century. From the first century bce, the "divine Plato" had been revived as the supreme religious and theological guide by pagan Middle Platonists; simultaneously Neo-Pythagorean philosophers were active. Plotinus was receptive to both these theistic and apophatic (negative) schools. He liked the Middle Platonist teaching of the transcendence of a Supreme Mind and Being called theos (God) possessing the Platonic Forms as divine Ideas. These Ideas became the basis for kataphatic (positive) theology and a doctrine of divine providence for a later period, not for Plotinus.

Realizing that unity must always precede plurality, however, Plotinus taught that the First Principle of reality, the One, or Good, transcends being and thought and is ineffable, indefinable, thereby contradicting Middle Platonism. This theory, original with Plotinus, was repeated by his pagan successors, especially Iamblichus and Proclus, but not by Porphyry.

Conflict between Christians and pagan philosophers began in the second century with an anti-Christian treatise of the Platonist Celsus, to which the Christian theologian Origen responded in the third century; the opposition continued with Porphyry's fourth-century treatise Against the Christians. Yet Origen considered philosophy and Plato as natural defenders of some Christian doctrines. By openness to Greek culture but not to Classical Greek religion, the Cappadocian fathers who succeeded Origen fruitfully related Hellenism to Christianity, with increased ability to discuss Christianity with educated pagans.

The Neoplatonic One, or Good, was the object of religious aspiration. It was described as transcendent, infinite, overflowing goodness and spiritual freedom, and reachable through mystical experience. The One pours love (eros ) into all souls, a love leading each soul, aided by intellectual and moral effort, to mystical union with their Source. The One is present everywhere, and whenever one turns within to identify with one's higher, true self, there is opportunity for a mystical union. Plotinus had frequent mystical experiences (IV.8.1). Neoplatonists separated their pagan philosophy from pagan worship, allowing intellectual Christians to be philosophically educated and yet remain orthodox believers. Nevertheless, one cannot assume that all borrowing between Christians and pagans came from the Christian side. Plotinus's teacher, Ammonius, was reputed to have once been a Christian. In the third century ce the goal of philosophy became more explicitly religious, but according to human reason. The philosopher's role was to guide his followers, without using religious myths and oracles as premises, to the experience of the divine. Christians thereby found in Neoplatonism a purer notion of God than was available in Classical Greek religion.

The Enneads present an ordered structure of living reality eternally proceeding from the One and descending in continuous stages from the Divine Intellect, with its living forms, intelligences, through Soul, ruling through World Soul to the forms of bodies, made from formless matter. No dualism here.

Development of Neoplatonic Theories

Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism developed in four stages, largely through modifying the Plotinian structure.

  1. The first stage is the teaching of the disciples, Porphyry, Amelius, and Eustochius. Most influential was Porphyry (c. 234c. 305), who taught a more monistic philosophy than that of Plotinus by conflating the hypostases into a unity of being, life, intelligence, thus departing from Plotinian subordinationism.
  2. The fourth-century Syrian and Pergamene schools were influenced by the teaching of Iamblichus (d. 326) that theurgy (ritual magic), invoking demons rather than philosophizing, was the way to God. Iamblichus and followers rejected Plotinus's doctrine of the undescended part of the soul and stressed a need for divine help to reach the Intelligible World. Julian the Apostate (332363) sought to downgrade Christianity when as a two-year sole Roman emperor he declared Iamblichus's version of Neoplatonism to be the State religion.
  3. During the predominance of the fifth and sixth century Athenian school, Neoplatonism became the official teaching of Plato's Academy, the chief member being Proclus (410?485), who continued pagan worship against imperial policy. For Proclus, theurgy, rather than philosophy, brought salvation to souls. The last head of the Academy when Justinian closed it in 529 was Damascius.
  4. The Neoplatonism of the Athenian school was influential over the Alexandrian school (fifth and sixth centuries) of commentators on Plato's and Aristotle's psychology and logic. Both schools depended on Iamblichus. The Alexandrians, however, preferred philosophical scholarship to theurgy.

Early Christian Thought

Plotinus and the Christian Origen, who studied under Ammonius (Saccas), influenced the Cappadocian fathersBasil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssawho saw Christianity and its mission as the fulfillment of Classical Greek education (paideia ). Reading the Bible rather than classical Greek literature, they believed, would mold humankind into the form of Christ. Like Neoplatonists, the Eastern Church valued the material world as a theophany, or manifestation of the divine.

Proclus influenced the fifth-century thinker known under the name of the apostle Paul's first Athenian convert, Dionysius the Areopagite, as well as Michael Psellus (10181078?), who stimulated the eleventh-century Byzantine renaissance. At the Council of Florence (1438), called to unite Eastern and Western churches, George Plethon (13601450), from the Platonic school at Mistra, inspired Cosimo de' Medici to open a Platonic academy in Florence. Its head, Marsilio Ficino (14331499), translated Platonic dialogues and the Enneads into Latin and wrote commentaries to harmonize Platonic and Chaldean traditions with Christianity. Some scholars consider the Renaissance to have been more Neoplatonic than Platonic, with Aristotle also influential. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), the literary tradition of the Byzantine East was brought to Italy by Greek scholars. The Christian humanism of Erasmus is rooted in the theology of the Greek fathers.

Islamic Neoplatonism

The Alexandrian School, moving to Antioch in 720 ce and to Baghdad in 900, was active with commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. The Arabic interpretation of these two thinkers was affected by two works, purported to be by Aristotle but actually based on the writings of Plotinus and Proclus. The so-called Theology of Aristotle was mainly composed of extracts of Enneads IVVI; the Liber de causis, attributed to Aristotle, reproduced parts of Proclus's Elements of Theology. Accepting the two pseudo works of Aristotle as authentic led the Arabic philosophers to interpret Neoplatonically the actual texts of Aristotle. They interpreted Aristotle's First Principle as an efficient as well as final cause of the world. This helped Muslims to harmonize philosophy with the Qurʾān. Later, under the influence of Ibn Rushd (Averroës), some Muslim philosophers separated philosophy from religion, holding that one could contradict the other. This is the so-called double-truth theory.

