A 19th c. neologism that refers to (i) the late form of ancient Platonism, i.e. a novel synthesis of Platonic philosophy, mysticism and religion that was inaugurated in the 3rd century AD and, in its various strands, became the dominant philosophical trend until the end of antiquity (6th c. AD), and (ii) related intellectual currents.

The Term

The term “Neoplatonism” is not ancient. It was created by Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) and was widely adopted in the context of modern histories of philosophy. The prefix “neo-” stresses the discontinuity between the representatives of Platonism until the 2nd c. AD (e.g., Plutarch, Apuleius) and the new trend that Plotinus inaugurated and his students and heirs promoted during the following three centuries. However, several ‘Neoplatonic’ elements can already be detected in middle-Platonism and in some Pythagorean philosophers, such as Numenius. Apart from the Neoplatonic philosophers who belonged to the ancient Greek religious tradition, there were also Christian Neo-Platonists, such as Marius Victorinus (4th c.), Augustine (354-430), Boethius (c. 470-524) and, in the Middle Ages, John Scotus Erigena (c. 815-877) and Bonaventura (1221-1274). In the context of Greek-speaking literature, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th c.) was the main advocate of this trend; yet two more deserve to be mentioned: Synesius of Cyrene (c.373-c.414) and Aeneas of Gaza (?-518). Moreover, philosophers and theologians of the Islamic tradition are occasionally characterized as Neo-Platonists – see Platonic and Neo-Platonic influences in Islamic philosophy and theology.

Sometimes the term ‘Neo-Platonist’ is attributed to later intellectuals and scholars who sought to revive the ancient (Neo-) Platonism: Georgios Gemistos Plethon (c.1355-1452/1454) in the context of late Byzantium, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) during the Renaissance. The term applies, also, to the so-called “Cambridge Neo-Platonists” (17th c.), to Thomas Taylor himself and, in the 20th c., to a circle of primarily Catholic French historians of philosophy .

Main representatives and trends

Plotinus (205-270), a philosopher whose work (along with that of Plato) has been preserved in its entirety, is regarded as the founder of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus was a radical monist. He firmly believed that all reality derived from an essentially incomprehensibe principle which he calls the One (Hen) or the Good (Agathon) and at times just “That one” (Ekeino). Out of its abundant and perpetually overflowing goodness the One timelessly gives birth to the Intellect (Nous). Plotinus regards the Intellect as the field of Being which hosts all Platonic Forms. This divine Nous, in its turn, timelessly gives birth to the Soul (Psychê) as the third distinct divine hypostasis. Plotinus’ dynamic system whereby inferior substances emanate from superior ones is based on the antithetical processes of procession (proodos) and return (epistrophê).

Plotinus, who thought of himself not an innovator but as a simple interpreter of Plato, held that the priority of the One over Being was a genuinely Platonic tenet. In fact, he found corroboration of his own tripartite distinction of the intelligible realm (cf. Enn. 5.1) in the first three deductions of Plato’s Parmenides (137c-157b) and the (unquestionably pseudo-Platonic) 2nd Letter. In agreement with middle-Platonism, he believed that the Platonic Forms are the concepts or thoughts of the divine Nous rather than some model objects of knowledge that exist independently of Intelligence itself. The basic tenets of Plotinus’ philosophy were disseminated by his disciples and the members of his wider circle. Among those, the most important one was the Syrian Porphyry (234-c.305), editor of the Enneads and a fervent opponent of Christianity.

But the real second founder of Neo-Platonism was the somewhat younger Iamblichus (c.245-c.325), a Syrian as well, who studied with Porphyry. The entire later develpment of Neo-Platonism owes more to the influence of Iamblichus’ considerable, yet mostly lost today, body of work than to the -paradoxically restricted- impact of Plotinus’ Enneads. Iamblichus introduced the theoretical defense and practical application of theurgy viewed as a process superior to the Platonic and Plotinian theôria (= contemplation). The Chaldean Oracles, a collection of philosophical and theological oracles, were integrated into Neo-Platonism as sacred and divinely-inspired texts whereas commentaries on them came to be regarded as the sign of absolute hermeneutic profundity on the part of late Neoplatonists.

This turn from Plotinus’ intellectual mysticism to the ritualistic and quasi-magical methods of union with the divine will be a prominent trait of Neo-Platonism until the 6th century AD. Neo-Platonism eventually moved from Rome (where Plotinus taught) and Apameia in Syria (Iamblichus’ intellectual centre) to Alexandria and Athens during the 4th century AD  and various other sites in Asia Minor.

The Neoplatonic curriculum determined there included the study of the Aristotelian corpus, and especially Aristotelian logic, as propaedeutic stages to the comprehension of the Platonic dialogues. The analysis of the cosmological Timaeus and the -theologically interpreted- Parmenides formed the apex of the entire process. Rhetoric would also be taught along with philosophy, especially in Alexandria.

Proclus (412-485) was the personality who played a determining role with respect to the course of Neoplatonic philosophy until the Renaissance, and even later. Several scholars today dispute the orininality of Proclus’ ideas and claim that most of them derive from insights that his teacher, Syrianus (?-c.437), had. Nevertheless, Proclus’ contribution to the systematization and methodical exposition of the Neoplatonic philisophical tradition (lasting more than two centuries) is indisputable.

Apart from his extensive commentaries on various Platonic dialogues, he left behind two systematic works, the Elements of Theology and the Platonic Theology, where he exposes with mathematical clarity a complex system of emanation of the entire intelligible and sensible reality from the first principle. In this system, which is characterized by scholastic and mostly tripartite distinctions of levels, all ancient Greek deities are integrated as supra-intelligible Henads whereas the triptych “being-life-mind” acquires a particular interpretative value in the classification of the suprasensible reality.

