Neoplatonism
A mystical philosophical system initiated by Plotinus of Alexandria
in 233 C.E. that combined the Platonic philosophy of
ancient Greece with later Gnostic spiritual cravings. Although
to some extent founded on the teachings of Plato, it was undoubtedly
sophisticated by a deep mysticism, which in all probability
emanated from Greece. To a great extent, Neoplatonism
colored the thought of medieval mysticism and magic.
Plotinus, its founder, commenced the study of philosophy in
Alexandria at the age of 28. He early experienced an earnest
desire to reach the truth concerning existence, and to that end
made a deep study of the dialogues of Plato and the metaphysics
of Aristotle. He practiced severe austerities and attempted
to live what he called the ‘‘angelic’’ life, or the life of the disembodied
in the body.
He was greatly drawn to Apollonius of Tyana by reading his
Life by Philostratus. The union of philosopher and priest in the
character of Apollonius fired the imagination of Plotinus, and
in his Pythagorean teachings the young student discovered the
elements of both Orientalism and Platonism, for both Pythagoras
and Plato strove to escape the sensuous and to realize in
contemplative abstraction the tranquility, superior to desire
and passion, that made men approach the gods. However, in
the hands of the later Pythagoreans and Platonists, the principles
of the Hellenic masters were carried off into popular magical
speculations. Many of the Pythagoreans joined the various
Orphic (mystery religion) associations, becoming little more
than itinerant vendors of charms.
It is probable that even before he left Alexandria Plotinus
began to absorb some of the gnostic mysticism circulating
throughout the Mediterranean Basin. But everywhere he also
found a growing indifference to religion as known to the more
ancient Greeks and Egyptians. By this time, the pantheons of
Greece, Rome, and Egypt had become fused in the worship of
Serapis, and this fusion had been forwarded by the works of
Plutarch, Apuleius, and Lucian. The position of metaphysical
philosophy at this time was by no means a strong one. In fact,
metaphysical emphases had given place to ethical teachings,
and philosophy was regarded as a branch of literature, or an
elegant recreation. Plotinus persuaded himself that philosophy
and religion should be one, and that speculation should be a
search after God. It was at this time that he first heard of Ammonius
Saccas, who shortly before had been a porter in the
streets of Alexandria, and who lectured upon the possibilities
of reconciling Plato and Aristotle.
‘‘Skepticism,’’ stated Ammonius, ‘‘was death.’’ He recommended
men to travel back across the past, and out of the
whole bygone world of thought to construct a system greater
than any of its parts. This teaching formed an epoch in the life
of Plotinus, who was convinced that Platonism, exalted into a
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species of illuminism and drawing to itself like a magnet all the
scattered truths of the bygone ages, could alone preserve mankind
from skepticism. He occupied himself only with the most
abstract questions concerning knowledge and being.
‘‘Truth,’’ according to Plotinus, ‘‘is not the agreement of our
comprehension of an external object with the object itself, but
rather, the agreement of the mind with itself. For the philosopher
the objects we contemplate, and that which contemplates
are identical; both are thought.’’ All truth is then easy. Reduce
the soul to its most perfect simplicity, and we find it is capable
of exploration into the infinite; indeed it becomes one with the
infinite. This is the condition of ecstasy, and to accomplish it,
a stoical austerity and asceticism was necessary.
The Neoplatonists were thus, like the Gnostics, ascetics and
enthusiasts. Plato was neither. According to Plotinus, the mystic
contemplates the divine perfection in himself; all worldly
things and logical distinctions vanish during the period of ecstasy.
This approach has some similarity with the stages of yoga
meditation.
Plotinus regarded the individual existence as phenomenal
and transitory, and subordinated reason to ecstasy where the
Absolute was in question. It is only at the end of his chain of reasoning
that he introduces the supernatural. He is first a rationalist,
afterwards a mystic, and only a mystic when he finds that
he cannot employ the machinery of reason. The following letter
of Plotinus, written about 260 C.E., embodies his conclusions
‘‘Plotinus to Flaccus.—I applaud your devotion to philosophy;
I rejoice to hear that your soul has set sail, like the returning
Ulysses, for its native land— that glorious, that only real country—the
world of unseen truth. To follow philosophy, the senator
Rogatianus, one of the noblest of my disciples, gave up the
other day all but the whole of his patrimony, set free his slaves,
and surrendered all the honours of his station.