Neoplatonism in the Middle Ages

Marius Victorinus (fourth century) in his work on the Trinity against the Arian heresy conflated the Porphyrian triad of Being, Life, Intelligence into Absolute Being at rest and in motion, expressed infinitively as to einai (Esse) (To Be), a triad discoverable in the Sentences of Porphyry and in the anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, considered by Pierre Hadot (Porphyre et Victorinus, 1968) to be authored by Porphyry. Both the Sentences and the Parmenides Commentary were influenced by the Chaldaean Oracles as well as by Middle Platonism. Through Victorinus's translation of some Neoplatonic works (Plotinus/Porphyry) into Latin, Augustine became aware of the spirituality of human souls and of God, thus freeing him from Manichaean materialism. Some Porphyrian positions on the divine triad and on the body-soul union impressed Augustine. In the City of God Augustine seems to take Porphyry's version of Neoplatonism as the empire's main pagan philosophy. Boethius was familiar with texts of both Victorinus and of Proclus.

Until Plato's dialogues Meno and Phaedo were translated into Latin in the twelth century, the western medieval world had a Middle Platonic view of Platonism, their awareness of Platonism coming only from Chalcidius's fourth-century commentary on the Timaeus, greatly influenced by Numenius. An indirect influence of Neoplatonism upon medieval thought came through Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Boethius.

In medieval Jewish thought, Neoplatonism is evident in the Qabbalah and in the teachings of Shelomoh ibn Gebirol (Avicebron) (10211058), who developed Plotinus's views on intelligible matter. Maimonides (1135/81204) accepted Neoplatonic negative theology while remaining predominantly Aristotelian.

Only in the twelth century also did the West recover the complete Aristotle through translations of the Arabic texts into Latin. But among these texts was the Theology of Aristotle (Enneads ) and Liber de causis (Proclus's), attributed by the Arabs to Aristotle. In translating Aristotle's texts, these translators would assume a harmony between them and these two pseudo-texts. Therefore, in the thirteenth century William of Moerbeke translated from the original Greek Aristotle's works. But he also translated Proclus's Elements of Theology and his commentaries on the Parmenides and Timaeus. These translations enabled Thomas Aquinas to identify the Liber de causis as non-Aristotelian. This freed Aristotle from the Neoplatonic additions and interpretations of the Muslims. Neoplatonism reached Thomas Aquinas chiefly through Augustine, Dionysius, Boethius, and Proclus. Meister Eckhart (c.12601327) embraced Neoplatonism, as indicated by his distinction between God and the unknowable godhead as well as by his doctrine of the uncreated element in the soul. Also influenced by Neoplatonism and Dionysius were the other Rhineland mystics, Tauler (c. l3001361) and Suso (12951366), as were Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno.

Neoplatonism in Modern Thought

Neoplatonism may be lurking in the background of Descartes's philosophy of consciousness, although Plotinus made room for a subconscious and superconscious activity as more significant than ordinary consciousness. Neoplatonism is present in the Cambridge Platonists, Henry More (16141687) and Ralph Cudworth (16171688), as well as in Berkeley's Siris. It is detectable in Spenser, Coleridge, Blake, and Yeats. It is evident in Spinoza's monism and in Leibniz's monadism. In the nineteenth century Schelling learned from Plotinus, and Hegel from Proclus. In the twentieth century Bergson attempted the reconciliation of Plotinus's philosophy of soul with modern science.

Only in the nineteenth century was Plato recognized for his authentic thought and clearly distinguished from Plotinus and his followers who were henceforth called Neoplatonists. Neoplatonism was the first philosophical theology based on religious experience. Although it gave mixed messages regarding the value of the body and the material world, its cosmic religionthe veneration of star-godsentailed respect for the sensible world. Neoplatonism benefited religion by adocating interiority, negative theology, and both God's transcendence and immanence as ground for mystical experience. Christians and Jews freely borrowed Neoplatonic principles to express revealed truths, those accessible to reason. This made possible dialogue with educated nonbelievers. The presence of an intellectual Greek culture in the empire gave to Christian teaching, expressed in contemporary philosophical concepts, some universality. Christians saw human wisdom as God's own natural revelation before divine Revelation through the Law and the prophets and the teachings of Christ.

Christianity was not Hellenized, but with divine Revelation guiding the choice of Greek concepts, Christianity, at first a Jewish sect, became a world religion. Christians respected the Greek classical tradition, as did the Romans. Through the Christian classicists of the fourth century, such as Augustine in the West and the Cappadocians in the East, classical culture and literature survived and was made available to the future. Philosophy was enriched by Neoplatonic reasoning, but philosophy as a human activity was without saving power. Neither does it even claim to give positive knowledge of an ineffable God. But since "faith seeks understanding," philosophy, and especially Neoplatonic philosophy, contributes greatly to that understanding.

See Also



Armstrong, A. Hilary, ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., 1957, 1970.

Armstrong, A. Hilary, and Robert A. Markus. Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy. London, 1960. The tension and interplay of revealed doctrine and philosophical ideas, a dialogue that continues.

Blumenthal, Henry J., and Robert A. Markus, eds. Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of A. H. Armstrong. London, 1981. Emphasis on Plotinus's dialogue with his contemporaries, the Neoplatonic background of Augustine, and the encounter between later Neoplatonism and the Christian tradition.

Dodds, E. R. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge, U.K., 1965.

Gersh, S. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind., 1986.

Hadot, Pierre. Porphyre et Victorinus. Paris, 1970.

