1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Emanation

EMANATION (Lat. emanatio, from e-, out, manare, to flow), in philosophy and theology, the name of one of the three chief theories of existence, i.e. of the relation between God and men—the One and the Many, the Universal and the Particular. This theory has been propounded in many forms, but the central idea is that the universe of individuals consists of the involuntary “outpourings” of the ultimate divine essence. That essence is not only all-inclusive, but absolutely perfect, while the “emanated” individuals degenerate in proportion to the degree of their distance from the essence. The existence of evil in opposition to the perfect goodness of God, as thus explained, need not be attributed to God’s agency, inasmuch as the whole emanation-process is governed by necessary—as it were mechanical—laws, which may be compared to those of the physical universe. The doctrine of emanation is thus to be distinguished from the cosmogonic theory of Judaism and Christianity, which explains human existence as due to a single creative act of a moral agent. The God of Judaism and Christianity is essentially a person in close personal relation to his creatures; emanation is the denial of personality both for God and for man. The emanation theory is to be contrasted, on the other hand, with the theory of evolution. The two theories are alike in so far as both recognize the existence of individuals as due to a necessary process of differentiation and a scale of existence. They differ, however, fundamentally in this respect, that, whereas evolution regards the process as from the indeterminate lower towards the determinate higher, emanation regards it as from the highest to the indefinitely lower.

There is considerable superficial similarity between evolution and emanation, especially in their formal statements. The process of evolution from the indeterminate to the determinate is often expressed as a progress from the universal to the particular. Thus the primordial matter assumed by the early Greek physicists may be said to be the universal substance out of which particular things arise. The doctrine of emanation also regards the world as a process of particularization. Yet the resemblance is more apparent than real. The universal is, as Herbert Spencer remarked, a subjective idea, and the general forms, existing ante res, which play so prominent a part in Greek and medieval philosophy, do not in the least correspond to the homogeneous matter of the physical evolutionists. The one process is a logical operation, the other a physical. The theory of emanation, which had its source in certain moral and religious ideas, aims first of all at explaining the origin of mental or spiritual existence as an effluence from the divine and absolute spirit. In the next place, it seeks to account for the general laws of the world, for the universal forms of existence, as ideas which emanate from the Deity. By some it was developed into a complete philosophy of the world, in which matter itself is viewed as the lowest emanation from the absolute. In this form it stands in sharp antithesis to the doctrine of evolution, both because the former views the world of particular things and events as essentially unreal and illusory, and because the latter, so far as it goes, looks on matter as eternal, and seeks to explain the general forms of things as we perceive them by help of simpler assumptions. In certain theories known as doctrines of emanation, only mental existence is referred to the absolute source, while matter is viewed as eternal and distinct from the divine nature. In this form the doctrine of emanation approaches certain forms of the evolution theory (see Evolution).

The doctrine of emanation is correctly described as of oriental origin. It appears in various forms in Indian philosophy, and is the characteristically oriental element in syncretic systems like Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. None the less it is easy to find it in embryo in the speculations of the essentially European philosophers of Greece. Plato, whose philosophy was strongly opposed to the evolution theory, distinctly inclines to the emanation idea in his doctrine that each particular thing is what it is in virtue of a pre-existent idea, and that the particulars are the lowest in the scale of existence, at the head of, or above, which is the idea of the good. The view of Xenocrates is based on the same ideas. Or again, we may compare the Stoic doctrine of ἀπόρροιαι (literally “emanations”) from the divine essence. It is, however, only in the last eclectic period of Greek philosophy that the emanation doctrine was definitely established in the doctrines, e.g. Plotinus.

See especially articles Evolution, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism.