Neo-Platonism, a system of idealistic, spiritualistic philosophy, tending towards mysticism, which flourished in the pagan world of Greece and Rome during the first centuries of the Christian era. It is of interest and importance, not merely because it is the last attempt of Greek thought to rehabilitate itself and restore its exhausted vitality by recourse to Oriental religious ideas, but also because it definitely entered the service of pagan polytheism and was used as a weapon against Christianity. It derives its name from the fact that its first representatives drew their inspiration from Plato’s doctrines, although it is well known that many of the treatises on which they relied are not genuine works of Plato. It originated in Egypt, a circumstance which would, of itself, indicate that while the system was a characteristic product of the Hellenic spirit, it was largely influenced by the religious ideals and mystic tendencies of Oriental thought.
To understand the neo-Platonic system in itself, as well as to appreciate the attitude of Christianity towards it, it is necessary to explain the two-fold purpose which actuated its founders. On the one hand, philosophical thought in the Hellenic world had proved itself inadequate to the task of moral and religious regeneration. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Eclecticism and even Scepticism had each been set the task of “making men happy”, and each had in turn failed. Then came the thought that Plato’s idealism and the religious forces of the Orient might well be united in one philosophical movement which would give definiteness, homogeneity, and unity of purpose to all the efforts of the pagan world to rescue itself from impending ruin. On the other hand, the strength and, from the pagan point of view, the aggressiveness of Christianity began to be realized. It became necessary, in the intellectual world, to impose on the Christians by showing that Paganism was not entirely bankrupt, and, in the political world, to rehabilitate the official polytheism of the State by furnishing an interpretation of it, that should be acceptable in philosophy. Speculative Stoicism had reduced the gods to personifications of natural forces; Aristotle had definitely denied their existence; Plato had sneered at them. It was time, therefore, that the growing prestige of Christianity should be offset by a philosophy which, claiming the authority of Plato, whom the Christians revered, should not only retain the gods but make them an essential part of a philosophical system. Such was the origin of neo-Platonism. It should, however, be added that, while the philosophy which sprang from these sources was Platonic, it did not disdain to appropriate to itself elements of Aristoteleanism and even Epicureanism, which it articulated into a Syncretic system.
I. FORERUNNERS OF NEO-PLATONISM.—Among the more or less eclectic Platonists who are regarded as forerunners of the neo-Platonic school, the most important are Plutarch, Maximus, Apuleius, Aenesidemus, Numenius. The last-mentioned, who flourished towards the end of the second century of the Christian era, had a direct and immediate influence on Plotinus, the first systematic neo-Platonist. He taught that there are three gods, the Father, the Maker (Demiurgos), and the World. Philo the Jew (see Philo Judaeus), who flourished in the middle of the first century, was also a forerunner of neo-Platonism, although it is difficult to say whether his doctrine of the mediation of the Logos had a direct influence on Plotinus.
II. Ammonius Saccas, a porter on the docks at Alexandria, is regarded as the founder of the neo-Platonic school. Since he left no writings, it is impossible to say what his doctrines were. We know, however, that he had an extraordinary influence over men like Plotinus and Origen, who willingly abandoned the professional teachers of philosophy to listen to his discourses on wisdom. According to Eusebius, he was born of Christian parents, but reverted to paganism. The date of his birth is given as 242.
III. Plotinus, a native of Lycopolis in Egypt, who lived from 205 to 270 was the first systematic philosopher of the school. When he was twenty-eight years old he was taken by a friend to hear Ammonius, and thenceforth for eleven years he continued to profit by the lectures of the porter. At the end of the first discourse which he heard, he exclaimed: “This man is the man of whom I was in search.” In 242 he accompanied the Emperor Gordian to Mesopotamia, intending to go to Persia. In 244 he went to Rome, where, for ten years, he taught philosophy, counting among his hearers and admirers the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. In 263 he retired to Campania with some of his disciples, including Porphyry, and there he died in 270. His works, consisting of fifty-four treatises, were edited by Porphyry in six groups of nine. Hence they are known as the “Enneads”. The “Enneads” were first published in a Latin translation by Marsilius Ficinus (Florence, 1492); of recent editions the best are Breuzer and Moser’s (Oxford, 1855), and Kirchoff’s (Leipzig, 1856). Parts of the “Enneads” are translated into English by Taylor (London, 1787-1817).