Harris, R. Baine, ed. The Significance of Neoplatonism. Albany, N.Y., 1976.

Harris, R. Baine, ed. Neoplatonism and Indian Thought. Albany, N.Y., 1982.

Lloyd, A. C. The Anatomy of Neoplatonism. Oxford, 1990.

O'Meara, Dominic J., ed. Neoplatonism and Christian Thought. Norfolk, Va., 1981.

Smith, A. Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition. The Hague, 1974.

Victorinus, Marius. Theological Treatises on the Trinity. Translated by M. T. Clark. Washington, D.C., 1984.

Wallis, Richard T. Neoplatonism. London, 1972. Discusses the interrelationships of all the Neoplatonic schools of thought.

Wallis, Richard T., and J. Bregman, eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Whittaker, Thomas. The Neo-Platonists: A Study in the History of Hellenism, 4th ed. Hildesheim, 1928, 1968. Before Wallis's book, this was the only survey of Neoplatonism.

Mary T. Clark (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 08 2018


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


views updated May 18 2018


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.


views updated May 11 2018


NEOPLATONISM , the system elaborated by Plotinus and his pupil Porphyry on the basis of antecedent Middle Platonic and neo-Pythagorean developments. The system was modified by their successors, the main post-Plotinian currents and schools of late antiquity being (according to K. Praechter): the Syrian school founded by Iamblichus; the school of Pergamum (Sallust, Julian); the school of Athens (Plutarch, Syrianus, Proclus, Damascius); the school of Alexandria (Hierocles, Hermias, Ammonius and his followers: the pagans, Asclepius and Olympiodorus, and the Christians, Philoponus, Elias, David, and Stephanus); and the Neoplatonists of the West (Macrobius, Chalcidius, Boethius). In the Middle Ages Neoplatonism survived in the Latin West (Johannes Scotus Erigena) and the Byzantine East (Michael Psellus) and within the Arabo-Hebraic cultural sphere, and it underwent a revival during the Renaissance (Gemistos Plethon in the Byzantine East; Marsilio Ficino, *Pico della Mirandola, and Giordano Bruno in the West).

Neoplatonism postulates the derivation by a process of emanation of a hierarchically ordered series of spheres of being, leading from an ineffable and unqualified first principle (the One) to the material world. The "descent" is associated with increasing determination and multiplicity (imperfection). Although matter at the lowest rank in the scale of being is the principle of evil, the material world, as a reflection of the intelligible, possesses goodness and beauty (cf. *Gnosticism), and by contemplation of it the human soul ascends to the spiritual world. The human soul, being spiritual and self-subsistent, is independent of the body and having descended from the supernal world, reverts to its source by means of ethical and intellectual purification (or by theurgy; e.g., Iamblichus). The stages of ascent were commonly designated (after Proclus) the via purgativa (purification), via illuminativa (illumination), and via unitiva (union), the highest stage, a kind of unio mystica (mystical union) and apotheosis, being the sole means by which the One is apprehended. Individuation and investiture of the soul with a body is devalorized; release from the fetters of the body in ecstasy or in death is equivalent to salvation, this philosophical soteriology tending toward combination with a doctrine of metempsychosis.

Neoplatonism is thus seen to be a religious movement and a doctrine of salvation as well as a philosophical system. As such, it was potentially an antagonist and an ally of the monotheistic faiths. Ancient Neoplatonism (excluding the school of Alexandria) was hostile to Christianity: Porphyry and Julian wrote refutations of Christianity; Iamblichus, Proclus, and Damascius were implacable opponents of Christianity. Indeed, Neoplatonism as a philosophical interpretation of pagan mythology (e.g., Iablichus and Proclus) represents the dying gasp of ancient paganism. The fundamental postulates of Neoplatonism conflict with those of the monotheistic faiths: an impersonal first principle, rejection of creation and revelation, the conception of man as essentially soul, and the attendant soteriology-eschatology (including metempsychosis) involving submergence of the individual soul in the universal soul. Nevertheless, for monotheistic philosophers the contradictions were not insurmountable. In fact, the method of figurative interpretation cultivated by ancient Neoplatonists (after the Pythagoreans and Stoics) in order to identify pagan mythological themes with philosophical ideas (Proclus, for example, identified the henads of his system with the traditional gods) was employed by monotheistic philosophers in order to read their neoplatonic doctrines into the text of Scripture. The ladder of Jacob's dream was thus interpreted as a symbol of the soul's ascent (e.g., by Ibn Gabirol; see A. Altman, Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism (1969), 54–55; and A. Nygren, Agape and Eros (19532), 230, 375, 441). Creation became a metaphor for eternal procession. Revelation and prophecy were discussed in terms reminiscent of the unio mystica. This identification was not without some basis in ancient Neoplatonism either, if one considers the aspect of grace or divine initiative implicit in Enneads 5:3, 17 and 5:5, 8, or the use of the Chaldean Oracles and Orphic Hymns by Porphyry and Iamblichus. Assimilation to the divine, the goal of philosophy according to the neoplatonic introductions to Aristotle of the Alexandria school, resonated with similar ideals of the monotheistic traditions. The deep spirituality of Neoplatonism promoted the kind of synthesis with religious feeling that finds moving expression in Ibn Gabirol's poem, Keter Malkhut.

In order to grasp the character of Neoplatonism as it was transmitted to the medieval world of Judaism and Islam, it is necessary to understand that it was closely bound with much of the religious and pseudo-scientific heritage of late antiquity (alchemy), Hermetism (see *Hermetic Writings), magic, theurgy. Also, Neoplatonism was not simply an amplification of *Plato. Plotinus admitted into his system those aspects of Aristotelianism (also Pythagoreanism and *Stoicism) which met its requirements. Porphyry went even further and initiated the reception of *Aristotle's lecture courses into the Neoplatonic curriculum. The school of Alexandria devoted much of its labors to commentaries upon Aristotle. The thesis that the views of Plato and Aristotle coincided, if properly understood, a theme traceable to Ammonius Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus, was embraced by Porphyry and influenced the course of Neoplatonism and its absorption within the Arabo-Hebraic milieu (cf. al-*Fārābī's On the Harmony of the Opinions of the Two Sages, the Divine Plato and Aristotle).

