If the term Neoplatonism puzzles you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Plato? Philosophy? Ancient Greece? Oh God please no, you may be thinking… But don’t close this page just yet, because you are about to find out an ancient tradition that connects many of today’s religious/philosophical/occultist practices. And you can breathe easy as we will walk you through the whole concept. So, what is Neoplatonism? If you have such avid minds like ours here at The Cult Machine you will be glad to find that the answer to this question raises even more questions. And everything will be answered here.
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The (Very) Short Answer on what is Neoplatonism.
Neoplatonism is a modern term coined to designate the era of Platonic Philosophy spanning from the works of Plotinus, in the 2nd century C.E. to the closure of Athens’ Platonic Academy by Emperor Justinian in 529 C.E. So yeah, that’s about it.
Now for the best part…
The (Very) Long (But Super Interesting) Answer
To understand what is Neoplatonism we first have to understand where it comes from.
What is the Origin of Neoplatonism?
The term was born from the need to distinguish between the historical doctrines of Plato from the ones from Plotinus, which had significantly evolved from its precursor. The biggest factor to the divergence of the two doctrines being attributed to the 600-year gap between them.
Early theologians recognize the German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher as one of the earliest thinkers to consider the two doctrines as distinct during the early 19th century. However, some disagree. According to a Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, Plotinus’ philosophy is an accurate interpretation of Plato’s philosophy.
The Origin and History of Classic Neoplatonism
After the death of Plotinus, there have been about 3 significant distinct phases in classical Neoplatonism. These phases are reflected/represented in the works of Porphyry, a student of Plotinus; in the works of Iamblichus while in his school in Syria; and the era between the 5th and 6th centuries C.E., when Academies in Athens and Alexandria prospered.
Neoplatonism draws some of its belief system from ancient Greek philosophy and religion. The most essential predecessors being the middle Platonists, the likes of Plutarch, and the neopythagoreans who held the tenets that God is beyond logic, “supra-rational” and can only be reached through “ecstasy.” They held that God was the author of moral, material and religious knowledge.
Ammonius Saccas was Plotinus’ teacher. Many scholars believe that Indian Philosophy strongly influenced Plotinus’ philosophy, particularly through Ammonius Saccas. This is based on similarities with Vedanta’s philosophy for Hinduism which generally relates to our real nature being divine and that God is the underlying reality existing in the entirety of everything.
Plotinus (The Dude, The Man, The Legend)
Plotinus is considered the father of Neoplatonism. Much insight into his life is derived from Porphyry’s account in his edition of Plotinus’ Enneads. Plotinus philosophy is spread through his metaphysical writing. Some accounts in Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Gnostic metaphysicians are greatly influenced by Plotinus’ philosophy. This includes the idea of monism. This idea entails that reality and everything in it can be traced back to a single origin.
Plotinus taught of the prior existence of “the One” who was supreme, transcendent, and ineffable. The One had no division, multiplicity nor distinction. The One cannot be an existing item nor the entirety of everything.
Porphyry is credited with writing the biography of Plotinus. He is also notable for his strong opposition to Christianity and his strong embrace of Paganism. This was recorded in 15 of his books referred to as Adversus Christianos (Against the Christians). Porphyry also wrote on astrology, religion, philosophy, and musical theory.
Iamblichus is best known for his compendium on Pythagorean philosophy. He documented that the realm of divinity stretched from the One to the material nature. The soul (nous) descended and was encapsulated by the matter and became “embodied” as human beings.
He taught of the world being a crowd of supernatural beings who influenced natural events, who possessed and communicated knowledge about the future.
Iamblichus’ final goal was salvation.
Ideology of Neoplatonism
The belief system of Neoplatonism is documented in Enneads of Plotinus. Being a form of mysticism, it entails the theoretical and the practical bits.
Theoretically, it tries to explain the origin of the human soul and how it left the first estate.
Practically it alludes that there is a way the soul can once more return to the Eternal and Supreme.
The system comprises the invisible world and the phenomenal world. The former has the transcendent, absolute One from which emanates an eternal, impeccable, essence (nous, or intellect), which, in turn, yields the soul of the world.