‘‘Tidings have reached us that Valerian has been defeated
and is now in the hands of Sapor. The threats of Franks and Allemanni,
of Goths and Persians, are alike terrible by turns to
our degenerate Rome. In days like these, crowded with incessant
calamities, the inducements to a life of contemplation are
more than ever strong. Even my quiet existence seems now to
grow somewhat sensible of the advance of years. Age alone I am
unable to debar from my retirement. I am weary already of this
prisonhouse, the body, and calmly await the day when the divine
nature within me shall be set free from matter.
‘‘The Egyptian priests used to tell me that a single touch
with the wing of their holy bird could charm the crocodile into
torpor; it is not thus speedily, my dear friend, that the pinions
of your soul will have power to still the untamed body. The
creature will yield only to watchful, strenuous constancy of
habit. Purify your soul from all undue hope and fear about
earthly things, mortify the body, deny self—affections as well
as appetites, and the inner eye will begin to exercise its clear
and solemn vision.
‘‘You ask me to tell you how we know, and what is our criterion
of certainty. To write is always irksome to me. But for the
continual solicitations of Porphyry, I should not have left a line
to survive me. For your own sake, and for your father’s, my reluctance
shall be overcome.
‘‘External objects present us only with appearances. Concerning
them, therefore, we may be said to possess opinion
rather than knowledge. The distinctions in the actual world of
appearance are of import only to ordinary and practical men.
Our question lies within the ideal reality which exists behind
appearance. How does the mind perceive these ideas Are they
without us, and is the reason, like sensation, occupied with objects
external to itself What certainty could we then have, what
assurance that our perception was infallible The object perceived
would be a something different from the mind perceiving
it. We should have then an image instead of reality. It would
be monstrous to believe for a moment that the mind was unable
to perceive ideal truth exactly as it is, and that we had not certainty
and real knowledge concerning the world of intelligence.
It follows, therefore, that this religion of truth is not to be investigated
as a thing external to us, and so only imperfectly
known. It is within us. Here the objects we contemplate and that
which contemplates are identical—both are thought. The subject
cannot surely know an object different from itself. The
world of ideas lies within our intelligence. Truth, therefore, is
not the agreement of our apprehension of an external object
with the object itself. It is the agreement of the mind with itself.
Consciousness, therefore, is the sole basis of certainty. The
mind is its own witness. Reason sees in itself that which is above
itself as its source; and again, that which is below itself as still
itself once more.
‘‘Knowledge has three degrees—Opinion, Science, Illumination.
The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second,
dialectic; of the third, intuition. To the last I subordinate
reason. It is absolute knowledge founded on the identity of the
mind knowing with the object known.
‘‘There is a raying out of all orders of existence, an external
emanation from the ineffable One [prudos]. There is again a returning
impulse, drawing all upwards and inwards towards the
centre from whence all came [epistrophe]. Love, as Plato in the
Banquet beautifully says, is the child of Poverty and Plenty. In
the amorous quest of the soul after the Good, lies the painful
sense of gall and deprivation. But that Love is blessing, is salvation,
is our guardian genius; without it the centrifugal law
would overpower us, and sweep our souls out far from their
source toward the cold extremities of the Material and the
Manifold. The wise man recognises the idea of the Good within
him. This he develops by withdrawal into the Holy Place of his
own soul. He who does not understand how the soul contains
the Beautiful within itself, seeks to realize beauty without, by laborious
production. His aim should rather be to concentrate
and simplify, and so to expand his being; instead of going out
into the Manifold, to forsake it for the One, and so to float upwards
towards the divine fount of being whose stream flows
within him.
