1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Neoplatonism
NEOPLATONISM, the name given specially to the last school of pagan philosophy, which grew up mainly among the Greeks of Alexandria from the 3rd century onwards. The term has also been applied to the Italian humanists of the Renaissance, and in modern times, somewhat vaguely, to thinkers who have based their speculations on the Platonic metaphysics or on Plotinus, and incorporated with it a tendency towards a mystical explanation of ultimate phenomena.
Historical Position and Significance.—The political history of the ancient world ends with the formation, under Diocletian and Constantine, of a universal state bearing the cast of Oriental as well as Graeco-Roman civilization. The history of ancient philosophy ends in like manner with a universal philosophy which assimilated elements of almost all the earlier systems, and worked up the results of Eastern and Western culture. Just as the Later Roman empire was at once the supreme effort of the old world and the outcome of its exhaustion, so Neoplatonism is in one aspect the consummation, in another the collapse, of ancient philosophy. Never before in Greek or in Roman speculation had the consciousness of man's dignity and superiority to nature found such adequate expression; never before had real science and pure knowledge been so undervalued and despised by the leaders of culture as they were by the Neoplatonists. Judged from the standpoint of empirical science, philosophy passed its meridian in Plato and Aristotle, declined in the post-Aristotelian systems, and set in the darkness of Neoplatonism. But, from the religious and moral point of view, it must be admitted that the ethical “mood” which Neoplatonism endeavoured to create and maintain is the highest and purest ever reached by antiquity.
It is a proof of the strength of the moral instincts of mankind that the only phase of culture which we can survey in all its stages from beginning to end culminated not in materialism, but in the boldest idealism. This idealism, however, is also in its way a mark of intellectual bankruptcy. Contempt for reason and science leads in the end to barbarism—its necessary consequence being the rudest superstition. As a matter of fact, barbarism did break out after the flower had fallen from Neoplatonism. The philosophers themselves, no doubt, still lived on the knowledge they repudiated; but the masses were trained to a superstition with which the Christian church, as the executor of Neoplatonism, had to reckon and contend. By a fortunate coincidence, at the very moment when this bankruptcy of the old culture must have become apparent, the stage of history was occupied by barbaric peoples. This has obscured the fact that the inner history of antiquity, ending as it did in despair of this world, must in any event have seen a recurrence of barbarism. The present world was a thing that men would neither enjoy nor master nor study. A new world was discovered, for the sake of which everything else was abandoned; to make sure of that world insight and intelligence were freely sacrificed; and, in the light that streamed from beyond, the absurdities of the present became wisdom, and its wisdom became foolishness.
Such is Neoplatonism. The pre-Socratic philosophy took its stand on natural science, to the exclusion of ethics and religion. The systems of Plato and Aristotle sought to adjust the rival claims of physics and ethics (although the supremacy of the latter was already acknowledged); but the popular religions were thrown overboard. The post-Aristotelian philosophy in all its branches makes withdrawal from the objective world its starting-point. It might seem, indeed, that Stoicism indicates a falling off from Plato and Aristotle towards materialism, but the ethical dualism, which was the ruling tendency of the Stoa, could not long endure its materialistic physics, and took refuge in the metaphysical dualism of the Platonists. But this originated no permanent philosophical creation. From one-sided Platonism issued the various forms of scepticism, the attempt to undermine the trustworthiness of empirical knowledge. Neoplatonism, coming last, borrowed something from all the schools. First, it stands in the line of post-Aristotelian systems; it is, in fact, as a subjective philosophy, their logical completion. Secondly, it is founded on scepticism; for it has neither interest in, nor reliance upon, empirical knowledge. Thirdly, it can justly claim the honour of Plato's name, since it expressly goes back to him for its metaphysics, directly combating those of the Stoa. Yet even on this point it learned something from the Stoics; the Neoplatonic conception of the action of the Deity on the world and of the essence and origin of matter can only be explained by reference to the dynamic pantheism of the Stoa. Fourthly, the study of Aristotle also exercised an influence on Neoplatonism. This appears not only in its philosophical method, but also—though less prominently—in its metaphysic. And, fifthly, Neoplatonism adopted the ethics of Stoicism; although it was found necessary to supplement them by a still higher conception of the functions of the spirit.
Thus, with the exception of Epicureanism—which was always treated by Neoplatonism as its mortal enemy—there is no outstanding earlier system which did not contribute something to the new philosophy. And yet Neoplatonism cannot be described as an eclectic system, in the ordinary sense of the word. For, in the first place, it is dominated by one all-pervading interest—the religious; and in the second place, it introduced a new first principle into philosophy, viz. the supra-rational, that which lies beyond reason and beyond reality. This principle is not to be identified with the “idea” of Plato or with the “form” of Aristotle. Neoplatonism perceived that neither sense perception nor rational cognition is a sufficient basis or justification for religious ethics; consequently it broke away from rationalistic ethics as decidedly as from utilitarian morality. It had therefore to find out a new world and a new spiritual function, in order first to establish the existence of what it desiderated, and then to realize and describe what it had proved to exist. Man, however, cannot transcend his psychological endowment. If he will not allow his thought to be determined by experience, he falls a victim to his imagination. In other words, thought, which will not stop, takes to mythology; and in the place of reason we have superstition. Still, as we cannot allow every fancy of the subjective reason to assert itself, we require some new and potent principle to keep the imagination within bounds. This is found in the authority of a sound tradition. Such authority must be superhuman, otherwise it can have no claim on our respect; it must, therefore, be divine. The highest sphere of knowledge—the supra-rational—as well as the very possibility of knowledge, must depend on divine communications—that is, on revelations. In short, philosophy as represented by Neoplatonism, its sole interest being a religious interest, and its highest object the supra-rational, must be a philosophy of revelation.