Plotinus’ first principle of reality is “the One”. It is a relatively simple concept yet ineffable, which is both the universal creative source and the teleological end of everything. There is no name appropriate for the first principle, the most suitable names are “the One” or “the Good”.
The One is so extremely simple that it is impossible to dispute, or rather to approve, that it exists or conclude it to be a being. The creative principle of all things culminates on being a notion which is derived from Book VI of the Republic, when, in the course of his famous example of the sun, Plato says that the Good is beyond being in power and dignity. Plotinus’ model of reality implies that the One is the cause of all reality, which takes the form of two subsequent substances: Nous and Soul.
It unravels that the One emanated the rest of the universe sequentially into other lesser beings.
Demiurge or Nous
The original Being initially emanates, the nous, which is a mirror image of the One and the archetype of all there is. It is simultaneously both being and thought, idea and ideal world.
As an image, the nous corresponds impeccably to the One, but different as it is a derivative.
Plotinus understands the nous as being the highest sphere accessible to the human mind, while also being purely intellectual.
Nous is the most vital component of idealism. The demiurge (the nous) is the energy, or ergon (does the work), which organizes the material world into perceivability.
World-soul is the image and product of the immobile nous, which Plotinus refers to as immaterial like the nous. Its relation to the nous is similar to that of the nous to the One. It is the bridge connecting the nous and the phenomenal world, and it is penetrated and illuminated by the former, although it is in contact with the latter.
The Phenomenal World
The soul, as a mobile essence, generates the corporeal world. This world should be entirely spread by the soul that its various parts should remain in perfect harmony. As long as the idea controls matter or the soul controls the body, the world remains excellent.
Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, included hundreds of intermediary beings such as gods, angels, demons, and others who mediated between the One and the humans. Neoplatonist gods exhibit perfect behavior unlike what is portrayed in myths. Check out the hierarchy of angels.
Neoplatonists compared evil to darkness which doesn’t exist by itself but only in the absence of light. Therefore, they viewed evil as the absence of good. Everything is good insofar as it exists; it becomes evil only insofar as it is imperfect.
Return to the One
Neoplatonists believed that people could achieve perfection and happiness while in this world. They believed that perfection and happiness were attainable through philosophical contemplation.
All people return to the One from where they originated.
Neoplatonists believed in the immortality of nous and pre-existence. They believed that nous consists of a lower irrational soul and a higher rational soul (mind), both of which can be viewed as different entities of the one soul. They held that the soul possesses a “vehicle”, the human body in which it exits after death to join the One. After the body dies, the soul takes up a level in the afterlife concerning the level at which it lived while on earth.
They believed in reincarnation. They held that the pure and holy souls dwelt in the highest regions while the impure souls underwent cleansing before descending again to be reincarnated into new beings, perhaps as in animal form or another human being.
Porphyry believed that human souls were only reincarnated into people, unlike Plotinus who believed that you could be reincarnated as both.
Any soul that ascended to the One achieved union with the universal cosmic soul and did not descend once more; at least, not in this worldly time.
The Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo’s central beliefs were influenced by Neoplatonism as he transitioned from dualistic Manichaeism to Christianism.
As a Manichee, he believed that evil was self-existent and that God was material.
He turned to Neoplatonissm. His new belief ideology was that evil was brought by the absence of good and that God wasn’t made of material substance.
Augustine was baptized in Christianism nearly 400 times as he kept on backsliding into the older belief system which haunted him.
Neoplatonism was of great influence to him, which was a great hindrance to his Christianity.
Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius
Early Christians, whose belief systems were influenced by Neoplatonism, identified the One with Yahweh. The most influential of them being Origen, a pupil of Ammonius Saccas; and the 6th century author known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. John Scotus translated his works for the West during the 9th century. Both had a strong influence on Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianism.
Plotinus was against the Gnostics’ belief that the Creator and the Cosmos itself be evil.
Neoplatonists having their belief system grounded to Platonism heavily rebuked Gnosticism slanderous of Plato’s demiurge as discussed in Temaeus.
