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Neoplatonism(nē'ōplā`tənĭzəm), ancient mystical philosophy based on the doctrines of PlatoPlato
, 427?–347 B.C., Greek philosopher. Plato's teachings have been among the most influential in the history of Western civilization. Life
After pursuing the liberal studies of his day, he became in 407 B.C. a pupil and friend of Socrates. From about 388 B.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Plotinus and the Nature of Neoplatonism
Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed by PlotinusPlotinus
, 205–270, Neoplatonist philosopher. A native of Egypt, perhaps of Roman descent, he went to Alexandria c.232 to devote himself to philosophy. For 10 years he was a dedicated disciple of Ammonius Saccas.
..... Click the link for more information. (3d cent. A.D.). It has had a lasting influence on Western metaphysics and mysticismmysticism
[Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with God, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion.
..... Click the link for more information. , although its original form was much altered by the followers of Plotinus. Neoplatonism was a viable force from the middle of the 3d cent. to 529, when Justinian closed the Academy at Athens. Although Plotinus is the central figure of Neoplatonism, his teacher, Ammonius Saccus (175–242), a self-taught laborer of Alexandria, may have been the actual founder; however, no writings of Ammonius have survived. Plotinus left Egypt, settled in Rome in 244, and founded a school there.
The enduring source of Neoplatonist thought is the Enneads of Plotinus, which were collected and published after his death by his student PorphyryPorphyry
, c.232–c.304, Greek scholar and Neoplatonic philosopher. He studied rhetoric under Cassius Longinus and philosophy under Plotinus. He later lectured in Rome on the philosophy of Plotinus and was the teacher of the Neoplatonist Iamblichus.
..... Click the link for more information. , a Phoenician. Plotinus' purpose was to put into systematic form an idealistic philosophy and thus combat the trends of StoicismStoicism
, school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) c.300 B.C. The first Stoics were so called because they met in the Stoa Poecile [Gr.,=painted porch], at Athens, a colonnade near the Agora, to hear their master Zeno lecture.
..... Click the link for more information. and skepticismskepticism
[Gr.,=to reflect], philosophic position holding that the possibility of knowledge is limited either because of the limitations of the mind or because of the inaccessibility of its object. It is more loosely used to denote any questioning attitude.
..... Click the link for more information. that had crept into interpretations of the philosophy of Plato. Plotinus rejected the dualism of two disparate realms of being (good and evil, material and transcendent, universal and particular) and set forth instead one vast order containing all the various levels and kinds of existence.
At the center of the order is the One, an incomprehensible, all-sufficient unity. By the process of emanationemanation
[Lat.,=flowing from], cosmological concept that explains the creation of the world by a series of radiations, or emanations, originating in the godhead. It is characteristic of Neoplatonism and of Gnosticism and is frequently encountered in Indian metaphysics.
..... Click the link for more information. the One gives rise to the Divine Mind or Logos [word], which contains all the forms, or living intelligences, of individuals. The content of the Divine Mind, therefore, constitutes a multiple reflection of the unitary perfection of the One. Below the divine mind is the World Soul, which links the intellectual and material worlds. These three transcendent realities, or hypostases (the One, the Divine Mind, and the World Soul) support the finite and visible world, which includes individuals and matter. Plotinus sometimes compared the One to a fountain, from which overflowed the lower levels of reality.
The Neoplatonic cosmology also had religious overtones, for Plotinus believed that people potentially sought a life in which the individual soul would rise through contemplation to the level of intelligence (the Divine Mind) and then through mystic union would be absorbed in the One itself. Conversely, a privation of being or lack of desire toward the One was the cause of sin, which was held to be a negative quality (i.e., nonparticipation in the perfection of the One). There are thus two reciprocal movements in Neoplatonism: the metaphysical movement of emanation from the One, and the ethical or religious movement of reflective return to the One through contemplation of the forms of the Divine Mind.