While reception of Neoplatonism in the medieval Latin West was mainly confined to Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius, the Arabo-Hebraic milieu was saturated by numerous currents. Plotinus was conveyed in the guise of the Theology of Aristotle (a paraphrase of parts of Books 4–6 of the Enneads), through other paraphrases ascribed to "the Greek Sage," and a work entitled The Divine Science (J. van Ess, in bibl., 334ff.). The Theology of Aristotle is extant in a shorter (vulgate) and longer version, the latter preserved in an Arabic manuscript in Hebrew characters (in Leningrad). This longer version was translated (on the basis of a Damascus manuscript) into Hebrew and Italian by a Cypriot Jewish physician, Moses Arovas, who was also instrumental in having it rendered into Latin (S.M. Stern, in bibl., 59 n. 4, 79 n. 1).

Underlying the longer version of the Theology of Aristotle is another Aristotle pseudograph discovered by S.M. Stern and called by him "Ibn Ḥasdāy's Neoplatonist" (it was incorporated by *Ibn Ḥasdai in his *Ben ha-Melekh ve-ha-Nazir; see Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 95 ff.; Stern, in bibl.). (On knowledge of Porphyry's work in the medieval world of Islam, see J. van Ess, in bibl., 338; R. Walzer in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 (1965), 948–50.) Proclus' Elements of Theology was transmitted in the guise of the Arabic Kitāb al-ḥayr al-maḥḍ ("Book of the Pure Good"), known in the West as Liber de causis and generally understood to be a work by Aristotle, and three propositions of the Elements of Theology have been recovered in Arabic. Proclus' work On the Eternity of the Universe was also known. (For the transmission of works by Proclus, see J. van Ess, in bibl., 339ff.; H.D. Saffrey, in Miscellanea Mediaevalia, 2 (1963), 267ff.; and R. Walzer in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1 (1960), 1340.) Another pseudo-Aristotelian work of neoplatonic character was the Liber de pomo, which was extremely popular and available in Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew (see J. Kraemer, in Studi orentalistici in onore di Giorgio Levi della Vida, 1 (1956), 484–506). Neoplatonic ideas are also associated with pre-Socratics (particularly Pythagoras and Empedocles) in Arabic doxographic and gnomological collections (e.g., Ṣāʿid al-Andalusi's Ṭabaqāt al-umam and al-Shahrastānī's al-Milal wa al-niḥal). *Empedocles in neoplatonic dress is also preserved in The Book of Five Substances, of which a Hebrew translation from Arabic is extant (D. Kaufmann, Studien ueber Salomon ibn Gabirol (1899), 16ff.). Teachings of the school of Alexandria were transmitted mainly by Syriac-speaking Christians. The accommodation of Christian beliefs in that school (e.g., by Ammonius; see Westerink, in bibl. xii–xxv) may have served as a model for adjustment to religious belief on the part of Islamic and Jewish philosophers.

Medieval Islamic and Jewish Neoplatonism is not confined to philosophers. In both Judaism and Islam Neoplatonism entered the mystical stream. One finds such influence, for example, in the later Sufi works of al-*Ghazáli (the end of his Mishkāt al-anwār); it permeated Jewish kabbalistic circles in Spain and Provence, transforming an earlier gnostic tradition, and had an impact upon the German pietists (Scholem, Mysticism, 117). Israeli's Chapter on the Elements ("The Mantua Text"), largely based upon "Ibn Ḥasdāy's Neoplatonist," was studied by the Gerona kabbalists, attracted by the similarity between its emanationist scheme and their own system of Sefirot, and it was commented upon by *Azriel of Gerona (Perush ha-Aggadot; see Altman and Stern, in bibl., 130–2; Stern in bibl., 61).

Isaac *Israeli is the fountainhead of Jewish Neoplatonism. He defines philosophy, following the neoplatonic introductions to Aristotle, as assimilation to God according to human capacity (from Plato's Theatetus 176b; see Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 28ff., 197). Ascent of the human soul to the divine is described according to Proclus' three stages (ibid., 185ff.), the ultimate stage depicted as becoming angelic or divine, an experience to which he applies the term devekut, thus anticipating its employment by later Jewish philosophers and mystics (Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 190). The famous Plotinus passage on his own ecstatic union with the One (Enneads, 4:8, 1) may have inspired Israeli; quoted in the Theology of Aristotle and in the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Safāʾ ("Epistles of the *Brethren of Sincerity"), it is also referred to by Moses *Ibn Ezra, Ibn *Gabirol, and Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera (Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 191–2). The neoplatonic doctrine concerning the unknowability of the first principle is expressed in Israeli's thesis that only God's existence (or quoddity: anniyya, ḥaliyya) is knowable, and not his essence (quiddity: mahiyya), a distinction perpetuated by *Baḥya ibn Paquda, *Joseph ben Ẓaddik, *Judah Halevi, and Abraham *Ibn Daud (Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 21–23).