This is not a prominent feature in Plotinus or his immediate disciples, who still exhibit full confidence in the subjective presuppositions of their philosophy. But the later adherents of the school did not possess this confidence; they based their philosophy on revelations of the Deity, and they found these in the religious traditions and rites of all nations. The Stoics had taught them to overstep the political boundaries of states and nationalities, and rise from the Hellenic to a universal human consciousness. Through all history the spirit of God has breathed; everywhere we discover the traces of His revelation. The older any religious tradition or mode of worship is, the more venerable is it, the richer in divine ideas. Hence the ancient religions of the East had a peculiar interest for the Neoplatonist. In the interpretation of myths Neoplatonism followed the allegorical method, as practised especially by the Stoa; but the importance it attached to the spiritualized myths was unknown to the Stoic philosophers. The latter interpreted the myths and were done with them; the later Neoplatonists treated them as the proper material and the secure foundation of philosophy. Neoplatonism claimed to be not merely the absolute philosophy, the keystone of all previous systems, but also the absolute religion, reinvigorating and transforming all previous religions. It contemplated a restoration of all the religions of antiquity, by allowing each to retain its traditional forms, and at the same time making each a vehicle for the religious attitude and the religious truth embraced in Neoplatonism; while every form of ritual was to become a stepping-stone to a high morality worthy of mankind. In short, Neoplatonism seizes on the aspiration of the human soul after a higher life, and treats this psychological fact as the key to the interpretation of the universe. Hence the existing religions, after being refined and spiritualized, were made the basis of philosophy.
Neoplatonism thus represents a stage in the history of religion; indeed this is precisely where its historical importance lies. In the progress of science and enlightenment it has no positive significance, except as a necessary transition which the race had to make in order to get rid of nature-religion, and that undervaluing of the spiritual life which formed an insuperable obstacle to the advance of human knowledge. Neoplatonism, however, failed as signally in its religious enterprise as it did in its philosophical. While seeking to perfect ancient philosophy, it really extinguished it; and in like manner its attempted reconstruction of ancient religions only resulted in their destruction. For in requiring these religions to impart certain prescribed religious truths, and to inculcate the highest moral tone, it burdened them with problems to which they were unequal. And further, by inviting them to loosen, though not exactly to dissolve, their political allegiance—the very thing that gave them stability—it removed the foundation on which they rested. But might it not then have placed them on a broader and firmer foundation? Was not the universal empire of Rome ready at hand, and might not the new religion have stood to it in the same relation of dependence which the earlier religions had held to the smaller nations and states? This was no longer possible. It is true that the political and spiritual histories of the peoples on the Mediterranean run in parallel lines, the one leading up to the universal monarchy of Rome, the other leading up to monotheism and universal human morality. But the spiritual development had shot far ahead of the political; even the Stoa occupied a height far beyond the reach of anything in the political sphere. It is also true that Neoplatonism sought to come to an understanding with the Byzantine Roman empire; Julian perished in the pursuit of this project. But even before his day the shrewder Neoplatonists had seen that their lofty religious philosophy could not stoop to an alliance with the despotic world-empire, because it could not come in contact with the world at all. To Neoplatonism political affairs are at bottom as indifferent as all other earthly things. The idealism of the new philosophy was too heavenly to be naturalized in the Byzantine empire, which stood more in need of police officials than of philosophers. Important and instructive, therefore, as are the attempts made from time to time by the state and by individual philosophers to unite Neoplatonism and the universal monarchy, their failure was a foregone conclusion.
There is one other question which we are called upon to raise here. Why did not Neoplatonism set up an independent religious community? Why did it not provide for its mixed multitude of divinities by founding a universal church, in which all the gods of all nations might be worshipped along with the one ineffable Deity? The answer to this question involves the answer to another—Why was Neoplatonism defeated by Christianity? Three essentials of a permanent religious foundation were wanting in Neoplatonism; they are admirably indicated in Augustine's Confessions (vii. 18-21). First, and chiefly, it lacked a religious founder; second, it could not tell how the state of inward peace and blessedness could become permanent; third, it had no means to win those who were not endowed with the speculative faculty. The philosophical discipline which it recommended for the attainment of the highest good was beyond the reach of the masses; and the way by which the masses could attain the highest good was a secret unknown to Neoplatonism. Thus it remained a school for the “wise and prudent”; and when Julian tried to enlist the sympathies of the common rude man for the doctrines and worship of this school, he was met with scorn and ridicule.
