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 authors—Firmicus Maternus, macrobius, and Martianus Capella—as well as of Christian writers—Marius 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 (431–439), 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.
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"Neoplatonism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/neoplatonism
"Neoplatonism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/neoplatonism