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History of Philosophy|
Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)
|During the Greco-Oriental period of its history philosophy seemed to
turn to the supernatural for light and assistance. While, however,
Philo sought to supply this supernatural element by bringing to bear on
philosophical problems the whole wealth of Jewish religious ideas,
Neo-Platonism looked for supernatural light, not in any system of
religion, but in such communication with the Divine as each man may, by
his own individual effort, attain. Neo-Platonism was, therefore, the
last effort which pagan philosophy made to save itself from
In the Neo-Platonic movement we may distinguish (1) the transition
schools; (2) Neo-Platonism in its earlier form; (3) the Syrian school,
(4) the school of Constantinople; (5) the Athenian school; (6) the
1. Transition Schools. The way was prepared for the Neo-Platonic
movement by Neo-Pythagoreans and Pythagorizing Platonists who, before
the time of Plotinus, agreed in admitting that philosophical knowledge
is to be supplemented and perfected by communication with a more or
less vaguely defined transcendent, divine something.
The chief Neo-Pythagoreans were Figulus (45 B.C.), of whom
Cicero speaks; Apollonius of Tyana and Moderatus of
Gades, both of whom lived in Nero's time; and Nicomachus of
Gerasa, who lived in the time of the Antonines.
The philosophy of the Neo-Pythagoreans is a blending of Pythagorean
traditions with Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism. The
Neo-Pythagoreans taught a highly spiritual notion of God, in
accordance with which they interpreted the numbers and the Ideas of
their predecessors to mean Ideas in the mind of God. They attached
great importance to the spiritual element in human life, to mysticism,
ecstasy, and prophecy, and around the
lives of Pythagoras and Apollonius they threw a halo of superturalism,
exalting these philosophers into ideals of human conduct, into prophets
and servants of God.
Of the Pythagorizing Platonists, the best known are Eudorus
of Alexandria (died about 25 B.C.), Thrasyllus (died A.D.
36), Plutarch (A.D. 50-125), Maximus of Tyre (end of
second century), Celsus (about A.D. 200), the opponent of
Christianity, and Numenius (end of second century). To this
school belong also the so-called Hermetic books, the writings of the
pretended Hermes Trismegistus, which date from the latter part
of the third century, and come apparently from an Egyptian branch of
All these writers manifest an inclination on the part of the Platonists
to admit the religious ideas of the East as supplementary of
philosophy. They lay stress on the antagonism between the spiritual
and the carnal in man, between the spiritual and the material in the
universe, and in order to bridge over the chasm between these
antithetical elements they admit the existence of creatures
intermediate between God and the material world.
2. Neo-Platonism in its Earlier Form. Ammonius Saccas
(A.D. 176-242) of Alexandria is regarded as the founder of
Neo-Platonism. He did not commit his teachings to writing. It is to
his disciple, Plotinus, that we owe the first written exposition of his
Life. Plotinus, a native of Lycopalis in Egypt, lived from 205
to 270. In 253 he went to Rome, and there won over to his philosophy
the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. In 263 he retired to
Campania, where he died six or seven years later.
Sources.  The works of Plotinus consisted originally of
fifty-four opuscles. After having, as some maintain, undergone a
previous recension at the hands of Eustochius, these opuscles were
collected by Porphyry and arranged, according to subject-matter, in six
 For bibliography of Neo-Platonism, cf. Ritter and Preller,
op. cit., p. 519. Add Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists
General Character of Neo-Platonism. The Neo-Platonists made use
of the agrapha dogmata,  and, in general, were more influenced
by Platonic tradition than by the teaching of the Dialogues. In
this way they were led to accentuate more and more the mystical
element in human thought, to separate matter from spirit,
and to have recourse to the doctrine of emanations.
 Cf. p. 95.
The philosophy of Plotinus centers round three ideas, -- the
One, the Nous, and the world-soul, -- which for
him constitute a kind of philosophical trinity.
The One. Plotinus, like Philo, starts with the notion of God.
God is described as the One, the Good, rather than as Being or Mind;
for He transcends all Being, and all rational nature. He is the Primal
Reality; therefore, He is not properly styled lntelligence, because
intelligence (Nous) implies two elements, the act of knowing and
the object known, and duality cannot be primal, because it presupposes
unity. God, therefore, is absolute unity, undifferentiated by any act
of His will or intellect, or by any predication on our part except the
predication of unity and goodness. But goodness leads to emanation,
which is at least an apparent breaking up of the unity of the One into
the multiplicity of the manifold. Plotinus, however, explains that
created things come from the Primal One, not by a transference of part
of the nature of the One, nor by an act of will, but by a process
called emanation. The process, then, is not one of creation; nor is it
a process of emanation in the pantheistic sense; it is an overflow of
the perfection of the One Supreme Reality, a beam sent forth from the
Infinite Light, -- and with these metaphorical expressions Plotinus
seems to have contented himself, being unable to describe more
definitely the nature of the process of emanation.