The last truly important philosophical figure with a genuinely innovative frame of mind was Damascius (458-538). He was in charge of the Athenian School when Justinian decided to close it down; a fact which signalled, symbolically at least, the end of a Greek philosophical tradition that had lasted more than a thousand years  (529 AD). Damascius, in his magnum opus entitled Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, tried to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the primary, absolutely opaque and abysmal Hen, distinguish it (like Iamblichus before him) from a derivative Hen that is congruent with the production of reality in terms of emanation, and point up its absolutely transendental nature in a way more radical than even the apophatic theology of Plotinus.

His disciples Simplicius (c.490-c.560) and Olympiodorus (c.495-c.570), less metaphysical than himself, mostly restricted themselves to commentaries.

Aim

The aim of philosophical activity, according to the Neoplatonists, was not so much the mental comprehension of the metaphysical structure of the universe as the mystical union of the individual soul with the intelligible divinities and, if possible, with the One beyond Being, i.e, the soul’s redemption. For the Neoplatonists no less than Socrates and Plato, philosophy was a way of life. However, Neoplatonism came to stress the mystical element that was latent in Plato’s dialogues and to bridge the apparent divide between philosophy and religion.

Historical importance

Neoplatonism constitutes a grand effort to attain the confluence of ancient Greek philosophical tradition with the religious traditions of peoples from the Near and Middle East (Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians). Centering on Plato’s philosophy, the Neoplatonists integrated in their system not only other ancient Greek dogmatic schools of philosophy (with the exception of materialist Epicureanism), but also the mythological narratives of the Homeric and Hesiodic epics as well as the Orphic theogonies.

Many contemporary scholars hold that Neoplatonism was the ‘Greek’ or ‘pagan’ response to the Judaeo-Christian challenge. The scholar Porphyry wrote initially a long work made up of 15 books – only a few fragments are extand today – bearing the significant title Against the Christians. On the other hand, the program of politico-religious reform of the Roman empire that the emperor Julian (361-363) attempted to impose during his short tenure in office aimed clearly to marginalize the Christians (Against the Galileans).

The case of Hypatia (c.350-415), finally, shows the violent character that the confrontation between Platonists and Christians acquired in those times of crisis. And yet, in the surviving Neoplatonic works of the 5th and 6th centuries AD Christianity is nowhere present as a concrete theme; a fact that leads us to assume that the philosophers’ attitude towards the official religion of the empire was infused by a deep trust to the Greek philosophical paideia (= education) and an haughty sense of cultural superiority.

Main extant philosophical works

The Neoplatonists focused mostly on the annotation and interpretation of Plato’s dialogues, especially since the 4th c. Most of them are included in the table below. Besides the surviving works, later writers have preserved extensive extracts from works now lost (e.g., the compiler Stobaeus saved long fragments from Iamblichus’ On the Soul).

 

 

Author

Main extant philosophical works

Plotinus (205-270)

Enneads

Porphyry (234-π.305)

Introduction (Eisagogê)

Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories in Question-and-Answer Form

Launching Points to the Realm of Mind

On Abstinence from Killing Animals

On How Embryos Are Ensouled

On the Cave of the Nymphs in Odyssey

The Life of Pythagoras

The Life of Plotinus

Commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics

Iamblichus (c.245-c.325)

On the Mysteries

On the Pythagorean Way of Life

Protrepticus

On General Mathematical Science

Commentary on the Introduction to Arithmetic by Nicomachus

Dexippus (mid-4th c.)

Introduction to Aristotle’s Categories

Sallustius (mid-4th c.)

On the Gods and the Universe

Hierocles (early 5th c.)

Commentary to the Golden Verses by Pythagoras

Syrianus (?-c.437)

Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Books Β, Γ, Μ, Ν)

Proclus (412-485)

Elements of Theology

Platonic Theology

Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus

Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides,

Commentary on Plato’s Republic

Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades I

Commentary on Plato’s Cratylus (fragmentarily preserved)

Commentary on the first book of Euclid’s Elements

Hermias (c.410-c.450)

Commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus

Ammonius Hermiae (c.440-c.520)

Commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation

Commentary on the Introduction by Porphyry

Prolegomena to Aristotle’s Categories(written down by an unknown disciple)

Scholia on Aristotle Posterior Analytics I(written down by an unknown disciple)

Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Books A-Z) (written down by Asclepius)

On Nicomachus’ Introduction to Arithmetic(written down by Asclepius)

 

The following works come from classes given by Ammonius but have all been written down by, and attributed to, John Philoponus since he incorporated his own comments in them:

On Aristotle’s Prior Analytics

On Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics

On Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption

On Aristotle’s On the Soul

Marinus of Neapolis (c.450-500)

Proclus or On Happiness

Damascius (458-538)

Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles

Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides

Commentary on Plato’s Philebus

Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo

Life of Isidorus (or Philosophical History) (fragmentary)

Olympiodorus (c.495-c.570)

Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades I

Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias

Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo

Introduction to Logic

Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories

Commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology

Commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation (disputed)

Simplicius (c.490-c.560)

Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories

Commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo

Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics

Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul(attributed by some to Priscian of Lydia)

Commentary on the Enchiridion by Epictetus

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Remes, P. Neoplatonism. Stocksfield, 2008.
  • Dillon, J,M., Gerson, L.M. eds. Neoplatonic Philosophy: Introductory Readings . Indianapolis, 2004.
  • Gerson, L.P. ed. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity . Cambridge, 2010.
  • Harris, R.B. ed. The Significance of Neoplatonism. New York, 1976.
  • Lloyd, A.C. The Anatomy of Neoplatonism. Oxford, 1990.
  • Athanassiadi, P. La lutte pour l’orthodoxie dans le platonisme tardif de Numénius à Damascius. Paris, 2006.
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