Neoplatonism (also Neo-Platonism) is the modern term for a school of philosophy took shape in the third century C.E. with the philosopher Plotinus, whose student, Porphyry, assembled his teachings into the six Enneads. Neoplatonists considered themselves simply “Platonists,” and the modern distinction is due to the perception that their philosophy contained enough unique interpretations of Plato to make it substantively different from what Plato wrote and believed. Futhermore, Neoplatonism had strong religious and mythical elements. Neoplatonism flourished until 529 C.E. when Emperor Justinius closed the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens. Nevertheless, the Neoplatonic tradition has shaped centuries of philosophy and has been adapted into a broad spectrum of religious thought.
Subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers include Hypatia of Alexandria, Iamblichus, Proclus, Hierocles of Alexandria, Simplicius of Cilicia, and Damascius, who wrote On First Principles. Born in Damascus, he was the last teacher of Neoplatonism at Athens. Neoplatonism strongly influenced Christian thinkers (such as Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Johannes Scottus Eriugena, and Bonaventura). Neoplatonism was also present in medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkers such as al-Farabi and Maimonides, and experienced a revival in the Renaissance with the acquisition and translation of Greek and Arabic Neoplatonic texts.
Neoplatonism contains strong religious and mythical elements. Their doctrines of “emanation,” return to the origin, and others should not be understood as natural processes in the sense of mechanical changes. The entire context has religious and mythical tones. Plato’s influence on medieval Christianity was mediated by Neoplatonism. Neoplatonists adopted vocabularies and concepts of the schools of thought in the Hellenistic era, including Neopythagoreanism, Stoicism, and Peripatetic, however, excluding Epicureanism. Neoplatonists examined and integrated ideas of those schools of thought within the framework of Plato’s philosophy. Through this dialogical scrutiny, Neoplatonists developed their distinct thought which was not present in Plato.
Neoplatonism is a form of idealistic monism. It is largely derived from the interpretation of Plato‘s philosophy by Plotinus. Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, which exists in it of itself and transcends all categories of being, and thus no attributes can be placed on the “One” (which is also the Good in itself). Plotinus conceived the One by way of negation of multiplicity and diversity, which characterize the phenomenal world we live in. Plotinus gave a limit on what we can know by conceptual understanding, given that human discourse is essentially discursive, and the limit of discursive thinking leads to the idea of mythical union and ascent as the access to ultimate knowledge. There is also an ethical ontology in the philosophy of Plotinus, as well as that of Plato’s, as Plotinus also conceived the One as the Good itself.
The process of creation is not so much as that the “One” creates, but rather out of the “One” emanated its own essence as the rest of the universe as a sequence of lesser beings. The sense of “emanation” is closer to that of an overflow that results from the fullness of being in the One. Furthermore, the One is the ultimate source of the diversity of the entire world. In other words, there is nothing in the world which did not originate from the One. Plotinus’ ontology placed the ultimate center and origin of the world as the One.
The first emanation being Nous, or intellect, relates to the Forms in Plato’s philosophy. Furthermore the successive emanation results in the emanation of the “soul,” which has the functions to contemplate the higher realm of emanation of “Nous” and also relates to the lower realm of “nature.” Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate gods, angels and demons, and other beings as emanations between the One and humanity. Plotinus’ system was much simpler in comparison.
Some Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without awaiting an afterlife, while others, like Bonaventura, held the concept that perfect unity with the “One” was a promise to be fulfilled in the afterlife. Perfection and happiness, seen as synonymous, could be achieved through philosophical contemplation, the highest level and function of life.
They did not believe in an independent existence of evil. They compared it to darkness, which does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of light. So too, evil is simply the absence of good. Things are good insofar as they exist. They are evil only insofar as they are imperfect, lacking some good that they should have. Where the individual descends into the material realm, some, like Plotinus, held that the forgetfulness of the divine origin in the “One” results in evil.
The ascent of the soul to the One becomes possible by cultivating the divine potentialities that exist in the deepest center of the human soul. This concept is parallel to later mystical concepts such as the “spark of the soul” (scintilla animae), “apex of the soul” (acies, apex mentis), and “castle of the soul” (archa mentis) (Hirschberger Vol. I, Ch. 3, Sec. 5).
It is also a cornerstone of Neoplatonism to teach that all people return to the Source, and for some, this descent into the material realm is a necessary process. The Source, Absolute or One, is what all things spring from and as a superconsciousness is where all things return. It can be said that all consciousness is wiped clean and returned to a blank slate when returning to the source. Proclus, a later predecessor of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, further expounded on the Neoplatonist philosophy with complex analysis and tremendous rigor. He viewed this process of descent from the divine “One” and return as the process of originating from an ambiguous unity, then entering a realm of multiplicity, then completing a unity that is the substantial manifestation of the one. Thus, the function of contemplation to be the process of uniting with the greater unity and higher level of Nous and eventually with the “One.”
Early Christian and Medieval Neoplatonism
Ideas of Neoplatonism such as evil as the privation of good influenced Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, upon learning about it, to abandon dualistic Manichaeism and convert to Christianity. Three or four years after his 387 C.E. baptism, he wrote his treatise On True Religion and was still thinking of Christianity in Neoplatonic terms. However, after he was ordained priest and bishop and had acquired greater familiarity with Scripture, he noted contradictions between Neoplatonism and Christianity.
Nevertheless, many Christians were influenced by Neoplatonism. They identified the “One” as God. The most important and influential of them was the fifth-century C.E. author known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His works were significant for both Eastern Orthodox and Western branches of Christianity. Johannes Scotus Eriugena‘s ninth century Latin translation of the writing of pseudo-Dionysius was widely studied during the Middle Ages. Another notable Christian theologian who was influenced by Neoplatonism was Bonaventura, who had a deep understanding of his faith tied with the philosophical rigor of the Neoplatonic tradition, relating ideas such as concept of beings existing in the realm of the Forms within a Christian context of beings existing likewise in a divine realm transcendent of material reality, and the ultimate goal was this unity with the “One.”
Neoplatonism also had links with the belief systems known as Gnosticism. Plotinus, however, rebuked Gnosticism in the ninth tractate of the second Enneads: “Against Those That Affirm The Creator of The Kosmos and The Kosmos Itself to Be Evil” (generally quoted as “Against The Gnostics”). Being grounded in platonic thought, the Neoplatonists would have rejected the gnostic vilification of Plato’s demiurge, a deity discussed in Timaeus.
In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonist ideas influenced the thinking of Jewish Kabbalists, such as Isaac the Blind. However, the Kabbalists modified Neoplatonism according to their own monotheistic belief. A famous Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher from the early Middle Ages was Solomon ibn Gabirol. During this period, Neoplatonist ideas also influenced Islamic and Sufi thinkers such as al Farabi and through him Avicenna.
Neoplatonism survived in the Eastern Christian Church as an independent tradition and was reintroduced to the west by Plethon.
In Western Europe, Neoplatonism was revived in the Italian Renaissance by figures such as Marsilio Ficino, the Medici, and Sandro Botticelli. Thomas Taylor, “The English Platonist,” wrote extensively on Platonism and translated almost the entire Platonic corpus into English.
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