While Plotinus' thought was mystical (i.e., concerned with the infinite and invisible within the finite and visible world), his method was thoroughly rational, stemming from the logical and humanistic traditions of Greece. Many of his philosophical elements came from earlier philosophies; the existence of the One and the attendant theory of ideas were aspects of the later writings of Plato, particularly the Timaeus, and Stoicism had identified the World Soul with transcendent universal reason. What was distinctive in Plotinus' system was the unified, hierarchical structuring of these elements and the theory of emanation.
The Syrian, Athenian, and Alexandrian Schools
The followers of Plotinus took divergent paths. Porphyry, who remained in Rome, made extensive use of allegory in expounding Plotinus' rationalistic thought and attacked Christianity in the name of Hellenic paganism. Lamblichus taught in Rome for a time and then returned to Chalcis in Syria to found a Neoplatonic center there. At this center, and also at others in Athens and Alexandria, the mystical trends of the East, including divination, demonology, and astrology, were grafted onto the body of Neoplatonism.
The central figures at the Athenian school were Plutarch the Younger (350–433) and ProclusProclus
, 410?–485, Neoplatonic philosopher, b. Constantinople. He studied at Alexandria and at Athens, where he was a pupil of the Platonist Syrianus, whom he succeeded as a teacher.
..... Click the link for more information. , who came from Byzantium to become head of the Academy. The Athenian school culminated in Simplicius, a commentator on Aristotle, and Damascius, who tried to recover the original thought of Plotinus; they were the survivors of the Academy when it was closed in 529. The Alexandrian school of Neoplatonism, which included the woman philosopher HypatiaHypatia
, d.415, Alexandrian Neoplatonic philosopher and mathematician, a woman renowned for her learning, eloquence, and beauty. Little is known of her writings. Her fame is largely owing to her barbarous murder by a band of monks, said to have been encouraged by the
..... Click the link for more information. , was more scholarly but less theological than its Syrian and Athenian counterparts and is important mainly for its commentaries on Aristotle. It survived into the 7th cent., and some Alexandrian Neoplatonists, notably Synesius, became Christians.
The Impact of Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism was an early influence on Christian thinkers. The Christian apologists Clement of AlexandriaClement of Alexandria
(Titus Flavius Clemens), d. c.215, Greek theologian. Born in Athens, he traveled widely and was converted to Christianity. He studied and taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria until the persecution of 202. Origen was his pupil there.
..... Click the link for more information. and OrigenOrigen
, 185?–254?, Christian philosopher and scholar. His full name was Origines Adamantius, and he was born in Egypt, probably in Alexandria. When he was quite young, his father was martyred.
..... Click the link for more information. had vied with the incipient Neoplatonic tradition for control of the Platonic heritage. The philosophy was firmly joined with Christianity by St. AugustineAugustine, Saint
, Lat. Aurelius Augustinus, 354–430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, bishop of Hippo (near present-day Annaba, Algeria), b. Tagaste (c.40 mi/60 km S of Hippo). Life
Augustine's mother, St.
..... Click the link for more information. , who was a Neoplatonist before his conversion. It was through Neoplatonism that Augustine conceived of spirit as being immaterial and viewed evil as an unreal substance (in contradistinction to Manichaean doctrine). The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (see Dionysius the AreopagiteDionysius the Areopagite, Saint
, fl. 1st cent. A.D., Athenian Christian, converted by St. Paul. Acts 17.34. Tradition has made him a martyr and the first bishop of Athens. He has been confused with St. Denis.
..... Click the link for more information. ) and BoethiusBoethius
, or Boece
(Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), c.475–525, Roman philosopher and statesman. An honored figure in the public life of Rome, where he was consul in 510, he became the able minister of the Emperor Theodoric.
..... Click the link for more information. display Neoplatonic influences.
In the Middle Ages, elements of Plotinus' thought can be found in St. Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas, Saint
[Lat.,=from Aquino], 1225–74, Italian philosopher and theologian, Doctor of the Church, known as the Angelic Doctor, b. Rocca Secca (near Naples).
..... Click the link for more information. and John Scotus Eriugena, particularly in the identification of the One with God and the Divine Mind with the angels. The system influenced medieval Jewish and Arab philosophy, and G. W. F. HegelHegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
, 1770–1831, German philosopher, b. Stuttgart; son of a government clerk. Life and Works
Educated in theology at Tübingen, Hegel was a private tutor at Bern and Frankfurt.
