The philosophical school we call Neoplatonism today was founded by the divine* Plotinus (3rd century CE), so it would seem natural to turn to his writings – collected unter the title Enneads by his student Porphyry – when we want to summarize Neoplatonic doctrine. However, already Plotinus’ own star pupils, Amelius and Porphyry, developed their master’s teachings in different ways, and later generations of Neoplatonists would largely see Porphyry’s student Iamblichus as surpassing his predecessors.
But neither can we take the divine Iamblichus as our prime representative of Neoplatonism, since (A) our knowledge of his ideas is to a large extent indirect and fragmentary, and (B) for all the reverence they had for him, the later Neoplatonists did not follow Iamblichus uncritically, but felt free to disagree with him and to develop his ideas in new directions.
Among the late Neoplatonists (5th–6th centuries CE), it is the divine Proclus who exerted the greatest influence, and from whom we have the greatest amount of writings, but his system is extremely difficult to master, so that even if we viewed him as the culmination of his school, it would not be wise to begin with him.
Instead of opting for any one systematic articulation of Neoplatonism, then, I will follow the practice of the book of Sallustius (4th century CE) and the Anonymous Prolegomena to Plato’s Philosophy (6th century CE), and remain at a level of complexity where the differences between the various Neoplatonists can be more or less set aside.
(*Theîos or ‘divine’ was an honorific the late Neoplatonists bestowed on their greatest authorities, such as Homer and Plato, as well as the most inspired in their own lineage, including Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus.)
2 Approaching Neoplatonism
In light of the enormous influence that Platonism in general, and Neoplatonism in particular, have had on Christian philosophy over the centuries, it is tempting to approach Neoplatonism through modern Christian ideas – working our way back, so to speak. Since they conceive of higher incorporeal realities in a broadly similar way, this is not a bad path to take, so long as we are aware that many of the most fundamental ideas of Christianity are not compatible with Neoplatonism as taught by the ancient pagan philosophers.
One key point of difference is the issue of direct creation. In orthodox Christianity, it is God himself, the First Cause, that created the universe and everything in it. In Neoplatonism, not only are there intermediaries between the creator of the whole cosmos (the Demiurge) and the lowly things on Earth – or, differently put, there is a whole series of demiurgic gods –, but the creator is also not the First Cause.
Besides, while Christianity traditionally favors a creation in time, the Neoplatonists believed in an eternal order to the cosmos, with the Demiurge’s act of creation being atemporal. Correspondingly, they did not expect an end of the world. When all things have come around, they would simply begin again in an eternal cycle.
Finally, since the Neoplatonists did not believe in only a single, clearly circumscribed deity, but rather many gods and divine beings in an eternal hierarchy guarding over every aspect of our lives and afterlives, they did not see the incarnation of the creator or the First Cause in human form as something necessary for salvation – nor, indeed, as something that was possible at all.
3 The One, Intellect and Soul
I have already referred to the creator god or Demiurge (the first and most universal of the demiurgic gods), as well as to the First Cause, and pointed out that they are not the same. So, what is their relationship? In brief, the First Cause is the One, the Demiurge is an intellect, and they are part of a tripartite hierarchy:
The One (Hen) or the Good (also called The Beautiful) is the ultimate source of everything, but transcends all properties, even being or essence, and all relations, even causality. Nevertheless we and all things that exist ‘participate’ in it: every person is one person insofar as we have some share in unity, through ‘participation’ (méthexis) in the One; and all things are good because they participate in the Good – even if, among the lowest things, that goodness is very attenuated, and can take the form of apparent evils like suffering or punishment.
Intellect (Nous) proceeds from the One, not in an act of creation but by a kind of overflowing or ‘emanation’ of its goodness. Intellect is pure Being or, differently put, true and eternal Reality. It contains an intelligible cosmos, analogous to our perceptible cosmos but not subject to time or change. That intelligible cosmos ‘there’ is the model or paradigm which the Demiurge employs to form this cosmos ‘here’. For instance, the intelligible cosmos contains the Platonic form of the Human, and every human being is human through ‘participating’ in this form. Intellect also contains or brings forth many individual intellects, and these include the Demiurge, Zeus (the last of the three paternal intellects, according to late Neoplatonists).