Plotinus believed that Gnosticism had corrupted the original teaching of Plato. According to him, the One is not a conscious god with intent nor an existing entity of any kind but rather the principle of totality.
Read this article on the difference between gnosticism vs hermeticism.
Philosophers continued to teach Platonism even after the destruction of the Platonic Academy. However, it was not until the early 5th century (c. 410) that a reinvigorated academy (completely unrelated to the original Academy) was established in Athens by some leading Neoplatonists. It ran until 529 C.E. before being closed by Justinian I due to the active paganism of its professors. Other schools, however, persisted in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.
Neoplatonism in Islamic religion can be attributed to the numerous texts that were available. The texts were written in Greek. They were later translated to Arabic making them accessible to Islamic scholars.
These texts were at the disposal of the Islamic scholars primarily because the Muslims had conquered some of the most essential centers where Byzantine Christian Civilization was in Egypt and Syria.
Islamic Neoplatonism adapted the basic concept of the One and the First Principle. This concept is based on God being omnipotent, omnipresent, and transcendent. That he is beyond creation and that God can’t be altered by creation.
Neoplatonism influenced Jewish thinkers, such as the Kabbalist Isaac the Blind, and the Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), who adapted it in their monotheism during the middle ages.
Works by Pseudo-Dionysius were vital in the flourishing of western medieval mysticism, most notably Meister Eckhart.
It’s without a doubt that Neoplatonism survived in the Eastern Christian church as an independent tradition. It was, however, revived to the West by Pletho (1355 – 1452/1454), a devoted pagan and ardent opponent of the Byzantine Church. Despite the latter, under the Western scholastic influence, relied heavily upon Aristotelian methodology.
Pletho’s Platonic revival, following the Council of Florence (1438-1439) accounts for the resuscitated interest in Platonic Philosophy which led to Renaissance.
The most famous Greek students in Renaissance Italy were Neoplatonists who studied and resided in and around Florence. Neoplatonism was not just a revival of Plato’s ideology, but also it was based on Plotinus’ created synthesis, which included the works and teachings of various Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras.
The Renaissance in Italy started immediately after the fall of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines were considered as the “librarians of the world”, due to their massive collection of various manuscripts from all over the globe and the high number of humanist scholars that resided in Constantinople.
Neoplatonism in the Renaissance comprised the ideas of Christianity and gave new insights to Plato’s writings.
Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) was greatly involved in creating awareness of Plato to the Renaissance.
In 1462, Cosimo I de’ Medici, patron of arts, handed Ficino all 36 of Plato’s dialogues in Greek for him to translate. Between the years 1462 and 1469, Ficino translated these works into Latin, rendering them accessible to the majority of the population, since only a few people could read Latin. And, between 1484 and 1492, he translated Plotinus works, making them available for the first time to the West.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) was also a popular Neoplatonist during the Italian Renaissance. He could converse and write remarkably in both Latin and Greek. He also had substantial knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic. The pope banned his works as they were considered as being heretical – unlike Ficino, who had retained positive feedback from the church.
Cambridge Platonists (17th century)
During the 17th century in England, fundamental Neoplatonism was heavily rooted in the school of the Cambridge Platonists. The luminaries included Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Benjamin Whichcote, and John Smith who all graduated from the University of Cambridge. Coleridge, however, discredited them being Platonists, but “more truly Plotinists”: “divine Plotinus”, as More called him.
Thomas Taylor later translated the works of Plotinus into English although he was not a Cambridge Platonist.
The most notable of the modern Neoplatonists is Thomas Taylor who is credited with translating almost the entirety of Platonic and Plotinua corpora into English. He was aided by a Belgium writer known as Suzanne Lilar.
Science fiction writer, Phillip K. Dick identifies as a Neoplatonist as he seems to explore the mystic experiences and religious concepts in his theoretical work known as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
So there you have it, a simple but great guide to Neoplatonism. Of course, there is so much more to find out, and that’s a journey that you have to take on your own (and we are here to help you, of course).
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