..... Click the link for more information. 's metaphysics had Neoplatonic ingredients. Neoplatonic metaphysics and aesthetics also influenced the German Romantics (see romanticismromanticism,
term loosely applied to literary and artistic movements of the late 18th and 19th cent. Characteristics of Romanticism
Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a
..... Click the link for more information. ), the 17th-century English metaphysical poets, William BlakeBlake, William,
1757–1827, English poet and artist, b. London. Although he exerted a great influence on English romanticism, Blake defies characterization by school, movement, or even period.
..... Click the link for more information. , and the Cambridge PlatonistsCambridge Platonists,
group of English philosophers, centered at Cambridge in the latter half of the 17th cent. In reaction to the mechanical philosophy of Thomas Hobbes this school revived certain Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas.
..... Click the link for more information. . Many mystical movements in the West, including those of Meister Eckhardt and Jacob Boehme, owe something to the Neoplatonists.
See R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (1972); R. Baine Harris, ed., The Significance of Neoplatonism (1976); E. R. Doss, Select Passages Illustrating Neoplatonism (1980).
an idealistic trend in classical philosophy of the third to sixth centuries, the goal of which was the systematization of divergent elements of Plato’s philosophy in combination with a number of Aristotle’s ideas.
Basically, Neoplatonism is an elaboration of the dialectic of the Platonic triad: the One, the Intelligence (nous), and the Soul. To bridge the gap between the unknowable One and the knowable Intelligence, the triad’s ontological substance (hypostasis) was supplemented with teachings on numbers, which grew out of adaptations of Pythagoreanism. These numbers were interpreted as the first prequalitative division of the One. The second hypostasis is the Intelligence, to which Plato made only scattered allusions. The concept was developed by the Neoplatonists on the basis of Aristotle’s teachings on pure cosmic Intelligence (the prime mover) and its self-contemplation, as a result of which the Intelligence is simultaneously subject and object (“thinking of thinking”) and contains within itself its own intellectual material.
In Neoplatonism, teachings on the Soul based on Plato’s Timaeus and influenced by Aristotle, as well as by Pythagoreanism, became a doctrine of cosmic spheres. The latter were explained in great detail and provided a picture of the activity of the “universal soul” throughout the cosmos. Thus, Neoplatonism as an idealistic philosophical system engendered a doctrine of the hierarchical structure of being and the order of its levels, which emerged sequentially, as a result of the gradual weakening of the first and highest level, in descending order: the One, the Intelligence, the Soul, the Cosmos, and Matter.
Neoplatonism’s teachings on intracosmic bodies drew on Aristotle’s theories on substance and qualities, the eidos (forms of objects) and entelechies (actively developing principles of objects), and potentiality and energy. The Stoics’ doctrine of the identical character of the world formative power (fire) and man’s Ego also influenced Neoplatonic thought. However, Neoplatonism could not have emerged unless the vulgar, materialist aspects of Stoicism and the naturalistic, pantheistic tendencies in the Stoic interpretation of Plato’s legacy had been decisively overcome.
The Neoplatonists devoted considerable attention to logical deductions, definitions and classifications, and mathematical, astronomical, natural philosophical, and physical problems, as well as to philological, historical, and expository research. These characteristic emphases became more highly developed as Neoplatonism evolved, culminating in a scholastic systematization of all extant philosophical and scientific knowledge. In general, Neoplatonism was a final, extremely intensive attempt to bring together all the achievements of ancient philosophy for the struggle against Christian monotheism.
Plotinus (a student of Ammonius Saccas), whose teachings were continued by his disciples Amelius and Porphyry, founded the Neoplatonic school in the third century. Distinguished by its speculative, theoretical character, the Roman school of Neoplatonism concentrated on the development of the fundamental Platonic triad. The Syrian school of Neoplatonism (fourth century), which was founded by Iamblichus, developed a systematic interpretation of classical mythology and focused greater attention on religious magical practices, explaining the essence and methods of prophesying, miracles, witchcraft, oracles, mysteries, astrology, and ecstatic ascent to the supernatural world. Theodore of Asine, Sopater, and Dexippus also belonged to the Syrian school. The emperor Julian and Sallust were adherents of the school of Pergamum (fourth century), which was founded by Aedesius of Cappadocia.