Soul (Psyche). As the One ‘emanates’ Intellect, so Intellect emanates Soul, which mediates the forms from the intelligible cosmos to the perceptible cosmos we live in. And as Intellect is the source of many intellects, so Soul is the source of many souls, including the World Soul (which animates the entire perceptible cosmos), the souls of the gods in the cosmos (such as the Sun), and our individual human souls, which are immortal and come to be embodied in different spheres of the cosmos at different times.
Plotinus routinely calls each of these – One, Intellect, Soul – ‘The God’ or ‘God’ (gr. ὁ θεός ho theós), a word which had no fixed technical meaning for him. This makes for a strong contrast with Christian theologians, for whom God is perhaps the single most central concept.
4 The activity of the One, Intellect and Soul
The previous section treats the One, Intellect and Soul as metaphysical entities, but we can also give a phenomenological or experiental description of them. This does not mean that they are nothing more than states of mind or experience, but there are either traces of Intellect and the One in our souls (as Proclus would say), or we can actually revert back upon the undescended part of our soul that remains within Intellect, and even achieve union with the One (as Plotinus taught). In either case, they are not entirely foreign to us, even if we participate in them only distantly.
Psychic (i.e., soulish) activity is called diánoia or discursive thought, that is, thinking which passes from one idea to the next, or moves through a logical sequence. In a way, it might be better to translate the psyche as ‘mind’ here, since affects associated with the soul or psyche in modern parlance, such as passion (thymós) and desire (epithymía), do not really have to do with the immortal rational soul, but instead with the mortal irrational soul, which only comes into existence for the duration of the higher soul’s embodiment, and then dissipates.
Intellective activity, by contrast, called nóēsis or ‘intellection’, is a kind of self-identity with the object of thought. So, while in our cosmos the thinking soul and its object of thought remain fully distinct entities, within Intellect, all thinkers and object of thoughts are wholly and timelessly present to each other. If not for the traditional equation of Greek noûs and English ‘intellect’, one might almost prefer to call this activity ‘intuition’, as it is not a matter of cogitation, but something beyond human rationality.
Even so, there is at least an analytical distinction to be made between the intellective (the subject of intellection) and the intelligible (the object of intellection). The intelligibles (noētá) are higher, and exist unto themselves, while the intellective beings (noerá) or intellects (nóes) are posterior, and turn back towards the former to contemplate them. (Thus, for the later Neoplatonists, the Demiurge is an intellective god, who reflects back upon the preexisting intelligible paradigm, and through this intellective activity carries the forms forward, establishing the patterns of our perceptible cosmos.)
The One is not subject to such subdivision, even analytically, since it transcends all multiplicity, including the duality of thinker and thought (or intellect and intelligible). It is strictly speaking not even one, at least not in the numerical sense: not this one as opposed to that one, not one as opposed to two, as either would require some kind of relation or commensurability. That said, it is not completely unimaginable, since it already pre-contains, so to speak, all things that become differentiated in Intellect and unfolded into multiplicity in our cosmos, only in utter unity. Thus, conversely, we can approach the unity of the One through contemplation, by gradually stripping away differentiation and plurality from our thought. This form of contemplation is explored in several passages of Plotinus’ Enneads, and in his Life of Plotinus (ch. 23), Porphyry claims that Plotinus was able to actually achieve union or unification (hénōsis) with the One four times in his life.
5 Eternal Being and Origination in Time
Central to Platonism is a distinction between Being and Origination, which is rather intuitive in ancient Greek (albeit not shared by other ancient philosophies), but hard to express in contemporary English. The Greek verb most commonly translated as ‘to be’ is einai; from word derives on, a ‘being’, and also ousia, ‘essence’
[Work in Progress.]
[More sections to be added – let me know if there is an aspect of Neoplatonic doctrine you would like me to address here!]