My podcast on Neoplatonism:
The podcast is an interview with Peter Adamson from the History of Philosophy without any Gaps Podcast
Not to be confused with Platonism.. plato lived from around 424BC – 348 BC Neoplatonists lived some 600 years later Basically take platonism and mix some mysticism with a Hermetic core. Later Neoplatonists embraced theurgy So first off, what is Platonism.. or at least part that did sort of stick around? Platonism What is real, what is perceivable, what is real, but not perceivable, etc.
Theory of forms:
asserts that non-material abstract (butsubstantial) forms (or ideas), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Forms (capital F) The way I understand it is the idea of concept of something can be more real than our perception of it. I’ll just give you an example. Think of a dog. We might all think of different breeds, colors, sizes, etc. Maybe none of us thought of the same image of a dog.. but the Form of dog, the general concept of dog is one thing, but the particulars are different. This can lead to idealism.. the idea of something is more pure than any particular instance of it. Which leads us to:
the term wasn’t around until the 19th century, but what the 3rd century ‘platonists’ brought to the table is significantly different that it’s important to separate it into it’s own thing. It’s important to note that at the time neoplatonists just would have considered themselves platonists. Basically add jewish and egyptian mysticism to platonism and this is what you get. Since Alexandrians had a huge influence, many things regarding neoplatonism will sound very familiar if you are familiar with gnosticism. Gnostics and neoplatonists developed in the same time period and place and where aware of each other. They would sometimes contrast their own beliefs against the other. Gnostics did use some terms taken from greek philosophy and platonism: _ hypostasis (reality, existence),
- ousia (essence, substance, being),
- and demiurge (creator or God).
so.. to dive down the rabbit hole a little bit… forgive me if I make some mistakes here, this is how I understand it and I am in no way an expert on the topic.
as opposed to dualism – EVERYTHING comes from the One. There is no “evil” because god is outside of morality. This is a form of monotheism, but in a very different way to the Christian form. The primeval Source of Being is the One and the Infinite.. Think of it as the Form of god. it’s the source of all life and therefore the only real thing (monism) It cannot be truly understood. We can have an idea, but we can never know the Form.. you can’t attribute our insignificant moral attributes to it.. therefore no dualism like “goog” and “evil” Being beyond existence, it is the most real real. There is no way to even imply limitations on it, like morality, or time and space..
Demiurge or Nous
The original Being initially emanates, or throws out, the nous, which is a perfect image of the One and the archetype of all existing things. It is simultaneously both being and thought, idea and ideal world. As image, the nous corresponds perfectly to the One, but as derivative, it is entirely different. …with me so far? What Plotinus understands by the nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind, while also being pure intellect itself. Nous is the most critical component of idealism. And then we have the World-soul.. basically everything is connected. The world soul can be seen as between the immaterial and the material. Our soul strives to return to the world-soul (maybe the Form -capital F- of soul?) And this brings us to:
The phenomenal world
The soul, as 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 in the same sense as sects like the Gnostics; in contrast he admires the beauty and splendor of the world. So long as idea governs matter, or the soul governs the body, the world is fair and good. Again: 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. Evil exists, but not in a dualistic sense.. it’s more like a parasite.
The religious philosophy of Plotinus for himself personally 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 who is revealed in a variety of emanations and manifestations… got it? so everything is in some way a reflection of the real deal. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate beings such as gods, angels and demons, and other beings as mediators between the One and humanity. (maybe for it to be easier to swallow or understand if you belonged to a different religion?)The Neoplatonist gods are omni-perfect beings and do not display the usual amoral behaviour associated with their representations in the myths. The One God, The Good. Transcendent and ineffable. The Hypercosmic Gods Those that make Essence, Life, and Soul The Demiurge The creator The Cosmic Gods Those who make Being, Nature, and Matter—including the gods known to us from classical religion Now that we know how the world is structured according to neoplatonism, let’s move on to:
So how should we live our life? By means of ascetic observances the human 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”, (henosis). This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One There is a path to take.. of intellect and contemplation of all things and of The Good. It sounds maybe like meditation. Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without awaiting an afterlife. BUT, they believed the soul to be immortal and it would return to the One or world-soul when this life is ended. No re-incarnation. One only returns once
Augustine re-interpreted Aristotle and Plato in the light of early Christian thought. In his Confessions he describes the Logos as the divine eternal Word. Augustine’s Logos “took on flesh” in Christ, in whom the logos was present as in no other man. He influenced Christian thought throughout the Hellenistic world and strongly influenced Early Medieval Christian Philosophy.Perhaps the key subject in this was Logos. Augustine went from a pagan to a neoplatonist to a christian with strong neoplatonist interpretations, to re-examining his beliefs purely based off of scripture. It’s easy to identify the One with the Abrahamic God. Neoplatonic thought had a fairly strong influence on Christian theology will into the rennaisance. Often much more than people think. In addition: Influence on Kabbalah and Jewish thinkers, and Islamic thinkers like Avicenna (who we mentioned in the Al-Ghazali episode and others) and even Al-Ghazali himself. There are especially similarities with Sufism, which we also mentioned. These texts were widely available in the arab world and predate Islam..
Cosimo I de’ Medici was very interested in these neo platonic ideas and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was banned as a heretic Marsilio Ficino 1433 – 1499 Roman Emperor Julian was the last pagan emperor, and he tried to unify hellenic religion along neoplatonic lines.. he had some marginal success in the eastern empire, but less in the western one.
Especially that Alchemy with a hermetic core is about Transmutation of the soul.. which ties in nicely with neoplatonic ideas of contemplation of the devine to reach it. They also have some commonalities with the physical being reflected in the spiritual.. so like hermeticists: “as above, so below” and the macrocosm being reflected in the microcosm; neoplatonsits see the nous from the one being reflected in matter. Think again of From (with capital F) being the perfect idea of any single, less-than-perfect example. The philosopher’s stone is the perfect From of Gold The elixier of life is the perfect Form of medicine BUT Hermes Trismegistus was seen as an alchemist (among alchemists) and hermeticists deal with transmutation. Hermetecism has the idea that things have a soul… like an essence. So when trying to purify something into gold, you’re basically distilling it, or breaking it down and building it back up to ripen it. Neoplatonists, when dealing with alchemy come back to the idea of Form… so the idea that the soul was already perfect (part of the world-soul and even the one).. it’s just a matter of being that way again. Matter is an inferior thing. Both alchemies use “sublimation”… breaking a matter down, but for neoplatonists it stops there. Often alchemists speak in code, they may right one thing but mean another. “Gold” can even be code for purifying your sould, not actual gold. In neoplatonism this is probably more often, if not always the case. Later Alchemists that were actually after gold lost these double meanings of mercury and gold by trying to litterally read these texts accidentally invented chemistry.. if I can put it like that. According to wikipedia: Allan Combs claims that ten modern thinkers can be called Neo-Platonists: Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, Emerson, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Jean Gebser Bibliography: merriam-webster’s encyclopedia of world religions and various websites.. some interesting reading on jung and neoplatonism, and I’ve come across this when researchign Paracelsus and Al-Ghazali and others… if you want to see a pattern, those that have contributed to medicine in and were often seen as Alchemists, can often also be seen as neoplatonists (thought wouldn’t have called themselves that)