Plotinus’ starting-point is that of the idealist. He meets what he considers the paradox of materialism, the assertion, namely, that matter alone exists, by an emphatic assertion of the existence of spirit. If the soul is spirit, it follows that it cannot have originated from the body or an aggregation of bodies. The true source of reality is above us, not beneath us. It is the One, the Absolute, the Infinite. It is God. God exceeds all the categories of finite thought. It is not correct to say that He is a Being, or a Mind. He is over-Being, over-Mind. The only attributes which may be appropriately applied to Him are Good and One. If God were only One, He should remain forever in His undifferentiated unity, and there should be nothing but God. He is, however, good; and goodness, like light, tends to diffuse itself. Thus, from the One, there emanates in the first place Intellect (Greek: Nous) which is the image of the One, and at the same ti-me a partially differentiated derivative, because it is the world of ideas, in which are the multiple archetypes of things. From the intellect emanates an image in which there is a tendency to dynamic differentiation, namely the World-Soul, which is the abode of forces, as the Intellect is the abode of Ideas. From the World-Soul emanate the Forces (one of which is the human soul), which by a series of successive degradations towards nothing become finally Matter, the non-existent, the antithesis of God. All this process is called an emanation, or flowing. It is described in figurative language, and thus its precise philosophical value is not determined. Similarly the One, God, is described as light, and Matter is said to be darkness. Matter, is, in fact, for Plotinus, essentially the opposite of the Good; it is evil, and the source of all evil. It is unreality and wherever it is present, there is not only a lack of goodness but also a lack of reality. God alone is free from Matter; He alone is Light; He alone is fully real. Everywhere there is partial differentiation, partial darkness, partial unreality; in the Intellect, in the World-Soul, in Souls, in the material universe. God, the reality, the spiritual, is, therefore, contrasted with the world, the unreal, the material. God is noumenon, everything else is appearance, or phenomenon.
Man, being composed of body and soul, is partly, like God, spiritual, and partly like matter, the opposite of spiritual. It is his duty to aim at returning to God by eliminating from his being, his thoughts, and his actions, everything that is material and, therefore, tends to separate him from God. The soul came from God. It existed before its union with the body; its survival after death is, therefore, hardly in need of proof. It will return to God by way of knowledge, because that which separates it from God is matter and material conditions, which are only illusions or deceptive appearances. The first step, therefore, in the return of the soul to God is the act by which the soul, withdrawing from the world of sense by a process of purification (Greek: katharsis), frees itself from the trammels of matter. Next, having retired within itself, the soul contemplates within itself the indwelling intellect. From the contemplation of the Intellect within, it rises to contemplation of the Intellect above, and from that to the contemplation of the One. It cannot, however, reach this final stage except by revelation that is, by the free act of God, Who, shedding around Him the light of His own greatness, sends into the soul of the philosopher and saint a special light which enables it to see God Himself. This intuition of the One so fills the soul that it excludes all consciousness and feeling, reduces the mind to a state of utter passivity, and renders possible the union of man with God. The ecstasy (Greek: ekstasis) by which this union is attained is man’s supreme happiness, the goal of all his endeavor, the fulfilment of his destiny. It is a happiness which receives no increase by continuance of time. Once the philosopher-saint has attained it, he becomes confirmed, so to speak, in grace. Henceforth forever, he is a spiritual being, a man of God, a prophet, and a wonderworker. He commands all the powers of nature, and even bends to his will the demons themselves. He sees into the future, and in a sense shares the vision, as he shares the life, of God.