Intellect. The first emanation from the One is that of the
Nous. The One sheds around itself an ousia, or essence,
which, like a light, conveys the luster of the One, and is also its image.
The image, turning to the One, recognizes itself as an image; thus does
the essence become intellect, a dual principle, the source of all
subsequent differentiation of the One.
The intellect is, like the Logos of Philo, the agglomerate of
Ideas: it is, indeed, expressly identified by Plotinus with
Plato's ~world of Ideas. Now, the Ideas are differentiated in the
intellect by an act of reflection, precisely in the same way as the
intellect differentiated itself from the One by an act of reflection.
But the act of reflection, while it distinguishes the Ideas in the
intellect, does not dissociate or separate them from it. They sever
themselves, because they are essentially operative powers. By this
separation they give rise to the world of phenomena, not, indeed,
immediately, but through the further mediation of the world-soul.
The World-Soul. As the Nous is an image of the One, the
world-soul is an image of the Nous. Being the image of an image,
it is, as it were, doubly dual. In fact, while it is in part akin to
the intellect, it is in part unlike the intellect, for it is in part
essentially inclined to realize the Ideas in concrete phenomena.
However, before we come to the material phenomenon there is still
another step, another intermediate emanation. The world-soul gives rise
to individual souls, or, more properly, to plastic forces
(logoi spermatikoi); these in turn give rise to matter,
with which they combine to constitute material phenomena.
Matter, therefore, emanates from the plastic forces,
which emanate from the world-soul; the world-soul, as we have
seen, emanates from intellect, and intellect emanates from the
One. In this way, light, in the series of emanations, becomes
darkness; for matter is the antithesis of the One. Matter is
multiplicity, change, not-being, privation, the source of all
evil, the prôton kakon. It is present everywhere in
the world of phenomena in composition with the plastic forces,
in the heavens, where it is united with a most perfect soul; in the
stars, where it is united with the visible gods; in the powers of air
and sky, where it is united with the demons, who mediate between the
stars and the souls of men; in the body of man, where it is united with
the human soul; and in inorganic bodies, where it is united with the
lowest of the plastic forces. Wherever it is present, it is the
principle of imperfection, limitation, and evil.
Psychological Doctrines. Man is, therefore, a compound of matter
and that plastic force which is the human soul. The soul is immaterial:
it existed before its union with the body; it was united to the body in
punishment for some primordial guilt. It survives the body, but is
liable to be sent back into the bodies of animals or plants according
to the degree in which it attached itself to material things during its
union with the body. This doctrine of future retribution implies
freedom on the part of the soul, and Plotinus maintains the doctrine of
freedom in opposition to the teaching of the Stoics.
Return of the Soul to God. Plotinus, following Plato, attaches
little importance to the senses as means of acquiring knowledge of
reality. In order to attain a knowledge of the ideal, which alone is
real, the soul must retire into itself, and there contemplate the
intellect which is indwelling in each of us. Proceeding along this path
of self-contemplation, the soul rises from the contemplation of the
intellect within us to a contemplation of the One. This final
step is not, however, to be attained unless the One Himself sheds upon
the soul a special light whereby the soul is enabled to see the One. In
the splendor of that light all apprehension and all consciousness
disappear; the soul is rapt in ecstasy (ekstasis) and is
reunited with the One whence all things have emanated. This ecstasy is
the supreme happiness of man.
It is, therefore, man's duty first to withdraw from the world of sense
by a process of purification (katharsis) then, freed from
the bonds of sense, to rise in contemplation to God, and thus beome
truly spiritual, the man of God, the prophet, the wonder-worker
Historical Position. The philosophy of Plotinus is an elaborate
attempt to bring the transcendent spiritual element of religion into
harmony with the philosophy of Plato, or, more correctly, with the
philosophy of the Platonists. Plotinus the pagan attempted to
accomplish what Philo the Jew had attempted to accomplish two
centuries before. He imagined that by his doctrine of emanations he
had bridged over the chasm between the One and the world of
sense-phenomena. But, like all monists, he was doomed to failure. His
exclusion of volition and thought from the concept of the Deity
forbade the introduction of a principle of differentiation; he could
not consistently maintain the origin of the multiple from the One.
Among the disciples of Plotinus, Porphyry (A.D. 233-304) is best
known on account of his treatise, Eisagôgę eis tas
katęgorias, an introduction to the logic of Aristotle. It was
he who reduced the works of Plotinus to their present form. His
exposition of the doctrines of Plotinus contains some material
additions to his master's teaching in regard to questions of
asceticism, the use of magic, and the worship of demons.
3. Syrian School. Iamblichus of Syria (died about A.D.
330), pupil of Porphyry, developing the mystico-religious ideas of the
Neo-Platonists, elaborated a systematic defense of polytheism.