‘‘You ask, how can we know the Infinite I answer, not by
reason. It is the office of reason to distinguish and define. The
Infinite, therefore, cannot be ranked among its objects. You
can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty superior to reason,
by entering into a state in which you are your finite self no longer,
in which the Divine Essence is communicated to you. This
is Ecstasy. It is the liberation of your mind from its infinite consciousness.
Like only can apprehend like; when you thus cease
to be finite, you become one with the Infinite. In the reduction
of your soul to its simplest self (aplosis), its divine essence, you
realize this Union, this Identity [enosin].
‘‘But this sublime condition is not of permanent duration.
It is only now and then that we can enjoy this elevation (mercifully
made possible for us) above the limits of the body and the
world. I myself have realized it but three times as yet, and Porphyry
hitherto not once. All that tends to purify and elevate the
mind will assist you in this attainment, and facilitate the approach
and the recurrence of these happy intervals. There are,
then, different roads by which this end may be reached. The
love of beauty which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One
and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher;
and that love and those prayers by which some devout
and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection.
These are the great highways conducting to that height
above the actual and the particular where we stand in the immediate
presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the
deeps of the soul.’’
Plotinus appears to have been greatly indebted to Numenius
for some of the ideas peculiar to his system. Numenius attempted
to harmonize Pythagoras and Plato, to elucidate and
confirm the opinions of both by the religious dogmas of the
Egyptians, the Magi, and the Brahmans, and he believed that
Plato was indebted to the Hebrew as well as to the Egyptian theology
for much of his wisdom. Like Plotinus he was puzzled that
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the immutable One could find it possible to create the manifold
without self-degradation, and he therefore (from Plato) posited
a being whom he calls the Demi-urge, or Artificer, who merely
carried out the will of God in constructing the universe.
Expressed in summary, the mysticism of Plotinus is as follows
One cannot know God in any partial or finite manner. To
know him truly we must escape from the finite, from all that is
earthly, from the very gifts of God to God himself, and know
him in the infinite way by receiving, or being received into him
directly. To accomplish this, and to attain this identity, we must
withdraw into our inmost selves, into our own essence, which
alone is susceptible of blending with the Divine Essence. Hence
the inmost is the highest, and as with all systems of mysticism
introversion is ascension, and God is found within.
Porphyry entered the school of Plotinus when it had become
an institution of some standing. At first he strongly opposed the
teachings of his master, but soon became his most devoted
scholar. He directed a fierce assault on Christianity, and at the
same time launched strictures at paganism, but both forces
were too strong for him.
Porphyry modified the doctrine of Plotinus regarding ecstasy
by stating that in that condition the mind does not lose its
consciousness of personality. He called it a dream in which the
soul, dead to the world, rises to a species of divine activity, to
an elevation above reason, action and liberty. He believed in a
certain order of evil genii, who took pleasure in hunting wild
beasts, and others of whom hunted souls that had escaped from
the fetters of the body, so that to escape them, the soul must
once more take refuge in the flesh. Porphyry’s theosophical
conceptions, based on those of Plotinus, were strongly and ably
traversed by the theurgic mysteries of Iamblichus, to whom the
priest was a prophet full of deity. Criticizing Porphyry, Iamblichus
stated
‘‘Often, at the moment of inspiration, or when the afflatus
has subsided, a fiery Appearance is seen—the entering or departing
Power. Those who are skilled in this wisdom can tell by
the character of this glory the rank of divinity who has seized
for the time the reins of the mystic’s soul, and guides it as he
will. Sometimes the body of the man subject to this influence
is violently agitated, sometimes it is rigid and motionless. In
some instances sweet music is heard, in others, discordant and
fearful sounds. The person of the subject has been known to dilate
and tower to a superhuman height; in other cases, it has
been lifted up into the air. Frequently, not merely the ordinary
exercise of reason, but sensation and animal life would appear
to have been suspended, and the subject of the afflatus has not
felt the application of fire, has been pierced with spits, cut with
knives, and been sensible of no pain. Yea, often, the more the
body and the mind have been alike enfeebled by vigil and by
fasts, the more ignorant or mentally imbecile a youth may be
who is brought under this influence, the more freely and unmixedly
will the divine power be made manifest. So clearly are
these wonders the work, not of human skill or wisdom, but of
supernatural agency! Characteristics such as these I have mentioned,
are the marks of the true inspiration.