IV. Porphyry, who in beauty and lucidity of style excels all the other followers of Plotinus, and who is distinguished also by the bitterness of his opposition to Christianity, was born A.D. 233, probably at Tyre. After having studied at Athens, he visited Rome and there became a devoted disciple of Plotinus, whom he accompanied to Campania in 263. He died about the year 303. Of his work “Against the Christians” only a few fragments, preserved in the works of the Christian Apologists, have come down to us. From these it appears that he directed his attack along the lines of what we should now call historical criticism of the Old Testament and the comparative study of religions. His work “De Antro Nympharum” is an elaborate allegorical interpretation and defense of pagan mythology. His ‘Aphormai (Sentences) is an exposition of Plotinus’s philosophy. His biographical writings included “Lives” of Pythagoras and Plotinus in which he strove to show that these “god-sent” men were not only models of philosophic sanctity but also Greek: thaumatourgoi, or “wonderworkers”, endowed with theurgic powers. The best known of all his works is a logical treatise entitled Greek: eosagoge, or “Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle“. In a Latin translation made by Boethius, this work was very widely used in the early Middle Ages, and exerted considerable influence on the growth of Scholasticism. It is, as is well known, a passage in this “Isagoge” that is said to have given occasion to the celebrated controversy concerning universals in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In his expository works on the philosophy of Plotinus; Porphyry lays great stress on the importance of theurgic practices. He holds, of course, that the practices of asceticism are the starting point on the road to perfection. One must begin the process of perfection by “thinning out the veil of matter” (the body), which stands between the soul and spiritual things. Then, as a means of further advancement, one must cultivate self-contemplation. Once the stage of self-contemplation is attained, further progress towards perfection is dependent on the consultation of oracles, divination, bloodless sacrifices to the superior gods and bloody sacrifices to demons, or inferior powers.
V. Iamblichus, a native of Syria, who was a pupil of Porphyry in Italy, and died about the year 330, while inferior to his teacher in power of exposition, seemed to have a firmer grasp of the speculative principles of neo-Platonism and modified more profoundly the metaphysical doctrines of the school. His works bear the comprehensive title “Summary of Pythagorean Doctrines”. Whether he or a disciple of his is the author of the treatise “De Mysteriis. Aegyptiorum” (first pub. by Gale, Oxford, 1678, and afterwards by Parthey, Berlin, 1857), the book is a product of his school and proves that he, like Porphyry, emphasized the magic, or theurgic; factor in the neo-Platonic scheme of salvation. As regards the speculative side of Plotinus’s system, he devoted attention to the doctrine of emanation, which he modified in the direction of completeness and greater consistency. The precise nature of the modification is not clear. It is safe; however, to say that, in a general way, he forestalled the effort of Proclus to distinguish three subordinate “moments”, or stages, in the process of emanation.
While these philosophical defenders of neo-Platonism were directing their attacks against Christianity, representatives of the school in the more practical walks of life, and even in high places of authority, carried on a more effective warfare in the name of the school. Hierocles, pro-consul of Bithynia during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), not only persecuted the Christians of his province, but wrote a work, now lost, entitled “The discourse of a Lover of Truth, against the Christians”, setting up the rival claims of neo-Platonic philosophy. He, like Julian the Apostate, Celsus (q.v.), and others, was roused to activity chiefly by the claim which Christianity made to be, not a national religion like Judaism, but a worldwide, or universal, religion. Julian sums up the case of philosophy against Christianity thus: “Divine Government is not through a special society (such as the Christian Church) teaching an authoritative doctrine, but through the order of the visible universe and all the variety of civic and national institutions. The underlying harmony of these is to be sought out by free examination, which is philosophy” (Whittaker, “Neo-Platonist”, p. 155). It is in the light of this principle of public policy that we must view the attempt of Iambhchus to furnish a systematic defense of Polytheism. Above the One, he says, is the Absolutely First. From the One, which is thus itself a derivative, comes intellect, which, as the Intellectual and the Intelligible, is essentially dual. Both the Intellectual and the Intelligible are divided into triads, which are the superterrestrial gods. Beneath these and subordinate to them, are the terrestrial gods whom he subdivides into three hundred and sixty celestial beings, seventy-two orders of sub-celestial gods, and forty-two orders of natural gods. Next to these are the semi-divine heroes of mythology and the philosopher-saints such as Pythagoras and Plotinus. From this it is evident that neo-Platonism had by this time ceased to be a purely academic question. It had entered very vigorously into the contest waged against Christianity. At the same time, it had not ceased to be the one force which could claim to unify the surviving remnants of pagan culture. As such, it appealed to the woman-philosopher Hypatia, whose fate at the hands of a Christian mob at Alexandria, in the year 422, was cast up as a reproach to the Christians (see Cyril of Alexandria). Among the contemporaries of Hypatia at Alexandria was another Hierocles, author of a commentary on the Pythagorean “Golden Verses”.