The transplantation of Jewish thought to Andalusia is marked by an initial neoplatonic direction inaugurated by Ibn Gabirol. His Mekor Ḥayyim is unique in that it sets forth a philosophical system of neoplatonic tincture without any admixture of Jewish teaching. Significantly, the only authority named is Plato. Characteristically, the goal of human existence is the conjunction (ittiṣāl, applicatio) of the human soul with the supernal world through knowledge and action, i.e., intellectual and ethical purification (1:2; Arabic fragments published by S. Pines in Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 225–6). The fruit of the study of philosophy is said to be liberation from death and conjunction with the source of life (5:43). In the neoplatonic manner, knowledge of the First Essence is precluded because it transcends everything and is incommensurable with the intellect (1:5; Pines, ibid., 224–5). Like Plotinus, Ibn Gabirol tends to rely upon concrete imagery from the world of senses in order to explain suprasensous phenomena. But the insertion of will (irāda, voluntas) after the First Essence and his universal hylomorphism set his system apart from that of Plotinus.

Though the impact of the Mekor Ḥayyim was greater upon Christian scholastic philosophy than it was in the Jewish philosophical tradition, it did exert some influence in Jewish circles. Moses ibn Ezra quoted it in his Arugat ha-Bosem and a Hebrew epitome was made by Falaquera. Also, Ibn Gabirol's views are quoted by Abraham *Ibn Ezra in his commentaries, from which it can be seen how Ibn Gabirol bridged between his Neoplatonism and Judaism through figurative biblical interpretation.

Ibn Gabirol's successors do not evince his depth or originality. Baḥya ibn Paquda combines commonplace neoplatonic themes (e.g., God's absolute unity as distinct from the relative unity of this world) with his mystical pietism. The anonymous (Pseudo-*Bahya) Kitāb Maʿānī al-Nafs treats its main theme of psychology in a neoplatonic manner. The soul is a spiritual substance whose home is the supernal world. In its descent it assimilates impressions from the celestial spheres and the zones of the elements (a gnostic-Hermetic notion), and it reascends by means of ethical and intellectual purification, whereas evil souls may be confined to the region beneath the heavens (cf. Altmann and Stern, in bibl., 114). There are also neoplatonic elements in *Abraham b. Ḥiyya's writings (his theory of emanation and doctrine of metempsychosis), and Joseph ibn Ẓaddik makes a common neoplatonic motif–that man is a microcosm–the theme of his work (Ha-Olam ha-Katan); but no one, aside from Ibn Gabirol, is as deeply committed to a neoplatonic world view as is Abraham ibn Ezra, even as regards such sensitive subjects as creation and prophecy. Also to be considered is Judah Halevi, whose notion of "the divine influence" (al-Amr al-Ilāhi/ha-inyan ha-Elohi) may be of neoplatonic origin and whose idea of the God of Abraham is said to have been "conceived metaphysically in terms of the neoplatonic idea of God" (Guttmann, Philosophies, 133).

The Aristotelian reaction in the Islamic world (*Averroes) is paralleled on the Jewish side, where in the middle of the 12th century Aristotelianism begins to displace Neoplatonism as the regnant system. However, despite Ibn Daud's strictures against Ibn Gabirol and the authoritative opinion of *Maimonides in his disesteem for Israeli, neglect of Ibn Gabirol, and contempt for popular neoplatonic works, Neoplatonism did not entirely lose its appeal for Jewish thinkers. In fact, Ibn Ḥasdai respected Israeli, as did Falaquera. Furthermore, Aristotelianism was itself thoroughly suffused with neoplatonic themes. Maimonides was far from untouched by neoplatonic influence. Words for emanation occur approximately 90 times in the first two parts of the Guide (D.H. Haneth, in Tarbiz, 23 (1952), 178). Neoplatonic traces are also discernible in his description of knowledge in terms of light and lightning metaphors (from *Avicenna or *Avempace: Pines, Guide of the Perplexed, civ–cv), his insistence upon denying positive attributes of God, his placing limitations upon human knowledge, and perhaps the idea of assimilation to the divine at the end of the Guide (3:54).

The last work in the tradition of Jewish Neoplatonism is Judah *Abrabanel's Dialoghi di amore, written in the atmosphere of the Renaissance revival of Neoplatonism in the manner of contemporary discussions of the Symposium and love treatises (see J.C. Nelson, Renaissance Theory of Love (1958), passim). Love is a universal unifying force. The neoplatonic One and the theory of emanation are ascribed to Plato. Divine intellect (wisdom) emanates from God as light emanates from the sun, and this intellect is the creator of the world (cf. Enneads, 5:9, 3), containing all essences or forms in a simple and unified way (S. Caramella (ed.), Dialoghi d'amore (1929), 348). Judah Abrabanel was clearly influenced by Ibn Gabirol, whom he mentions by name along with his work (ibid., 246).


Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Husik, Philosophy, index; A. Altmann and S.M. Stern, Isaac Israeli (1958); J. van Ess, in: K. Flasch (ed.), Parusia (1965); P. Merlan, Monopsychism, Mysticism and Metaconsciousness (1963); idem, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (19602); R. Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition (19532); L.G. Westerink, Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy (1962); A. Altmann, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 501–7; S.M. Stern, in: Oriens, 13–14 (1961), 58–120; A.H. Armstrong, The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967); G. Scholem, in: Eranos-Jahrbuch 1964, 33 (1965), 9–50; K. Praechter, Richtungen und Schulen im Neuplatonismus (1910); J. Schlanger, La philosophie de Salomon ibn Gabirol (1968).

[Joel Kraemer]


views updated Jun 11 2018


In the strict sense, Neoplatonism designates the particular form that platonism took on at the end of the ancient era, from the 3d to the 6th centuries after Christ. In a broad sense, it designates the currents of thought before or after this period that offer some analogy with one or other of the characteristics of Platonism at the end of the ancient era. The treatment in this article discusses the place of Neoplatonism in the history of ancient thought, the history of Neoplatonism, and the relationships between Neoplatonism and Christianity.

