In the centuries following the death of the Athenian philosopher, much of Plato’s original teaching was expanded and taken into Neo-Platonism, an important philosophical movement that had a profound effect on the thinking of the early Church fathers and subsequently became a strong influence on the development of Christian, Muslim and Judaic theology.
Christianity and Neoplatonism
The emergence of Neoplatonist concepts not only revitalised the teaching of the traditional philosophical schools, that were supported by the more sophisticated sector of pagan society, but they also played an important role in shaping the thought and prospects of the embattled early Christian Church.
Christianity, for the first two centuries of its existence held little coherent theology and relied purely on a simple commitment of faith to inspire its converts. This lack of sophistication rather limited the appeal of the new religion for the better educated of the Roman citizens, causing Christianity to seek its initial support almost entirely amongst the lesser educated underclasses of society. A situation that thereby left its adherents vulnerable to criticism and persecution from those holding real power within the state. But after prominent Christian leaders began to embrace neoplatonism the tide began to change.
Neoplatonism influenced early Christian thinkers such as Origen and Augustine of Hippo, who identified God with Neoplatonism’s ‘The One’ and Jesus of Nazareth with the eternal Logos or “The Word” as we find in the modern Bible . These identifications had a profound effect on the development of subsequent Christian theology and led to the coming together of progressive Western (Greek) philosophical thought with the more conservative ancient Middle Eastern traditions and values encompassed in the monotheism of Judaism – all was held together by the recognised divine status of Christ. This merged theological basis, facilitated by sophisticated neo-platonist thinkers was arguably the firm foundation that gave the early Christian church its strength and facilitated its rapid growth throughout the Roman Empire and its subsequent appeal on a worldwide basis to so many diverse cultures around the world.
Neoplatonic thought also influenced mystical Christian thought known as Gnosticism, as well as the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi. Even though the Neoplatonic Academy was closed in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian, later on Renaissance thinkers were highly influenced by Neoplatonism, especially Renaissance figures such as Medici of Florence and Michelangelo. Neoplatonism has also influenced modern thought, particularly the ideas of Kabbalah and theosophy, and contemporary scholars such as Goethe, Hegel, Ralf Waldo Emerson, and Carl Jung.
Neoplatonism is an early 19th century term coined by European scholasticism to refer to the period of Platonic philosophy beginning with the work of Plotinus in the 3rd century AD and ending with the closing of the Platonic Academy in 529 CE. Neoplatonism developed outside Academic Platonism and is often described as mystical or religious in nature owing to its synthesis of Christian and Gnostic ideas along with traditional Platonic philosophy and oriental mysticism.
Neoplatonism dominated the Greek schools of philosophy, and its prime postulation was that of an all-sufficient source of being and life known as the ‘One’ and the ‘Infinite’, as opposed to the many and the finite. All things come from the source of One, and individual souls can rise to mystical union with the One through contemplation. However, the One is beyond all being because it cannot be known through reasoning or understanding. Plato believed that only what is part of being can be known. Derived existence is an image and reflection of the source of being, and the totality of being is conceived as a series of concentric circles fading away towards the verge of non-existence. In the phenomenal world, unity and harmony are replaced by strife and conflict leading to an elusive existence which seeks to be reunited with the Source of Being.
In order to be reunited with the source of being, or the Supreme Good, the soul must retrace its steps back to the source through the practice of virtue. The ultimate attainment is that of becoming “God” through perfect passivity. The soul must first contemplate corporeal things in their harmony and multiplicity, and then rise from the world of ideas and draw itself into the depths of being. The stage of indescribable bliss, harmony and divinity is reached when the soul finally beholds in silence through the highest concentration and is able to bathe in eternity and lose itself in the source of being, God, the One, the foundation of life, the root of the soul.
Plotinus, a major Greek philosopher of the ancient world, is traditionally regarded as the father of Neoplatonism even though he regarded himself as a Platonist whose greatest exponent was none other than Plato himself. Plotinus’s ability to fuse the creation narrative of Genesis and the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus set forth a long tradition of cosmological theorising which eventually culminated in the writing of Plotinus’s Enneads. No one before Plotinus could achieve the merging of the inner mystical experience of self into some larger life.
Due to the fulsome biography, which one of Plotinus’s disciples, Porphyry, provided, more is known about Plotinus’s life than most other ancient philosophers. Plotinus was born inLycopolis,Egyptin 204 C.E, and died inRomein 245. Plotinus’s three basic principles of metaphysics are that of ‘the One’, Intellect, and Soul. ‘One’ is both self-caused and the cause of being for everything else in the universe. The One is so simple that it is indescribable directly; it is simple yet virtually everything else at the same time. The only way to describe the One is to deduce everything it is not.