VI. Proclus, the most systematic of all the neo-Platonists, and for that reason known as “the scholastic of neo-Platonism,” is the principal representative of a phase of philosophic thought which developed at Athens during the fifth century, and lasted down to the year 529, when, by an edict of Justinian, the philosophical schools at Athens were closed. The founder of the Athenian school was Plutarch, surnamed the Great (not Plutarch of Châronea, author of the “Lives of Illustrious men”), who died in 431. His most distinguished scholar was Proclus, who was born at Constantinople in 410, studied Aristotelean logic at Alexandria, and about the year 430 became a pupil of Plutarch at Athens. He died at Athens in 485. He is the author of several Commentaries on Plato, of a collection of hymns to the gods, of many works on mathematics, and of philosophical treatises, the most important of which are: “Theological Elements,” Greek: stoicheiosis theologike, printed in the Paris ed. of Plotinus’s works); “Platonic Theology” (printed, 1618, in a Latin translation by Aemilius Portus); shorter treatises on Fate, on Evil, on Providence, etc., which exist only in a Latin translation made by William of Moerbeka in the thirteenth century. These are collected in Cousin’s edition, “Procli Opera”, Paris, 1820-25. Proclus attempted to systematize and synthesize the various elements of neo-Platonism by means of Aristotelean logic. The cardinal principle on which his attempt rests is the doctrine, already foreshadowed by Iamblichus and others, that in the process of emanation there are always three subordinate stages, or moments, namely the original (Greek: mone) emergence from the original (Greek: proodos), and return to the original (Greek: epistrophe). The reason of this principle is enunciated as follows: the derived is at once unlike the original and like it; its unlikeness is the cause of its derivation, and its likeness is the cause, or reason, of the tendency to return. All emanation is, therefore, serial. It constitutes a “chain” from the One down to the antithesis of the One, which is matter. By the first emanation from the One come the “henades”, the supreme gods who exercise providence over worldly affairs; from the henades comes the “triad”, intelligible, intelligible-intellectual, and intellectual, corresponding to being, life, and thought; each of these is, in turn, the origin of a “hebdomad”, a series corresponding to the chief divinities of the pagan pantheon: from these are derived “forces”, or “souls”, which alone are operative in nature, although, since they are the lowest derivatives, their efficacy is least. Matter, the antithesis of the One, is inert, dead, and can be the cause of nothing except imperfection, error, and moral evil. The birth of a human being is the descent of a soul into matter. The soul, however, may ascend, and redescend in another birth. The ascension of the soul is brought about by asceticism, contemplation, and the invocation of the superior powers by magic, divination, oracles, miracles, etc.
VII. The Last Neo-Platonists.—Proclus was the last great representative of neo-Platonism. His disciple, Marinus, was the teacher of Damascius, who represented the school at the time of its suppression by Justinian in 529. Damascius was accompanied in his exile to Persia by Simplicius, celebrated as a neo-Platonic commentator. About the middle of the sixth century John Philoponus and Olympiodorus flourished at Alexandria as exponents of neo-Platonism. They were, like Simplicius, commentators. When they became Christians, the career of the School of Plato came to an end. The name of Olympiodorus is the last in the long line of scholarchs which began with Speusippus, the disciple and nephew of Plato.