It is not as a philosophy, then, nor as a new religion, that Neoplatonism became a decisive factor in history, but, if one may use the expression, as a “mood.” The instinctive certainty that there is a supreme good, lying beyond empirical experience, and yet not an intellectual good—this feeling, and the accompanying conviction of the utter vanity of all earthly things, were produced and sustained by Neoplatonism. Only it could not describe the nature of this highest good; and therefore it had to abandon itself to imagination and aesthetic impressions. It changed thought into an emotional dream; it plunged into the ocean of sentiment; it treated the old world of fable as the reflection of a higher reality, and transformed reality into poetry; and after all these expedients, to borrow a phrase of Augustine's, it only saw afar off the land of its desire.
Yet the influence of Neoplatonism on the history of our ethical culture is immeasurable, above all because it begot the consciousness that the only blessedness which can satisfy the heart must be sought higher even than the sphere of reason. That man shall not live by bread alone, the world had learned before Neoplatonism; but Neoplatonism enforced the deeper truth—a truth which the older philosophy had missed—that man shall not live by knowledge alone. And, besides the propaedeutic importance which thus belongs to it, another fact has to be taken into account in estimating the influence of Neoplatonism. It is to this day the nursery of that whole type of devotion which affects renunciation of the world, which strives after an ideal, without the strength to rise above aesthetic impressions, and is never able to form a clear conception of the object of its own aspiration.
Origin.—As forerunners of Neoplatonism we may regard, on the one hand, those Stoics who accepted the Platonic distinction between the sensible world and the intelligible, and, on the other hand, the so-called Neopythagoreans and religious philosophers like Plutarch of Chaeronea and especially Numenius of Apamea. But these cannot be considered the actual progenitors of Neoplatonism; their philosophic method is quite elementary as compared with the Neoplatonic, their fundamental principles are uncertain, and unbounded deference is still paid to the authority of Plato. The Jewish and Christian thinkers of the first two centuries approach considerably nearer than Numenius to the later Neoplatonism. Here we have Philo, to begin with. Philo, who translated the Old Testament religion into the terms of Hellenic thought, holds as an inference from his theory of revelation that the divine Supreme Being is “suprarational,” that He can be reached only through “ecstasy”, and that the oracles of God supply the material of moral and religious knowledge. The religious ethics of Philo—a compound of Stoic, Platonic and Neopythagorean elements—already bear the peculiar stamp which we recognize in Neoplatonism. While his system assigns the supremacy to Greek philosophy over the national religion of Israel, it exacts from the former, as a sort of tribute to the latter, the recognition of the elevation of God above the province of reason. The claim of positive religion to be something more than the intellectual apprehension of the reason in the universe is thus acknowledged. Religious syncretism is also a feature of Philo's system, but it differs essentially from what we find in later Neoplatonism. For Philo pays no respect to any cultus except the Jewish; and he believed that all the fragments of truth to be found amongst Greeks and Romans had been borrowed from the books of Moses. The earliest Christian philosophers, particularly Justin and Athenagoras, likewise prepared the way for the speculations of the Neoplatonists—partly by their attempts to connect Christianity with Stoicism and Platonism, partly by their ambition to exhibit Christianity as “hyperplatonic.” In the introduction to his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin follows a method which bears a striking resemblance to the later method of Neoplatonism: he seeks to base the Christian knowledge of God—that is, the knowledge of the truth—on Platonism, Scepticism and “Revelation.” A still more remarkable parallel to the later Neoplatonism is afforded by the Christian Gnostics of Alexandria, especially Valentinus and the followers of Basilides. Like the Neoplatonists, the Basilidians believed, not in an emanation from the Godhead, but in a dynamic manifestation of its activity. The same is true of Valentinus, who also placed an unnameable being at the apex of his system, and regarded matter, not as a second principle, but as a product of the one divine principle. It must be added that the dependence of Basilides and Valentinus on Zeno and Plato is beyond dispute. But the method observed by these Gnostics in thinking out the plan and the history of the universe is by no means thoroughgoing. Ancient myths are admitted without undergoing analysis; the most naïve realism alternates with daring efforts at spiritualizing. Philosophically considered, therefore, the Gnostic systems are very unlike the rigorous self-consistency of Neoplatonism; although they certainly contain almost all the elements which enter into the Neoplatonic theory of the universe.
But were the oldest Neoplatonists really acquainted with the speculations of Philo, or Justin, or Valentinus, or Basilides? Did they know the Oriental religions, Judaism and Christianity in particular? And, if so, did they really derive anything from these sources?
To these questions we cannot give decided, still less definite and precise, answers. Since Neoplatonism originated in Alexandria, where Oriental modes of worship were accessible to every one, and since the Jewish philosophy had also taken its place in the literary circles of Alexandria, we may safely assume that even the earliest of the Neoplatonists possessed an acquaintance with Judaism and Christianity. But if we search Plotinus for evidence of any actual influence of Jewish and Christian philosophy, we search in vain; and the existence of any such influence is all the more unlikely because it is only the later Neoplatonism that offers striking and deep-rooted parallels to Philo and the Gnostics. The Philonic and Gnostic philosophies thus appear to be merely an historical anticipation of the Neoplatonic, without any real connexion. Nor is there anything mysterious in such an anticipation. It simply means that a certain religious and philosophical tendency, which grew up slowly on Greek soil, was already implanted in those who occupied the vantage-ground of a revealed religion of redemption. We have to come down to Iamblichus and his school before we find complete correspondence with the Christian Gnosticism of the 2nd century; that is to say, it is only in the 4th century that Greek philosophy in its proper development reaches the stage at which certain Greek philosophers who had embraced Christianity had arrived in the 2nd century. The influence of Christianity—whether Gnostic or Catholic—on Neoplatonism was at no time very considerable, although individual Neoplatonists, after Amelius, used Christian texts as oracles, and put on record their admiration for Christ.