‘‘Now, there are, O Agathocles, four great orders of spiritual
existence—Gods, Demons, Heroes or Demi-gods, and Souls.
You will naturally be desirous to learn how the apparition of a
God or a Demon is distinguished from those of Angels, Principalities,
or Souls. Know, then, that their appearance to man
corresponds to their nature, and that they always manifest
themselves to those who invoke them in a manner consonant
with their rank in the hierarchy of spiritual natures. The appearances
of Gods are uniform, those of Demons various. The
Gods shine with a benign aspect. When a God manifests himself,
he frequently appears to hide sun or moon, and seems as
he descends too vast for earth to contain. Archangels are at
once awful and mild; Angels yet more gracious; Demons terrible.
Below the four leading classes I have mentioned are placed
the malignant Daemons, the Anti-gods.
‘‘Each spiritual order has gifts of its own to bestow on the initiated
who evoke them. The Gods confer health of body, power
and purity of mind, and, in short, elevate and restore our natures
to their proper principles. Angels and archangels have at
their command only subordinate bestowments. Demons, however,
are hostile to the aspirant, afflict both body and mind,
and hinder our escape from the sensuous. Principalities, who
govern the sublunary elements, confer temporal advantages.
Those of a lower rank, who preside over matter, often display
their bounty in material gifts. Souls that are pure are, like Angels,
salutary in their influence. Their appearance encourages
the soul in its upward efforts. Heroes stimulate to great actions.
All those powers depend, in a descending chain, each species
on that immediately above it. Good Demons are seen surrounded
by the emblems of blessing, Demons who execute
judgment appear with the instruments of punishment.’’
We thus see how in the process of time the principles on
which the system of Plotinus rested were surrendered little by
little, while divination and evocation were practiced with increasing
frequency. Plotinus had declared the possibility of the
absolute identification of the divine with human nature—the
broadest possible basis for mysticism. Porphyry took up narrower
ground and contended that in the union which takes
place in ecstasy, we still retain consciousness of personality.
Iamblichus diminished the real principle of mysticism still farther
in theory, and denied that man has a faculty, eternally active
and in accessible, to passion; the intellectual ambition so
lofty in Plotinus subsided among the followers of Iamblichus
into magical practice.
Proclus was the last of the Greek Neoplatonists. He elaborated
the Trinity of Plotinus into a succession of impalpable triads,
and surpassed Iamblichus in his devotion to the practice of theurgy.
With Proclus, theurgy was the art that gave human beings
the magical passwords that carried them through barrier after
barrier, dividing species from species.
Above all being is God, the Non-Being, who is apprehended
only by negation. When we are raised out of our weakness and
on a level with God, it seems as though reason were silenced for
we are above reason. In short we become intoxicated with God.
Proclus was an adept in the invocation rituals of every people
in the world, and a great magical figure. With the advance
of Byzantinism, he represented the old world of Greek thought,
and even those who wrote against him as a heathen show the
influence he exercised on their doctrines. Thus Dionysius attempted
to accommodate the philosophy of Proclus to Christianity,
and greatly admired his asceticism. The theology of the
Neoplatonists was always in the first instance a mere matter of
logic. They associated universals with causes. The highest became
with them merely the most comprehensive.
As has been said, Neoplatonism exercised great power
among the scholiasts and magicians of the Middle Ages. In fact
most of what medievalism knew of Plato was through the medium
of the Neoplatonists. In Germany in the fourteenth century
it became a vivifying principle, for although its doctrine of emanation
was abandoned, its allegorical explanation and its exaltation
of the spirit above the letter was retained, and Platonism
and mysticism together created a party within the church—the
sworn foes of scholasticism and mere lifeless orthodoxy.
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T. Taylor’s ‘‘Select Works of Plotinus.’’ London Theosophical Publishing
Society, 1895.
Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Albany, N.Y. State University of
New York Press, 1992.
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Plotinus Amid Gnostics and Christians Papers Presented at a Plotinus
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