The first derivation from the One is Intellect. Intellect accounts for the possibility of intelligible predication. Intellect is the principle of essence and intelligibility as the One is the principle of being. Intellect needs the One as a cause of its being and the One needs Intellect in order for there to be anything with an intelligible structure. The activity of Intellect is the highest activity of life.
The highest form of desire is found in the life of Intellect, and it can only be eternally satisfied through contemplation of the One. Soul is the principle of desire, and anything with a soul – including plants and animals – seeks things to satisfy its desire for a state other than the state which the living thing is currently in. These desires can be simple things like food and sleep, or cognitive desires, procreative desires, immortal desires, anything which is deficient. The Soul is related to Intellect the way Intellect is related to the One.
Matter, for Plotinus, is to be identified with evil and privation of intelligibility. Matter is ultimately caused by the One, the Good, and it is evil only when it becomes a goal or end for entities. To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good. Human beings orientate themselves in the direction of evil by opting for bodily attachments. The human person is essentially a soul within a body which is used as an instrument for its temporary embodied life. There is a tension between the body and the soul, a constant duality of cognitive states on the one hand, and non-cognitive states on the other. Ultimately, the happy life is one of self-sufficiency.
Poryphyry recorded the last words of Plotinus to be: “Strive to bring back the god in yourselves to the God in the All”.
Poryphyry and Iamblichus
Plotinus’ two major successors, Porphyry of Tyre and Iamblichus of Apamea, each developed in their own way certain isolated aspects of Plotinus’s thought, but neither of them developed a rigorous philosophy to match that of their master.
Poryphry’s works include a summary of his master’s theories (Plotinus), an introduction to the Categories of Aristotle, a treatise on music, and two studies of the astronomical and astrological theories of Claudius Ptolemy. He also wrote biographies about Pythagoras and Plotinus, but his most central interest lay in the transference of the soul to ever higher realms of existence. Poryphyry developed a doctrine of ascent to the Intellect through exercise of virtue. However, he opposed Plotinus’s idea of instant salvation and dictated that the way to progress is through gradual perfection.
Iamblichus was a student of Poryphyry, and he believed in a Supreme One even higher than the One of Plotinus. He believed in the Supreme One which generates an Intellectual Cosmos, yet remains beyond all predication and determinacy. Iamblichus divided the All-Soul into two lesser souls, each corresponding to the rational and irrational faculties. He believed in an array of intermediate spiritual beings called daemons, the souls of heroes and angels. He disagreed with Plotinus on the gods descending upon the humankind; instead, he advocated that the relation of humankind to the divine is one of subordinate to superior.
Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius
It was Proclus who, shortly before the closing of the Academy, bequeathed a systematic Platonic philosophy upon the world that in certain ways approached the sophistication of Plotinus. Along with Plotinus, Proclus is amongst the most accomplished and rigorous of the Neoplatonists. He was born inConstantinoplein 410 CE, and studied philosophy inAthens.
Proclus was highly influenced by Iamblichus, and his philosophy is more distinguished and precise than that of Plotinus. The Intellect, for Proclus, is the culmination of the One, this view is in opposition to Plotinus’s view that the Intellect proceeds from the One. Proclus believed that the movement of existence begins with an abstract unity, passing into multiplicity, and returning again to the unity that is no longer abstract but now an actualised eternal manifestation of the godhead. Proclus disagreed with the yearning for salvation from human existence, and was faithful to the idea of a logical, natural order of things. His most important work is the Elements of Theology.
In the work of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, we find a grand synthesis of Platonic philosophy and Christian theology that was to exercise an immense influence on mediaeval mysticism and Renaissance Humanism. Very little is known about the life of Dionysius, but he was highly dedicated to incorporating Platonism with a Christian theological tradition.
His message is quite simple compared to his predecessors; a God who is beyond all distinctions and who even transcends the means utilised by human beings to reach Him. The Holy Trinity serves as a guide for uniting and knowing “him who is beyond all being and knowledge” (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology 997A-1000A, tr. C. Luibheid 1987). In the expression of the Pseudo-Dionysius the yearning for the infinite reaches a poetical form that at once fulfills and exceeds philosophy.
Article submitted by Ivalena Dineva
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Cornell University Press Continental Philosophy, Oxford University Press The Republic of Plato, Basic Books Aristotle on Happiness, VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller e.K