History and Doctrines.—The founder of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria is supposed to have been Ammonius Saccas (q.v.). Plotinus. But the Enneads of his pupil Plotinus are the primary and classical document of Neoplatonism. The doctrine of Plotinus is mysticism, and like all mysticism it consists of two main divisions. The first or theoretical part deals with the high origin of the human soul, and shows how it has departed from its first estate. In the second or practical part the way is pointed out by which the soul may again return to the Eternal and Supreme. Since the soul in its longings reaches forth beyond all sensible things, beyond the world of ideas even, it follows that the highest being must be something supra-rational. The system thus embraces three heads—(1) the primeval Being, (2) the ideal world and the soul, (3) the phenomenal world. We may also, however, in accordance with the views of Plotinus, divide thus: (A) the invisible world—(1) the primeval Being, (2) the ideal world, (3) the soul; (B) the phenomenal world.
The primeval Being is, as opposed to the many, the One; as opposed to the finite, the Infinite, the unlimited. It is the source of all life, and therefore absolute causality and the only real existence. It is, moreover, the Good, in so far as all finite things have their purpose in it, and ought to flow back to it. But one cannot attach moral attributes to the original Being itself, because these would imply limitation. It has no attributes of any kind; it is being without magnitude, without life, without thought; in strict propriety, indeed, we ought not to speak of it as existing; it is “above existence,” “above goodness.” It is also active force without a substratum; as active force the primeval Being is perpetually producing something else, without alteration, or motion, or diminution of itself. This production is not a physical process, but an emission of force; and, since the product has real existence only in virtue of the original existence working in it, Neoplatonism may be described as a species of dynamic pantheism. Directly or indirectly, everything is brought forth by the “One.” In it all things, so far as they have being, are divine, and God is all in all. Derived existence, however, is not like the original Being itself, but is subject to a law of diminishing completeness. It is indeed an image and reflection of the first Being; but the further the line of successive projections is prolonged the smaller is its share in the true existence. The totality of being may thus be conceived as a series of concentric circles, fading away towards the verge of non-existence, the force of the original Being in the outermost circle being a vanishing quantity. Each lower stage of being is united with the “One” by all the higher stages, and receives its share of reality only by transmission through them. All derived existence, however, has a drift towards, a longing for, the higher, and bends towards it so far as its nature will permit.
The original Being first of all throws out the nous, which is a perfect image of the One and the archetype of all existing things. It is at once being and thought, ideal world and idea. As image, the nous corresponds perfectly to the One, but as derived it is entirely different. What Plotinus understands by the nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind (κόσμος νοητός), and, along with that, pure thought itself.
The image and product of the motionless nous is the soul, which, according to Plotinus is, like the nous, immaterial. Its relation to the nous is the same as that of the nous to the One. It stands between the nous and the phenomenal world, is permeated and illuminated by the former, but is also in contact with the latter. The nous is indivisible; the soul may preserve its unity and remain in the nous, but at the same time it has the power of uniting with the corporeal world and thus being disintegrated. It therefore occupies an intermediate position. As a single soul (world-soul) it belongs in essence and destination to the intelligible world; but it also embraces innumerable individual souls; and these can either submit to be ruled by the nous, or turn aside to the sensual and lose themselves in the finite.
Then the soul, a moving essence, generates the corporeal or phenomenal world. This world ought to be so pervaded by the soul that its various parts should remain in perfect harmony. Plotinus is no dualist, like the Christian Gnostics; he admires the beauty and splendour of the world. So long as idea governs matter, or the soul governs the body, the world is fair and good. It is an image—though a shadowy image—of the upper world, and the degrees of better and worse in it are essential to the harmony of the whole. But in the actual phenomenal world unity and harmony are replaced by strife and discord; the result is a conflict, a becoming and vanishing, an illusive existence. And the reason for this state of things is that bodies rest on a substratum of matter. Matter is the basework of each (τὸ βάθος ἑκάστου ἡ ὕλη); it is the dark principle, the indeterminate, that which has no qualities, the μὴ ὄν. Destitute of form and idea, it is evil; as capable of form it is neutral.
The human souls which have descended into corporeality are those which have allowed themselves to be ensnared by sensuality and overpowered by lust. They now seek to cut themselves loose from their true being; and, striving after independence, they assume a false existence. They must turn back from this; and, since they have not lost their freedom, a conversion is still possible.
