Notes on Neoplatonism and the relation to Christianity and Gnosticism

by Lewis Loflin

Neoplatonism is the term for a school of philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century AD, based on the teachings of Plato and the Platonists. Though based on Plato, Neoplatonism is substantively different from what Plato wrote and believed. Neoplatonism is often credited to Plotinus (c. 205-270 A.D.) and his disciple Porphyry (232-c.300 A.D.) expanded Plato's philosophical ideas into something more like a full-fledged cosmology. Porphyry assembled these teachings into the six Enneads.

Below I present various extracts and commentary on this subject vital to understanding Christianity and its sister religion of Gnosticism. See Gnosticism an Overview.

Quoting Cliff's Notes, "One of the distinguishing features of Platonism is its assertion that the visible, tangible forms of the physical world are based on immaterial models, called Forms or Ideas. Tangible forms are transitory, unstable, and imperfect, whereas ideal Forms are eternal, perfect, and unchanging. Physical forms are many and diverse, but ideal Forms are single and unified.

Platonism places a definite hierarchy of value on these qualities: Eternity is superior to the temporal; unity is superior to division; the immaterial is superior to the material. In Platonism, the fleeting physical world that humankind inhabits becomes a kind of flawed manifestation of a perfect and eternal model that can be perceived only by the intellect, not by the senses."

To continue, "The "One" is a transcendent, ineffable, divine power, the source of everything that exists. It is complete and self-sufficient. Its perfect power overflows spontaneously into a second aspect, the Intelligence (Mind or Nous), which contemplates the power of the One. By contemplating the One, the Intelligence produces Ideas or Forms.

The unity of the One thus overflows into division and multiplicity. These Forms are translated into the physical world through the creative activity of the World Soul. In the immaterial realm, the higher part of the Soul contemplates the Intelligence, while in the material realm, the lower part of the Soul acts to create and govern physical forms.

According to Plotinus, the Soul, in descending from the immaterial to the material world, forgets some of its divine nature. All human individual souls, therefore, share in the divinity of the One and will eventually return to the divine realm from which they came, after they shed their physical bodies.

Porphyry further developed Plotinus' ideas about the soul, asserting that individual human souls are actually separate from and lower than the World Soul. However, by the exercise of virtue and contemplation of the spiritual, the human soul can ascend from the lower, material realm, toward the highest good, the absolute beauty and perfection of the immaterial One.

Here is where Gnostic and the pseudo-Gnostic Paul differ. Both believed the material world "fallen," but Paul believed that was due to a corrupted human soul originating with Adam. Gnostics believed this "fallen" state was due to an evil creator who was not the true God, but a lesser being they called the Demiurge. (Greek for craftsman or in Latin public worker.)

Gnostics shared with Christians that a belief in (inter changeable with knowledge of) a Christ would lead to salvation of the soul. This "Christ" figure would be an intermediary that would lead the soul back to God (or the One) as each saw it.

St. Augustine refers to this Platonic "ascent of the soul" in Book 9 of his Confessions.

Christians, for their part, were deeply suspicious of Platonism and of all the old pagan philosophies that Christianity had superseded. Nonetheless, Neo-Platonism had qualities that made it attractive to intellectual Christians such as Augustine.

Neo-Platonism's three-fold model of divinity fit well with the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Neo-Platonism's stress on the transcendent, immaterial realm as the highest good also appealed to the ascetic streak in Christianity.

Augustine found Neo-Platonism to contain all the major ideas of Christianity, with the important exception that it did not acknowledge Christ. The reality being even if Christians denied it, was the Trinity was Platonist in origin. Most of the early church Fathers were Platonists. This "One" of Platonism became the Hebrew God for Christians.

For Gnostics, the "One" was still unknowable and was not the Old Testament Hebrew God they considered an inferior being that created a corrupted material world. Another exception was Neo-Platonism didn't have a devil either. It attributed evil to a "lack of good."

From Wilipedia, (extracts)

Neoplatonism is a form of idealistic monism. Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, from which emanated the rest of the universe as a sequence of lesser beings. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, added hundreds of intermediate gods, angels and demons, and other beings as emanations between the One and humanity. Plotinus' system was much simple.

Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without awaiting an afterlife. Perfection and happiness - seen as synonymous - could be achieved through philosophical contemplation. (This ran afoul of Christian dogma.)

They did not believe in an independent existence of evil. They compared it to darkness, which does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of light. So too, evil is simply the absence of good. Things are good insofar as they exist. They are evil only insofar as they are imperfect, lacking some good that they should have.

It is also a cornerstone of Neoplatonism to teach that all people return to the Source. The Source, Absolute or One, is what all things spring from and as a super-consciousness is where all things return. It can be said that all consciousness is wiped clean and returned to a blank slate when returning to the source. (In other words, everything we know of ourselves is lost. The "soul as defined here might be immortal, you are not part of that soul but f the material realm.)