From the fourth century, Neoplatonism became increasingly preoccupied with producing commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. The school of Athens (fifth to sixth centuries) was founded by Plutarch of Athens; its line of thought was continued by Syrianus of Alexandria and brought to its conclusion by Proclus. Among the leading representatives of the Athenian school were Marinus, Isidore, Damascius, and Simplicius. The Alexandrian school (fourth to fifth centuries), whose members included Hypatia, Synesius of Cyrene, and Hierocles, was involved even more than the other Neoplatonic schools in producing commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. The Latin Neoplatonists (for example, Marius Victorinus, a Christian, and Macrobrius, an opponent of Christianity) were active at the same time as the Greek Neoplatonists (fourth through sixth centuries). In 529, the emperor Justinian banned the study of pagan philosophy and dissolved the Platonic Academy in Athens, the last stronghold of pagan Neoplatonism.
The ideas of Neoplatonism did not perish with the destruction of classical society. In late antiquity Neoplatonism entered into a complex interaction with Christian (and later Islamic and Jewish) monotheism and greatly influenced the development of Arab philosophy (al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna).
Christian Neoplatonism was most clearly expressed in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, which were apparently based on the philosophy of Proclus. Owing to the work of representatives of the Cappadocian school (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), who set out to Christianize Neoplatonism, the ideas of Neoplatonism became widespread in Byzantine philosophy even during the early patristic period (fourth century). Maximus the Confessor played an important role in the dissemination of Neoplatonic ideas. In the 11th century, Michael Psellus gave them a more secular, rationalistic form.
Augustine was profoundly influenced by Neoplatonic ideas. Certain aspects of Neoplatonism are also found in the works of orthodox Catholic philosophers such as Anselm of Canterbury. The Neoplatonic tradition acquired a pantheistic quality among philosophers of the school of Chartres. The philosophical system of John Scotus Erigena was sharply distinguished from the orthodox Catholic line of thought. Scotus Erigena translated the works of Dionysius the Areopagite into Latin, made extensive use of Neoplatonic ideas, and drifted toward pantheism. It is important to bear in mind that Neoplatonism was the basic theoretical source of pantheism, as well as of nonorthodox mysticism, in Western medieval philosophy (for example, the thought of Amaury of Chartres and David of Dinant).
By the end of the Middle Ages the powerful influence of Neoplatonism was felt in German mysticism of the 14th-15th centuries (Meister Eckhart, J. Tauler, H. Suso, J. van Ruysbroeck, and the anonymous treatise Theologica Germanica). Pantheistic and rationalistic tendencies in Neoplatonism were expressed in the works of a number of representatives of Renaissance philosophy, including Nicholas of Cusa, G. Pletho, and M. Ficino. An important step toward the secularization of Neoplatonism was made in Italo-German natural philosophy of the Renaissance (Paracelsus, G. Cardano, B. Telesio, F. Patrizi, T. Campanella, and G. Bruno).
The Cambridge Platonists (R. Cudworth, for example) are evidence of the influence of Neoplatonism in the 17th century and the early 18th. German idealism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries drew heavily on Neoplatonism. This was particularly true of F. W. von Schelling, as well as Hegel, who, in his History of Philosophy, was the first historian of philosophy to provide a satisfactory interpretation of Neoplatonism (Soch., vol. 11, Moscow-Leningrad, 1935, pp. 35–76). The impact of Neoplatonism on 19th- and 20th-century idealism may be observed primarily in the works of Russian philosophers such as V. S. Solov’ev, S. N. Bulgakov, S. L. Frank, and P. A. Florenskii. Neoplatonic elements and tendencies are also found in a number of diverse currents in contemporary bourgeois philosophy.
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A. F. LOSEV