Here, then, we enter upon the practical philosophy. Along the same road by which it descended the soul must retrace its steps back to the supreme Good. It must first of all return to itself. This is accomplished by the practice of virtue, which aims at likeness to God, and leads up to God. In the ethics of Plotinus all the older schemes of virtue are taken over and arranged in a graduated series. The lowest stage is that of the civil virtues, then follow the purifying, and last of all the divine virtues. The civil virtues merely adorn the life, without elevating the soul. That is the office of the purifying virtues, by which the soul is freed from sensuality and led back to itself, and thence to the nous. By means of ascetic observances the man becomes once more a spiritual and enduring being, free from all sin. But there is still a higher attainment; it is not enough to be sinless, one must become “God.” This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One—in other words, through an ecstatic approach to it. Thought cannot attain to this, for thought reaches only to the nous, and is itself a kind of motion. It is only in a state of perfect passivity and repose that the soul can recognize and touch the primeval Being. Hence the soul must first pass through a spiritual curriculum. Beginning with the contemplation of corporeal things in their multiplicity and harmony, it then retires upon itself and withdraws into the depths of its own being, rising thence to the nous, the world of ideas. But even there it does not find the Highest, the One; it still hears a voice saying, “not we have made ourselves.” The last stage is reached when, in the highest tension and concentration, beholding in silence and utter forgetfulness of all things, it is able as it were to lose itself. Then it may see God, the fountain of life, the source of being, the origin of all good, the root of the soul. In that moment it enjoys the highest indescribable bliss; it is as it were swallowed up of divinity, bathed in the light of eternity.
Such is the religious philosophy of Plotinus, and for himself personally it sufficed, without the aid of the popular religion or worship. Nevertheless he sought for points of support in these. God is certainly in the truest sense nothing but the primeval Being; but He reveals Himself in a variety of emanations and manifestations. The nous is a sort of second god, the λόγοι which are wrapped up in it are gods, the stars are gods, and so on. A rigid monotheism appeared to Plotinus a miserable conception. He gave a meaning to the myths of the popular religions, and he had something to say even for magic, sooth-saying and prayer. In support of image-worship he advanced arguments which were afterwards adopted by the Christian image-worshippers. Still, as compared with the later Neoplatonists, he is comparatively free from crass superstition and wild fanaticism. He is not to be classed amongst the “deceived deceivers,” and the restoration of the worship of the old gods was by no means his chief object.
Amongst his pupils, Amelius and Porphyry are the most eminent. Amelius modified the teaching of Plotinus on certain Porphyry. points; and he also put some value on the prologue to the Gospel of John. To Porphyry (q.v.) belongs the credit of having recast and popularized the system of his master Plotinus. He was not an original thinker, but a diligent student, distinguished by great learning, by a turn for historical and philological criticism, and by an earnest purpose to uproot false teaching—especially Christianity, to ennoble men and train them to goodness. The system of Porphyry is more emphatically practical and religious than that of Plotinus. The object of philosophy, according to Porphyry, is the salvation of the soul. The origin and the blame of evil are not in the body, but in the desires of the soul. Hence the strictest asceticism (abstinence from flesh, and wine, and sexual intercourse) is demanded, as well as the knowledge of God. As he advanced in life, Porphyry protested more and more earnestly against the rude faith of the common people and their immoral worships. But, outspoken as he was in his criticism of the popular religions, he had no wish to give them up. He stood up for a pure worship of the many gods, and maintained the cause of every old national religion and the ceremonial duties of its adherents. His work Against the Christians was directed, not against Christ, nor even against what he believed to be Christ's teaching, but against the Christians of his own day and their sacred books, which, according to Porphyry, were the work of deceivers and ignorant people. In his trenchant criticism of the origin of what passed for Christianity in his time, he spoke bitter and severe truths, which have gained for him the reputation of the most rabid and wicked of all the enemies of Christianity. His work was destroyed, but the copious extracts which we find in Lactantius, Augustine, Jerome, Macarius Magnus and others show how profoundly he had studied the Christian writings, and how great was his talent for real historical research.
Porphyry marks the transition to a new phase of Neoplatonism, in which it becomes completely subservient to polytheism, and Iamblichus. seeks before everything else to protect the Greek and Oriental religions from the formidable assault of Christianity. In the hands of Iamblichus (q.v.), the pupil of Porphyry, Neoplatonism is changed “from a philosophical theory to a theological doctrine.” The distinctive tenets of Iamblichus cannot be accounted for from scientific but only from practical considerations. In order to justify superstition and the ancient forms of worship, philosophy becomes in his hands a theurgy, a knowledge of mysteries, a sort of spiritualism.
To this period also belongs a set of “philosophers,” with regard to whom it is impossible to say whether they are dupes or impostors—the “decepti deceptores” of whom Augustine speaks. In this philosophy the mystical properties of numbers are a leading feature; absurd and mechanical notions are glossed over with the sheen of sacramental mystery; myths are explained by pious fancies and fine-sounding pietistic reflections; miracles, even the most ridiculous, are believed in, and miracles are wrought. The “philosopher” has become a priest of magic and philosophy a method of incantation. Moreover, in the unbridled exercise of speculation, the number of divine beings was increased indefinitely; and these fantastic accessions to Olympus in the system of Iamblichus show that Greek philosophy is returning to mythology, and that nature-religion is still a power in the world. And yet it is undeniable that the very noblest and choicest minds of the 4th century are to be found in the ranks of the Neoplatonists. So great was the general decline that this Neoplatonic philosophy offered a welcome shelter to many earnest and influential men, in spite of the charlatans and hypocrites who were gathered under the same roof. On certain points of doctrine, too, the dogmatic of Iamblichus indicates a real advance. Thus his emphatic assertion of the truth that the seat of evil is in the will is noteworthy; and so also is his repudiation of Plotinus's theory of the divinity of the soul.
