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Neoplatonism (nēˌōplāˈtənĭzəm), ancient mystical philosophy based on the doctrines of Plato.

Plotinus and the Nature of Neoplatonism

Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed by Plotinus (3d cent. A.D.). It has had a lasting influence on Western metaphysics and mysticism, 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 Porphyry, a Phoenician. Plotinus' purpose was to put into systematic form an idealistic philosophy and thus combat the trends of Stoicism and skepticism 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 emanation 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 Proclus, 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 Hypatia, 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 Alexandria and Origen had vied with the incipient Neoplatonic tradition for control of the Platonic heritage. The philosophy was firmly joined with Christianity by St. Augustine, 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 Areopagite) and Boethius display Neoplatonic influences.

In the Middle Ages, elements of Plotinus' thought can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas 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. Hegel's metaphysics had Neoplatonic ingredients. Neoplatonic metaphysics and aesthetics also influenced the German Romantics (see romanticism), the 17th-century English metaphysical poets, William Blake, and the Cambridge Platonists. 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



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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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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