VIII. Influence of Neo-Platonism.—Christian thinkers, almost from the beginning of Christian speculation, found in the spiritualism of Plato a powerful aid in defending and maintaining a conception of the human soul which pagan materialism rejected, but to which the Christian Church was irrevocably committed. All the early refutations of psychological materialism are Platonic. So, too, when the ideas of Plotinus began to prevail, the Christian writers took advantage of the support thus lent to the doctrine that there is a spiritual world more real than the world of matter. Later, there were Christian philosophers, like Nemesius (flourished c. 450), who took over the entire system of neo-Platonism so far as it was considered consonant with Christian dogma. The same may be said of Synesius (Bishop of Ptolemais, c. 410), except that he, having been a pagan, did not, even after his conversion, give up the notion that neo-Platonism had value as a force which unified the various factors in pagan culture. At the same time there were elements in neo-Platonism which appealed very strongly to the heretics, especially to the Gnostics, and these elements were more and more strongly accentuated in heretical systems; so that St. Augustine, who knew the writings of Plotinus in a Latin translation, was obliged to exclude from his interpretation of Platonism many of the tenets which characterized the neo-Platonic school. In this way, he came to profess a Platonism which in many respects is nearer to the doctrine of Plato’s “Dialogues” than is the philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus. The Christian writer whose neo-Platonism had the widest influence in later times, and who also reproduced most faithfully the doctrines of the school, is the Pseudo-Dionysius (see Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite). The works “De Divinis Nominibus”, “De hierarchia oeelesti”, etc., are now admitted to have been written at the end of the fifth, or during the first decades of the sixth, century. They are from the pen of a Christian Platonist, a disciple of Proclus, probably an immediate pupil of that teacher, as is clear from the fact that they embody, not only Proclus’s ideas, but even lengthy passages from his writings. The author, whether intentionally on his part, or by some mistake on the part of his readers, came to be identified with Dionysius who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a convert of St. Paul. Later, especially in France, he was further identified with Dionysius the first Bishop of Paris. Thus it came about that the works of the Pseudo-Areopagite, after having been used in the East, first by the Monophysites and later by the Catholics, became known in the West and exerted a widespread influence all through the Middle Ages. They were translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena about the middle of the ninth century, and in this form were studied and commented on, not only by mystic writers, such as the Victorines, but also by the typical representatives of Scholasticism, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. None of the later scholastics, however, went the full length of adopting the metaphysics of the Pseudo-Areopagite in its essential principles, as did John Scotus Eriugena in his “De divisione naturae”.
After the suppression of the Athenian school of philosophy by Justinian in 529, the representatives of neo-Platonism went, as we have seen, to Persia. They did not remain long in that country. Another exodus, however, had more permanent consequences. A number of Greek neo-Platonists who settled in Syria carried with them the works of Plato and Aristotle, which, having been translated into Syriac, were afterwards translated into Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and thus, towards the middle of the twelfth century, began to reenter Christian Europe through Moorish Spain. These translations were accompanied by commentaries which continued the neo-Platonic tradition commenced by Simplicius. At the same time a number of anonymous philosophical works, written for the most part under the influence of the school of Proclus, some of which were ascribed to Aristotle, began to be known in Christian Europe, and were not without influence on Scholasticism. Again, works like the “Fons vitae” of Avicebrol, which were known to be of Jewish or Arabian origin, were neo-Platonic, and helped to determine the doctrines of the scholastics. For example, Scotus’s doctrine of materia primo-prima is acknowledged by Scotus himself to be derived from Avicebrol. Notwithstanding all these facts, Scholastic philosophy was in spirit and in method Aristotelean; it explicitly rejected many of the neo-Platonic interpretations, such as the unity of the Active Intellect. For this reason all unprejudiced critics agree that it is an exaggeration to describe the whole Scholastic movement as merely an episode in the history of neo-Platonism. In recent times this exaggerated view has been defended by M. Picavet in his “Esquisse d’une histoire comparée des philosophies médiévales” (Paris, 1907).
The neo-Platonic elements in Dante’s “Paradiso” have their origin in his interpretation of the scholastics. It was not until the rise of Humanism in the fifteenth century that the works of Plotinus and Proclus were translated and studied with that zeal which characterized the Platonists of the Renaissance. It was then, too, that the theurgic, or magic, elements in neo-Platonism were made popular. The same tendency is found in Bruno’s “Eroici Furori”, interpreting Plotinus in the direction of materialistic Pantheism. The active rejection of Materialism by the Cambridge Platonists in the seventeenth century carried with it a revival of interest in the neo-Platonists. An echo of this appears in Berkeley’s “Sins”, the last phase of his opposition to materialism. Whatever neo-Platonic elements are recognizable in the transcendentalists, such as Schelling and Hegel, can hardly be cited as survivals of philosophical principles. They are rather inspirational influences, such as we find in Platonizing poets like Spenser and Shelley.