The numerous followers of Iamblichus—Aedesius, Chrysanthius, Eusebius, Priscus, Sopater, Sallust, and, most famous of all, Maximus (q.v.), rendered little service to speculation. Some of them (Themistius in particular) are known as commentators on the older philosophers, and others as the missionaries of mysticism. The work De mysteriis Aegyptiorum is the best sample of the views and aims of these philosophers. Their hopes rose high when Julian ascended the imperial throne (361-363). But the emperor himself lived long enough to see that his romantic policy of restoration was to leave no results; and after his early death all hope of extinguishing Christianity was abandoned.
But undoubtedly the victory of Christianity in the age of Valentinian and Theodosius had a purifying influence on Neoplatonism. Influence of Christianity. During the struggle for supremacy, the philosophers had been driven to make common cause with everything that was hostile to Christianity. But now Neoplatonism was thrust from the great stage of history. The church and church theology, to whose guidance the masses now surrendered themselves, took in along with them their superstition, their polytheism, their magic, their myths, and all the machinery of religious witchcraft. The more all this settled and established itself—certainly not without opposition—in the church the purer did Neoplatonism become. While maintaining intact its religious attitude and its theory of knowledge, it returned with new zest to scientific studies, especially the study of the old philosophers. If Plato still remains the divine philosopher, yet we can perceive that after the year 400 the writings of Aristotle are increasingly read and valued. In the chief cities of the empire Neoplatonic schools flourished till the beginning of the 5th century; during this period, indeed, they were the training-schools of Christian theologians. At Alexandria the noble Hypatia (q.v.) taught, to whose memory her impassioned disciple Synesius, afterwards a bishop, reared a splendid monument. But after the beginning of the 5th century the fanaticism of the church could no longer endure the presence of “heathenism.” The murder of Hypatia was the death of philosophy in Alexandria, although the school there maintained a lingering existence till the middle of the 6th century. But there was one city of the East which, lying apart from the crowded highways of the world, had sunk to a mere provincial town, and yet possessed associations which the church of the 5th century felt herself powerless to eradicate. In Athens a Neoplatonic school still flourished. There, under the monuments of its glorious past, Hellenism found its last retreat. The school of Athens returned to a stricter philosophical method and the cultivation of scholarship. Still holding by a religious philosophy, it undertook to reduce the whole Greek tradition, as seen in the light of Plotinus, to a comprehensive and closely knit system. Hence the philosophy which arose at Athens was what may fairly be termed scholasticism. For every philosophy is scholastic whose subject-matter is imaginative and mystical, and which handles this subject-matter according to established rules in logical categories and distinctions. Now to these Neoplatonists, the books of Plato, along with certain divine oracles, the Orphic poems, and much more which they assigned to a remote antiquity, were documents of canonical authority; they were inspired divine writings. Out of these they drew the material of their philosophy, which they then proceeded to elaborate with the appliances of dialectic.
The most distinguished teachers at Athens were Plutarch (q.v.), his disciple Syrianus (who did important work as a commentator Proclus. on Plato and Aristotle, and further deserves mention for his vigorous defence of the freedom of the will), but above all Proclus (411-485). Proclus is the great schoolman of Neoplatonism. It was he who, combining religious ardour with formal acuteness, connected the whole mass of traditional lore into a huge system, making good defects, and smoothing away contradictions by means of distinctions and speculations. “It was reserved for Proclus,” says Zeller, “to bring the Neoplatonic philosophy to its formal conclusion by the rigorous consistency of his dialectic, and, keeping in View all the modifications which it had undergone in the course of two centuries, to give it that form in which it was transferred to Christianity and Mahommedanism in the middle ages.” Forty-four years after the death of Proclus the school of Athens was closed by Justinian (A.D. 529), but it had already fulfilled its mission in the work of Proclus. The works of Proclus, as the last testament of Hellenism to the church and the middle ages, exerted an incalculable influence on the next thousand years. They not only formed one of the bridges by which the medieval thinkers got back to Plato and Aristotle; they determined the scientific method of thirty generations, and they partly created and partly nourished the Christian mysticism of the middle ages.
The disciples of Proclus are not eminent (Marinus, Asclepiodotus, Ammonius, Zenodotus, Isidorus, Hegias, Damascius). The last president of the Athenian school was Damascius (q.v.). When Justinian issued the edict for the suppression of the school, Damascius along with Simplicius (the painstaking commentator on Aristotle) and five other Neoplatonists set out to make a home in Persia. They found the conditions were unfavourable and were allowed to return (see Chosroes I.).
At the beginning of the 6th century Neoplatonism had ceased to exist in the East as an independent philosophy. Almost at the same time, however—and the coincidence is not accidental—it made new conquests in the church theology through the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius. It began to bear fruit in Christian mysticism, and to diffuse a new magical leaven through the worship of the church.