Characteristics of Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism, taken in the strict sense, exhibits three principal characteristics. First it is an exegesis of Plato's Dialogues, coupled with an attempt to systematize even disparate texts by appealing to a hierarchy among levels of reality. Then it is a method of spiritual life. Finally, and notably in the case of proclus, it is a pagan theology seeking to systematize, and attain a rational grasp of, the revelations of the gods.

Recent historical studies seem to conclude that these characteristics are not new and that Neoplatonism existed already at the time of ancient Platonism, indeed even during Plato's life. The interpretations of Plato proposed by A. J. Festugière and Léon Robin authorize such a view. Following W. Theiler's discovery of a form of Neoplatonism deriving from Antiochus of Ascalon and Posidonius, C. J. de Vogel and Philip Merlan found in the ancient Academy, i.e., in the works of Aristotle and of Plato himself, the existence of a hierarchy among the levels of reality and the modes of knowledge (the good, the ideas, souls, nature, and matter). Again, the history of allegorical interpretation has shown that pagan theology was also very traditional. Thus what is called Neoplatonism would quite simply be identified with Platonic scholasticism.

Although this view merits serious consideration, it should not obfuscate what is new and irreducible in late Platonism as compared with ancient Platonism, namely, the desire to arrive at complete systematization and absolute internal coherence. During the 2d century, immediately before plotinus's work, the philosophical tradition was overburdened with heteroclite and incoherent elements. Even Antiochus of Ascalon added doctrinal elements, borrowed from aristotelianism and stoicism, to Platonic teaching. Moreover, there was a tendency to merge philosophical syncretism with a religious syncretism that made equal acknowledgement of all revelations capable of providing salvation for the soul. This was the epoch of pagan, Christian, and Jewish gnosticism.

Reacting against such a confusion, Plotinus invited man to interior simplification and unification. In this he was heir to Stoicism, which proposed the attainment of spiritual coherence by way of recollection and conversion to the divine Word, immanent in man, as well as in all other things. The immanence of the Word was assured by a total blending or complete interpenetration of the Word and matter.

Neoplatonism thus transferred the spirit of Stoicism to the Platonic universe. Everything is in all: each level of the hierarchy of things contains the whole of possible reality, but under a different aspect. The One contains all things, as do also the Intellect, the Soul, or the sensible world, but each hypostasis contains the whole of reality in its own way. In the One, all things are potentially present; in the Intellect they are compenetrated in an immediate intuition; in the Soul they are unfolded as in rational discourse; in the sensible world, they are mutually exterior, like sensations. The conversion, then, consists in reascending to a mode of knowledge that is even more unitive, in such a way as to arrive at a coincidence, in mystical ecstasy, with the Absolute from which these levels of reality and these modes of knowledge proceed. The system of things and the life of the soul are animated with the same movement of procession and conversion, unfolding and concentration.

History of Neoplatonism. At the beginning of the 3d century, at Alexandria, Plotinus had pursued the courses of Ammonius Saccas, who was the teacher also of origen, the Father of the Church. Plotinus was strongly influenced by his teacher and later, in Rome, taught "according to the spirit of Ammonius." In default of precise knowledge of the doctrines professed by Ammonius, Plotinus must remain for us the founder of Neoplatonism, i.e., the movement for interior unification just described.

Porphyry's Influence. With porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus and his successor at Rome, a decisive turning point was reached. While preserving the purely Platonic message of his teacher, Porphyry returned to the earlier traditions and held that religious revelations, too, could make the way of salvation known. He is the first known philosopher to comment upon the Chaldaic Oracles, a long poem composed during the era of Marcus Aurelius. This pretended to expound a divine revelation that, beside theurgic practices aimed at leading the soul to the heavenly world, proposed a theological system inspired by Platonism and Pythagoreanism. It taught that after a supreme, transcendent God, endowed with intellect and will, came a second God, the Demiurge, and a whole hierarchy of astral divinities. Because of Porphyry's influence, these Oracles were to become the bible of Neoplatonism. However, taken literally, their teachings were hardly compatible with the doctrine of Plotinus.

Iamblichus and Proclus. All later Neoplatonism can be defined as an attempt to achieve a systematization among Plotinianism, the Chaldaic Oracles, and the Orphic Hymns. In opposition to Porphyry, with a view to safeguarding the transcendency of the One (strongly maintained by Plotinus), and by taking account of even the smallest details in the text of the Oracles, his successors multiplied the intermediary hypostases and the levels of reality. At the beginning of the 4th century, the Syrian, iamblichus, became the initiator of this new exegetical method. Although he taught in Syria, after his death (c. 330) the greater part of his disciples formed a group at Pergamum in Mysia. From this school came the writings of Emperor Julian and the treatise of Sallust entitled On the Gods and the World. The tradition of Iamblichus seems to have been introduced at Athens during the second half of the 4th century.

At the beginning of the 5th century, Syrianus and Proclus, the representatives of this tendency, constructed a vast system which brought Platonism, Chaldeanism, and orphism into unison. Two basic principles dominate this synthesis. The first is the principle of analogy: while developing the unity represented by the immediately higher level of reality, each level of reality imitates this unity; everything is in all, according to more or less unified modes. The second principle is that of mediation: to imitate transcendent unity, each level of reality is endowed with a ternary structure, which, departing from unity, unfolds itself and goes on to return to unity because of conversion; to become itself, it must leave itself. In 529, the Emperor Justinian decided to bring an end to the school at Athens, the last bastion of paganism in the Christian empire. The head of the school, Damascius, then took refuge with his disciples near King Chosroes in Persia.

Damascius was the last great Neoplatonist. His Questions and Solutions Concerning First Principles constitute a profound criticism of Neoplatonism. The notion of the Absolute is for him very problematic. If the Absolute does not have any relation with anything else, it can no longer be the Principle. By the very claim that the Absolute is utterly unknowable and undefinable, the relation of other things to the Absolute is undefinable, and the whole metaphysical edifice of Neoplatonism comes in danger of crumbling.