Above the One he places the absolutely first; the Nous he
divides to an intelligible and intellectual, each of which he
subdivides to triads: these are the superterrestrial gods. The
terrestrial gods he divides into three hundred and sixty celestial
beings, twenty-two orders of subcelestial and forty-two orders of
natural gods. Inferior to these are angels, demons, and heroes.
Iamblichus endeavored to introduce the worship of Pythagoras, writing
for this purpose a life of Pythagoras, full of legend and fable, --
peri tou Puthagorikou biou.
4. School of Constantinople. After the failure of the Neo-
Platonic attempt to restore pagan philosophy, an attempt which received
the imperial sanction of Julian (who reigned from A.D. 361 to 363), the
Neo-Platonists went back once more to the works of Plato and Aristotle,
inaugurating an era of more eager study and more elaborate exegesis of
the writings of these great masters. At Constantinople, under the
patronage of the Christian emperors, Themistius devoted himself
to the task of commentating the works of Aristotle. Though he remained
a pagan, Themistius was obliged to make concessions to the Christian
religion, which was just then emerging victorious from its struggle
with pagan civilization. Constantinople, however, did not long remain
the center of the new movement; its place was taken by Athens, which
once more became the focus of the Hellenistic philosophy, and
Constantinople disappeared from the history of philosophy, to reappear
in Byzantine times.
5. Athenian School. About the beginning of the fifth century a
new school of Platonism arose in Athens. Its chief representatives were
Plutarchus, Syrianus, and Proclus.
Proclus (A.D. 410-485) endeavored by means of Aristotelian
dialectic to synthesize and systematize the Neo-Platonic doctrines. He
retained the essential elements of Neo-Platonism, -- monism, doctrine
of the Nous, emanation, antithesis of matter and spirit,
mysticism, belief in demons, magic, etc. The principle on which he
endeavored to unify all these was that of triadic development.
That which is produced is similar to that which produces it; at the
same time it differs from it, as the derivative differs from the
original. By reason of its difference from the original, the derivative
differentiates or produces; while by reason of its identity with the
original, it tends to return to it. Thus we have the original, the
emergence from the original, and the return (in a lower form) to the
original, monę, proodos, epistraphę, -- the three
stages of the triadic development.
The Absolute Original is the One, superior to all created unity, to all
being, to all knowledge. From the One come, by the first emanation, the
henades (henades). They alone are related to the world;
they are the supreme gods; it is they who exercise providence over
worldly affairs. Next, from the henades come, by a second emanation,
the triad, intelligible, intelligible-intellectual, and
intellectual being, having for chief properties being, life, and
thought. Each member of the triad is further differentiated into a
hebdomad; a series is thus formed, of which each member
corresponds to one of the divinities of the pagan pantheon.
The most important point of difference between Proclus and Plotinus is
in the doctrine of the origin of matter. According to Proclus, matter
is derived immediately from the unlimited, the first of the
intelligible triads; according to Plotinus, on the contrary, matter is
derived from the plastic forces and thus ultimately, through the
world-soul and the intellect, from the One.
Proclus maintained that the duty of man is to rise from the sensuous to
the supersensuous, in the hope of reaching the mystical union with
God which constitutes supreme happiness. Like Plotinus, he believed
that such a union is impossible without a special illumination from on
high, and he advocated as means of attaining this illumination, all the
religious helps -- magic, demon worship, hero worship -- which a
decadent paganism could offer.
It was Proclus who gave to Neo-Platonism its final and most complete
form. His successor, Simplicius, is more important as a commentator
than as an independent thinker.
6. Alexandrian School. Among the pupils of Proclus was
Ammonius, who taught at Alexandria during the fifth century.
With him are associated the names of Damascius, John Philoponus
(sixth century), Simplicius, and Olympiodorus. It was at
Alexandria that Hypatia, during the first decade of the fifth
century, attempted to restore pagan philosophy. After her time,
Philoponus and Olympiodorus, the last representatives of
Neo-Platonism in the East, became converts to Christianity, and the
warfare so long waged between the new religion and the old philosophy
came to an end: pagan Platonism gave way before the Platonism of the
Historical Position. Neo-Platonism is Platonism in the condition
of senile debility. The contrast between Plato and Proclus is
sufficient to show that philosophy degenerated rather than developed in
its unequal struggle with the new religion. And the degeneracy was not
confined to the speculative portion of Plato's philosophy. That it
extended also to ethics is manifest from the substitution of the
practice of magic for the practice of virtue.
What prolonged the life of Neo-Platonism was the opposition of the
pagan world, and especially of the learned world of paganism, to
Christianity. When (A.D. 529) Justinian forbade the teaching of
philosophy at Athens, the Platonists emigrated to Persia. Thirty years
later there was no Platonism outside the Christian Church.
Neo-Platonism is the last phase of pagan philosophy. Although the most
important systems of Neo-Platonism fall within the Christian era, they
belong in spirit and in contents to the pagan world. With the history
of Neo-Platonism, therefore, the history of ancient philosophy comes to