In the West, where philosophical efforts of any kind had been very rare since the 2nd century, and where mystical contemplation did not meet with the necessary conditions, Neoplatonism found a congenial soil only in isolated individuals. C. Marius Victorinus (q.v.) translated certain works of Plotinus, and thus had a decisive influence on the spiritual history of Augustine (Confess. vii. 9, viii. 2). It may be said that Neoplatonism influenced the West only through the medium of the church theology, or, in some instances, under that disguise. Even Boetius (it may now be considered certain) was a catholic Christian, although his whole mode of thought was certainly Neoplatonic (see Boetius). His violent death in the year 525 marks the end of independent philosophy in the West. But indeed this last of the Roman philosophers stood quite alone in his century, and the philosophy for which he lived was neither original, nor well-grounded, nor methodically developed.
Neoplatonism and the Theology of the Church.—The question as to the influence of Neoplatonism on the development of Christianity is not easily answered, because it is scarcely possible to get a complete view of their mutual relations. The answer will depend, in the first instance, upon how much is included under the term “Neoplatonism.” If Neoplatonism is understood in the widest sense, as the highest and fittest expression of the religious movements at work in the Graeco-Roman empire from the 2nd to the 5th century, then it may be regarded as the twin-sister of the church dogmatic which grew up during the same period; the younger sister was brought up by the elder, then rebelled against her and at last tyrannized over her. The Neoplatonists themselves characterized the theologians of the church as intruders, who had appropriated the Greek philosophy and spoiled it by the admixture of strange fables. Thus Porphyry says of Origen (Euseb. H.E. vi. 19), “The outer life of Origen was that of a Christian and contrary to law; but, as far as his views of things and of God are concerned, he thought like the Greeks, whose conceptions he overlaid with foreign myths.” This verdict of Porphyry's is at all events more just and apt than that of the theologians on the Greek philosophers, when they accused them of having borrowed all their really valuable doctrines from the ancient Christian books. But the important point is that the relationship was acknowledged on both sides. Now, in so far as both Neoplatonism and the church dogmatic set out from the felt need of redemption, in so far as both sought to deliver the soul from sensuality and recognized man's inability without divine aid—without a revelation—to attain salvation an a sure knowledge of the truth, they are at once most intimately related and at the same time mutually independent. It must be confessed that when Christianity began to project a theology it was already deeply impregnated by Hellenic influences. But the influence is, to be traced not so much to philosophy as to the general culture of the time, and the whole set of conditions under which spiritual life was manifested. When Neoplatonism appeared, the Christian church had already laid down the main positions of her theology; or if not, she worked them out alongside of Neoplatonism—that is not a mere accident—but still independently. It was only by identifying itself with the whole history of Greek philosophy, or by figuring as pure Platonism restored, that Neoplatonism could stigmatize the church theology of Alexandria as a plagiarism from itself. These assumptions, however, were fanciful. Although our sources are unfortunately very imperfect, the theology of the church does not appear to have learned much from Neoplatonism in the 3rd century—partly because the latter had not yet reached the form in which its doctrines could be accepted by the church dogmatic, and partly because theology was otherwise occupied. Her first business was to plant herself firmly on her own territory, to make good her position and clear away old and objectionable opinions. Origen was quite as independent a thinker as Plotinus; only, they both drew on the same tradition. From the 4th century downwards, however, the influence of Neoplatonism on the Oriental theologians was of the utmost importance. The church gradually expressed her most peculiar convictions in dogmas, which were formulated by philosophical methods, but were irreconcilable with Neoplatonism (the Christological dogmas); and the further this process went the more unrestrainedly did theologians resign themselves to the influence of Neoplatonism on all other questions. The doctrines of the incarnation, the resurrection of the flesh and the creation of the world in time marked the boundary line between the church's dogmatic and Neoplatonism: in every other respect, theologians and Neoplatonists drew so closely together that many of them are completely at one. In fact, there were special cases, like that of Synesius, in which a speculative reconstruction of distinctively Christian doctrines by Christian men was winked at. If a book does not happen to touch on any of the above-mentioned doctrines, it may often be doubtful whether the writer is a Christian or a Neoplatonist. In ethical precepts, in directions for right living (that is, asceticism), the two systems approximate more and more closely. But it was here that Neoplatonism finally celebrated its greatest triumph. It indoctrinated the church with all its mysticism, its mystic exercises and even its magical cultus as taught by Iamblichus. The works of the pseudo-Dionysius contain a gnosis in which, by means of the teaching of Iamblichus and Proclus, the church's theology is turned into a scholastic mysticism with directions on matters of practice and ritual. And as these writings were attributed to Dionysius, the disciple of the apostles, the scholastic mysticism which they unfold was regarded as an apostolic, not to say a divine, science. The influence exercised by these writings, first on the East, and then—after the 9th (or 12th) century—on the West, cannot be overestimated. It is impossible to enlarge upon it here; suffice it to say that the mystical and pietistic devotion of our own day, even in the Protestant churches, is nourished on works whose ancestry can be traced, through a series of intermediate links, to the writings of the pseudo-Areopagite.
