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."
In my opinion this is mystical nonsense.
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 God, but a lesser being they called the demiurge. Gnostic shared with Christians a belief in a Christ that would lead to salvation of the soul.
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. 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.
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.
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, 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
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.
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.
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.
Also see the following:
Also see the following:
Religion and History
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