Effect in the West. If the East was dominated by the tradition of Iamblichus, the Latin West knew only the tradition of Porphyry and Plotinus. This is true of pagan authorsFirmicus Maternus, macrobius, and Martianus Capellaas well as of Christian writersMarius Victorinus, Ambrose, Augustine, calcidius, and Claudianus Mamertus. boethius alone, who wrote at the beginning of the 6th century, came under the influence of the schools at Athens and Alexandria. Even at Alexandria, the influence of Iamblichus's tradition was disseminated slowly and in moderate form. At the beginning of the 5th century, Hypatias and Synesius knew only Plotinus and Porphyry. Only at a later date did Hierocles, Hermias, Ammonius, Olympidorus, and Simplicius follow courses given at the school in Athens; and the Neoplatonism that they professed was always more sober, of a more moral character, and more scientific than that professed by their teachers: Syrianus, Proclus, or Damascius. Moreover, from the 6th century onward, the school became predominantly Aristotelian and Christian.

Neoplatonism and Christianity. From Plotinus to Damascius, Neoplatonism was always anti-Christian. Attacking the Christian Gnostics, Plotinus simultaneously combatted specifically Christian notions, as, for example, that of creation. Porphyry and the Emperor Julian wrote treatises against the Christians that provoked refutations from Eusebius of Cesarea and Cyril of Alexandria.

From the middle of the 4th century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East, Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and nemesius of emesa, and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine, made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphyry, frequently without citing them. In the 5th century, pseudo-dionysius borrowed his hierarchical universe from Proclus. In the East, this direct influence of Neoplatonism continued throughout the Byzantine period, notably up to Psellus (11th century), Michael Italicos (12th century), Nicephoros Gregoras (14th century), and Gemistos Plethon (15th century). Plethon played a role in restoring Neoplatonism to the West in the course of the Italian Renaissance, at the court of the Medici. In the West, from the high period of the Middle Ages onward, Neoplatonism was accepted through the works of Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, Calcidius, and Macrobius. In the 9th century, john scotus erigena translated the writings of pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, and, in his De divisione naturae, combined the Proclean Neoplatonism of pseudo-Dionysius with the Porphyrian Neoplatonism of Augustine.

Arabian Thought. From the 12th century onward, Neoplatonism entered the medieval West by another route, namely, that of arabian philosophy. In fact, the texts of the Greek philosophers had been translated into Syriac by Nestorian Christians at the school of Edessa (431439), and once they had been propagated in Persia, they were translated into Arabic during the 9th century, after the establishment of Baghdad. Under the influence of these translations, Arabian philosophy became a Neoplatonic interpretation of the works of Aristotle. Once it came into Spain during the 12th century, this Arabian philosophy placed Christian thought into renewed contact with Neoplatonism.

From the 12th century onward, Latin translations from Arabic or Greek gave Christian theologians a direct knowledge of Neoplatonic works, namely, the liber de causis (translated during the 12th century), the Theology of Aristotle, the Elements of Theology by Proclus, and Proclus's commentary on the Parmenides, translated by William of Moerbeke in the 13th century. Having received a strongly Platonized thought from the Christian tradition, certain theologians of this era, reading these Neoplatonic texts, regarded Platonism as naturally Christian.

Later Mysticism. The influence of Neoplatonism reached its apogee, at the end of the 13th century, in the writings of certain German Dominicans, all disciples of albert the great, namely, theodoric of freiberg, Berthold of Mosburg, nicholas of strassburg, and especially Meister eckhart. Under the influence of this current, mysticism in the Rhine region developed also through the writings of henry suso, tauler, and ruys broeck. This German Neoplatonism was to become one of the sources of modern thought through the work of nicholas of cusa, who transformed the metaphysics of Proclus into a method of knowledge that sought an ever deeper vision of the unity of the universe.

All these Byzantine, Latin, Arabian, or Germanic currents of Neoplatonism were united in the Italian Renaissance, which produced the great attempts at religious and philosophical unity by Giordano bruno and Tommaso campanella. During the modern era, the Platonic tradition was to be perpetuated both in England by the cambridge platonists and in the Siris of Berkeley (1744), and in Germany by the idealism of schelling and hegel.

Evaluation. The encounter between Neoplatonism and Christianity thus conditions the entire history of Western philosophy. During the patristic period, it provided an apt vocabulary for theology. The Trinitarian theology of Marius Victorinus, Basil of Cesarea, Augustine, and Synesius borrowed formulas from Porphyry, enabling it to express the unity of substance in the Trinity of hypostases. The Porphyrian expressions concerning the union of the soul and the body were of equal service in the formulation of the dogma concerning the hypostatic union, that is, a union without confusion of natures. In this regard, Nemesius has been a most valuable witness.

Yet, from the patristic era onward, Neoplatonism has had an influence on Christian teachings concerning the spiritual life that is highly disputable. The ancient tradition went from the humanity of Christ to the knowledge of the Father; it took ecclesiastical experience, i.e., the effect of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as its point of departure to attain God. Neoplatonism, on the contrary, pretended that an immediate and experimental knowledge of the transcendent God is possible. While making the necessary corrections in this matter, St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa were led to a like doctrine. From this there would result, in teachings on mysticism, a disequilibrium between the doctrine on union with God and the doctrine on the mediation of the Incarnate Christ. Pushed to the extreme, the danger makes its appearance in such writings as those of Meister Eckhart, who held that "the uncreated spark" of the soul is co-eternal with the Ineffable.