In the ancient world there was only one Western theologian who came directly under the influence of Neoplatonism; but that one is Augustine, the most important of them all. It was through Neoplatonism that Augustine got rid of scepticism and the last dregs of Manichaeism. In the seventh book of his Confessions he has recorded how much he owed to the perusal of Neoplatonic works. On all the cardinal doctrines—God, matter, the relation of God to the world, freedom and evil—Augustine retained the impress of Neoplatonism; at the same time he is the theologian of antiquity who most clearly perceived and most fully stated wherein Neoplatonism and Christianity differ. The best ever written by any church father on this subject is to be found in chaps. ix.-xxi. of the seventh book of the Confessions.
Why Neoplatonism succumbed in the conflict with Christianity is a question which the historians have never satisfactorily answered. As a rule, the problem is not even stated correctly. We have nothing to do here with our own private ideal of Christianity, but solely with catholic Christianity and catholic theology. These are the forces that conquered Neoplatonism, after assimilating nearly everything that it contained. Further, we must consider the arena in which the victory was won. The battlefield was the empire of Constantine and Theodosius. It is only when these and all other circumstances of the case are duly realized that we have a right to inquire how much the essential doctrines of Christianity contributed to the victory, and what share must be assigned to the organization of the church.
In medieval theology and philosophy mysticism appears as the powerful opponent of rationalistic dogmatism. The empirical science of the Renaissance and the two following centuries was itself a new development of Platonism and Neoplatonism, as opposed to rationalistic dogmatism, with its contempt for experience. Magic, astrology and alchemy—all the outgrowth of Neoplatonism—gave the first effectual stimulus, to the observation of nature, and consequently to natural science, and in this way finally extinguished barren rationalism. Thus in the history of science Neoplatonism has played a part and rendered services of which Plotinus or Iamblichus or Proclus never dreamt. So true is it that sober history is often stranger and more capricious than all the marvels of legend and romance.
Authorities.—On the relation of Neoplatonism to Christianity, and the historical importance of Neoplatonism generally, see the leading church histories, and the Histories of Dogma by Baur, Nitzsch, Harnack, &c. Compare also Löffler, Der Platonismus der Kirchenväter (1782); Huber, Die Philosophie der Kirchenväter (1859); Tzchirner, Fall des Heidenthums (1829), pp. 574-618; Burckhardt, Die Zeit Constantin's des Grossen (1853); Chastel, Hist. de la destruction du Paganisme dans l'empire d'Orient (1850); Beugnot, Hist. de la destruction du Paganisme en Occident (1835); E. von Lasaulx, Der Untergang des Hellenismus (1854); Vogt, Neuplatonismus und Christenthum (1836); Ullmann, “Einfluss des Christenthums auf Porphyrius,” in the Stud. u. Kritiken (1832); Jean Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères (1886); C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria (1886) and Neoplatonism (1895); Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909), pp. 70 foll. See further, C. Schmidt, Gnostische Schriften in Koptischer Sprache (1892); K. P. Hasse, Von Plotin zu Goethe (1909); Thomas Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists (1901); Petrie, Personal Religion in Egypt before Christ (1909); M. Heinze, “Neuplatonismus,” in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyk. vol. xiii. (1903). On the after-effects of Neoplatonism on the church's dogmatic, see Ritschl, Theologie und Metaphysik (1881). On the relation of Neoplatonism to Monachism, compare Keim, Aus dem Urchristenthum (1878). On the history of Neoplatonism with special reference to the decline of Roman polytheism, see, e.g., Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (1898), pp. 82 foll. On Plotinus, Porphyry, &c., see separate articles. (A. Ha.; J. M. M.)
- Porphyry wrote a book, περὶ τῆς ἐκ λογίων φιλοσοφίας, but this was before he became a pupil of Plotinus; as a philosopher he was independent of the λόγια.
- The resemblance would probably be still more apparent if we thoroughly understood the development of Christianity at Alexandria in the 2nd century; but unfortunately we have only very meagre fragments to guide us here.
- The dogmas of the Basilidians, as given by Hippolytus, read almost like passages from Neoplatonic works: ἐπεὶ οὐδὲν ἦν, οὐχ ὕλη, οὐκ οὐσία, οὐκ ἀνούσιον, οὐχ ἁπλοῦν, οὐ σύνθετον, οὐκ ἀνόητον, οὐκ ἀναίσθητον, οὐκ ἄνθρωπος. . . . οὐκ ὢν θεὸς ἀνοήτως, ἀναισθήτως, ἀβούλως, ἀπροαιρέτως, ἀπαθῶς, ἀνεπιθυμήτως κόσμον ἠθέλησε ποιῆσαι . . . οὕτως οὐκ ὢν θεὸς ἐποίησε κόσμον οὐκ όντα ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων, καταβαλόμενος καὶ ὑποστήσας σπέρμα τι ἓν ἔχον πᾶσαν ἐν ἑαυτῷ τὴν τοῦ κόσμου πανσπερμίαν (Philos. vii. 20 seq.). See Gnosticism, Basilides, &c.
- Porphyry tells us that on four occasions during the six years of their intercourse Plotinus attained to this ecstatic union with God.
- It was condemned by an edict of the emperors Theodosius II. and Valentinian in the year 448.