This aspect of Neoplatonism (evil as the privation of good) helped the great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, on learning of it, to abandon dualistic Manichaeism and convert to Christianity. When, three or four years after his 387 baptism, he wrote his treatise On True Religion, he was still thinking of Christianity in Neoplatonic terms. But, after he was ordained priest and bishop and had acquired greater familiarity with Scripture, he came to see contradictions between Neoplatonism and Christianity.

Neoplatonism also had links with the belief systems known as Gnosticism. Plotinus, however, rebuked Gnosticism in the ninth tractate of the second Enneads: "Against Those That Affirm The Creator of The Kosmos and The Kosmos Itself to Be Evil" (generally quoted as "Against The Gnostics"). Being grounded in platonic thought, the neoplatonists would have rejected the gnostic vilification of Plato's demiurge, a deity discussed in Timaeus.

Before one reads this we should note that Platonism is pantheism, or the idea that everything "emanates" from the "One" (God), thus all creation, etc. are part of God. Philo tried to harmonize this with the transcendent Hebrew God. While Christians rejected pantheism, they did retain two of the "emanations" in the Holy Spirit and the Son Jesus Christ. See Pantheism

Quoting Will Durant's The Age of Faith on the Trinity, "Neoplatonism was still a power in religion and philosophy. Those doctrines which Plotinus had given a shadowy form- of a triune spirit binding all reality, of a Logos or intermediary deity who had done the work of creation, of soul as divine and matter as flesh and evil, of spheres of existence along whose invisible stairs the soul had fallen from God to man and might extend from man to God-these mystic ideas left their mark on the apostles John and Paul..." (P 9)

From http://www.encarta.msn.com (extracts)

Neoplatonism, collective designation for the philosophical and religious doctrines of a heterogeneous school of speculative thinkers who sought to develop and synthesize the metaphysical ideas of Plato. Such synthesis occurred especially in Alexandria and included Hellenistic Judaism, as exemplified by the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, as well as other outlooks. The doctrine kept its essentially Greek character, however.

The Neoplatonic Doctrine

Neoplatonism is a type of idealistic monism in which the ultimate reality of the universe is held to be an infinite, unknowable, perfect One. From this One emanates nous (pure intelligence), whence in turn is derived the world soul, the creative activity of which engenders the lesser souls of human beings.

The world soul is conceived as an image of the nous, even as the nous is an image of the One; both the nous and the world soul, despite their differentiation, are thus consubstantial with the One.

The world soul, however, because it is intermediate between the nous and the material world, has the option either of preserving its integrity and imaged perfection or of becoming altogether sensual and corrupt.

The same choice is open to each of the lesser souls. When, through ignorance of its true nature and identity, the human soul experiences a false sense of separateness and independence, it becomes arrogantly self-assertive and falls into sensual and depraved habits. Salvation for such a soul is still possible, the Neoplatonist maintains, by virtue of the very freedom of will that enabled it to choose its sinful course.

The soul must reverse that course, tracing in the opposite direction the successive steps of its degeneration, until it is again united with the fountainhead of its being. The actual reunion is accomplished through a mystical experience in which the soul knows an all-pervading ecstasy.

Doctrinally, Neoplatonism is characterized by a categorical opposition between the spiritual and the carnal, elaborated from Plato's dualism of Idea and Matter; by the metaphysical hypothesis of mediating agencies, the nous and the world soul, which transmit the divine power from the One to the many; by an aversion to the world of sense; and by the necessity of liberation from a life of sense through a rigorous ascetic discipline.

History

Neoplatonism began in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century AD. Its founder and foremost exponent was the Roman philosopher Plotinus, who was born in Egypt, studied at Alexandria with the philosopher Ammonius Saccus (flourished 1st half of 3rd century), and about 244 carried the Neoplatonic doctrine to Rome, where he established a school.

His major works comprise the Enneads, which contain a comprehensive exposition of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Other important Neoplatonic thinkers were the Syrian-Greek scholar and philosopher Porphyry, the Syrian-Greek philosopher Iamblichus, and the Greek philosopher and mathematician Proclus.

The elements of asceticism and unworldliness in Neoplatonism appealed strongly to the Fathers and Doctors of the Christian Church. The early Christian prelate St. Augustine, in his Confessions, acknowledged the contribution of Neoplatonism to Christianity and indicated the profound influence exerted by its doctrines on his own religious thinking.

Although a number of medieval theologians and philosophers, notably the German mystic Meister Eckhart, were deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, Roman Catholic dogmatists condemned its unorthodox tenets. In the 15th century, however, Neoplatonism became more generally accepted. The German Roman Catholic speculative philosopher Nicholas of Cusa and other mystics sought to overcome the doubt arising from the limitations of human knowledge by espousing the theory of direct human intuition of God, a theory closely akin to the Neoplatonic doctrine that the soul in a state of ecstasy has the power to transcend all finite limitations.

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