Bibliography: t. whittaker, The Neo-Platonists: A Study in the History of Hellenism (2d ed. Cambridge, England 1928). a. h. armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (3d ed. London 1957). p. henry, Plotin et l'Occident (Louvain 1934). p. p. courcelle, Les Lettres grecques en Occident (new rev. ed. Paris 1948). a. j. festugiÈre, Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon (Paris 1936). l. robin, Les Rapports de l'être et de la connaissance d'après Platon (Paris 1957). w. theiler, Die Vorbereitung des Neuplatonismus (Berlin 1930); Die chaldäischen Orakel und die Hymnen des Synesios (Halle 1942). c. j. de vogel, "On the Neoplatonic Character of Platonism and the Platonic Character of Neoplatonism," Mind 62 (1953) 4364. p. merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (2d ed. The Hague 1953). Fondation Hardt, pour l'études de l'antiquité classique, v.5, Les Sources de Plotin (Geneva 1960). h. lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Cairo 1956). c. sallust, Concerning the Gods and the Universe, tr. a. d. nock (New York 1926). damascius le diadoque, Dubitationes et solutiones de primis principiis, ed. c. e. ruelle (Paris 1889). r. arnou, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 12.2:22582392. p. shorey, Platonism, Ancient and Modern (Berkeley 1938). w. d. geoghegan, Platonism in Recent Religious Thought (New York 1958).

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Neoplatonism is the modern name for the philosophy taught by Plotinus who came to Rome shortly after 234 c.e. and opened a school there. Plotinus' pupil, Porphyry, who published Plotinus' works after his death, was largely responsible for publicizing his philosophy and incidentally, antagonizing Christian leaders who were both attracted to and repelled by Plotinus' teachings. Porphyry in turn had a pupil named Iamblichus who founded a school in Syria. Iamblichus' works are all lost, but his philosophic ideas lived on in Athens, where Plato's old Academy was revitalized by Neoplatonism. The Neoplatonic Academy, which regarded itself as a direct descendant of the Academy that Plato founded, became a center for Neoplatonic doctrine until the emperor Justinian closed the school in 529 c.e., a move which marks the end of pagan philosophy. Thus Neoplatonism is the last product of the Greek philosophic tradition which went back to the Milesian philosophers in archaic Greece.

Remembering Plato.

The philosophy of Plotinus harked back to Plato, though not to all of his writings. Plotinus paid no attention to Plato's early dialogues, choosing to draw from the dialogues of Plato's middle and late periods. Plato in his Republic referred to the "Being beyond Being" which is the Idea of the Good. The "Being beyond Being" re-emerges in Plotinus' conception of the "One," which is the principle of all being, and hence "beyond Being." It is infinite and, as such, it has no attributes. It simply transcends any description or knowledge. But while the goal of Plato's philosophy was the achievement of knowledge of the divine being, Plotinus went a step further and posited that the goal should be an actual union with the divine being. For Plotinus, the "One" is all things and yet none of them. It is formless, but it possesses a kind of true beauty, for it is the power that produces all that is beautiful. The "One" produces offspring, and its greatest offspring, second only to itself, is Intellect. Soul has the same relation to Intellect as Intellect has to the "One." It is the source of all that lives and, as such, it must be immortal. Soul is the principle of motion. Capable of moving itself, it is the cause of movement in the world, and it is the source of life for all bodies that have souls within them. Soul, therefore, rules nature. So between the "One" and the material world there are three descending grades of reality: "Intelligence," that is, the nous (world-mind); the psyche (world-soul); and physis (nature).

The Desire of the Soul.

The soul's desire is to attain union with the "One," and to do that, it must itself become simple and formless. The soul must discard all awareness of intelligible realities. The union of the Soul with the "One" cannot be described. It is like the return of a wanderer to his native land. To attain this union, a person must free his soul from all outward things and turn completely within himself, rid his mind even of ideal forms and forget himself and thus come within sight of the "One." The Soul loves God and wants to be one with him. This was not a philosophy for a person who took an active role in public life. Plato had founded his Academy as a school of future statesmen, but the world had changed since the fourth century b.c.e., and Plotinus' philosophers withdrew and sought salvation in contemplation.

The Final Development.

Porphyry's pupil, Iamblichus (c. 250–c. 325 c.e.), after studies in Rome, returned home to Syria and founded his own school there. His ideas survive, though most of his writings do not, and what is remarkable about them is that he explicitly subordinated philosophy to theurgy, the art of communicating with God by oracles, mysticism and magic. Iamblichus imported a great many religious ideas from the East, particularly from Egypt, into Neoplatonism. In the fifth century c.e. the Neoplatonic Academy acquired new life under a scholarch (headmaster) named Proclus (412–484 c.e.). Proclus was born in Constantinople and came to Athens as a young man to study philosophy. He stayed to become the head of the Academy. Professors taught in their homes—the park-like setting where Plato himself had taught had long since disappeared—and the remains of Proclus' house have been discovered. It was below the Acropolis, where Proclus had a good view of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena. When the gold-and-ivory cult statue of Athena was removed from the Parthenon, Proclus had a dream in which Athena appeared to him and told him that now she was ousted from her temple, she would have to make her home with him. Proclus enjoyed Athena's favor, it was said. He and his disciples were also devotees of the Sun God, to whom they offered daily prayers. Life in the Neoplatonic Academy was almost that of a pagan monastery. In 529 c.e., the emperor Justinian closed it down, and the long tradition came to an end.


The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Kevin Corrigan, Reading Plotinus: A Practical Introduction to Neoplatonism (West Bend, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2002).

L. E. Goodman, ed., Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought (Albany, N.Y.: State University Press of New York, 1992).

John Gregory, The Neoplatonists: A Reader (London, England: Routledge, 1999).

A. C. Lloyd, The Anatomy of Neoplatonism (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990).

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

Lucas Siorvanes, "Neoplatonism," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. Ed. Graham Speake (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 1143–1145.

R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (London, England: Duckworth, 1995).


views updated Jun 11 2018


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


views updated Jun 27 2018

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.